Kobe Bryant has always been one of the most trigger-happy players in the NBA, while Steve Nash is an all-time great when it comes to dealing out the dimes, so you can see why this Kobe-Nash role reversal has been and will continue to be rather confusing for NBA defenses.
The shooting guard is becoming the point guard, and the point guard is morphing into more and more of a spot-up 2-guard.
Don't worry, nothing supernatural happened and, to the best of my knowledge, both future Hall of Famers are still in full possession of their mental faculties. This was a conscious decision, and it's one that's benefited the Los Angeles Lakers rather well to this point.
Kobe's shift to a facilitating combo guard is just the latest thrilling portion of his roller-coaster ride of a season.
Remember when the shooting guard reached his breaking point on Jan. 22 and went into Beethoven mode?
Since that epic picture and the ensuing 106-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Kobe has been racking up the assists. And not so coincidentally, the team wearing purple and white has started to win games at a much higher rate.
The Lakers have gone 7-3 since the change in role, with the only losses coming to a red-hot Michael Beasley and the Phoenix Suns, the Boston Celtics in the Garden and the Miami Heat, prominently featuring vintage Dwyane Wade and cheat-code-mode LeBron James.
For a Lakers squad that still sits below .500 on the 2012-13 season, that's some serious progress.
NBA defenses are a little bit confused about how to deal with the new-look Lakers for quite a few reasons.
Kobe Not Shooting Is Confusing
Let's start out with the obvious reasons: Kobe Bryant not shooting the ball is confusing. No matter how much NBA teams study the new scouting report on Mike D'Antoni's squad, they're still going to have to overcome the subconscious thought that Kobe will be shooting the ball.
The Mamba has always styled himself as a scorer, and he's been one of the best in NBA history at putting the ball in the basket. Of course, that requires a lot of shooting and not as much passing.
Don't get me wrong, because Kobe has always been a phenomenal passer when he chooses to let go of his grasp on the rock.
But the memes exist for a reason.
Well lately, if you want the ball from Kobe, you don't just have to get the rebound. He'll pass it to you.
Let's take a look at the Mamba's stats before and after the decision to change roles (per-game stats via Basketball-Reference.com):
While Kobe is contributing fewer points to the Lakers' offensive output, the sheer threat of his willingness to pass is opening up things for his other teammates.
Using Steve Nash's Scoring Strengths
One benefit of this role change has been the ability of Steve Nash to play to one of his major non-passing strengths: spot-up three-point shooting.
When Kobe has the ball, defenses are forced to respect his remarkable scoring ability—one that's constantly developing, as evidenced by the newfound range on his lefty jump-hook. With that respect comes a lack of respect elsewhere. It's just a trade-off.
Unfortunately for opposing defenses, that trade-off has resulted in Nash knocking down three-pointers off kick-outs like this one.
Throughout his career, Nash has been the ultimate team player. It's never just about Nash, but rather about doing everything he can to make sure his teammates succeed.
Now, his team's success rides on his ability to knock down these open jumpers. And if the defense closes out to quickly, Nash can go right by them for his patented one-footed floater in the lane over the outstretched arms of the trees surrounding him.
In a way, the Canadian point guard is being forced to shoot more.
Thanks to Basketball-Reference.com once more, let's take a look at Nash's per-game stats before and after his role change:
Usually volume and efficiency have a fairly strong negative correlation. When you shoot more, you usually do so while making a lower percentage of your attempts.
For Nash, though, that hasn't been the case.
From the field, the point guard is taking 1.3 more shots per game and making them at a higher clip. His splits from downtown are even more impressive, as he's lofting up an extra 0.7 treys per contest while making them 5.5 percent more often.
Kick-Outs After Collapses
Whenever Kobe has the ball in his hands, the defense is ready to collapse around him.
In the past, Kobe wouldn't hesitate to go one-on-three (or more), trying to draw contact or just finish the shot in some insane way that only Derrick Rose or a contortionist could dream up. Ever since the facilitator switch in his brain was flipped on, though, he's been looking to pass.
Does Kobe look to pass the ball to a cutting Earl Clark at any other point in his career? How many times would he have floated up some high-difficulty shot as he flashed past the edge of the backboard?
These drive-and-kicks have been the building block of Kobe's game lately. Defenses must respect Kobe's shot to such an extent that shooters and cutters have far more space than they normally should.
Clark has thrived cutting to the basket and along the baseline, waiting for Kobe to find him. Antawn Jamison, Nash, Jodie Meeks and others have spotted up on the perimeter and waited for defenders to get a little too close to their driving teammate.
B/R's Ethan Sherwood Strauss does a terrific job breaking down two of the staple plays, explaining that pick-and-rolls between Dwight Howard and Kobe—both on the elbow and the perimeter—have allowed the offense to thrive.
If you're defending the Lakers, what can you possibly do in this situation?
Do you focus on stopping one of the greatest scorers of all time while neglecting the players he can pass to? Do you let him go one-on-one and risk him running up his own point tally?
It's no wonder defenses are confused.
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