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LONDON – Kobe Bryant has been searching for spacing and freedom and flow on offense, for a way to counter defenses bent on sagging and suffocating him on the floor. Even before the Los Angeles Lakers delivered him point guard Steve Nash, Bryant had raised an idea with coach Mike Brown about the possibility of employing a distant cousin to the triangle – the Princeton offense.
So there was Brown and Bryant in a side room in a Las Vegas gymnasium during Team USA's training camp in early July, listening to Eddie Jordan detail the offense's intricacies, laying out how Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum would benefit with and without the basketball. Here was an old-school Ivy League blueprint daring to be a solution for the Showtime Lakers' issues.
Jordan happens to be the foremost Princeton authority in the NBA, the heir to architect Pete Carril, and that's an immense part of why the Lakers are moving toward an agreement to hire Jordan as an assistant coach. Jordan sold his vision of the offense to a most willing subject, and ultimately Bryant departed for these Olympics convinced that the Lakers have a sound plan of action for the 2012-13 season.
All around Bryant inside the gym at East London University on Monday afternoon were these younger Team USA stars who have him so resolved to push past them next season. Every day, Bryant sees the Oklahoma City Thunder stars who pushed his Lakers out of the playoffs, sees LeBron James who won the NBA championship. Bryant knows his time is short for a sixth championship, his opportunities fleeting.
At 33 years old, Bryant needs edges this season, and the prospect of returning to the discipline of an offensive system in the post-Phil Jackson era holds appeal.
"It's a great offense," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "It's exactly what we need. It takes us back to being able to play by making reads and reacting to defenses. It takes a great deal of communication, but that's where we're at our best: Reading and reacting as opposed to just coming down and calling sets. Calling sets make you vulnerable.
"There's so many threats, so many options, it's very tough to defend. Against the type of defenses that teams play nowadays, they load up on one side and are constantly coming with help from the weak side. The Princeton offense makes it very, very tough to lock in on one particular player.
[ Photos: 2012 USA basketball men's national team ]
"From my experience, those types of principles – ball movement, changing sides on the floor, everybody being involved – those are championship principles. That's championship DNA."
Over dinner in Barcelona, Bryant and Gasol discussed the changing face of the Lakers' offense and a Hall of Fame point guard who can get them high-percentage shots, where the smarts and skills of Bryant and Nash, Gasol and Bynum make this an ideal partnership of system and talent. The Princeton demands post players with passing skills, and which 7-footer has ever been as deft moving the ball as Gasol?
"Steve is going to make it easier for Pau, because he's an incredible distributor, but the system is perfect for [Gasol]," Bryant said. "His ability to pass the ball, to make plays from the high post – to shoot – is the perfect system for him.
"I'm excited for Pau because this is right in his wheelhouse."
Jordan learned the Princeton under Carril with the Sacramento Kings, and implemented it as an assistant and head coach with the Nets, Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers' coaching staff has turned over, with Ettore Messina and Quin Snyder leaving to take over CSKA Moscow this season. Bryant shared Italian roots with Messina and came to value Snyder, who will likely return to the NBA as a head-coaching candidate in the next couple of years.
Without a training camp in the post-lockout season, Brown spent far more time tightening the Lakers' defense. Now, a full camp in the fall gives him a chance to institute an offensive system, balance the floor and give Bryant something he desperately wants now: a way past the Thunder's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and a shot at James and the Miami Heat.
"We're still chasing championships," Bryant said. Between now and a gold medal in these Games, Bryant still has work left with Team USA. Nevertheless, this is his farewell tour to international basketball, and soon there will be just one item left for him in the NBA, and that's catching Michael Jordan and that sixth championship.
Bryant's eyes were big talking about the Princeton, about returning to some offensive structure missing since Jackson left his basketball life. When he returns to Los Angeles, Bryant needs something awaiting him that alleviates all those collapsing bodies on defense, all that congestion, and he believes it will be there.
Here comes that old-school Ivy League offense for these Showtime Lakers. Kobe Bryant needs something transformational to be a champion again, and as he watched and listened in that Vegas gymnasium, it sure felt like this could be one more element to push him past all these young stars before it's too late.
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