Sunday, December 26, 2004

More Kobe!
By Zach

In a parallel universe, I think I could root for Kobe Bryant. When he and Shaq were together, I never could have admitted that. I was too tied up in the rooting for the underdog and hating the Lakers bit. But now, with the Lakers struggling to make the playoffs, I've come to realize that I'm close to rooting for him. I was sitting there watching the Heat-Lakers yesterday and I felt compelled to pull for him, not to win so much as to play the game correctly. You can read my previous post for more thoughts on the game specifically.
I'm so close to rooting for this guy.

Kobe Bryant is one of the game's best players. If I were putting money on anyone in the world to win a one-on-one tournament, it would be awful hard for me to bet on anyone else. The only guys I'd even consider would be T-Mac, because he's the only guy I've ever seen who can, at times, guard Kobe single-handedly, and because he's got 1-2 inches, some elevation, and some arm length on Kobe, or maybe KG, just because a seven-footer who can handle like he can could do some damage. Still, I'm not sure I could actually take one of those guys. Maybe if they got spotted a point or two.

Kobe is also the most unstoppable scorer (big men excluded) that I've seen. I'm too young to remember Young Jordan, so the Jordan I recall is a guy who could get his jumper off at any time, and most of the time was content to take that jumper. Yes, he'd go to the hole occasionally, but those were rare occurances. Kobe has the jumper, though not quite at Jordan levels yet, but he's also shown a tremendous willingness to take the ball right at the defense. And that's part of the problem, of course. But I've seen Kobe hang 30-40 points on the Sonics several times, and on all of those occasions I'm not sure I could expect the Sonic D to do anything more.

Kobe also went through a phase (over now) where he was the most popular player in the game. In doing so, he became the latest in a long line of players to be the face of the NBA. The public always has to have a guy to idolize, and since big guys are too big, too remote to truly identify with, that guy is ususally a guard or small forward.
The Man.

Of all the players since the mid-to-late 90s, Kobe has come the closest to being the next Jordan. Penny Hardaway was the first guy who I recall being given the label, though he was closer to another Magic Johnson (a big point guard with great passsing skills and scoring ability that probably surpassed Magic). Still, once Shaq left, Penny ended up being the next Michael (Ray Richardson), a guy who burned out after a couple of years. Now, Penny just steals paychecks in New York. Maybe he needs Lil' Penny or something.

Grant Hill was the next guy, even though he was only like Jordan off the court. Grant was a great player, I loved to watch him play, because he really, really understood team basketball. He's also probably the only player from Duke who got drafted too low,
You can actually see his ankle breaking.
so he's got that going for him. Grant had the ability to score, but he played a more complete game than Jordan did early in his career. I'd almost compare him (from a statistically standpoint, not a gameplay standpoint) to Larry Bird...he filled the stat sheet, like Bird did, and in a similar way...with hustle. Hill was a great athlete, but as we all know, didn't actually have ankles, just flimsy pieces of plastic between his shins and his feet which apparently broke whenever he played more than 10 games or got up too fast. I hope he proves me wrong by staying healthy this year, because with him the Magic are one of my favorite teams to watch.
Wow, a picture of Vince dunking.

The next two guys to take up the "Next Jordan" mantle both came into the league at about the same time. Vince Carter was the carbon copy of Jordan: a high flying guard from North Carolina. Except for the fact that he didn't know how to win. Or actually play basketball. He learned the most insidious and detrimental lesson about MJ's popularity: dunk a lot and people will love you. And boy did Carter dunk. He'll go down in history as one of the best dunkers, and most overrated players, in NBA history. The problem is, he can't shoot, can't/won't stay healthy, and all of his teammates hate him. Still, he gets voted into the All-Star game, sells tickets and shoes, and makes a lot of money. So I guess he's happy.

Allen Iverson was the other guy who got the label, especially during his MVP season. He got it not for his on-the-court play, which was nothing like Mike's, but more for his off-court impact. He was, for a brief time, the face of the NBA, and since that face was attached to a head that had cornrows and a body that had numerous tattoos, he became a figure of some controversy. I've always loved watching AI work, and if he were three-four inches taller, he might be the best player in the game. He just takes too much of a beating, and is too old, to carry his team like Jordan could.
Best player in the NBA shorter than me.

So now we get to Kobe. He's got the size, the strength, and the ability to do everything that Jordan could. He can even sell product like Jordan could. So what went wrong. Why isn't Kobe Jordan?

With the personal issues, I can't begin to say. Why he decided that he needed to have sex with a girl in his hotel room, I'm not sure. Why he alienated his teammates, then tried to throw them under the bus, I have no clue. I can guess, however, that much of it stems from the fact that he is brighter and more worldly than most of his teammates. Remember, his father played in Europe while Kobe was growing up. He saw more of the world than Shaq did in his little Louisiana hometown, more than Karl Malone saw growing up in Tumbleweed, Texas. Hence, it's not surprising to me that Kobe has trouble connecting to his teammates. And it's not as if I think he has to be great friends with the guys on the squad. But Shaq is right. You don't have to like the guys you play with, but you have to respect them.

And that's where I think Kobe didn't learn everything MJ had to teach. Kobe saw that MJ was the face of the league, charismatic on and off the court...check. Kobe saw that Jordan led the league in scoring...check. Kobe saw that Jordan put up tons of points on national television...check. Kobe saw that Jordan took over games, taking the big shots...check.
Yes, Mike took this shot...but he didn't take them all

What Kobe didn't see was that as great as MJ was, and as much as he wanted the ball at the end of the game, he wanted to win more than he wanted to take the final shot. We've all see the John Paxson shot, the Steve Kerr shot. Kobe doesn't yet understand that the transcendent skill of Jordan wasn't to hit the big shot, but to make sure that somebody did. Most of the time, yes, that somebody was MJ, but sometimes, it wasn't. And that makes all the difference. Yesterday's game was the perfect example. Kobe knew he was going to get doubled as soon as he got the ball. There were three seconds left on the clock, plenty of time for a quick pass. But instead, Kobe, confident as always, took the final shot fading away from 27 feet over two defenders. And missed.

As long as winning and losing is solely in the hands of Kobe, the Lakers won't do enough of the former to be a contender. Just like it took Jordan realizing that he had to trust and respect his teammates in order to win, so must Kobe. Until then, it will only be a case of what might have been, and what was.


Blogger David Arnott said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:05 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

Not only did Kobe know he was going to take the last shot with two guys in his face, so did every freakin' person watching the game. The thing about Bird and Jordan is that nobody KNEW in that same way that they would be the one taking the shot. Thus, you couldn't really put two guys on them like that. Still, it's amazing how free he got on the play.

3:07 PM  

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