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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mark Heisler on Kobe Bryant's "Peaks and Valleys"

I generally shy away from making the cliched Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons: Jordan clearly had more career accomplishments--though Bryant may have enough time left to match Jordan, assuming Bryant goes on a late career championship splurge like Jordan did--and Jordan was physically stronger, better on the post and possessed bigger hands that gave him more ballhandling options; I don't think that Jordan was much better than Bryant but I don't see the need to continually compare them, either, particularly when it is much more interesting and relevant to compare Bryant with the great players he is actually competing against.

However, Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times just wrote a very interesting article that compares Jordan and Bryant in a perceptive way:

If Michael Jordan was the best ever, it was because of his consistency at a level no one had ever reached. Bryant goes to Jordan's level all the time -- and beyond, where no one ever went before -- between dips.

If Jordan was a straight line across the top of the graph, Bryant is a wavy line, with the highs going off the chart, as in Tuesday's first quarter, in one of the great 12-minute bursts anyone has ever played.

In numbers, it was 17 points with three assists, making seven of 10 shots.

In person, it was awesome.

"The greatest first quarter I ever saw," ABC's Jeff Van Gundy called it Wednesday.

"That shot he made in front of the Laker bench," a four-point play after making a three-pointer as Mickael Pietrus, whom he faked in the air, fell into him, "that might have been the third hardest shot he hit in the quarter. For anyone else, it might be the best shot of their career," Van Gundy said.

He continued: "That pass he made to Pau Gasol," after going up to take a 20-footer and spotting Gasol open," to change what he's doing at the last moment? He made it look easy, but it's not."

Showing what brilliance gets you if you lose, the reaction Bryant got afterward was:

Aren't you supposed to be the game's best closer?

Actually, he is, but he flamed out after that first quarter Tuesday.

I met Heisler during All-Star Weekend a few years back and talked with him about Bryant and Jordan, since Heisler has been around long enough to cover both players in their primes. Jordan had a legendary work ethic but Heisler told me that Bryant has an even greater, more relentless work ethic. It would not be fair or accurate to say that Heisler is, to use the overworked term, a "homer" for either Jordan or Bryant. Rather, Heisler is a veteran NBA reporter simply stating what he has observed about Jordan and Bryant--and he both observes and writes better than most of the current NBA writers, probably because Heisler has been doing this at a high level as long or longer than many of those writers have been alive. That sense of history and perspective is a welcome counterpoint to people who know nothing and therefore insist that what just happened must be the best, the worst or the most important thing ever.

Switching the focus from Jordan-Bryant back to today's players, the only thing that I would add to Heisler's comparison is that Bryant is the current player who every other great player tries to emulate: we saw that with the U.S. Olympic Team as it became increasingly evident just how much Bryant's work ethic, practice demeanor and defensive focus influenced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the players not just during the Olympics but also during the 2008-09 season. If you talk to just about any basketball fan or player who grew up in the 1970s or early 1980s he will tell you that his favorite player was Julius Erving; Bryant does not enjoy Erving's universal popularity but from a skill set standpoint he is certainly the most admired (and feared) player of this generation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM



At Thursday, June 11, 2009 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I have thought about Bryant and Jordan in these sames terms, where Bryant is capable of reaching heights that Jordan never touched, but mainly because Bryant was willing to opt for the high risk play or style of play, and sometimes capturing the higher reward, whereas Jordan learned to settle for a more consistent (and still very high) level, but that prevented him from attaining results like the 81 point game that Kobe had.

At Thursday, June 11, 2009 1:58:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Smrek said...

I divide the superstars into 2 camps: Some guys dominate because of athleticism and some guys because of honed skills (i.e., effort and dedication).

Lebron (so far), Shaq, Wilt, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson simply had bodies that are/were ahead of their times. Drop Wilt, Baylor and Russell into today’s game and their athleticism would be ordinary forcing them to develop more skills or wash out. I believe the NBA in 20 years will feature more physical bodies like Shaq and LeBron and, if they are transported, they’d not survive on brute athleticism like they do now.

What makes Kareem and Jordan exceptional is they took their natural athletic advantage (no one who guarded them matched their physical talents) and added honed skills to become the greatest ever. But again, Jordan’s athleticism would not be much of an advantage if he were guarded by Carmelo Anthony, Lebron, Kobe, etc. against zone defenses anchored by Shaq, Dwight Howard, etc. instead of manning up against Craig Ehlo, John Hornacek and Reggie Miller with slow-moving double teams (as opposed to zone where the double anticipates the pass) from Brad Daugherty, Mark Eaton and Rick Smits).

What I enjoy about Kobe is that he is constantly guarded by equal or superior athleticism and his success is almost entirely from honed skill. He’s definitely physically gifted, but not a unique NBA athlete like the others (when asked about the comparison, Jackson usually mentions that Kobe just doesn’t have the paws that Jordan used to great effect). When he started, he was so young and slight that mature men like Steve Smith and Scottie Pippen could manhandle him. As Kobe aged, strong, quick and bigger guys were acquired by teams to take him on (miscellaneous players like Ruben Patterson, Bruce Bowen, Kirilenko, Travis Outlaw, etc are superior athletes in height, quickness and strength than anyone Jordan, Bird or Magic faced, including Mitch Richmond (maybe not Pippen)). The NBA has dozens of athletic equals to Kobe, but he dominates through intelligence, will, dedication and craft. I just love that approach to success.

At Thursday, June 11, 2009 3:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike Smrek:

I understand the overall point that you are making and there may be some validity to it but I think that you are selling short both the athletic ability and basketball talent/savvy of Chamberlain, Russell, Baylor and Magic.


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