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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kobe Bryant: Perception Versus Reality

There have been ebbs and flows in terms of how Kobe Bryant is perceived and how he has been portrayed in the media but Bryant has never wavered regarding two things: (1) he has been misunderstood as a person; (2) he has not changed fundamentally as a player (even though "experts" insist that he has become a better teammate).

In some of his recent advertisements, Bryant has tried to show the public his real personality: "What we've done from a marketing standpoint is let people see who I am as a person for real and then make their judgments from that point going forward. From that standpoint, I think we've done a good job of making sure people see that and if they choose to come around or not, that's kind of up to them." As for his on court performance, Bryant says simply, "I've been playing the same way since I came into this league. I haven't changed at all. I think the thing that's changed is my role on this team. The things that I would have done when Shaquille was here in terms of getting in people's faces and demanding stuff from them, calling guys out, whatever, now that's viewed as leadership. Back then, it was viewed as a young kid stepping out of line."

When Bryant's public reputation reached its nadir four years ago, I asserted that the perception of Bryant did not match up with the reality. Not long after that article was published, I asked Bryant about how the media distorts the truth regarding him and he replied, "The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right."

Many commentators think that being a member of the media means never having to admit that you were wrong: to them, Bill Belichick's Super Bowl wins don't prove that they misjudged him in Cleveland; Belichick "changed." Similarly, it is popular to say that Bryant now "gets it" but it is more accurate to say that observers are finally "getting it": Bryant has been the best all-around player in the league for several years now and he has always been an excellent passer; after all, he was the leading playmaker on three Lakers' championship teams, filling the Scottie Pippen role in the Triangle Offense for the first three quarters before switching to the Michael Jordan scoring role in the fourth quarter because Shaquille O'Neal's poor free throw shooting meant that O'Neal could not be trusted with the ball in his hands down the stretch.

The idea that Bryant suddenly learned last season how to trust his teammates is ridiculous; contrasting his famous scoring outbursts--such as his 81 point game--with his current scoring average is asinine: who, exactly, should Bryant have "trusted" three years ago versus Toronto when the Lakers were trailing by nearly 20 points and needed a superhuman performance in order to get back in the game? If Bryant had eschewed shooting the ball 25-30 times a game in order to pass more often to Kwame Brown and Smush Parker that would have been stupid, selfish basketball because it would not have increased his team's likelihood of winning--but when Bryant is paired with someone who can catch the ball and make plays, the result is beautiful. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol screen/roll play turned into a deadly weapon almost immediately after Gasol joined the Lakers last season; Bryant is a great screen/roll player who fully understands how to make correct reads under pressure and make the open jumper, attack quickly when there is a driving lane or make the right pass, whether it involves feeding a cutting Gasol, hitting Lamar Odom flashing to the high post or skipping the ball to an open three point shooter on the backside of the play.

Furthermore, any suggestion that Bryant's spectacular scoring exploits were not primarily focused on helping the Lakers win is belied by the fact that the Lakers are 65-31 during Bryant's career when he scores 40 or more points, including a 17-7 mark when he scores at least 50 points.

Bryant's 81 point game was amazing and outscoring a strong Dallas team 62-61 in the first three quarters may have been even more remarkable but do you remember when Bryant scored 30 points in one quarter versus the Utah Jazz, shooting 9-9 from the field and 10-10 from the free throw line? I called that performance "the closest thing that you will ever see to a basketball player being perfect, at least for 12 glorious minutes." In the wake of that masterpiece, Ric Bucher wrote, "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for Kobe, I'm equally sick of having to do it. It shouldn't be this difficult to have the man recognized as the league's all-around best player. OK, so you don't like him. I'm good with that. But not respect him? Not give him his due? Anoint anyone who hasn't accomplished half of what he has as The King or The One or The Whatever?"

Bryant's critics have always been quick to compare his temperament and playing style unfavorably with his former teammate O'Neal. Writers and broadcasters love O'Neal because he makes their job easy, providing a steady stream of quotes to fill their notebooks and recorders. Bryant is more thoughtful and reserved, which means that he responds better to thoughtful questions than superficial questions and does not often produce sound bite-quality answers. When Jerry Buss decided in 2004 that he did not want to extend O'Neal's contract for maximum dollars and maximum years, most members of the media blamed O'Neal's departure from the Lakers on Bryant and continued to tell the story that way even though Buss, O'Neal, Phil Jackson, Bryant and anyone else involved with that situation has made it very clear that Buss made his decision based on financial considerations. Buss' thinking was also influenced by the fact that O'Neal's subpar work ethic made it likely that O'Neal would miss a lot of games, which is exactly what has happened.

