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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Looking Back on the Kobe Bryant Era

Kobe Bryant has been the NBA's signature player for the bulk of his career, a polarizing figure who was appreciated by basketball purists but not embraced by some fans and members of the media. We now know that the Kobe Bryant era, which has spanned an unprecedented 20 years of service with one team, will conclude after the 2015-16 campaign ends. Bryant understood the challenges and significance of his journey better than most of the people who covered his career. He announced his retirement on Sunday by publishing a poem titled "Dear Basketball."

Here is one stanza from that poem:
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I'll always love you for it.
But I can't love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it's time to say goodbye.
As a basketball fan/purist, it is painful to watch a player as technically sound as Bryant struggle so mightily to put the ball in the basket this season--but there is also a beauty and nobility to the way he is ending his career, a poignancy that derives from the realization that we are watching a supremely talented and supremely motivated person who has squeezed every last ounce out of his body. There is something to be said for retiring on top and never letting the world see you decline but few athletes other than Jim Brown and Barry Sanders take that approach. Bryant has played in the NBA until his body had nothing left to give; he prepared as much for this season as he has for any other but because of injuries and age his body is no longer responding to his demands.

On Sunday night, the Lakers distributed to each fan a letter from Bryant. Here is the text of that letter:
When we first met I was just a kid.
Some of you took me in.
Some of you didn't.
But all of you helped me become the player and man in front of you today.
You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.
Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.
You witnessed my fears morph into strength.
Your rejection taught me courage.
Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.
What you've done for me is far greater than anything I've done for you.
I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.
I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.
My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.
Thank you for this incredible journey.
During Bryant's post-game press conference on Sunday night after Indiana defeated L.A. 107-103, Bryant answered questions in English, Spanish and Italian. He is a man in full who will likely be just as successful in his post-playing career as he was during his playing career; Bryant is driven, focused and intelligent.

Adrian Wojnarowski's article about Bryant's retirement is a rare mainstream media piece that is both well-researched and contains quality analysis. Wojnarowski describes how Bryant embraced the challenge of holding off young guns like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook--and Wojnarowski notes the sad reality that no amount of working out and no amount of shooting drills will enable Bryant to keep Father Time at bay any longer. Wojnarowski recalls that when Bryant and LeBron James were members of Team USA in 2008 the people most closely associated with that squad observed that Bryant "preyed on James' vulnerabilities." Bryant and James can be distinguished in two important ways: (1) the mental game and (2) skill set completeness. There is a substantial gap between Bryant in his prime and LeBron James in his prime in terms of doing what needs to be done to lift a team to a championship. Media members may not acknowledge this and "stat gurus" may argue vigorously disagree but it is no coincidence that even though James has often had the best regular season team and has made it to the NBA Finals six times he has only won two championships while Bryant captured five championships in seven NBA Finals appearances. When Bryant had the goods around him he produced titles and that often has not been the case for James. Bryant's teams rarely if ever finished worse than they should have finished based on their talent level--and they often did better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Bryant's work ethic, his passion and his complete skill set will not be approached--let alone matched--any time soon.

There are so many statistics and facts that demonstrate Bryant's impact that it is difficult to know where to begin. Bryant will be most remembered for championships and scoring, so those are two good places to start. Bill Russell lapped the field with 11 NBA championships as a player and several of his teammates rank high on the list of most championships won, including Sam Jones (10) and John Havlicek (eight), who is tied with teammates Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders. The player who won the most NBA titles without playing alongside Bill Russell is Robert Horry (seven), who was a superb role player for championship teams in Houston, L.A. and San Antonio. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships apiece. Then there is a 13 way tie among players who have won five championships; Bryant is in that group, which includes elite players such as George Mikan, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan plus rebounder/defensive specialist Dennis Rodman and several high quality players who were not all-time greats. In terms of players who were the dominating forces on championship teams, only Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Pippen won more titles than Bryant. Sam Jones was a great--and underrated--player but he had just five All-Star selections scattered among his 10 championship seasons, while Havlicek was not an All-Star during his first three championship runs.

Bryant made the All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Star teams each of the years he won a championship and he is in a select group of players with five championships plus two Finals MVPs (Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan, Duncan). We are supposedly in the middle of an era dominated by so-called analytics, yet discussions of concepts like "leadership" and "getting the most out of your teammates" repeatedly focus on players like Steve Nash and Chris Paul, neither of whom has made it to even one NBA Finals. Bryant's leadership and his ability to motivate/inspire his teammates are demonstrated by the bottom line, incontestable reality that he has led his teams to more championships than all but a handful of basketball superstars. Of course, some people will counter that statement by arguing that Bryant's first three championships should be properly credited to Shaquille O'Neal but if we are going to apply that line of reasoning then Magic Johnson's championship total should not include the years when Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy won Finals MVPs, Larry Bird's championship total should not include 1981 (when Cedric Maxwell won the Finals MVP) and two-time champion LeBron James--another player who is often lauded for his ability to bring out the best in his teammates--must explain not only his pedestrian 2-4 Finals record but also why during key moments in various NBA Finals he has been outplayed by the likes of Tony Parker, Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard. Most championship teams feature what O'Neal calls a "one-two punch" and anyone who wants to subtract titles from Bryant's resume is obligated to apply a similar standard to every other elite player.

In his prime, Bryant had no skill set weaknesses: he could score inside or outside, he shot an excellent free throw percentage, he rebounded very well for his position, he was the leading playmaker on his team for most of his career, he was both a lockdown defender and a superb help defender and he possessed great footwork and ballhandling skills. What Bryant did best, though, is put the ball in the basket. Bryant ranks third on the all-time pro basketball regular season scoring list with 32,683 points, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) and Karl Malone (36,928 points). Bryant also ranks third on the all-time playoff scoring list with 5640 points, behind only Michael Jordan (5987 points) and Abdul-Jabbar (5762 points). Bryant won two scoring titles (35.4 ppg--the eighth best single season scoring average in pro basketball history--in 2006, 31.6 ppg in 2007), he led the league in total points scored four times (2003, 2006-08) and he ranked in the top five in scoring 12 times.

Bryant made his mark in several other sections of the pro basketball record book. He ranks 14th in career regular season three pointers made (1712), 15th in career regular season steals (1895), 29th in career regular season assists (6166), ninth in career playoff assists (1040) and 42nd in career playoff rebounds (1119).

Bryant is one of the most decorated players in pro basketball history. He won the 2008 regular season MVP and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting 11 times, including five times in the top three (2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). Bryant finished fifth in the 2013 regular season MVP voting as a 34 year old veteran of 17 NBA campaigns. He won the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals MVPs. Bryant won or shared four All-Star Game MVPs (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011), tying the record set by Bob Pettit.

Bryant's 17 All-Star selections trail only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 19. Considering the way that the NBA consistently ignores the statistics and accomplishments of ABA players, it is worth noting that the third player on that list is Julius Erving, who earned 16 All-Star selections. Bryant, Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan share the record with 15 All-NBA Team selections, while Bryant and Karl Malone are the only players to earn 11 All-NBA First Team selections.

Some people complain about the All-Defensive Team voting. For most of the award's history, the head coaches selected the players and did a solid job, though there are some anomalies (it is not clear why Larry Bird--who always guarded the least dangerous of the three opposing frontcourt players--made the All-Defensive Team three times or why Julius Erving never made the All-Defensive Team during his NBA career). Kobe Bryant's defense has been subjected to more unfair scrutiny and criticism than the defense of any other elite defender, at least in terms of media coverage and commentary by fans. NBA insiders--many of whom I have spoken with over the years--recognize Bryant as one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all-time and this is reflected in the All-Defensive Team voting: Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team nine times, tied for first all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett. Bryant earned 12 All-Defensive Team selections overall, tied with Kevin Garnett for second all-time behind Tim Duncan (15).

All-Star Weekend contests do not tell us much about a player's overall greatness but it is worth mentioning in passing that Bryant is the youngest Slam Dunk Champion ever, winning the contest as an 18 year old rookie in 1997.

What I will remember most about Bryant are the championships, the two years (2006 and 2007) when he carried the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker Lakers to the playoffs--it is ridiculous that Bryant did not win the MVP in both of those seasons--and Bryant's numerous amazing scoring feats. Memory is fleeting for many people, so it is worth recalling some of Bryant's scoring machine exploits.

Bryant did not play in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 112-90 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on December 20, 2005 but he earned those 12 minutes off because he outscored the Mavericks 62-61 in the first three quarters! Bryant shot 18-31 from the field (.581) in that game, including 4-10 from three point range. Officially, he played just 32:53 that night, meaning that he scored at a rate of nearly two points per minute. Bryant became just the fourth player since 1960 to score at least 60 points while playing less than 40 minutes (Jerry West, George Gervin and Karl Malone are the others).

Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before (January 11, 2006) is one of my favorite short 20 Second Timeout pieces because it was my first opportunity to write about one of my favorite sports books, Wait Till Next Year:
Kobe Bryant scored 45 points in the L.A. Lakers' 96-90 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, becoming the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to have 45-plus points in four straight games; the feat has not been accomplished since Chamberlain did it in November 1964. The Lakers are 3-1 in those contests and have not lost since Bryant returned from his two game suspension for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller (Utah defeated the Lakers twice when Kobe was out of the lineup). Bryant has scored 188 points during this four game stretch, the third best four game scoring run in the last 20 years (Michael Jordan had runs of 198 points in '87 and 194 points in '90)--and he is also contributing 8.8 rpg and 4.8 apg while playing 43 mpg. Bryant is averaging 42.4 ppg in his last eight games--starting with his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas on December 20--and the Lakers won five of those games. Bryant has taken over the scoring lead from Allen Iverson and his 34.1 ppg is higher than any player has averaged in a season since Jordan put up 35.0 ppg in 1987-88.
In Wait Till Next Year, Mike Lupica and William Goldman covered one year (1987) in New York sports. Goldman declared that every great athlete fights a battle "to the death" to avoid being forgotten by future generations. Goldman asserted that one athlete so towered above his peers that he would win this battle: Wilt Chamberlain. I concluded my article with these lines: "That's why every time Kobe has the most 'this's' or 'that's' since Chamberlain that I think not only of Wilt, but also Shaq--and Wait Till Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. Kobe's feats repeatedly acquaint a new generation with Wilt's name and 50 years from now I believe that both players will survive Goldman's aptly named struggle 'to the death.'"

A little over a month after Bryant destroyed Dallas, he dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, the second highest single game scoring outburst in pro basketball history behind Chamberlain's legendary 100 point effort. Bryant shot 28-46 from the field (.609), including 7-13 from three point range (.538). This game marked the fifth time that Bryant scored at least 50 points in the first three quarters of a game but that is just one of the ways that Bryant's 81 point game is unlike other high scoring performances:
I've never seen anything quite like this in an NBA game. Consider three games that are frequently replayed on NBA TV and ESPN Classic. Jordan's 63 point game against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs was remarkable, but it took him two overtimes to score 18 less than Bryant did in regulation, he did seem to tire at the end and the Bulls lost the game (to an admittedly great team that won the NBA title that year). Bernard King's 60 point game came against the New Jersey Nets in a Christmas Day loss in 1984; King also seemed to slow at the end of that game. Larry Bird's 60 point game came in a 1985 blowout against the Atlanta Hawks and anyone who thinks that Kobe or the Lakers employed poor sportsmanship by continuing to score on the Raptors should check out the tape of Bird's game--the Celtics were fouling the Hawks despite being way ahead in the closing seconds, just to get the ball back so that Bird could reach 60 points. These performances are among the most notable high scoring games in the past 20 years and none of them approach what Kobe did: Kobe scored more points and his points were more directly needed to win the game.
In December 2006, Bryant authored a perfect quarter en route to scoring 52 points, a performance that I covered in Perfect Storm: Kobe Bryant Scores 30 Third Quarter Points Without Missing a Shot, Drops 52 as Lakers Rout Jazz, 132-102:
The term perfect game is usually applied in baseball--and not that frequently. If you watched Kobe Bryant's performance in the Lakers 132-102 blowout of the Utah Jazz on Thursday then you saw the closest thing that you will ever see to a basketball player being perfect, at least for 12 glorious minutes. In the third quarter, Bryant made all nine of his field goal attempts (including two three pointers), sank all 10 of his free throws and tied his own Lakers franchise record with 30 points. He also played good defense and made some gorgeous passes. Andrei Kirilenko--one of the league's best defensive players--was guarding Bryant during a good part of this time. Bryant also made his last two field goal attempts of the second quarter, including a slam dunk right in Kirilenko's grill, so he actually made 11 straight field goals. Bryant hit deep threes, running jumpers, turnaround jumpers--he was so hot that when Deron Williams fouled him when he attempted a pull up three pointer on the fast break no one said anything about not fouling a jump shooter; TNT's Steve Kerr said that you have to contest someone's shot when they are that hot. In addition to the flying facial to close out the first half, Bryant delivered an even more impressive dunk in the third quarter, posterizing Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer.

