Losing isn't wearing well on the big names who lead the team. Evidence: Kobe Bryant has turned to passing.
Kobe Bryant has hoisted 23,700 shots in his Hall of Fame career, twice has led the NBA in scoring and is the youngest player to reach 30,000 points in league history.
Now, at age 34, he has morphed into a facilitator and de facto point guard. He brushed aside a notion that it's merely a temporary thing, or some form of hoops amnesia.
"It can keep up," he said. "I'm enjoying it."
Bryant's pass-first persona emerged as the Los Angeles Lakers' season careened off course into a thick morass of underachievement and in-house squabbles. The circus blew through town Friday, and for Timberwolves fans who view their season as a buzzkill, the Lakers provide further proof that even the best-laid plans don't always produce desired results.
The Lakers flipped the page on a forgettable month with a 111-100 victory at Target Center. That Lakers team looked nothing like the one that began the day with a 20-26 record and in 10th place in the Western Conference -- a position few would have predicted last offseason when Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joined Bryant to form a conglomerate of superstars that rivaled the Miami Heat's championship marquee.
Their Tinseltown parade plans got put on hold as the Lakers turned the first half of their season into a soap opera rife with juicy subplots. The team fired coach Mike Brown after a 1-4 start and replaced him with Mike D'Antoni, whose players are still struggling to adjust to his system and coaching style. Howard has complained publicly about his role and touches on offense, and Pau Gasol voiced his displeasure after being replaced in the starting lineup.
The Lakers rank near the bottom of the league in scoring defense, and Friday's victory was their first on the road since before Christmas. They've also dealt with the injury bug hitting Nash and Howard. .
The Lakers bottomed out following a 95-83 loss in Chicago last week, which prompted a closed-door meeting a few days later, a bad sign for any team. Later that day, D'Antoni provided a blunt self-assessment to the Los Angeles Times.
"Have you ever watched an all-star game? It's god-awful," he said. "Everybody gets the ball and goes one-on-one and then they play no defense. That's our team. We're an all-star team."
Which is precisely how the team was constructed. Basketball trails only baseball in its individualistic nature, but chemistry matters, too. And so does the way players fit into a certain system.
"Mike's been trying to get his philosophy through us and get our team to do it," Gasol said. "At the same time, our personnel is a little different than probably what would fit best for that kind of system. ... We're all trying to win. But it's been a struggle."
The daily drama makes for compelling theater. The Lakers are a glamour team that remains interesting even when losing.
"We are a team probably with the highest payroll in the history [of the NBA]," Gasol said. "We're in a big market with a franchise that is used to winning. There's a lot of expectations. This team was put together to win. So when things don't happen that way, there's pressure, there's disappointment, there's frustration. But I've been here long enough to know that's the way it is."
Nobody understands that more than Bryant. Whether he's trying to reinvent himself or simply adapting to a difficult circumstance, Bryant has dished out 56 assists in his past five games, which is his highest assist total over a five-game span in his 17-year career.
"I'm trying to find that balance," he said. "We're obviously not reaching our full potential if I go through a whole half without really shooting the ball. But at the same time, the most important part is to get everybody in rhythm."
Bryant believes the Lakers are "close" to finding themselves. Their season is not a lost cause. Eventually, things will click for them and they could become the team everyone expected. Bryant seems hellbent on making that happen.
"I'm past the cringing part," he said. "I've moved on to more of the excitement role of kind of taking down this challenge a little bit."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org
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