Following the mantra of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the mainstream media portrayed O'Neal as a great teammate while disparaging Bryant as a selfish teammate who wanted to get rid of O'Neal in order to prove that he could win a championship on his own. Now that a few years have passed, it is interesting to reexamine the question of who is a better teammate. The only teammate who Bryant has "feuded" with is O'Neal; Bryant has been with the same franchise for his entire career and he has played an integral role in helping his younger teammates improve their games--you can read about one of many examples of this in my November 27, 2007 Lakers-Pacers recap, which describes how Bryant has been a mentor for Andrew Bynum (this is a marked contrast with how O'Neal treated Bryant when O'Neal was a veteran and Bryant was a young player fresh out of high school). Bryant set the tone for Team USA with his work ethic and defensive intensity; the coaching staff and other players acknowledged that he was one of the main team leaders right from the start and that was never more obvious than when Bryant took over down the stretch in the gold medal game victory over Spain.

In contrast, O'Neal has played for four NBA teams and every time he has left a team he has departed on bad terms, directing venomous comments toward his former coaches and several of his former teammates. It is funny that in O'Neal's recent verbal barrage against his former coach Stan Van Gundy one of O'Neal's complaints is that he hates a "frontrunner," because that is the perfect way to describe how one minute O'Neal will praise Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant or someone else and then the next minute he will stab that very same person in the back with a vicious remark. As Van Gundy said in response to O'Neal's verbal blasts, being mocked by O'Neal places him in good company.

Every single team that O'Neal has played on has had serious problems with locker room chemistry. The Kobe Bryant-led Lakers have been largely free of chemistry problems since trading O'Neal. Even when Bryant was going into gun fights with "butter knives" his Lakers were a playoff team in the competitive West and as soon as the Lakers got some "guns" Bryant led them to the 2008 Finals and he currently has them lapping the field in the West in the 2009 regular season. Look at how quickly O'Neal's championship team fell apart in Miami--as I wrote last year, O'Neal presided over "perhaps the quickest and most complete collapse by a champion in NBA history: within two years O'Neal's Heat were the worst team in the NBA and he had found an escape hatch to Phoenix"; look at how poor the chemistry is in Phoenix now and how that talented team with two former MVPs and multiple current or former All-Stars is sinking out of the playoff race. O'Neal's dysfunctional track record with multiple teams sure shines a different light on the O'Neal-Bryant "feud"; the media portrayed O'Neal as selfless and Bryant as selfish but the reality behind the scenes was much different, as I noted in many posts here (including this one about Bryant playing through his pinkie injury last season): O'Neal can try to claim that the tensions between he and Bryant were nothing but "marketing" but the reality is that Bryant wanted O'Neal to have a more professional attitude and he called O'Neal out for getting his 2002 toe surgery on "company time" and thus coming into the 2002-03 season out of shape. Instead of taking Bryant's words to heart, O'Neal's response was that if the big dog was not fed (the ball) then he would not guard the house (play defense in the paint).

Bryant is a killer during games AND on the practice court. In a very telling remark during the 2009 All-Star Weekend, Bryant recalled, "When that light came on he (Shaq) was a guy who was going to try to break somebody's face off during the game." The flip side of that, of course, is that during practice, O'Neal did not have nearly the same intensity; the difference between Bryant and O'Neal in that regard--and not the nonsense that much of the media wasted so much time discussing--is the real basis of their "feud." Bryant is a hard worker year round and in that sense he and O'Neal are fundamentally incompatible; their on court chemistry was good because during games they shared that goal of "break(ing) somebody's face off."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 PM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Tuesday, March 10, 2009 7:16:00 PM, Blogger Chubbers said...

You've brought up Kobe Bryant's career record when scoring 40 points and when scoring 50 points up several times. His 17-7 record when scoring 50 points or more is kind of disappointing to me. He only wins 2/3 of those games. However, I do not know how other players fare in this regard. It'd be nice if you could either direct me to somewhere I can find out, or just include it as a point of reference the next time this comes up.

Thanks for all your great posts!

 
At Tuesday, March 10, 2009 8:22:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Can you imagine if Kobe had called Chris Bosh "RuPaul" and dissed his former coach within a matter of days? He would be raked over the coals by the media. On the other hand, when Shaq does it they laugh about it and say he's just 'kidding around'.

This piece does a great job of bringing to light all the double standards that have existed for years regarding Kobe and Shaq. A lot of the adjectives which came to define Kobe - selfish, immature, insecure - sure seem to apply a lot more to Shaq these days. Now we are supposed to believe Kobe has only just learned to 'trust his teammates', while conveniently ignoring Shaq's continuing inability to avoid petty public spats and acrimonious departures? Whatever.

 
At Tuesday, March 10, 2009 8:44:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Great post. I've written and tried to tell people about Shaq and was glad to see him go. This post captures everything I've ever tried to say in one concise post. I was wondering if you might expand on Kobe's leadership role in the Olympics. If you look at every player he played with on that team, especially MVP worthy guys like Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Lebron, and Wade and even Melo and Redd can be thrown in there too, all of those guys got a lot more Kobe-like coming into this season, and, not surprisingly, all of them got better (Melo's regressed in scoring, but he's played a better all-around game, including defense...kind of). It's too bad Amare Stoudemire chose not to play in the Olympics, despite his thick skull, if Kobe had rubbed off on him, maybe he'd be wearing goggles and playing defense and forcing Bryant to have to worry about the Suns instead of not even thinking about them at all. And, speaking of tutoring, Amare was Shaq's pupil this summer. I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

 
At Tuesday, March 10, 2009 10:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chubbers:

My main point in bringing up the Lakers' record when Kobe Bryant scores 40 or more points is to contradict the perception that Bryant's high scoring games either are not within the flow of the offense or are detrimental to the team's success. A 17-7 record translates to 58 wins in an 82 game season, so that is actually a very good record.

Only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan had more 50 point games than Kobe Bryant. Chamberlain had 118 such games and I don't know what his teams' won-loss records were in those games but I know that he used to complain that he got wrongly labeled as a loser and that people would insist that his team lost the game in which he scored 100 points (his Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks 169-147).

Here is some information about the won/loss records of selected players in their regular season 50 point games:

Michael Jordan posted a 23-8 record in his regular season 50 point games (22-8 with the Bulls, 1-0 with the Wizards). That translates to 61 wins in an 82 game regular season.

Allen Iverson's teams have gone 6-5 in his regular season 50 point games.

LeBron James' teams have gone 5-2 in his regular season 50 point games.

Dominique Wilkins' teams went 3-3 in his regular season 50 point games.

Tracy McGrady's teams have gone 3-1 in his regular season 50 point games.

 
At Tuesday, March 10, 2009 11:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

The important thing for people to realize is that Kobe did not just become mature nor did Shaq just become immature. Their personalities have stayed the same throughout their respective tenures in the league.

 
At Tuesday, March 10, 2009 11:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

I talked a lot about Kobe's leadership role for Team USA in my various Team USA game recaps and my general posts about Team USA and that is why I did not go into great depth about that subject in this post. My Team USA Olympic posts are archived in the right hand sidebar on the main page and most other Team USA posts can be found by doing a simple site search.

Briefly restating the main idea, it should be evident to anyone who is paying attention that most of the players on Team USA benefited greatly by having Kobe as a teammate. LeBron and Wade have noticeably improved their commitment to playing defense and everyone associated with Team USA commented about Kobe's maniacal work ethic in the weight room and on the practice court. Not too long ago, I saw a quote from Cavs' GM Danny Ferry that stated that LeBron got a good look at exactly how hard Kobe works and since it is LeBron's goal to be the best player he has taken to heart what he has to do to try to match Kobe.

I can't say that I share your optimism about Melo, though; as I said in a recent article for PBN, I had high hopes for him when he came into the NBA fresh off of leading Syracuse to an NCAA title but I have been disappointed by his development--or lack thereof--so far.

Redd got hurt pretty early in the season, so it is hard to tell how much the Team USA experience rubbed off on him, but he has always been a level headed professional.

 
At Wednesday, March 11, 2009 1:09:00 AM, Blogger Sweat of Ewing said...

