Much has been made of a suggested position switch for NBA legend Kobe Bryant ahead of his 20th season in professional basketball.
The Los Angeles Lakers guard has spent more time on the injured list than on the court over the past two seasons. He will turn 37 before the start of next season.
Understandably, the Lakers have begun to plan for life without the man who has won five championships and an MVP in LA’s famous purple and gold. They spent the second pick of this summer’s NBA draft on guard D’Angelo Russell just a year after stealing Jordan Clarkson with the 46th pick in the previous draft.
Russell is a future star and Clarkson is coming off an impressive season in which he averaged 11.9 points and 3.5 assists on the way to a surprise spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Both need to play. Technically, the youngsters are both point guards, but either has the height and scoring instincts to man the shooting guard position.
This summer, the Lakers also added reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, another shooting guard, to a roster that still includes Nick Young.
A logjam at the guard positions, indeed. So what for Kobe in what could be the final season of his decorated career?
Retiring Lakers trainer Gary Vitti apparently suggested a solution during a discussion with Bryant about the star potential of Clarkson and Russell. Vitti told the Los Angeles Times: “… Kobe said to me ‘Well, then who’s going to play [small forward]?’ I looked at him and I said ‘You.’ And with absolute, 100% confidence, he said, ‘I can do that’.”
Let’s not forget, Bryant is widely recognised as the second-best shooting guard to ever play the game (a good rule of thumb – if you are to be second-best at something, be second to Michael Jordan). And the difference in feet and inches between the two wing positions is not huge. In 2014, the average height of an NBA shooting guard was 6ft 5in, while the average small forward was 6ft 7.6in, according to this study taken from information at the well-respected basketball-reference.com. Bryant is 6ft 6in.
But NBA positions are about more than height. Yes, the two NBA wing positions carry similar offensive responsibilities. Aside from shooting, attacking the basket and defending, both ‘two-guards’ and ‘three-men’ could be asked to contribute some ball-handling and some rebounding – though a small forward might be asked to do a bit more of the latter and a bit less of the former.
Yet it is a player’s ability to defend his opposite number that defines his NBA position. The NBA is a match-up league, in which the best coaches make their money from exploiting mismatches on the court. Bryant might only be moved up an NBA position if his coach, Byron Scott, believes he can defend small forwards.
Some of Scott’s comments during this off-season’s media-go-round suggest he thinks Bryant can. In fact, Scott even suggested Bryant could mop up some minutes at power forward this season.
For now, let’s examine Bryant’s qualifications to play the smaller of the two forward positions.
1. He can post up with the best of them
Bryant is one of the best post-up players to ever play the game, thanks to impeccable footwork and a wonderful shooting touch. A move to small forward would theoretically free him from some ball-handling duties and allow him to spend more time in the high post – his favourite spot.
This could help to extend his career even further. Eventually, the most well-prepared athlete in the world will feel his legs betray him. But, as the old saying goes, you never lose shooting. Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki have shown that scoring from the mid-range is a skill that can maintain a player’s effectiveness well into his thirties. If he can stay healthy, this could also be true for Bryant.
2. He could defend ‘stretch-fours’
More NBA teams are expected to go down the ‘small-ball’ route of fielding four or even five players of similar heights, allowing more switching of defensive assignments. It’s an approach that helped the Golden State Warriors win last season’s NBA championship.
Teams are increasingly confident with the idea of fielding two interchangeable forwards, both of whom can spread the floor. Phoenix, Houston and Denver, to name but a few teams in the West, play long stretches in this shape. When teams go small, the introduction of a third wing player could mean another player Bryant can defend without being exposed by the lightning quickness of the modern NBA guard.
3. Shooting guard might actually be tougher for him now
As a rule, NBA positions get taller, stronger and slower as you move through from point guard to centre. At this stage of his career, Bryant might have an easier time using strength to guard the post rather than speed to guard the perimeter.
Western Conference shooting guards include skilled scorers such as Houston’s James Harden, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’s Wesley Matthews and New Orleans’s Tyreke Evans. Small forwards such as Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant – the most offensively gifted player of the decade – San Antonio’s Kahwi Leonard, Sacramento’s Rudy Gay and Utah’s Gordon Hayward are equally daunting defensive propositions.
Bryant might actually have an easier time guarding the latter group, who all other than Hayward like to score from the post. Of the guards, only Matthews is a beast on the block. Either way, trying to defend any of the players might be a fool’s errand for a man on the wrong side of 30, but the debate of which group would be tougher is certainly a fair one.
4. He is Kobe Bryant
Bryant is one of the most competitive players to ever pick up a basketball. No player has been more confident in his own ability.
Bryant at 37 will not be the athlete he once was, but he is wiry-strong and fears no one. The challenge of taking on a slightly different role could ignite a fire in his belly.
Whether it’s guarding small forwards or power forwards, moving from the wing to the post exclusively on offence, or crashing the boards with the NBA behemoths, Bryant certainly won’t back down from the challenge.
5. The Lakers might have no other option!
Who else is going to play the majority of the Lakers’ minutes at the three spot? Nick Young? Iggy Azalea’s other half is an inefficient scorer and defensive liability. Power forward Ryan Kelly? The Lakers tried that last season and it didn’t look good. Larry Nance and Anthony Brown? Bryant doesn’t play nice with rookies …
A quick look at LA’s roster reveals a dearth of players even qualified to man the position. Unless they swing a trade, our bet is Bryant will remain a nominal shooting guard, at least from the start of games, but will play the majority of his minutes at small forward. He might be the Lakers’ only choice.