Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kobe Bryant, An All-Time Great?

Listen. It's not often a player comes along and wins 4 NBA titles. Amasses 2 scoring titles (4, if you're counting points scored, not averages). Wins the triumvirate of MVP's (All-Star, regular season, and NBA Finals). Gets named to 7 All-NBA first teams, 7 All-Defensive first teams. Averages 30 points per game in a season (Kobe did it thrice, with as much as 35 per in 2006). Scores 81 points in one game. Starts in an All-Star Game by age 19. Earns a $70 million contract by age 20. Wins 3 titles (all in a three-peat) by age 23. What's been described to you is Kobe Bryant's sterling resume. He has likely garnered top-10 all-time status with his most recent NBA title. Quite frankly, though, it's difficult to WANT to put him in that class.

5. His desire to not make players around him better pushed Phil Jackson out of town.
Jackson strung together three-peats on THREE separate occasions ('91 to '93, '96 to '98, '00 to '02), but in order to win his 10th title (the most in NBA history), he had to stomach an LA tenure with Kobe running the show. This, after he had already left the Lakers in 2004 finding little to no reason to continue his celebrated coaching stint with Kobe thinking he could do it all. Coincidentally or not, Jackson made Jordan a better team player, but could never quite pull it off with Kobe. Case in point: in Game 2 of this year's Finals, Kobe went one-on-four against the Magic for the game winning shot, had the ball stripped by Hedu Turkoglu, and watched as a Courtney Lee alley-oop fell short of tying the series up at one game a piece. Great champions don't put their teams in position to lose like that. And that's the difference between Jordan and Kobe: MJ would have deferred to one of his four open teammates in that situation; after all, how many game-winning shots did Steve Kerr and John Paxson have throughout Jordan's title runs? Lest we forget that, in Jordan's return from his first retirement (when he dropped 55 points on the Knicks at the Garden), he passed the ball to Bill Wennington for the game-winning bucket. At age 30 (and not getting any younger), Kobe has yet to learn that lesson.

4. His selfishness drove Shaq out of town.

Watch that video several times and ask yourself: how many MORE times could a hook-up like that have happened to will the Lakers to another title? Two more times? Three more times? Listen, if the Knicks can go over the salary cap with the garbage roster they put together, the Lakers could bite the bullet and sign Kobe and Shaq to maximum contracts and fill out the roster with role players. When the Lakers won their third title in as many years, Kobe was 23. Shaq was 29. It's not often you have a duo playing together in their primes like Kobe and Shaq had. They could have been Magic/Kareem 2.0. But their egos (moreso Kobe's) got the best of their relationship. After their last title in '02, the pairing would play two more seasons together, with zero titles to show for it. Why? Because Kobe wanted the Lakers to be his team, just as much as Shaq wanted the same. If Kobe had deferred to Shaq, arguably one of the most dominant forces in NBA history, perhaps Kobe is fitting his finger for a sixth ring rather than a fourth on Sunday night. But Kobe wanted to lead a different legacy. He wanted to be The Man in LA. He wanted the scoring titles, the MVP's, and the titles without having to spread the offense and share the ball. Hell, even Jordan had his Pippen. In fact, there's a sure-fire formula that works in the NBA: put two superstars together, surround them with serviceable role players, and ride them to a championship. It worked for the Showtime Lakers (Magic and Kareem). It worked for the 1980's Celtics (Bird and McHale). It worked for the Bad Boy Pistons (Thomas and Dumars). It worked for Pat Riley's Heat (Shaq and Wade). Not following this formula is why Lebron couldn't win a title in 2007 and a prime reason why Kobe could never do it by himself either (honestly, he doesn't win this most recent championship without having pilfered Pau Gasol from Memphis or having watched Trevor Ariza ascend at the rate he did). Think about this: Kobe didn't become unselfish and lead the Lakers to the title this year. They were a product of changed circumstances. Why couldn't they win last year? KG (absent to defend a title this year due to a knee injury) aligned Boston to play team defense. But why did they win it this year? The Spurs are aging (and without an injured Manu), the Rockets saw two superstars go down (McGrady and Yao), KG had a balky knee, and another piece was never delivered to help Lebron. Did the Lakers deserve to win? Of course they did...but only because they were the best team left and the likes of Gasol, Ariza, Odom, Bynum, and Fisher sacrificed minutes, shots, and roles in order to appease Kobe. Would you ever see Bryant do that for his squadmates? Not in a million years.

