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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Simers' Interview Provides Insights Into Kobe Bryant's Mindset

T.J. Simers' work is usually too irreverent and/or irrelevant for my tastes but his recent Kobe Bryant interview contains many valuable insights. Here are some highlights:

1) Bryant said that he has been misunderstood by the general public: "I just happened to grow in front of everybody and a lot happened. Maybe one day in like 15 years or so some people will come to realize we didn't quite get him when he was playing." Bryant expressed a similar sentiment when I interviewed him during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend: "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."

2) Bryant himself is taken aback by how much he has grown and matured, laughing as he told Simers, "I find myself talking sometimes and I can't believe what I just said. Realistically I have only one year left, so I'm trying to enjoy myself." Bryant's competitive fire still burns as brightly as ever but his public statements and public persona are much calmer; he gets his message across without losing his cool.

3) Bryant admitted that he is "a little bit" worried that Dwight Howard might leave the Lakers as a free agent after this season but instead of dwelling on that possibility "I want him thinking about being our defensive stopper so we can ride him into the playoffs." Bryant dismissed concerns about any possible tension in his personal relationship with Howard: "I've been through much worse. Shaq and I honestly didn't like each other. At least Dwight and I do like each other." It is refreshing to hear someone tell the truth about the much-discussed (and misunderstood) O'Neal-Bryant dynamic. The real story is that, even though Bryant was young and immature in some ways, he also was much more focused on working hard and competing for championships than O'Neal, who famously put off toe surgery by declaring that he got hurt "on company time" so he would get treated "on company time"--exactly opposite the attitude of Bryant, who has repeatedly played through injuries that would have sidelined any other player. O'Neal's lackadaisical approach resulted in the Lakers trading O'Neal and winning two championships with a team built around Bryant. Four years after the O'Neal trade, Bryant and O'Neal shared the 2009 All-Star MVP and they probably get along as well now as they ever have or ever will but--contrary to O'Neal's oft-spoken revisionist history version of events (which stars O'Neal as the hero who stirred up some kind of so-called creative tension in order to spur the Lakers to greater heights)--Bryant and O'Neal have never been close personally and Bryant not only resents O'Neal's jealousy but he has vowed to treat his younger teammates better than O'Neal treated him, a vow that Bryant has kept first with Andrew Bynum and currently with both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.

4) Bryant told Simers, "I know I drive a very hard bargain. I was reading the Steve Jobs book, which was enjoyable because it made me seem like a Magic Johnson-like character." Bryant added, "Winning takes precedence over all. There's no gray area. No almosts. It's a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It's not healthy. And I can't justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization."

5) Bryant offered a very candid explanation for his recent series of double figure assist games: "This team needed it. In the meeting we had in Memphis we were talking about doing things that maybe were not what we do best. What I do best is shoot, maybe passing is the best way for us to win now.

I tried it in the seventh game of the [2006] playoffs against Phoenix. I scored 50 in Game 6 and we lost. I scored like 17 in the first half, and took a gamble. I decided to pass to try and get everyone else going. It didn't work. I took the same gamble here and if it hadn't worked out, what would people be saying now? Kobe isn't shooting so he can prove some point?

What I'm doing now is being selfish. I'm trying to help the team because I want to win a championship."

6) Bryant said that he wants to be remembered as "a winner and overachiever. A guy who worked and played hard like he was the 12th man on the roster."

Bryant, like Scottie Pippen more than a decade ago, is highly respected by coaches, players and knowledgeable basketball people even though he is a polarizing figure to casual fans. It is no coincidence that great players work hard and want to be appreciated more for their dedication to their craft than just for their statistics or accolades. Here is what Pippen replied when I asked him how he would like to be remembered: "A gym rat. A guy who worked very hard to make sure that his game was complete in every area and wanted to be looked at as one of the best players in the league. Even though I probably never was (the best player), because I played with a great player, but that was my approach to basketball as a whole, being a guy who came from a small college. I wanted to be the best player in the game. Even though I played with the best player in the game, it was always in my mind that if I did a little bit more, if I became a little bit more complete, people would look at me as one of the best players in the game and not just look at the fact that I did not have the offensive skills that Michael had." Being a "gym rat" (as Pippen put it) or an "overachiever" (as Bryant put it) separated these two great players from many other talented performers who did not dedicate themselves to becoming all-around threats who could impact a game with scoring, rebounding, playmaking and defense; hard work is the crucible that forged Pippen's six championship rings and Bryant's five championship rings.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:54 AM

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Assessing the "New" Lakers and the "New" Kobe Bryant