After the game, Bryant said that it felt like he was playing a video game. TNT's Marv Albert, who has seen more than a few great games, declared during the telecast, "This will go down as one of the great performances of all-time for a single quarter." Kerr added, "You get an idea of just how much better Kobe Bryant--or Michael Jordan--is than everybody else out on the floor. When you consider how good NBA players are, that's just amazing. Kobe was just a man among boys tonight." Bryant sat out the last half minute of the third quarter or he might have tied George Gervin's NBA record of 33 points in a quarter. As Albert and Kerr mentioned, Gervin's effort came in the last game of the 1978 season when he was gunning for the scoring title in an otherwise meaningless game. Bryant's performance came in the middle of the season against the team with the best record in the NBA. Bryant made a token appearance in the fourth quarter before returning to the bench. He finished with 52 points on 19-26 shooting from the field and 12-15 free throw shooting, adding four rebounds and three assists and committing only one turnover in 34 minutes. This was the 12th 50 point game of Bryant's career and his highest scoring output since his epochal 81 point game last year; the Lakers are 9-3 in those contests.
In the wake of this astounding performance, ESPN's Ric Bucher asks a very logical question: When will people quit trying to anoint others and simply admit that Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the planet? Bucher writes, "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for Kobe, I'm equally sick of having to do it. It shouldn't be this difficult to have the man recognized as the league's all-around best player. OK, so you don't like him. I'm good with that. But not respect him? Not give him his due? Anoint anyone who hasn't accomplished half of what he has as The King or The One or The Whatever?"
Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in pro basketball history to 50 or more points in at least four straight games. Bryant accomplished this in March 2007:
Elgin and MJ couldn't quite do it, so now it's just Wilt and Kobe, mano-a-mano. Kobe Bryant scored 50-plus points for the fourth straight game, setting a New Orleans Arena opponents record with 50 points in a 111-105 L.A. Lakers win over the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets. Bryant joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to score 50 or more points in four consecutive games; his 18th regular season 50 point game broke Elgin Baylor's Lakers franchise record and gave Bryant sole possession of third place all-time in that category. Bryant shot 16-29 from the field, including 2-5 from three point range, and 16-16 from the free throw line. He now has 225 points in his last four games (56.3 ppg), all wins for the previously struggling Lakers, and Bryant has shot 76-140 from the field (.543), 17-33 on three pointers (.515) and 56-60 from the free throw line (.933) during these contests.

It is hard to find anything bad to say about what Bryant is doing--he is shooting extraordinary percentages from all distances, his team is winning and his coach gave his seal of approval to Bryant being this aggressive. Nevertheless, Bryant haters will surely mention two things: New Orleans has a losing record and Bryant had only one assist. If you check the standings, you will notice that New Orleans is still in the hunt for the last playoff spot, so this home game was very important to the Hornets, whose record is not that much worse than the Lakers. If the Lakers did not have Bryant they would in fact be a much worse team than the Hornets, who got great performances from point guard Chris Paul (28 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals) and center Tyson Chandler (22 points, 22 rebounds, two blocked shots). As for Bryant only having one assist, anyone who watched the game understands that Bryant did three things, depending on the defensive coverage he saw: when single-covered, he attacked aggressively, usually scoring or drawing a foul; when double-covered in the post, he hit the open man, who generally fired a brick or passed to someone else who was open and fired a brick; when double-covered on the wing or at the top of the key, Bryant split the trap, broke down the defense and either attacked the rim or shot his patented fadeaway jumper. Anyone who thinks that Bryant is not passing enough or that the Lakers are better off with Bryant shooting less and other guys shooting more is simply not paying attention. If Bryant had some better teammates--say, Raja Bell and Shawn Marion, or Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris--he would be getting a ton of assists--or he would be scoring 75 points if teams stayed at home on those guys and guarded him one on one.
In April 2007, I provided some key statistics about Bryant's unbelievable scoring binges:
*** Not including Sunday's game (which wouldn't change this stat much, anyway), Bryant is averaging 37.2 ppg since the All-Star break. That is merely the highest post-All-Star break scoring average in the last 43 years. That must mean that he is not rebounding or passing, right? No; he is averaging 5.8 rpg and 5.2 apg in those games. That rebounding average would rank fifth among shooting guards in the NBA this season (based on the positional designations at ESPN.com) and is actually slightly higher than his pre-All-Star break average. That assists average would rank sixth among NBA shooting guards this season and is just slightly worse than his pre-All-Star break average. Only one shooting guard has higher seasonal averages in both categories than Bryant has posted since the All-Star break--Andre Iguodala, whose numbers in each area are marginally better than Bryant's. So, Bryant is putting up Wilt Chamberlain-level scoring numbers for the second half of the season while still ranking among the best rebounders and passers at the shooting guard position.

