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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kobe Bryant the Realist Faces His Basketball Mortality

Kobe Bryant had successful--but season-ending--surgery yesterday to repair the torn right rotator cuff that he suffered during the L.A. Lakers' 96-80 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Wednesday. Although Bryant will undoubtedly do his best to return to action as soon as possible (nine months is the expected recovery time for this procedure), the injury could possibly signal the end of Bryant's career; he still has not quite completely recovered from the Achilles and knee injuries that limited him to just six games last season and now he faces yet another grueling rehabilitation regime.

Bryant hurt his shoulder while converting a driving, two-handed dunk. He stayed in the game, attempting to play left-handed and even nailing a left-handed turnaround jumper before Coach Byron Scott removed Bryant from the contest. After the game, Bryant insisted that the injury was no big deal but last Friday an MRI revealed the extent of the damage. Reports indicate that Bryant may have been playing with a shoulder injury of some sort throughout this season, which could possibly at least partially explain his career-low .373 field goal percentage.

Prior to tearing his rotator cuff, Bryant seemed to be making some necessary adjustments/concessions to his age and physical limitations. During the L.A. Lakers' 109-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 15, Kobe Bryant posted 19 points, seven rebounds and a career-high 17 assists. The 36 year old Bryant became the oldest player in Lakers' history to have at least 15 assists in a game. Bryant returned to the NBA this season after a ruptured Achilles forced him to miss the 2013 playoffs and his recovery from that injury plus a lateral tibial fracture in his left knee caused him to miss all but six games of the 2013-14 season. In his 19th season, Bryant has been forced to accept that he can no longer single-handedly carry his team--and that he cannot play 36-plus minutes a night and that he probably cannot handle back to back games on a regular basis. This state of affairs has also been an adjustment for Coach Scott, who was Bryant's teammate when Bryant was a rookie and Scott was in his final season; the young Kobe Bryant would refuse to leave the game and occasionally might just check himself back into a contest if he felt that things were getting out of hand while he was on the bench. Prior to this season, Bryant realistically suggested to Scott that his minutes should be restricted but Scott--perhaps fooled by how fit Bryant is--thought that Bryant could handle a heavier workload. Recently, Scott trimmed Bryant's minutes and deactivated Bryant for entire games when necessary.

For most of his career, Bryant could take over games at will. Bryant understands that he can no longer do that: "Well, the Kobe from five years ago could physically pick up this whole team by myself. I've always been a realist, though. Always. I'm not afraid to self-assess and be honest about that and be brutally honest with myself. I can look myself in the mirror and say, physically, I can't do that, so I'm not going to do that. I'll do something else. I'll figure out how to do something else. You can't achieve that level of anything if you're not brutally honest with yourself, man. You've got to be. I am that. That's why you're not seeing that."

Bryant's harsh and vocal critics this season overlook that he can still impact the game in many positive ways. Bryant explains, "It's just different. It's more putting the pieces in the right place. It's more quarterbacking. It's more positioning. It's more strategic. It's less foot on the throttle. I'll be at a high level. I can get 15 [points], 10 assists, eight rebounds in 30 minutes in my sleep."

The most deceptive aspect of the aging process regarding elite athletes who work hard to stay in shape is that, superficially, they often appear to have not lost anything. For instance, Jerry Rice and Hakeem Olajuwon kept themselves in marvelous physical condition. They looked young and fit even at the very end of their careers but, unfortunately, their bodies could no longer perform at an elite level. Jerry Rice standing on the football field in his uniform in 2004 looked just as fit as Jerry Rice looked in 1985 or 1995--but in 2004 his explosiveness was gone. Hakeem Olajuwon as a Toronto Raptor in 2002 looked like a marvelously conditioned human being--but he could not play like Hakeem Olajuwon did as a Houston Rocket in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kobe Bryant version 2014-15 has more left in the tank than Rice and Olajuwon did in their final seasons--but Bryant and the Lakers have been forced to adjust to changing circumstances. It is not wise or fair to compare this Kobe Bryant to the Kobe Bryant who won five championships or the Kobe Bryant who twice carried Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs.

In one sense it will be a shame if the last images of Bryant's career consist of Bryant shooting left-handed and trying to use his one good arm to single-handedly carry a bad team--but, in another sense, it would be quite fitting: Bryant never quits, never makes excuses, never gives in to pain or injury and always finds a way to be productive when he is on the court. Watching Bryant sink that left-handed turnaround jumper with textbook form, I thought of LeBron James--immensely talented, in the prime of his career, the most dominant player in the sport when he wants to be--talking earlier in the season about being in "chill mode." Like Michael Jordan, like most great champions, Bryant does not have "chill mode." LeBron James is bigger and stronger than Kobe Bryant and James may run faster and jump higher than Bryant did even in Bryant's prime (though it is easy to forget just how athletic the young Bryant was)--but even after belatedly learning just how hard he has to play to become a champion, James still seems to have not completely internalized just how much focus it takes to reach the highest level in Pro Basketball's Pantheon.

I try to avoid ranking players within the Pantheon but--much like I have felt for years that Bryant will never quite match up with Michael Jordan, though the gap is not as wide as some people like to believe--it just seems like James' mental game and his championship ring total will never quite match up with Kobe Bryant's. There are little things that maybe aren't so little at all that tip the balance toward Bryant. When Bryant played with All-Star big men (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol), those players had the best seasons of their careers; when James played with All-Star big men (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love), those players had to sacrifice their games and accept lesser roles. It is so ironic that James is cast as a pass-first, unselfish player and yet Bryant has done so much more to bring out the best in his teammates. When you watch James you get the feeling that he knows exactly how many points and assists he has and what his field goal percentage is but when you watch Bryant you get the feeling that he is just trying to make sure that his team kills the opposing team and statistics be damned. If I had one playoff game to win and could take either guy in his prime the choice would be very easy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 4:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"If I had one playoff game to win and could take either guy in his prime the choice would be very easy."

That's an interesting idea. I'm sort of with you, and sort of not. Kobe's performance in the playoffs is certainly more consistent than James', but James' ceiling- 25 straight points against Detroit, 30+ point triple doubles, 15 straight makes against Boson, etc.- is higher.

I suppose it depends how you define "prime". I'd rather have the best forty playoff games of Kobe's career, but I'd rather have the best five of James'. If prime is a year, or an era, than Kobe wins; if it's a night, I think the nod has to go to James.

 
At Friday, January 30, 2015 1:52:00 AM, Anonymous CR said...

Nick F,
Aren't you essentially saying a prime Kobe is better if you would take him over LeBron in a larger sample size? I suspect a prime LeBron wouldn't be able to match the competitiveness of a prime Kobe, but who knows.

David,
It's a shame we never got to see Kobe compete against LeBron while both were in their primes. By the time LeBron hit his prime Kobe was already slightly past his prime and was not the same freak athlete anymore (although Kobe still held his own quite well).

We could have seen a prime LeBron versus a slightly-past-his-prime Kobe in 2009 or 2010 but LeBron didn't hold up to his end. Funny enough, I thought those Cavs teams were better than the Lakers in those years. It would have been interesting to see if Kobe's drive and competitiveness could have overcome his team's deficiencies in that hypothetical series.

 
At Friday, January 30, 2015 2:43:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Problem with James is you'll never know if he uses 100% of his talent that particular night.

 
At Friday, January 30, 2015 10:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James will probably be an all-time great, not quite there yet. But, I don't think there's any comparison between Kobe and him. Maybe James has a couple better playoff games, but Kobe has the entire series. People want to nitpick about Kobe's shooting pct. in some series, particularly the 2010 finals. Kobe, while having a low pct., still absolutely dominated that series. And when he's off his game, which everyone is at times, he found several other ways to beat BOS in game 7. He outrebounded the BOS starting bigs, playing great defense, got to the line 15x, and just showed great all-around floor game. The game that so many want to bash Kobe about is actually the game why you should take Kobe in a one-game series over anyone, especially James.

Kobe's only had 7 legit years to win a title, he cashed in on 5 of those. And nobody wins 4 titles in a row these days, so 2003 shouldn't count either. And with Malone going down for the 2004 finals, no real chance for the Lakers there even if Kobe played awesome. His Lakers have only had the #1 seed 4x, and they made the finals each time, and in the tougher conf.

James is now going on his 7th consecutive year with a great team. Making 6 finals would be tough, but he changed teams, which would've made it easier, allowing more rest for his new teammates. The competition out East is much weaker. You just never know for sure what you're going to get from him. Sure, he played great 09 ECF, but Howard still outplayed him. The 09 and 10 cavs were the best teams in the league, until they actually flopped and never made the finals, and now most say they really weren't that good to protect James. He's had it made as a player. A stacked, deep, great defensive teams in CLE, then playing with 2 other great players in their primes in MIA, then playing with 2 other great players in their primes in CLE. Much different career path than Kobe. Kobe is one of the very few all-time greats to have nothing while in the middle of his prime. Even after James wins 2 titles in 12/13, his 14 season was a lot of coasting including the playoffs. And after getting outplayed by Terry in the 11 finals, don't get outplayed by another role player like Leonard in the 14 finals, but that's exactly what happened.

 
At Friday, January 30, 2015 7:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Eh. it depends. Lebron's best night is better than Kobe's best night, but Kobe's best night comes up a little more often. So if prime is "best case", Lebron's better, but if prime is "most consistent over an extended period" then Kobe's is.

Like, if we're going by years I'd take a lot of Kobe's over basically every Lebron except maybe 2012 (who was an absolute killing machine whenever it counted, though it still took him a few games to wake up in Boston). But if we're going by best nights? As far as playoffs go, I'd probably take Lebron's 10th best night over Kobe's best.

 
At Friday, January 30, 2015 11:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think so. Kobe had the better all-around game, and at his best, he was completely unstoppable. James might have better stats, but not necessarily played better. Even this year, notice how many double teams Kobe is drawing. He's drawing more double teams this year than James did, which is one reason why Kobe's teammates perform much better with him overall than James teammates do with him. James isn't 100% reliable, especially in the playoffs. Even at his best, such as game 7 of 08 EC semis, Pierce outplayed him. And then Howard outplayed him in 09 ECF. James played great then, but he's still getting outplayed by 2 guys who will never approach the true elites. And this is at his best.

James now has his 7th consecutive great cast and all in his prime, but still only 2 rings. Not even Jordan had this many great teams, and he had to wait a few years of his prime, too. He was the best player in 12 and 13, though 12 was a lockout year. Can't really say any other year, if you take playoffs into account as well.

 
At Saturday, January 31, 2015 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

Eh, agree to differ on a lot of that. I don't feel that Howard outplayed him in '09 (though Howard played great) so much as I feel that Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, et all outplayed Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. Lebron put up 38/8/8 on 49% shooting in that series in spite of Dwight protecting the rim; I don't know that Kobe's ever performed better over a six game playoff stretch than that, come to think of it. Those are "Doc in the ABA" type numbers and you can't blame Lebron that three of the four best players in that series were on the other team, as was the best coach.

And as for "top gear" I don't think Kobe has a playoff game that hangs with Lebron dismantling Boston in '12 with 15 straight makes to open the game or his epic comeback against Detroit. The '08 ECF game is a nice outing from a scoring POV, but you're absolutely right that Pierce, if not outplaying him outright, at least fought him to a draw; I don't consider that game as impressive as the two I just mentioned, or even Game 2 of last year's Finals when he beat SA more-or-less by himself in their old building. Also game 5 against Orlando in '09, to the tune of 37/14/12.

To Kobe's credit, the best of his playoff games that I can remember is nothing to sneeze at; 48 and 16 against the Kings, if memory serves. But I'd take any of the Lebron games mentioned above over that one. Reasonable men can differ here.

Still, I think on balance Kobe's average playoff game is better than Lebron's. I just think Lebron's peaks were higher.

And while you're right that Lebron's had very good supporting casts, he's never played alongside somebody of the order of 2000-2002 Shaq. As the best player on their team, Kobe and Lebron each have two rings.

I'm still taking Kobe's playoff career over Lebron's, but I don't think it's as much of a one-sided affair as you seem to. I'm also not as high on Lebron's Cavs teams as David (and seemingly you) are, but that's an old argument.

 
At Sunday, February 01, 2015 3:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This is an interesting discussion. I think that two of the most salient points made thus far are (1) You never know what you are going to get from James on a nightly basis in the playoffs (Beep) and (2) Bryant cashed in on five of his seven legit chances to win a title (Anonymous).

