It was only fitting that on a night when the Los Angeles Lakers honored Shaquille O’Neal by retiring his No. 34 jersey to the rafters at Staples Center, the team reflected, in some small way, an ethos that made the turn of the 21st century such a success for the Purple and Gold.
That is, Kobe Bryant dishing the ball to his big men.
OK, so maybe racking up 11 assists (as part of a 23-11-11 triple-double, no less) wasn’t exactly customary for the Black Mamba back in the day—nor is it so now.
But if the Lakers are going to parlay a massive 101-81 win over the Dallas Mavericks into something more than a late-season smackdown of an old rival, they could certainly use more of Kobe the Point Guard.
At first glance, that may seem like a silly request to make of Bryant.
With all the scoring Kobe does/feels he has to do for this squad, you’d think the guy already has enough on his plate with which to concern himself. And considering that Bryant shares a backcourt with Steve Nash, shouldn’t he let another Hall of Famer handle the bulk of the passing and dribbling duties?
Certainly not with Nash sidelined by a hamstring injury. That setback is just the latest in a long line that has derailed his inaugural season since pulling a pseudo-Benedict Arnold on the Phoenix Suns.
Nash missed 24 games between November and December after fracturing a bone in his left leg and often struggled to find any sort of rhythm or flow to his game even after returning—which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that:
A) Nash is 39 years old,
B) He’s adjusting to a new city and a new franchise after spending the previous eight years in Phoenix, and
C) Not since his first stint with the Suns had Steve been in a situation wherein he wasn’t always his team’s primary ball-handler.
That’s a lot for a routine-oriented guy like Nash to deal with, especially in the wake of his most devastating injury in over a decade. He won’t likely be anything close to his old self until next season, after he’s had a full summer to work himself back into proper playing shape and adjust his expectations to better fit his role with the Lakers.
Even then, it wouldn’t exactly behoove the Lakers to have Kobe relinquish the reins of the offense, at least not entirely. For better or worse, he’s the player around whom L.A.’s basketball universe will revolve until he decides to hang ‘em up.
Who should play the point for the Lakers for the rest of the season?
And, as Shaq can surely attest, Kobe knows a thing or two about playing with great big men—even more so than Nash.
Beyond the obvious personal friction between the Big Diesel and his No. 8-wearing sidekick, the partnership between O’Neal and Bryant proved plenty productive, to say the least. You could say that those Lakers teams “underachieved,” considering they sported two of the game’s three best players for the better part of a decade.
But three titles in four trips to the NBA Finals ain’t bad, I s’pose.
It’s that acumen for involving world-class giants that was most brilliantly on display from Kobe against the Mavs. Whether he was dishing off to Dwight Howard inside, setting up Pau Gasol in the post or dumping the ball into the Spaniard as a conduit to Dwight, Bryant did some of his best work integrating the Lakers’ two All-Star centers into what appeared to be a more cohesive tandem.
Not that Nash is a slouch in this regard by any means. Steve just so happens to be one of the game’s foremost proprietors of the pick-and-roll, and Howard and Gasol just so happen to be two of the better “roll men” around.
But, again, Nash isn’t healthy and hasn’t been all season. Bryant isn’t exactly fit either, though he’s certainly more than fit enough to handle the Lakers offense all by himself, thank you very much. In fact, the win against Dallas moved L.A. to 13-6 in games in which Kobe tallies eight or more assists—as opposed to 26-30 when he doesn’t.
It’s a lot to ask of Kobe, he of the bone-spurred foot and the sprained ankle and the 34-year-old body that’s logged more than 53,000 minutes over the course of 1,454 games across 17 seasons.
But, for seven more regular-season games and (hopefully) at least a handful more in the playoffs, it might be manageable.
Beyond that, it’s what the Lakers will need to salvage a lost season.
More than even the most nostalgic of jersey retirements could.