Classic "Cleaner" Performance by Kobe BryantTim Grover divides competitors into three categories: Coolers, Closers and Cleaners. In his new book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable (co-written with Shari Lesser Wenk), Grover explains how a Cleaner operates: "When things go wrong and everyone else starts to panic, the Cleaner is calm and unflappable, cool and steady, never too high or too low, never too happy or too depressed. He never sees problems, only situations to resolve, and when he finds the solution, he doesn't waste time explaining it. He just says, 'I got this.'"
Kobe Bryant is the ultimate Cleaner. Being a Cleaner is not about statistics--although Bryant's statistics are impressive--but about having a dominating mindset. Bryant is performing at a remarkably high level as he tries to carry his injured and dysfunctional L.A. Lakers to the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth; he is defying age, injuries and desultory play by several of his teammates and he is overcoming a coaching staff that is unable or unwilling to construct a coherent team defensive philosophy: on Wednesday night the Lakers gave up 41 first quarter points to a sub-.500 Portland team that started four rookies but Bryant refused to let the Lakers lose, producing a stat line (season-high 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots, three steals) that has never been seen in the NBA since the league officially began tracking steals and blocked shots in 1973-74. The Lakers rallied to post a 113-106 victory as Bryant played all 48 minutes while shooting 14-27 from the field and 18-18 from the free throw line. It is difficult to decide which of his numbers is the most amazing: a 34 year old shooting guard is not supposed to play an entire game without a second's rest or shoot better than .500 from the field with that volume of attempts or make all 18 of his free throws or block shots like an All-Defensive Team center. Again, though, this is not about numbers; this is about relentlessly doing whatever it takes to win. After the game, Bryant explained his approach: "You don't look for excuses, you don't wait for anybody else to make rotations, you do it yourself and by doing it, it sets an example for everybody else to do the same thing."
Grover writes in Relentless that a Cleaner not only plays at the highest possible level but he insists that his teammates also maximize their potential: "A Cleaner tells you what he expects and demands you deliver. Dwight Howard tells a great story about calling Kobe just before the start of the Lakers' 2012 pre-season, to tell him he was feeling good, that his surgically repaired back was probably at 85 percent. 'That's good,' said Kobe. 'Need you at one hundred percent. Trying to win a ring. Bye.' Get on my level or get out of my way." If Howard is smart, he will take note of the impact that Bryant has had on Pau Gasol's career and Howard will try to squeeze the most out of the brief but precious remaining time he will share the court with Bryant.
In the Lakers' previous game--Tuesday's 104-96 victory over the New Orleans Hornets--Bryant not only scored a game-high 30 points (including 23 in the fourth quarter), rebounded (six boards), passed (six assists) and defended (five steals) but he also coached, instructing Gasol about how to best utilize his skills: "I basically told him, dude, especially when I'm not in the game, you just gotta go to the block and not move. When I'm out there, I can slow the game down, call plays off, and just give it to him--but if I'm not, then listen, you just gotta go to the block and not move. Just stand there." Gasol followed Bryant's advice and had one of his best games of the season (22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots).
Playing alongside Kobe Bryant has transformed Gasol's entire career and legacy, elevating him from a one-time All-Star who had never won a playoff game to a four-time All-Star, two-time NBA champion and three-time All-NBA performer whose NBA resume may now be impressive enough--combined with his FIBA resume--for him to be selected as a Basketball Hall of Famer.
Although Bryant has brought out the best in a host of teammates ranging from Pau Gasol to Lamar Odom (whose career has cratered since leaving Bryant's side) to Andrew Bynum to the infamous center/point guard duo Kwame Brown/Smush Parker (who started on two playoff teams with Bryant despite never doing anything notable in the NBA before or after being Bryant's teammate), Bryant's individual productivity should not be overlooked: he is averaging 27.3 ppg, 6.0 apg and 5.6 rpg this season, the eighth "25-5-5" campaign of his career (Oscar Robertson holds the all-time record with nine such seasons and LeBron James is on pace this season to tie Robertson's mark). Bryant averaged 29.8 ppg in 45.2 mpg as the Lakers won four of their last five games to slide ahead of the Utah Jazz in the race for the Western Conference's final playoff spot; if the 42-37 Lakers win their remaining three games then they will clinch that berth no matter what 41-38 Utah does but the Lakers have to finish ahead of the Jazz in the standings because the Jazz own the head to head tiebreaker.
Bryant will probably never get the credit he deserves for this season because commentators will be more inclined to look at the high profile names on the Lakers' roster as opposed to objectively evaluating how those players actually performed--and how much injuries/coaching changes destroyed the team's chemistry--but 2012-13 has been one of the best seasons of Bryant's career, which is incredible considering that he is a 17 year veteran who has logged over 45,000 regular season minutes plus an additional 8641 playoff minutes. Of the 14 other players in ABA/NBA history who accumulated at least 45,000 regular season minutes only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone were All-NBA caliber players after passing the 45,000 minute mark. Bryant should make the All-NBA First Team this season and he should finish in the top five in MVP voting.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM