Yesterday I experienced a joy from an NBA game that I had not felt since seeing Paul Millsap drop 46 points on the Miami Heat In November. I watched Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers get torched by the Dallas Mavericks, effectively ending the Kobe Bryant, a/k/a Diet Jordan, era in the NBA. The first joy was in seeing the Lakers lose badly. If we cannot see video of Seal Team 6 invading Bin Laden’s compound, then I suppose seeing Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovich and Dirk Nowitzki (“an international coalition of the willing” if you will) destroy Kobe and Company is a good second best. But the other part of the defeat that was so great was seeing the increasingly dirty and frustrated play of the Lakers as the game wound down. First was Lamar Odom’s cheap shot on Dirk Nowitzki, a clear boiling over of the frustration of being the third Laker married to the third Kardashian (oddly, psychologists say that bronze medalists are often happier than silver medalists, but that wannabe Christian Bale, Scott, who is married to Kourtney, seems happier than Lamar). Then there was Andrew Bynum’s mid air takedown of JJ Barea that will earn Bynum a suspension next season and a prescription of P90X, based on his jersey removal while leaving the court. I was actually convinced that the game would end with Ron Artest running down the court on a fast break shooting Dallas Mavericks with a handgun like the opening scene in The Last Boy Scout.
Before analyzing the Kobe Era, a moment to reflect on Phil Jackson, the greatest coach of all time in professional sports (to never coach without 2 of the top 5 players in the NBA). Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen never won without Phil Jackson. They also entered their prime as basketball players as Phil Jackson showed up. Ditto for LA. Shaq, from 2000-2003, was the most dominant physical presence since Wilt Chamberlain and by the third title, Kobe had emerged as the best wing player in the NBA. They also had Robert Horry, the most clutch role player in NBA history. But by sheer volume of winning he has to be considered one of the greats.
But now onto the eulogy for the Kobe Bryant era because make no mistake, he is done being the top dog on a title team. So if in the 2012-2013 season Kobe Bryant is playing with Chris Paul and Dwight Howard or some combination of star power like that, Michael Jordan’s legacy as the single greatest player/winner (all due respect to Bill Russell) is under no threat. If Michael Jordan had joined the San Antonio Spurs instead of the Washington Wizards in his third career, those would have still been Tim Duncan-led titles. But let’s not talk about Kobe’s inevitable and impossible quest to pass Michael Jordan. Let us examine the Kobe era, which Kobe fans would have you believe spanned from 1999 until the day Kobe Bryant dies. I would argue that, if I were generous, the Kobe Era int he NBA was from 2003 to 2009. But whether you agree on these years or not, a reasonable person should agree that it is over now.
Kobe – The Early Years
Everyone knows about Lebron’s “Decision” but have people forgotten how Kobe refused to go to Charlotte and said he would only play for the LA Lakers? Kobe fans like to mythologize or lie and pretend that teams “passed” on Kobe, but most teams were scared off by the threat of a petulant 18 year old to not sign with anyone besides the Lakers. Lebron told Cleveland to fu*k off after 7 seasons. Kobe told Charlotte to fu*k off on day 1.
Kobe – The Shaq Years
One of the keys to making the Shaq-Kobe alliance was Phil Jackson’s admission that he needed to handle Kobe with kid gloves for the early stage of his career. That nursery school treatment of his fragile ego (ahem, I mean competitive fire) plus playing alongside the most physically dominant player since Wilt Chamberlain allowed Kobe to get three titles. Shaq collected three Finals MVP trophies, deservingly so, but I will admit, that by the third title they had gone from 1, 2 to 1A, 1B. But Kobe, like any Shakespearean or Disney villain, decided that after 4 straight trips to the NBA Finals it was time to make the Lakers decide between Shaq and Kobe (team first, right?). So the Lakers picked wisely in the long run (I will admit) by sticking with the younger player less likely to pack on pounds.
The Kobe Only Years (a/k/a What Lebron took the Cavs to the Finals with in 2007)
2004-05 – 37-45 (missed playoffs, but beat a rape charge)
2005-06 45-37 (1st round loss to the Phoenix Suns)
Let’s not forget that the series against the Suns went 7 games and Kobe quit during the second half against the Suns (taking 3 shots the entire second half, apparently to prove that a shi*ty team would lose without it’s best player – very Jordan-esque).
The Pau Gasol Years (2006-2009)
Kobe finally got an All Star big man to compliment him again (but fortunately not to overshadow him). Three trips to the finals (with another memorable quit performance when Paul Pierce took Kobe’s will and the decisive Game 5 in 2008. By the way that same year Lebron led Mo Williams and Anderson Verajao 7 games against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals). But then Kobe took the title in 2009 and 2010, but taken in the context of 2011 there are a couple of reasons why I think the Kobe era (as individual best player) cannot be reasonably extended beyond the 2009 victory (even though I personally think it ended the year LeBron won his first MVP in 2008-09).
First, look at the box scores of the 2010 Finals. Kobe averaged 28 pts per game on 40.5% FG shooting. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol, who led the Lakers in minutes that series and had to do battle with Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins inside led the series in rebounding, blocked shots, was second on the Lakers in scoring and shot 48% from the field. Not to mention that Kobe shot 6-24 from the field in the decisive Game 7. Meanwhile Lebron, who was leading the squad of diabetically-fat Shaq & Co. had just had back-to-back Jordan-prime level seasons. (Yes he got blasted from the playoffs by the Celtics and yes he appeared to quit on his team in the final game – making Kobe the 2-1 split decision winner in games quit), but based on many trips to Cleveland there really appeared to have been truth to the “Delonte West, or one of his personalities, fu*ked Lebron’s crazy mom” rumors. Imagine Karl Malone had fu*ked Kobe’s wife in 2004 when he was “hunting little Mexican girls.” I bet Kobe would have more than 2 quits under his belt.
But the Mavericks series that just ended really exposed the end of the Kobe era. Admittedly his supporting cast played terribly. But there was not even a fight. The lesson – when Kobe has the supporting cast he can be a champion – this is true of any champion, so this is not a shot at Kobe. But when Kobe has had underperforming supporting casts (2004-05, 05-06, 10-11) he lies down with the rest of his team. He may get his stats, but unlike Magic Johnson or LeBron James, or obviously Michael Jordan, his stats do not necessarily make those around him better.
2009-Present – The Lebron James Era
I believe LeBron James is the most dominant player in the NBA and has been for the last three years. The same way from 2000-2003 Shaq may not have been the “most skilled” player on his tea or the league, he was the single best player in the league during that span based on the simple criteria “no one can guard him or stop him.” It cannot be understated how awful LeBron’s supporting cast was. He took the equivalent of Kobe’s 2004-06 team (yes Smush Parker and Chris Mihm, but also Lamar Odom was on the team too) to an NBA Finals appearance and twice had the best regular season record in the league. He left Cleveland ringless and in a poor fashion to say the least, but remove Kobe from the 2009/09 Lakers you have a 50 win playoff team (in case you doubt me from 2004 to 2006 Pau Gasol won between 45 and 50 games each year as the star for the Memphis Grizzlies). Remove LeBron from a 66 win Cleveland Cavaliers team and you have… well you have the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, probably for two reasons. One is that many people refused to acknowledge his greatness without the currency of championships. Fair enough I suppose. The other is he wanted to play with his friends. Sort of lame in the Michael Jordan model of champions. But neither of these things stop LeBron from being the single most impressive force in the NBA today. And for the next several years it will be his league, no matter who they give MVP trophies to.
To put it into James Bond terms – Michael Jordan is Sean Connery, Kobe Is Roger Moore and LeBron James is Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (in Casino Royale only) combined. And yes, I think we need to acknowledge Tim Duncan here as a 4 time champion so he is George Lazenby.
Why Kobe is Diet Jordan
With the passing of the Kobe Era I feel it is time for me to acknowledge something out of Kobe’s control. He grew up in the shadow of the NBA’s greatest player, playing the same position as MJ. If he played small forward, or point guard or power forward there would have been room for him to carve out his own image and transform the position. But playing shooting guard he just played out as the greatest Michale Jordan cover band of all time. For example, if someone was a Whitney Houston impersonator in Las Vegas, they would have to have incredible vocal talent. But they would still not quite be Whitney Houston. That is how I look at Kobe. He is better than almost anyone in NBA history (but I would have him behind both Jordan and Lebron), but his comparison is to the greatest and he is wanting. Fewer titles, fewer Finals MVPs, fewer regular season MVPs (I am making this comparison because they have had equal career totals – comparisons with LeBron on career statistical measures is not realistic yet) more games quit and lower career averages. Plus, all his copycatting of MJ and most awfully the “Jaw Face” is far inferior to “the tongue.”
So Kobe had a great career and was the closest thing we had to Jordan since Jordan. But LeBron is a new mold of player – a sort of genetic hybrid, evolutionary step forward of Karl Malone and Magic Johnson. Kobe was a descendant of Jordan and a worthy heir, but not quite as good as the original. That said, if Kobe’s Hall of Fame speech is a list of people he didn’t like I will start booing and chanting “MJ!”
But in case you forgot, there is one other reason Kobe can never be as great as Michael Jordan…