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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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Thunder Surging as Westbrook Regains MVP Form

"What is wrong with the Thunder?" is a question being posed by many NBA commentators but the answer to that question may actually be "Nothing." Three weeks ago, I answered that question by suggesting that the Thunder need for Russell Westbrook to play his normal game as opposed to sublimating his game in deference to Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the team's best player should not be the one who is sacrificing the most.

Last season, Westbrook won the regular season MVP award after averaging 31.6 ppg (capturing his second scoring title along the way), 10.7 rpg (10th in the league) and 10.4 apg (3rd in the league). Westbrook became the only ABA-NBA player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season.

Despite a subdued--by his high standards--start to the 2017-18 campaign, Westbrook is averaging 23.3 ppg, 9.8 apg and 9.6 rpg through 30 games, numbers which would put him closer to averaging a triple double for a season than anyone other than Robertson. During the Thunder's first 10 games in December he elevated his production to 25.2 ppg, 10.5 apg and 10.4 rpg as the Thunder went 7-3. Westbrook notched four triple doubles during those 10 games and the Thunder won each of those four contests.

Westbrook's shooting percentages during this 10 game run are not good but in his most recent game--Oklahoma City's 95-94 win over Denver on Monday night--he scored a season-high 38 points on 16-28 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder outscored the Nuggets by seven in the final stanza. The Thunder won despite George scoring just eight points on 3-13 field goal shooting and despite Anthony scoring just four points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

No one would suggest that the Thunder's formula for long-term success involves George and Anthony shooting so horribly but the larger point--from that one game in particular and the most recent 10 game stretch in general--is that this team is at its best when Westbrook is dominant, as opposed to Westbrook deferring to lesser talents. When Westbrook pushes the ball and looks for his shot, the opposing defense is compromised in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates, either off of a direct pass (Westbrook had a team-high six assists versus Denver despite the bricklaying by George and Anthony) or off of ball movement initiated by Westbrook's first pass.

If Westbrook continues to play this way, two things will likely happen: (1) Westbrook will regain his shooting rhythm and his shooting percentages will bounce back to his career norms and (2) the Thunder will reel off an 8-10 game winning streak at some point to catapult them into the top four in the Western Conference.

Westbrook is a polarizing figure--much like Kobe Bryant was in the previous era--so no matter what he does he will either be blamed for his team's failures (real or imagined) or else he will not be given the full credit he deserves for his team's success but the suggestion that the reigning MVP needs to change his game to accommodate George and Anthony is just bizarre. Westbrook has already proven that he can be an All-NBA performer for a championship level team while playing alongside Kevin Durant and Westbrook has proven that he can carry a weak supporting cast to a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference, which is more than George or Anthony have accomplished in their careers.

George's job on this team is to be a lockdown defender, a secondary playmaker and a weakside cutter who feasts off of the defensive attention Westbrook draws. In other words, he should be Dwyane Wade to Westbrook's LeBron James, if one wants to compare the Thunder to the Miami Heat team from several years ago. Anthony's job on this team is to post up smaller defenders, drive by bigger defenders and knock down open shots in transition; he will never be a lockdown defender but he must at least give effort at that end of the court. In other words, Anthony should play like he did for Team USA (which is much easier to do against inferior competition while surrounded by the likes of Bryant, James and Durant than it is on a nightly basis in the NBA).

This recent 10 game stretch does not prove that the Thunder have turned the corner. They may very well regress back to being a sub-.500 team and they may never reach their potential. However, this 10 game stretch has provided a glimpse of the way that the Thunder should play and a hint of what they are capable of accomplishing if they build upon this small sample size of relative success.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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