No matter how many times Mitch Kupchak sees it, he still gets mesmerized by the dazzling play of Kobe Bryant.
"That shot at the end of the fourth quarter, when he went into the lane and made contact, somebody went to the ground, he had two guys on him," the Lakers general manager told SI.com after his team downed Phoenix on Friday night. "He couldn't get a right-handed shot off, so he shot it left-handed."
And made it, of course.
With the 18-12 Lakers placed fifth in the Western Conference through Saturday and having won seven of their last 10 games, there is an internal belief that Bryant's theatrics coupled with the current cast of characters might be enough to make a deep playoff run even if no roster moves are made. It's a good thing, too, as Kupchak certainly didn't sound as if a deal for Orlando's Dwight Howard or anyone else was in the works. Kupchak attended a workout for free agent guard Gilbert Arenas last Sunday, but the Lakers aren't expected to sign him anytime soon -- if at all.
"Of course we'll talk to a lot of teams [about trades], like everybody else does, leading up until the trade deadline to see if there is a way to improve the team," Kupchak said. "But the likelihood is that this is the team that's going to finish into the playoffs. That's just the way it normally works, but we'll see."
The adjustments continue for first-year Lakers coach Mike Brown, who recently had one of his own players -- small forward Metta World Peace --added to his list of critics. Yet Brown has been following through on the defensive promises he made when he was hired to replace Phil Jackson, as his team is currently third in the NBA in opponents field-goal percentage (41.8) and fourth in points per game allowed (90.7).
"It looks like they're getting familiar with the system," Kupchak said. "New coaching style, new coaches, new system, new offense, a different kind of defense. It takes some time, some roster changes.
"Taking into consideration all those factors, I think we're making progress. I think we're getting better every time we play. I would like to see us be a little bit more successful on the road (where they're 5-10). I think we'll get into the playoffs and would like to have some homecourt advantage. But if you don't, you've got to win a game on the road and we haven't demonstrated we can win on the road yet."
It's the offense that has been so problematic. If shots attempted are any indication of a team's dependence on one particular player (and they are), the Lakers have never relied on Bryant's scoring like they are now. The 33-year-old is averaging a career-high 23.9 shots per game while seeing a spike in minutes per game (33.9 last season to 38.2 in 2011-12) and leading the league in scoring at 28.9 points per game. "I'm not too worried about Kobe," Kupchak said. "When he's out of the game, he's yelling at the coach to get back in the game. It's a shortened season. We didn't play 82 games. We didn't play eight preseason games. So there's a lot less games. They are closer together, which is a concern. But I'm not worried about Kobe."
Bryant reiterated recently that he's a Laker for life no matter what Kupchak does with the team's personnel. And despite the Lamar Odom-to-Dallas trade in December that drew Bryant's ire, Kupchak said his star player's faith in him remains.
"The good thing is he trusts the organization, and we'll do everything we can do to get better," Kupchak said. "We'll look to do something big, and we'll look to do something small, or maybe we'll do nothing at all. Sometimes a small deal is all a team needs to get over a hump, so I wouldn't categorize something that we're looking to do as big, small or medium."
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