I think that prime Bryant put forth a more consistent effort and played at a high level more consistently in the playoffs than prime James. I also think that prime Bryant took better advantage of his championship opportunities than prime James has.

Regarding Nick's comment about Bryant playing with Shaq and James never playing with a big man who is that good, it is important to note Bryant's big men had their best years playing alongside Bryant, while James' big men are forced to play a subservient role. There used to be a lot of discussion about how Jordan might have reacted if he had spent several prime years playing alongside Shaq. Would Jordan have voluntarily given up some scoring glory--as Bryant did, however reluctantly--or would Jordan have forced Shaq to give up shots? It is clear what the answer is for James; James intends to be the highest scoring player on his team and everyone else just has to fall into line. Yet, in key moments--particularly in the playoffs--James will just disappear and is unwilling/unable to shoulder that load. You can't go through 82 games dominating the ball and then when everything is on the line stand on the wings passively and expect your teammates to bail you out. That is why I would not trust James over Bryant in a big, winner take all game.

 
At Monday, February 02, 2015 7:33:00 AM, Blogger A Lenda said...

"Regarding Nick's comment about Bryant playing with Shaq and James never playing with a big man who is that good, it is important to note Bryant's big men had their best years playing alongside Bryant, while James' big men are forced to play a subservient role. There used to be a lot of discussion about how Jordan might have reacted if he had spent several prime years playing alongside Shaq. Would Jordan have voluntarily given up some scoring glory--as Bryant did, however reluctantly--or would Jordan have forced Shaq to give up shots? It is clear what the answer is for James; James intends to be the highest scoring player on his team and everyone else just has to fall into line. Yet, in key moments--particularly in the playoffs--James will just disappear and is unwilling/unable to shoulder that load. You can't go through 82 games dominating the ball and then when everything is on the line stand on the wings passively and expect your teammates to bail you out. That is why I would not trust James over Bryant in a big, winner take all game."
And this is exactly why I would always take Kobe over James. Well said, David. James is a puzzle to me. He seems to be afraid of failing. I do believe that if, in a weird sci fi plot, we were able to switch their bodies, Kobe would have been the best ever and Le Bron might have been an all star.

 
At Monday, February 02, 2015 10:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shaq may have had the best 3 year span in nba history. However, it wasn't like Kobe was a sidekick in those years. How many times did Kobe save Shaq's butt during that year, especially in 2000/2002 playoffs? Kobe was a good AS in 2000, and was a legit MVP candidate in 2001/2002. His performances were better than many players who have led their team to titles. It's absurd to not give them credit or enough credit for his performances in 00-02. If the finals MVP was rewarded for the WCF, which was the de facto NBA finals, Kobe would've had 1-2 more.

After Kobe/Shaq, the Lakers had very little. The 09/10 Cavs could go at least 10-11 deep. Their #3 was better than any of Kobe's #3 from his title teams, #4 was better, etc, all the way down the list. Shannon Brown couldn't find the court in CLE, then is 6th-7th man playing a key rotational role with Kobe. Then, he's mostly coming off the bench for a non-playoff team with PHO. Crappy teams like NY/MIA don't even want him after that. Just one of many players with similar careers who Kobe carried to greatness.

You kind of make my point even more clear with James adding in all these gaudy stat lines that might not mean much. He doesn't get his teammates involved nearly as much as most think he does. He had 27/19/10 with 9 TOs in game 6 of EC semis in 2010. However, he's just loafing around for a lot of the game, not having his normal impact, and showing some fake hustle. Sure, the fact that he can put up a triple double like this shows how good he could be if he actually wants to be.

 
At Monday, February 02, 2015 11:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I don't wanna have this whole argument again, but not only are the 2000-2002 Lakers guys in slots #3-#5 at least comparable to the equivalent Cavs guys from '07-10, Shaq is so astronomically better that it doesn't matter. Admitting that doesn't diminish Kobe, it just means "Kobe won more" in and of itself isn't a terribly relevant argument; it's apples to oranges. At that point you may as well say Horry's a better playoff performer than Kobe; after all, he won more.

That said, I mostly agree- and have this entire thread- that Kobe's more dependable in the playoffs. I just think Lebron's best night is better than Kobe's, and if I could pluck either guy from one single playoff night, it'd be Lebron from sometime in 2012 (probably that Boston game), not Kobe.

 

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