When Did Kobe Bryant Really Become a Team Player?I just read an interesting article about Kobe Bryant; the tag line declares in part, "Kobe Bryant has grown into a consummate team player." The writer adds, "Not only does he score, but he also initiates the Lakers' attack and has developed into a fierce defensive stopper" and he quotes Larry Brown, who calls Bryant "a model" of what an NBA player should be. One of Bryant's teammates says of Bryant, "He doesn't make his game a personal game anymore. You don't see him doing the things on the floor that used to get him in trouble and get us in trouble." That teammate also asserts that Bryant made a greater effort to mingle with his teammates away from the court but Bryant disagrees with that: "If you ask me, I acted the same way my first few years, but for some reason the perception is different this year. If I'm doing something that makes them feel more comfortable around me, then I'm happy about that."
This is all stuff that you have heard before, right? You bet you have heard it before--nine years before to be exact! Those quotes did not come from an article about the Lakers' 2009 championship; they come from a Sports Illustrated article that Phil Taylor wrote in April 2000, a few months before Bryant won the first of his four NBA championships! That is why it is so funny--and yet so sad--that there has been so much written and said recently about Bryant allegedly just learning to "trust his teammates," becoming a better/more willing passer and interacting more closely with his teammates away from the court; all of that stuff about Bryant suddenly changing is nonsense.
Bryant came into the NBA as a raw 18 year old straight out of high school who had a lot to learn about the NBA game--but by his fourth season he had emerged as one of the league's top players, a dynamic scorer who also was a great playmaker and a lockdown defender. Whatever awkwardness may have existed between Bryant and some of his teammates--largely due to him being a high school kid while they were grown men--had mostly vanished by 2000. Unfortunately, many sportswriters are either too ignorant, too lazy or too biased to write the truth, so they regurgitate their favorite themes over and over. Taylor is a solid writer and he described Bryant's transformation nine years ago when it was actually a newsworthy story--but the hacks who are getting paid now by asserting that Bryant just changed are ripping off the publications that are paying them and the general public that wastes time reading their ignorant words.
Bryant has been a great, mature player for nearly a decade. What changed in L.A. the past two seasons is that the Lakers' front office gave him some more help; Bryant does not have as much help as some people like to say, mind you--the 2009 Lakers had a weaker roster than most of the championship teams from the past two decades--but Bryant no longer has to go into battle with starters who barely belong in the league (Smush Parker, Kwame Brown).
As I have mentioned before, assist totals have to be taken with a grain of salt and Bryant has astutely noted, "There is more to making your teammates better than just passing them the ball. You have to teach them a lot of the things that you know, the way that you prepare for the game. There are so many different levels to making guys better." However, whether you judge Bryant's playmaking purely by his assist totals or you take a broader, skill set based view, it is clear that he transformed himself as a playmaker quite some time ago, not just in the past two years as some people insist. Bryant's apg average made its first big jump in 2000: he played roughly the same amount of mpg that he had in the previous season, but he averaged 4.9 apg compared to 3.8 apg in 1999. Bryant ranked third on the Lakers in apg in 1999 but led the team in that category in 2000 and he has led the Lakers in apg every season since then except for 2004 (Gary Payton) and 2006 (Lamar Odom). Ironically, Bryant's apg averages the past two years--when the ignorant pundits claim that he learned to "trust his teammates"--are only the fourth and eighth highest of his 13 year career; Bryant averaged a career-high 6.0 apg in the 2004-05 season, a time when he was being blasted left and right for supposedly running Shaquille O'Neal out of town and not passing the ball to anyone.
It always amazes me that some people actually think that Shaquille O'Neal singlehandedly carried the Lakers to three championships while Bryant was going through some kind of version of NBA puberty on and off the court; the reality is that Bryant's emergence as an elite player in his own right--and the hiring of Phil Jackson as coach--directly correlated with the Lakers' ascension to the top of the league. The subsequent "feud" between O'Neal and Bryant had nothing to do with Bryant being selfish or not knowing how to "trust his teammates"; as I wrote earlier this year, "O’Neal injured his big toe but declared that since he got hurt 'on company time' he was entitled to get surgery and heal 'on company time.' So he enjoyed himself during the summer of 2002, had the surgery late, missed 15 games and took his time getting back into shape. As a result, the Lakers did not have homecourt advantage in the playoffs and eventually fell to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. O'Neal’s conduct escalated his conflict with Bryant, who became the team's leading scorer; O'Neal declared that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint), to which Bryant pointedly retorted that O'Neal needed to get in shape so that he could run down the court, because Bryant had no intention of walking the ball up and waiting for him." By the time O'Neal returned to the lineup and struggled to get back into shape, Bryant had clearly become the number one option on the team, averaging 40.6 ppg on .472 field goal shooting in February 2003. While Bryant proved as early as the 2000 season that he could fill the playmaking role on a championship team, O'Neal immaturely chafed at Bryant's rising status during the 2003 season. O'Neal's poor work ethic and his subsequent petty jealousy of Bryant's record-setting scoring run led to the Lakers' downfall and weighed heavily on owner Jerry Buss' mind when O'Neal publicly screamed at Buss during the 2003 preseason, "Pay me!" As Lamar Odom is learning now, Buss keeps his own counsel about just how much money he is willing to pay players.
All of the recent talk about Bryant learning to "trust his teammates" completely misses the point; in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons, Bryant's teammates were not "trustworthy" and in most cases the Lakers were better off with Bryant shooting the ball instead of passing it: in fact, over the entire course of Bryant's career, the Lakers have a better winning percentage when Bryant scores more than 40 points (.677) than when he scores fewer than 40 points (.656)--and that was especially true in 2006, when the Lakers went 45-37 overall (.549) but 18-9 (.667) when Bryant scored at least 40 points. Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson publicly said at that time that the Lakers needed for Bryant to score a lot of points just for the team to remain competitive, so when Bryant won scoring titles in 2006 and 2007 he was doing exactly what Jackson wanted him to do.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:40 AM