Most NBA commentary generates a lot more heat than light. The Lakers have a Dream Team roster. The Lakers will not even make the playoffs. Kobe Bryant shoots too much. Kobe Bryant has reinvented himself. Contrary to the impression you may receive from watching ESPN or reading the work of various "experts," the essential truths about a team and/or a player do not change from game to game, so it has been comical to listen to various media members offer such widely varying game to game assessments of the L.A. Lakers and Kobe Bryant. I stand by what I wrote before the season: the Lakers' roster as currently constructed with Kobe Bryant as the best player, Dwight Howard as a dominant center, Steve Nash as the team's first true point guard in many years and Pau Gasol as a very good (though declining) power forward is capable of beating any team in the NBA in a seven game series. Injuries, coaching changes and chemistry issues have greatly impacted the Lakers' effectiveness thus far but the essential truth about this team has not changed and if the Lakers pull themselves together they can still be a very dangerous team.

The "Kobe Bryant has reinvented himself" story is not new. In fact, it was old five years ago. The reality is that it took just three seasons for Bryant to evolve from a raw rookie who came into the NBA straight out of high school into an All-NBA Third Team performer and he has been no worse than a top five player for the better part of the past decade or so. Players who function in the Triangle Offense generally do not post gaudy assist numbers but Bryant was the leading playmaker for each of the Lakers' past five championship teams (2000-2002, 2009-2010)--and for every other Lakers' team since 2000 except for 2004 and 2006. During one playoff series, Hubie Brown concluded that Bryant's decision making is virtually flawless; people who assert that Bryant either (1) is nothing more than a selfish gunner and/or (2) was a selfish gunner until he "reinvented" himself do not understand how to properly evaluate a player's decision making. As Jeff Van Gundy recently noted, what Bryant does is read the defense and make the appropriate decision to shoot/pass based on how the defense is deployed.

The double figure assist totals that Bryant has posted in the past three games are a statistical anomaly for him but those numbers do not prove that he suddenly learned how to pass and/or that he suddenly became willing to pass. Bryant has always possessed the necessary skill set to lead the league in assists but his role on the team and the offensive sets that the Lakers have run during most of his career did not put Bryant in position to post gaudy assist numbers. Now the Lakers are running sets that more frequently result in Bryant making the final pass leading to a score instead of making the "hockey assist."

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Lakers are 52-22 (.703) since Bryant's rookie season when he tallies at least 10 assists--but ESPN Stats and Information neglected to mention that the Lakers are also 77-39 (.664) when Bryant scores at least 40 points. Why is the first statistic much more appealing to ESPN Stats and Information even though the second statistic includes a larger sample size? ESPN's main basketball blogger has been obsessed for many years with repeatedly and vociferously stating that Bryant shoots too much/performs poorly in arbitrarily defined clutch situations but I do not recall him ever writing even one post about the Lakers winning two thirds of their games when Bryant explodes for at least 40 points. It should be obvious that trying to explain a team's won-loss record purely by referring to a player's production in one statistical category is not particularly enlightening. As Jeff Van Gundy might say, why is the cutoff 10 assists instead of nine or 11? Did the Lakers win those games because Bryant had so many assists or did he have so many assists because his teammates were hitting shots in those games that they missed in other games when Bryant made similar passes? Without conducting an in depth analysis of who the Lakers played in those games and how the various players on both teams performed it is not possible to determine if the Lakers were successful because Bryant had 10 assists or if Bryant had 10 assists as a result of the Lakers being successful--and the same analytical standard should be applied to determining if the Lakers won at a high rate because Bryant scored 40 points. It is meaningless if not deceptive to just cite random statistics/winning percentages devoid of context.

The most significant story about the Lakers that has been largely overlooked is that the veteran Bryant is a much more mature and sensitive leader than the veteran Shaquille O'Neal was when he was a teammate of young Bryant. O'Neal viewed Bryant as a rival for accolades/endorsement dollars and that jealousy ultimately led to the Lakers trading O'Neal and winning two titles by pairing Bryant with one-time All-Star (prior to coming to L.A.) Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, who has never made the All-Star team; if O'Neal had been more mature then he and Bryant would probably have won at least two more titles together and would have had a chance to win three, four or even five more championships. Bryant does not view young Dwight Howard as some kind of rival; Bryant has made a conscious and very deliberate effort not only to prod Howard to greatness but also to make Howard feel more comfortable by spoonfeeding him the ball. This is not a new story--Bryant similarly mentored Andrew Bynum when Bynum played for the Lakers--but it is more relevant to tell that story than to focus on random point or assist totals. However, telling the story of Bryant as a leader requires actually understanding basketball and it also requires contradicting the widespread narrative of Bryant as a bad teammate, so it is easier for commentators to recycle the same old storylines instead of providing any real insight about Bryant and the Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 PM

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