Kobe Bryant is no Raja Bell.
Bryant may have five NBA championship rings and a trophy case full of various Most Valuable Player awards, but the 2012 edition of the future Hall of Fame shooting guard is well below Bell circa 2006 on the defensive end. In everything else, Bryant puts to shame the 36-year-old guard currently embroiled in a buyout dispute with the Utah Jazz, but in this one area, Bryant now does not stack up to Bell then.
This matters because the word “Showtime” has kept coming up in the last three days, as the Lakers attempt to deflect criticism of their decision to hire Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson. By throwing around the nickname for the most exciting era in Los Angeles basketball history, the Lakers momentarily silence even the most passionate Jacksonphiles. After all, no one can argue with memories of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, no matter how imperfect the comparison may be.
To be fair, “Showtime” might be the closest thing to D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less,” in that both mean that teams run a lot. Aside from a great cardiovascular workout, however, there are substantial differences between the 1980s Lakers, D’Antoni’s successful Suns squads and the Lakers’ current iteration. D’Antoni himself made that abundantly clear earlier this week.
“This is a completely different team,” D’Antoni said Tuesday in a radio interview. “This team will be more skilled, bigger, a little older, much more experienced and our object will be to find the best shot within the 24-second period. We’ll push the tempo a little bit. I think the model will be something like ‘Showtime,’ but that’s hard to reach.”
The reasons it will be hard to reach begin with a starting backcourt whose average age is 36 years old, but unless Jim Buss magically makes Bryant and Steve Nash 10 years younger, that number is only going to go up. The bigger reason might have more to do with Bryant, Bell and Michael Cooper.
For all that is made of Showtime’s run-and-gun style, the up-tempo offense began on the defensive end. Ball-stoppers like Cooper and Byron Scott were as important to starting the fastbreaks as Worthy was to finishing them — although not as important as Johnson or Abdul-Jabbar because, honestly, let’s not get carried away. Similarly, the Suns were an infuriating foil for the Lakers from 2005 to 2008 because they had the closest thing alive to a “Kobe stopper” with Bell in their backcourt.
The key to D’Antoni’s success in L.A. therefore might not be Nash getting healthy enough to direct the offense or even Dwight Howard returning to his dominant defensive form. Both of those things probably would have happened even if Mike Brown had not been fired. The key may be Bryant and Metta World Peace re-committing themselves defensively, where they were once All-NBA-caliber defenders. They have lost their edge with time and age, but on late-game possessions they occasionally flash their old skills. D’Antoni will need both of them, as well as Pau Gasol, to at least keep the floodgates from opening onto Howard.
The symbiotic relationship between good defense and good offense is well established in football, with its focus on time of possession and field position. But it is just as prominent, if not more so, in basketball, where good defense leads to easy baskets, which stifle the opponent’s fastbreak opportunities. Showtime was near the pinnacle of those two ends of the court working in harmony.
“That was the best, probably, it’s ever been done,” D’Antoni said.
The defense-oriented, fastbreak-intense Celtics of the Bill Russell era may tend to disagree, but from a strictly offensive perspective, D’Antoni may be correct. Nobody executed in transition like Johnson, although if anyone can come close it is Nash, even at 38.
Before the Lakers get to that point, though, they will need to get Nash the ball. Howard will of course be a major factor, but they will need more than one player out of five clamping down on defense. If Showtime’s second act is to start with a bang, it must begin with a clang — of an opponent’s missed shot ricocheting off the rim.