*** Several times on Sunday, ABC ran a "crawl" that stated that the Lakers are 11-3 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points. Apparently, nobody at ABC has read the Lakers' game notes or the game logs at NBA.com; the Lakers are in fact 12-4 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points and have a 58-25 record during his career in such games. Here is the complete list of Bryant's 2006-07 40 point games (I placed those dots in the chart in order to create better spacing, which will hopefully make the chart easier to read):

Opp..Res....Score...FG...3 Pt....FT.....Pts...Reb...Ast...Rec

11/21 vs. LAC...W..105-101...12-23...1-1...15-18....40....5.....5....1-0

11/30 vs. UTA...W...132-102...19-26...2-3..12-15....52....4.....3....2-0

12/15 vs. HOU...W...112-101...17-38...5-8..14-16....53...10.....8....3-0

12/17 vs. Was...L...147-141...15-24..7-11...8-10....45....8....10....3-1

12/29 at Char...L...133-124...22-45..4-11...10-12...58....5.....4....3-2

1/4 at Sac....W...132-128...11-21..3-5....17-20...42...10.....9....4-2

1/22 vs. GSW...W...108-103...11-22..4-7....16-19...42....8.....1....5-2

1/31 at Bos....W...111-98....13-25..7-9....10-13...43....8.....8....6-2

3/6 at Minn....L...117-107...13-30..3-10...11-13...40...13.....8....6-3

3/16 vs. Por...W...116-111...23-39..8-12...11-12...65....7.....3....7-3

3/18 vs. Minn..W...109-102...17-35..4-9....12-14...50....6.....3....8-3

3/22 at Mem....W...121-119...20-37..3-7....17-18...60....5.....4....9-3

3/23 at NO/OK..W...111-105...16-29..2-5....16-16...50....7.....1...10-3

3/25 at GSW....W...115-113...15-33..4-11....9-11...43....9.....0...11-3

3/30 vs. Hou...L...107-104...19-44..3-9....12-14...53....2.....2...11-4

4/6 at Sea.....W...112-109...13-27..1-4....19-24...46....5.....6...12-4

..............(.514)...(.500)..(.853)..(48.9 ppg)..(7.0 rpg)..(4.7 apg)

No, those are not typos--Kobe Bryant has averaged 48.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg in his 16 40-point games this year. The Lakers are 12-4 in those games and he has shot .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 adjusted field goal percentage (calculated by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two), which is simply mind boggling. His shooting percentages, rebounding numbers and assist totals--and the Lakers' record, markedly better than their overall record--all refute suggestions that Bryant is forcing shots, neglecting other aspects of the game or cares more about scoring than winning. The reality is that the Lakers need his scoring--and his rebounding and assists, which are better than the numbers put up by most other shooting guards--in order to win.
In my January 14, 2012 article Kobe Bryant Tops 40 Points for the Third Straight Game, I summarized some of Bryant's accomplishments/records:
...Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in January 2006 (including his 81 point outburst against Toronto), he averaged 41.6 ppg in April 2006 (that month consisted of just eight games at the end of the season; Bryant's other 40 ppg months each included at least 13 games and my understanding is that for these kinds of records the Elias Sports Bureau counts any month that includes at least five games), he averaged 40.6 ppg in February 2003 and he averaged 40.4 ppg in March 2007; Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player in NBA history to average more than 40 ppg in a month on multiple occasions (Chamberlain accomplished this astounding feat 11 times)...

Kobe Bryant's 40 Point Game Streaks

9: February 2003 (7-2 record)
5: March 2007 (5-0 record)
5: December 2005-January 2006 (3-2 record)
4: March-April 2006 (2-2 record)
4: March 2006 (3-1 record)
3: January 2012 (3-0; streak is still active)
3: December 2004-January 2005 (2-1 record)

Total: 25-8 record
THAT Kobe Bryant--the unstoppable, indomitable scoring machine who won five NBA championships and authored so many dazzling performances--is the Kobe Bryant I will always remember and the Kobe Bryant everyone should remember.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:54 PM