3. Even his most recent accolades doesn't bring him closer to Jordan (or Magic, for that matter).
Prior to winning his fourth title, Kobe was barely mentioned amongst all-time Laker greats. In fact, most NBA fans and experts would suggest that Elgin Baylor (who never won a title) and Jerry West (who only won once) contributed more to the overall NBA landscape than Kobe had. And yet, people find reason to compare Kobe to Jordan. ESPN "expert" Jon Barry quipped, "Kobe is the closest thing to Jordan we're ever going to see." Yes, he said ever in summing up Kobe's latest championship run. Bluntly speaking, nobody carries himself with the passion, aura, charisma, and dedication Jordan has. Sure, Kobe lives and breathes the game and works harder than any athlete out there, but is he a good teammate? Is he a good ambassador for the game? Is he the type of player to say, "I won my fourth title!" or "We won our fourth title!" I'm thinking the former. And that sets him apart from Magic (whom Coach Pat Riley said "is the epitome of greatness" in his book The Winner Within) and Jordan (who still commands a Beatles-like following wherever he goes). And not in a good way.

2. The NBA prefers Lebron to Kobe.

The 2009 NBA Finals was supposed to be the Kobe/Lebron match-up, the series that would put an end to the "greatest current player in the NBA" debate. The Nike and Life Water promotional agencies wanted it that way, and so did NBA commissioner David Stern. Only Dwight Howard was a huge obstacle standing in Lebron's way (not to mention the fact that Mo Williams is not the supplementary piece to take Lebron to the promised land). When Kobe won his MVP in 2008, he held a press conference (to which about 20 members of the press showed up...his teammates, on the other hand, did not). When Lebron won this year's MVP, he too held a press conference, but his teammates (who stuck up for him when he stormed off court after losing the Magic series) were there in full force; quite fitting, when you consider that Lebron bought each of his teammates an expensive gift as a token of his gratitude. These are the same teammates that carry on with Lebron (albeit, rather sophomorically) on the sidelines when they win. Do you see that same kind of stuff with Kobe? Hardly. He needed a Spike Lee documentary (Kobe Doin' Work) to show how "great" of a teammate and leader he was. Only we weren't buying it. When and if Lebron wins his first title, all of this talk about Kobe's greatness will fizzle. Because that's what the league wants you to believe. Can you blame them?

1. He is the most polarizing superstar of his era (perhaps moreso than Barry Bonds).
As a Kobe fan, the 2004-05 season must have been painful to watch. Excruciatingly painful. Here was Jordan's heir apparent gallivanting with another woman in a Colorado hotel room. And this wasn't just Kobe being unfaithful with his beautiful wife. This was Kobe allegedly assaulting a woman sexually (whispers of rape surrounded his case). He had to play in LA one night, fly to Colorado for the arraignment or indictment the next. This was Kobe having to buy his wife a million dollar ring to make it all better. But it didn't (and, in this sports fan's eyes, it hasn't). Kobe, despite his modest upbringing, sophistication, business-like appeal, and ability to speak several languages, will always be the alleged rapist that was the brunt of jokes in a Dave Chappelle skit. Sure, Barry Bonds cheated the fans of a genuine home run champ by dabbling in performance-enhancing drug abuse. He is a jerk to the media. He likely lied to cover up his steroid use. But he never cheated on his wife. Was never known to have spoken a cuss word. He is a family man first (his kids followed him every step of the way no matter how controversial his father had become). Unfortunately, Kobe is the Omega Man, a man alone in his thoughts and convictions, no stranger to isolation. And he'd like to keep it that way, it seems.

1 comment:

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