Sporting News NBA Survey, Revisiting Kobe Bryant's EvolutionThe October 27, 2008 issue of the Sporting News contains the results of a survey of 21 former NBA players*. Tim Duncan and Steve Nash tied for first place (four votes each) in the category of "The current player I wish I could have played with is," finishing just ahead of Kobe Bryant (3.5) and Chris Paul (3). Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Shaquille O'Neal received the remaining votes. Gregg Popovich got the nod as the NBA's best coach (7.5 votes), beating out Phil Jackson (4.5) and Doc Rivers (4). The ex-players--like most observers--expect either Boston (9) or the Lakers (6) to win the title. The Spurs finished third (2.5), with the 76ers, Hornets and Pacers (!) receiving the remaining votes; I can see picking the Pacers as a dark horse to make the playoffs but anyone who thinks that they are going to win the title this year seriously needs to be drug tested.
Who are five can't miss future Hall of Famers currently active in the league today? Kobe Bryant received 20 votes, with only Rod Strickland dissenting (he chose Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal). Duncan received 18 votes, followed by Garnett (15), James (13), O'Neal (11), Nash (7) and Iverson (6). Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Don Nelson, Chris Paul, Jerry Sloan, Amare Stoudemire and Dwyane Wade captured the remaining votes. Nelson and Sloan are interesting choices; Nelson certainly won't make it as a player but you could put together a very good case for him as a coach. Sloan was a much more accomplished player than Nelson--though still not HoF caliber--but he too merits consideration as a coach. Restricting the choices strictly to active players, my top five future HoFers would be (in alphabetical order) Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, James and O'Neal. The reality is that there are more than five active future Hall of Famers; Nash will automatically get in with his two MVPs, Kidd is a lock and the Finals MVP cemented things for Paul Pierce if anyone had any doubts. Iverson should make it, too, though he will have his share of detractors. It's too early to say that Howard, Paul, Wade or Stoudemire are HoFers, though they each certainly seem to be on that course (if James got hurt and did not play again he would already make it, a la Gale Sayers in the NFL). Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady will get in eventually, but perhaps not on the first ballot as things stand now. I suspect that Chauncey Billups will make it, too, on the basis of his Finals MVP and "Mr. Big Shot" pedigree.
Without further ado, here is the question that many basketball fans have been debating for at least the past year or so: "If you could have either on your team right now, who would you choose--Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?" Bryant received 15 votes and James received six. Detlef Schrempf gave the most pragmatic explanation: "Kobe for today, LeBron for the future." Johnny "Red" Kerr chose Kobe because of "his defense and his smarts." Strickland gave a somewhat paradoxical answer: "Kobe is the best individual player in the league but I would take LeBron because of his all-around skills."
As for two other popular comparisons, Paul (16) received the nod over Deron Williams (3) as the league's best point guard, with two voters copping out by saying it is too close to call; Duncan (12) defeated Garnett (6) for top power forward honors, with three voters declaring that matchup a tie.
That same Sporting News issue also contains a cover story about Bryant, including a season by season rundown of his career. Some of the season subtitles are quite revealing and the recaps detail aspects of Bryant's career that many fans have probably forgotten. For instance, 1999-00--Bryant's fourth year--is headlined "Defense." The Lakers went 67-15 and won the first of three titles in the O'Neal-Bryant era in Phil Jackson's first year coaching the team; under Jackson's leadership, the Lakers improved from 17th in defensive field goal percentage to first and Bryant earned the first of his six All-Defensive First Team selections (he has also made the Second Team twice). Bryant held Reggie Miller to 1-16 field goal shooting in game one of the Finals. Miller says, "What made him so tough was that he has those long arms and good anticipation. He plays the passing lanes so well. And you can't move him--he's strong. At shooting guard, you have to have strength. He is probably the strongest shooting guard in our game." Bryant sprained his ankle early in game two and missed all of game three but he came up big in the pivotal overtime session of game four after O'Neal fouled out, enabling the Lakers to take a 3-1 series lead en route to a six game victory.
The 2000-01 season is titled "Swagger," the primary example being game four of the Western Conference semifinals versus Sacramento. By halftime, O'Neal was in foul trouble and the Lakers trailed by nine points. Bryant already had scored 20 points and he declared to his teammates, "We're winning this (expletive) game." The Lakers won 119-113 as Bryant played all 48 minutes and finished with 48 points and 16 rebounds, his playoff career-highs in both categories at the time; his next game was not too shabby, either: 45 points and 10 rebounds in a 104-90 game one victory over San Antonio.
"Passing" is the theme for 2001-02, something that may shock people who think that Bryant did not become a good passer until 2007-08 (the reality is that he was the leading playmaker on all three championship teams). Bryant averaged a then-career high 5.5 apg in 2001-02 (a figure that he has since exceeded twice and nearly matched in each of the past two seasons). That was the second of six seasons in which Bryant averaged at least 25 ppg, five apg and five rpg; as I noted earlier this year, only Oscar Robertson (nine) and Michael Jordan (seven) have more 25-5-5 seasons than Bryant does.
Magic Johnson says, "Kobe is an amazing talent. His basketball IQ is off the charts. I thought, from Day 1 when I saw him, he could always pass. But I, and the media, we didn't shine a light on his passing because he could score so much. He has shown, though, that he can dominate the game with his passing. He sees the floor so well. I think that is why, now, he is an MVP. He showed everybody he has a well-rounded game. He can make passes off the dribble, he knows his teammates and knows how to find them. He understands the angles of the game."
The 2002-03 season is titled "3-point shooting." Up to that point, Bryant had yet to establish himself as a great shooter behind the arc but in the summer prior to that season Bryant made 1000 three point shots a day. That work paid off in a January 7, 2003 119-98 win over Seattle when Bryant drilled a league-record 12 three pointers, breaking Dennis Scott's mark. Scott recalls, "It would be one thing if I lost the record to a guy who just popped up, got lucky, then went on to do nothing else. But I had a chance to see Kobe in training camp. I watched how hard he was working to make himself a three point shooter. It wasn't something that came natural to him. It was hard work. I remember the night he broke the record. I was at home watching it and I wasn't surprised. I was smiling. I said, 'This guy earned it.'"
Bryant was a 23 year old six year veteran prior to the 2002-03 season. James is a 23 year old going into his sixth season right now and his three point shooting percentage has declined for three straight seasons (his free throw percentage has also been trending downward, from .754 as a rookie to .698 in 2007 and up slightly to .712 last season). Although the NBA does not officially keep stats for midrange jumpers, James is very erratic from that area as well (when NBA TV recently aired a Cavs season preview and showed James' "hot spots" as a shooter the paint was red hot but everything outside of the lane was ice cold). I know that James has been working diligently on his shooting touch with Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent, though I'm not sure if James is on a 1000 makes per day regimen from any range, let alone solely on three pointers--but that is an example of what Bryant did to become the league's best player and a worthy model for James to emulate.
* Otis Birdsong, Phil Chenier, Dave Cowens, Bobby Dandridge, World B. Free, A.C. Green, Lionel Hollins, Marc Iavaroni, Eddie Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Johnny "Red" Kerr, Mitch Kupchak, Bob Lanier, Jamal Mashburn, Bob McAdoo, Sam Perkins, Micheal Ray Richardson, Detlef Schrempf, Rod Strickland, Nate Thurmond, Buck Williams.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM