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Blazers vs. Lakers Preview: Kobe's Last Game in Portland!

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The Blazers look for their third win against the Lakers this season as Kobe Bryant plays his final game in Portland.

Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (19-26) vs Los Angeles Lakers (9-36)
Saturday, January 23
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland Injury Report
: None
| Lakers Injury Report: Larry Nance Jr. (Probable - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: Silver Screen and Roll
|
Blazer's Edge Night 2016

One story has dominated coverage of tonight's game between the Portland Trail Blazers (19-26) and Los Angeles Lakers (9-36): Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers superstar announced in November that he will be retiring at the end of the season, making tonight his final appearance in Portland as a player. Bryant has also been front and center in NBA news reports for the last week. It was announced on Thursday that NBA fans have selected him as an All-Star starter for an 18th consecutive season, and yesterday was the 10-year anniversary of his 81 point game against the Toronto Raptors.

The crowd at the Moda Center tonight, however, is unlikely to mourn the end of Bryant's career. For Blazers fans, Kobe has been an annoying symbol of everything hated about the Lakers. His retirement will bring an end to one of the greatest careers in league history, but also cut the final ties to the Blazers' painful loss in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. CJ McCollum summed up the sentiment yesterday:

Thus far, this season has not been a storybook ending to Bryant's career. It is clear that he has lost most of his athleticism, quickness, and agility, to the point that he can no longer fully use his vast moveset. In December, Bryant averaged 17.4 field goal attempts per game but shot only 37 percent from the field and had a true shooting percentage of 48. Shockingly, that was an improvement over November when he shot 29.3 percent on nearly 17 attempts per game. Bryant is currently shooting 34 percent, making him the least accurate volume shooter since the 1960s.

Despite his age and ineffectiveness, Bryant has repeatedly refused to take a reduced role or play only token minutes. He has rejected overtures from both L.A. Head Trainer Gary Vitti and coach Byron Scott and continues to average 25 minutes per game in January with a usage rate in excess of 27 percent. Silver Screen and Roll summed up the situation:

It's easy to say that Scott is the head coach, and if he really wanted to he could just bench Kobe. That does not appear to be the reality of the situation though. The Lakers organization, from the top down, seems to have signed off on Bryant essentially getting to dictate when he plays and how much he plays in his 20th season, both due to business reasons and a sense that all of the success that Kobe has brought to the franchise has earned him this right.

The on-court effect of Bryant's continued presence has been dismal. The Lakers have lost nine of their last 10 games and have a record of 9-36 for the season. Over their last five losses, the Lakers have failed to hold opponents below 109 points, failed to score more than 98 points, and lost every game by at least 13. Given the improved play of the Philadelphia 76ers since acquiring Ish Smith, the Lakers are the worst team in the NBA right now.

The Lakers ineffectiveness cannot be pinned entirely on Bryant. The team's roster is a mishmash of unrepentant gunners, inexperienced young players, and overmatched role players. Despite Bryant's high usage, Scott has continued to play other ball dominant guards major minutes. Lou Williams, a 41 percent shooter who averages 11 shots and two assists a game, is the starting point guard and Nick Young has, at times, been an important player off the bench. Playing Bryant and Young together, especially, was impressively ineffective:

That being said, the Lakers' rotation may be improving. Scott has recognized Young's ineffectiveness, and benched Swaggy P for six of the last nine games. The Lakers are reportedly willing to trade Young.

Los Angeles also plays Center Roy Hibbert 25 minutes per game. The 7-foot-2 former All-Star and defensive specialist has been ineffective since signing with the team this Summer. Hibbert's lumbering ground-based game has not translated as most NBA teams have begun to rely on 3-point shooting and athletic big men for offense. Hibbert also has little offensive ability, averaging only 6.7 points and somehow shooting 43 percent despite his size. Silver Screen and Roll reviews his deficiencies here.

The Lakers have also struggled to score because of Scott's outdated offense which relies heavily on inefficient mid-range jumpers. The team often resorts to isolation plays for one of their jump shooters, there is little movement away from the ball, and few passes without several dribbles in between. Some of the players may also be struggling to learn the system. Scott commented in December that Point Guard D'Angelo Russell knew only 20 percent of the playbook:

While Russell dismissed questions on how much of Scott's offense he has mastered, Scott reported Russell knows about 20 percent of his playbook.

"At times, he does know. Then at other times in the game, I think he has no clue," Scott said. "He'll call a play for a high pick-and-roll and we'll call it off. I'll say, ‘No. Let's do something that involves two or three passes.'"

The end result has been a historically bad offense that has little ball movement and gets few open shots. The Lakers are No. 28 in points in the paint, last in three-point field goal percentage, No. 29 in assists, and last in field goal percentage. Overall, they are the sixth worst shooting team in the last 50 years.

Looking to the future, the Lakers are gambling that Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle will become quality players. Development of those players, however, has taken a backseat to Bryant's farewell tour. Los Angeles GM Mitch Kupchak said this to ESPN:

Under normal circumstances [in a season like this], at some point, you would probably concentrate on just developing all your young players. But we can't do that right now. This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history. And, God-willing, he's going to want to play every game and he's going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that's just the way he is.

And as long as that continues, which it should, then that's 30-35 minutes that you might give to a young player that you can't. That's not a bad thing. I'm not saying it's a bad thing at all. It's something that I think is a good thing. Every game, it's about Kobe. Even when he doesn't play, it's about Kobe. So in a lot of regards, there's a silver lining that our guys can develop under the radar and maybe make a mistake or make two mistakes and it not be a big deal.

The long term outlook of this plan could be dire for the Lakers. As noted above, Russell has struggled to even learn the team's playbook and Randle has become frustrated with his role recently, causing Scott to question his maturity.

The Lakers management may also be intentionally tanking the season. They will only keep their first round draft pick if it is in the top three, otherwise the pick will be conveyed to the 76ers. By losing as many games as possible this season, and disguising it as a Bryant farewell tour, the team has been able to dodge the criticisms of intentional tanking directed at Philadelphia.

Keys to the game:

It's simple tonight: just show up. The Lakers are one of the few teams in the NBA with a worse defense than the Blazers and their midrange offensive attack provides little threat. The Blazers already twice beat the Lakers convincingly in November behind strong performances from McCollum and Damian Lillard. On this night, the Blazers should be able to outclass their opponent with even a typical effort.

Notes:

The Lakers lead the all-time series 118-97. The Blazers lead in Portland 65-42. The Lakers have also been Portland's most frequent playoff opponent, meeting 11 times over the years. The Blazers lost nine of those series.

This will be Bryant's 83rd game against the Blazers.

Watch out for Larry Nance Jr. He's the son of the NBA's first ever slam dunk champion, and apparently inherited his dad's leaping ability:

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