Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to maintain control of the ball during the… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)
Just when it appeared Mike Brown finally gave his players enough freedom on offense, Kobe Bryant took advantage of the autonomy.
It worked at first. Only days removed from suffering a concussion, broken nose and whiplash in his neck, Bryant still managed to average 34 points in his first three games wearing a plastic mask. It looked heroic that Bryant remained prolific despite the pain. Most importantly, it remained justifiable considering Bryant did so on a 38-of-70 clip, while his teammates fed off his energy.
In the Lakers' embarrassing road losses to two Eastern Conference bottom-dwellers in the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, things have changed. Bryant tinkered with his masks. He tried a black one that felt too loose and then a clear one with a smaller strap than the original. Bryant's shot also faltered, as he went 17-of-57 from the field.
That led Brown to provide his first public criticism regarding Bryant's shot selection.
"He took some difficult shots that allowed those guys to come up with long rebounds and push the ball down the floor and get some easy baskets," Brown told reporters. "He was one of those guys that I did not think took great shots in the second half."
Who knows what will come out of this. According to The Times' Mike Bresnahan, Bryant paused for six seconds when asked about Brown's criticism, said, "OK," and then declined to answer a follow-up question about it. But Brown's criticism of Bryant's shot selection was long overdue.
The Lakers' coach set an unsettling precedent two months ago when he vehemently defended Bryant's six-of-26 clip in a New Year's Day loss to Denver. Brown said he mostly remained fine with his shots, even though Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined to shoot 60% in that game. Brown pointed out Bryant's torn ligament in his right wrist -- not much of an excuse, considering Bryant could've chosen to pass the ball and get others more involved. Brown faulted himself for not setting Bryant up in his sweet spots along the post and elbows.
Although Bryant made enough adjustments to remain the league's most prolific scorer, the offense remained proportionally imbalanced. Part of that pointed to Bynum's adjustment on double teams, Gasol becoming a facilitator, the bench's inconsistency and the team's poor outside shooting. But Bryant's 34.9% usage rate, his highest since the 2005-06 season, largely contributed to those areas from developing slowly.
Instead of establishing more control on the offensive dynamic, Brown simply exerted his control by adding and micromanaging play-calling, which mostly tilted toward Bryant shooting. That's why it shouldn't be surprising that ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne reported several players remain concerned with how Brown is running his offense. Meanwhile, the report stated Brown's public criticism toward Bryant's shot selection "landed strangely with several players" since Brown argued a day earlier that Bryant should be the regular-season MVP because of how he carried the team offensively through injuries.
As much as Brown needs to hold Bryant accountable on his shot selection, it would've been more valuable if he reigned him in during the actual game. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Brown never has stamped his authority. Instead, he's leaned on Bryant bailing out his poorly constructed offense time and time again.
Sometimes it's worked. Sometimes it hasn't. But as the Lakers losses to Washington and Detroit show, the foundation has crumbled miserably.
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