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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Evaluating Kobe Bryant's "Two Careers"

Kobe Bryant has said that if he had the ability to go back in time he would not do so because if you can go back in time and change things then the initial experience had no meaning; the finality of each life event fills those events with meaning. Bryant focuses on what is next and does not dwell on what has already happened.

However, even an existentialist-minded person like Bryant must inevitably think about the past at least a little bit on a night when he has not one but rather an unprecedented two jersey numbers retired by the same franchise. On Monday night, the L.A. Lakers--the most storied franchise in the NBA, along with the Boston Celtics--retired both Bryant's number 8 and Bryant's number 24. Bryant wore 8 during his first 10 seasons before switching to 24 for his final 10 seasons. The Lakers raised both numbers to the rafters to join the likes of legends such as Chamberlain, West, Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar and Magic (full names not required for this list).

The easy narrative--the narrative adapted by most mainstream media accounts of Bryant's NBA career--is that the young Bryant who wore number 8 was fierce, athletic and untamed, while the older Bryant who wore number 24 had a more mature and refined game. These stereotypes fail to acknowledge the depth of Bryant's basketball genius and his capacity to evolve as a player (and as a person, for that matter).

Bryant had two numbers but--contrary to apparently popular belief--he did not have two careers. Of course, Bryant evolved as a player and he constantly pushed himself to hone his skills but the idea that he changed his number and instantly launched a new career is, to put it mildly, absurd.

This attempt to apply a pat narrative to Bryant's career is not new or original. Talk of Bryant becoming a completely different player persisted throughout his career and was usually generated by those who wanted to dismiss or diminish the value of Bryant's earlier accomplishments. In When Did Kobe Bryant Really Become a Team Player?, I addressed in detail the notion that Bryant's game fundamentally changed at or after some arbitrary point in time. Then, in the wake of Bryant's fifth NBA championship, I placed his career in historical context by comparing him with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. After Bryant announced that 2015-16 would be his final campaign, I looked back at what he had accomplished up to that point.

Again, just to make sure that the point is clear, it is true that Bryant evolved throughout his career but it is misleading to state or imply that winning was not always Bryant's primary focus. Bryant made essential contributions to the Lakers’ 2000-2002 "three-peat"; in addition to his Finals’ performances, during that period he was often the best player on the court during the Western Conference Finals, which was the de facto championship series before the Lakers toppled an Eastern Conference representative that likely would not have made it to the Conference Finals in the West.

Bryant authored scintillating individual performances in both numbers. Wearing number 8, he dropped 81 points on Toronto in 2006. Prior to that, he outscored a strong Dallas team 62-61 over the first three quarters before sitting out the entire fourth quarter with the outcome well in hand.

In one of his earliest games wearing 24, Bryant produced a perfect third quarter en route to scoring 52 points in a 132-102 blowout of the Utah Jazz. A few years later, Bryant had a virtuoso scoring performance in Madison Square Garden, setting an arena single game scoring mark that stood for several years.

The "stat gurus" have never been particularly fond of Bryant but Bryant impacted the game in ways that "advanced basketball statistics" do not fully capture. The eye test suggests that Bryant was a great clutch player, while "stat gurus" arbitrarily define what a clutch shot is; I still contend that what matters most is the ability to control a game down the stretch, as opposed to a player's field goal percentage or scoring rate during on last second or last minute shots, and I further contend that Bryant's ability to control a game down the stretch has been matched by very few players. Along those lines, LeBron James developed his game a lot in Miami and since he came back to Cleveland but I stand by my contention that Bryant possessed some essential qualities that James lacks in terms of consistently playing the game with a champion's mentality.

Bryant won five championships but he has said that he drew the most satisfaction from the way that he played in 2012-13 as he carried the Lakers to the franchise's most recent playoff berth, rupturing his Achilles tendon along the way.
 
The road back to the NBA after such a devastating injury was not easy even for a tough-minded fitness fiend like Bryant but he made it back and he ended his career on a fitting, unprecedented note, scoring 60 points to push, pull and drag a depleted Lakers team to victory. Bryant was supposedly holding back the young talent on that team but the Lakers have not sniffed the playoffs since the last season when Bryant was fully healthy for most of the campaign (2012-13) and they do not seem likely to make the playoffs any time soon barring a major free agent acquisition and/or significant internal roster improvement.
 
Bryant did not have two distinct careers but it is true that he accomplished enough in both his first 10 years and in his second 10 years to merit two jersey retirements, much like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished more after his prime than many players achieved during their entire careers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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2 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 20, 2017 3:39:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

As a reader since the 2007-08 season, I agree 100% with you in regards to Bryant's career and the comparison between Kobe and LeBron.

His career as #8 and as #24 are each first-ballot HOF worthy. What a career and what a moment Monday night was.

There is an awesome ~19-min video mixtape on the NBA's YouTube channel on Kobe's highlights which does his career justice. You should check that out if you haven't done so.

 
At Wednesday, December 20, 2017 4:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you for your kind words and for the tip about the video; the video is a tremendous tribute to Bryant’s complete skill set, his tenacity and his will to win.

 

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