Kobe and Shaq both haven't changed since entering the league, ok. But just because Kobe is behaving the same in 2009 as he was in 2000 - getting in guys faces, etc - doesn't automatically make him an innocent, or the victim of lazy media. There's a thing called hierarchy. The Lakers were Shaq's team, and I think that Kobe balked at that yoke as much as anything else - it wasn't just that Shaq didn't have the same work ethic; it was that Shaq owned the team, Shaq was the best player, AND he didn't have the same work ethic.

(I'd like to insert a note here: I think Kobe has been the best perimeter player in the league from about 2001-2007. Lebron may have usurped that this year; it's at least a valid argument. But back in 2000, on those Lakers, Shaq was the man. Kobe, at his peak, has never been as good as Shaq was then - which is not a knock against him, few players have been that good, and even fewer perimeter players are on that list.)

This is a tough thing for an alpha dog like Kobe to deal with, and contributed significantly to their friction. Kobe wanted to be the man, and will always want to be the man. No, I don't think that Kobe "had Shaq kicked off the team," but it's naive to assert that his feud with O'neal had nothing to do with it. Jerry Buss saw that the team's morale was in tatters, had just lost to Detroit, and believed Shaq would decline soon. So, he traded him, but I can't believe it was purely a financial decision.

O'neal is by no means blameless, either, as he's been manipulative, petulant, and basically tried to re-write history to his benefit. But there's such a thing as personality, also, and the reason he gets such a free pass from the media isn't only that he provides them with quotes - it's that he is, in general, an open and lovable guy. Kobe is thoughtful and intelligent, but he's never been lovable - attempts to the contrary have always felt contrived. This is just a case of something that you either have or you don't, and it could be that Kobe's quest for basketball perception - which, David, you laud him for, and is the reason for his fantastic overall game - prevents him from interacting with people in the same way that Shaq is able.

David, I'm a big fan of nuanced analysis, and I think your site does a good job for the most part. But when it comes to Kobe, it seems like you're incapable of criticizing him - it's as if the basketball purist in you can't bring himself to see that the man has flaws, both as a player and a person (and who doesn't?). These flaws help to make him so interesting!

And, there are plenty of examples of players finding Kobe abrasive and/or unlikeable. Paul Shirley comes to mind. Guys around the league, in general, seem to love Shaq. They respect Kobe, and he clearly has friends (Devean George is one, I believe). This is a minor point, but it once again gets back to the idea of personality helping to define a player's legacy.

So, there's more to it than Kobe finally being given proper recognition for his leadership skills. The Lakers are now his team, and so getting in guys faces is appropriate. Back then, as a young guy on a veteran team that already had a leadership structure, it wasn't - instead, it was analogous to a very talented Army private telling his captains they needed to work harder, or differently. Now, that trait - call it passion, will to win, or whatever other cliche gets thrown around - is recognized as leadership, because it's appropriate to the situation.

 
At Wednesday, March 11, 2009 6:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sweat of Ewing:

You make some interesting and valid points.

The flip side of the Lakers being "Shaq's team" is that Shaq had a very immature and insecure attitude about that. The Spurs were "David Robinson's team" but when Tim Duncan came along, Robinson realized that Duncan was already a better low post scorer and he willingly ceded the primary role in the offense to Duncan. I never heard or saw Robinson talk about the Spurs being "his" team, nor has Duncan talked that way about the Spurs since they became "his" team.

Shaq is immature and petty, so it was very important to him to maintain the "hierarchy" that you described but what he should have done is embrace the reality that helping Bryant develop would turn the Lakers into a great team. Shaq never did that but when Phil Jackson became the coach he found ways to stroke Shaq's ego while at the same time expanding Bryant's role on the team. Now that Bryant is an older player, he has proven to be a much more skilled mentor than Shaq was for him, helping Bynum, Vujacic, Farmar and others to develop more quickly.

I think that Kobe at his peak has been comparable to Shaq at his peak, whether you look at the individually dominant numbers that Kobe put up in 2006 or you look at the way that Kobe led the Lakers through the toughest Western Conference playoff race ever last year by averaging 31-plus ppg on .500-plus FG% in the three Western Conference playoff series--but whether or not Kobe is a better player than Shaq is not the focus of this article.

In a preseason game before Shaq's final season with the Lakers, Shaq dunked the ball ferociously and then screamed at Buss--for everyone to hear--to pay him his money. How many high powered multi-millionaires do you think respond positively to that kind of public challenge? By the way, how much publicity do you think Kobe would have received if he had acted similarly when his contract was coming up? Buss got rid of Shaq primarily because Buss did not want to give Shaq max dollars and max years in light of Shaq's shaky work ethic. Buss offered Shaq max dollars but not max years. The whole story has been documented by all of the involved parties but the media relentlessly hammered Kobe about this for so long that many people still don't believe the truth. Shaq himself has publicly said that it was a money issue and that he doesn't blame Kobe.

I certainly see that Kobe has flaws. I don't talk about his flaws as a person because I rarely talk about anyone's personal flaws here--that is not what this site is about. There is obviously a lot of stuff that could be said about the personal flaws of Kobe, Shaq, Jackson, Wade and many others but I leave all of that stuff alone except when it relates primarily and directly to basketball.

As for Kobe's flaws as a player, I do not make excuses for him or whitewash any mistakes that he makes during games--but the media is so hypercritical of him that I have to spend a lot of time (and words) correcting erroneous things that are said about him. After game one of last year's Finals, I wrote the following passage that pretty much sums up what is wrong with how Bryant is covered:

Kobe Bryant's shot selection is subject to a play by play microscopic evaluation that I have never seen applied to any other player of his status; literally every time he shoots--or doesn't shoot--someone questions his judgment and motivations, alternately suggesting that he is either forcing the issue or else playing too passively in order to allegedly make some kind of point.

Then, in the wake of Boston's great game four comeback, the media focused not on Boston's defense and clutch play but instead launched into diatribes about why Kobe should never be compared with MJ. It was like a whole bunch of people could not wait to tear him down after his MVP season. I have never thought that Kobe was as good as MJ, nor have I spent much time comparing the two players, and I don't understand why so much more ink/bandwidth was spent by others during the Finals comparing Kobe to a player who has been retired for several years. The story of the Finals was how the Celtics' big men completely outclassed the Lakers' bigs and how whichever HoF caliber perimeter player Kobe did not guard went off (the Lakers had a similar problem in the 2004 Finals, with Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton taking turns going at Gary Payton while Kobe contained whoever Payton was not guarding).

Bryant is consistently covered in a way that completely distorts reality and I make a point of calling the media out in such situations; I have done many posts on the general subject of the declining standards in the media. It just so happens that writing about Bryant is a perfect way to not only address those issues but also talk about the subject of how to correctly understand basketball and how to correctly rank players.

I have been watching and studying basketball for a long time and I am very familiar with the literature on the subject, past and present. I can state with great confidence that no other site, magazine or publication provides the combination of historical information and analysis of the current game that this site does. Look at the main page--in the right hand sidebar there is a treasure trove of articles about/interviews with the greatest players and coaches in basketball history, while newer posts on the left hand side break down what is happening in the league currently.

Kobe Bryant has been the best player in the NBA for several years, which means that he is a historically significant figure in the sport. I fully expect that when people objectively look back at this era they will be amazed that he only won one MVP (as of 2009).

Regarding your final analogy about leadership, what you wrote reminded me of something that Coach Jackson said about Bryant years ago; he noted that Bryant wanted to be a leader right from the start of his career but that at first he did not have any followers. When Bryant came into the NBA, he was a hard worker and he wanted everyone else around him to also work hard and be focused on winning but he did not yet have the status within the team or within the league to persuade people to follow him, particularly with Shaq constantly undermining him.

 
At Wednesday, March 11, 2009 9:06:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Who cares?

 
At Wednesday, March 11, 2009 4:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

Anyone who cares about basketball history and responsible media coverage, that's who.

 
At Thursday, March 12, 2009 8:36:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Wrong David. Its irrelevant his perception vs. reality. This isnt something I think about at all and I care about the history of basketball. Just because you discuss this perception vs reality of Bryant doesnt mean this is repsonsible media coverage. I dont care what the media says and never have. I enjoy your blog for your insite most of the time. Obviously people here feel differently and actually care about this topic. Hes an all time great and thats all that matters. I dont care if he is misunderstood or hasnt changed as a player. Anyone who watches the game should be able to figure this out without some analysis.

 
At Thursday, March 12, 2009 5:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

The way that the media covers people and events is highly significant. Kobe has been misrepresented as a player and that is one thing that I am seeking to correct (along with correcting misrepresentations of different people and issues that I have tackled in other posts). Frankly, some of the people who enjoy prominent positions in mainstream media are incompetent, irresponsible or both and it is important to highlight the shortcomings in their coverage.

 

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