From the moment Michael Jordan left the game the first time, fans, analysts, players, and coaches were all wondering and searching for the next Michael Jordan. The next superstar to take over the league and dominate for an extended amount of time.
We watched Grant Hill try and fail
We watched Jerry Stackhouse try and fail
The same result came of Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. Each one faced huge pressures of carrying a league and failed.
But through it all, one man remained the star of the league, carrying it during it’s down years. When the league needed a superstar, someone who was internationally known, this man stepped up to the plate. This man performed as close to Michael Jordan as anyone has and may ever again. This man is one Kobe Bean Bryant.
As an avid Kobe Bryant fan since I remember watching basketball, I’ve had to stick up for him on numerous occasions. Obviously, it was a difficult journey during and even after his sexual assault accusations. But Kobe has never been an easy figure to like. He’s a very polarizing teammate and is known for wanting the ball in the waning moments, regardless of how bad he’s played. And the anti-Kobe fans remember his 6 of 24, Game 7 performance this June more than they remember him scoring 30+ points in 11 of the 12 games in the playoffs, including Game 1 of the Finals.
And that’s how Kobe’s always been treated. It’s easier to hate him and cheer against him rather than cheer for him and admire him. However, prior to his MVP in the All-Star game Sunday, it looked as if Kobe had taken a step back. Every average of his is equal to or lower than last year’s total and only his FT% (up .015) and his FG% (up .004) have improved. To me, it’s a sign that his game is declining. We knew it would come. The only players active with more minutes than him are Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, and Ray Allen. And for Kobe, despite being just 32, he’s averaged 36 minutes a game and has only missed 9 games over the last 3 seasons.
So as the end starts to creep up on Kobe, I wanted to take a moment and just reflect on what he’s done up to this point in his career.
I’ve always been an advocate of Kobe being in the top 10 all-time NBA players list. We’ll save that debate for another time and place, but I think we can all agree that he’s top 15 at the least. For fans like myself, the only other players who may be at Kobe’s level that I’ve witnessed are Shaq and Tim Duncan. But it could be argued that Kobe is better than both. From the moment he became a starter in the league, he’s only once averaged less than 20 points a game for a season (his first season as a starter). In the same time period, despite the ball-hog label, Kobe has averaged at least 4 assists a game in all but one season – in which he averaged 3.9. And what Kobe detractors always fail to mention is his rebounding. In 8 different seasons, Kobe average 5+ rebounds a game. He’s been the star of one of the most popular leagues for a long time.
In his prime, Kobe Bryant was something special to watch. In back to back seasons, Kobe averaged 35-4-5 and 31-5-6. The only people would averaged 31-4-5 over consecutive seasons were Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. In fact, only Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Kobe averaged 31+ points in back to back seasons.
We all remember Kobe’s streak of 40+ point games, one that lasted 9 straight games. Since 1986-87, only MJ and Allen Iverson have come close to that; MJ matching Kobe’s 9 games streak and Allen Iverson putting together two separate 5 game streaks.
Then there’s the 81 point game. It’s the single greatest thing I’ve witnessed on a basketball court. We all know that it’s the 2nd most points scored, but the way he did it was incredibly impressive. His was scored on a majority of jump shots and 3-pointers, unlike Wilt doing it at the line and with lay-ups. I don’t want to compare the two because that’s, again, a debate for another time and place.
But, honestly, I don’t think it was ever debated about what a scorer Kobe Bryant was. They don’t hate Kobe for being a great scorer. They hate him because he’s a winner. And most importantly, they hate him because of one summer in Colorado.
It was a moment that changed Kobe for his future. It changed how people looked at him. It changed the way he looked at himself. But through it all, he stood strong. He maintained his innocence and performed what was his best year on the hardwood up to that put in his career, putting up 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. This was also the year he began to establish himself as the best in the game.
Then, to pile it on, Kobe’s reputation was further damaged in the summer of 2004. With Phil Jackson retiring and Shaq being traded, many claimed Kobe ran them both out of town.
This is where I’ve had to step in, offering up this reasoning.
As a GM, which would you take…?
A center at the age of 31 who was reaching the end of his prime. One who was injury prone, has never played an 82 game schedule and hadn’t played more than 74 games in a season in the last 4 seasons
A young guard who was entering his prime and coming off his best season just 2 seasons ago. He did have a history of playing through injuries and could be the centerpiece of a franchise for years to come.
The Lakers obviously went with Bryant. They completely dismantled the roster, leaving Kobe with a starting roster of Chucky Atkins, himself, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, and Chris Mihm. The team missed the playoffs and Kobe played just 66 games due to an ankle injury.
The following year, Kobe began to denounce the haters and he did it in record fashion. Highlighted by his famous 81-point outburst, Kobe went on to averaged 35.4 points. In that season, he had 2 60+ point games, 6 50+ point games, and 27 40+ games.
Then we were introduced to the Black Mamba. Accompanied with a jersey change from “8″ to “24″, Kobe also gave the world a new phrase. And “new” Kobe Bryant still resembled the “old” Kobe Bryant. Kobe again averaged over 30 points a game, this season finishing with 31.6 points per. That season, Kobe had 2 60+ point outings, 7 50+ point nights, and 18 40+ point games.
And the Black Mamba was no one short on flair in those two seasons. In possibly his greatest single highlight, Kobe took over the end of Game 4 of the 2005-06 playoffs against the Suns.
Starting with a lay-up to end regulation, Kobe was setting himself up for a spectacular moment. And he delivered.
However, it was the offseason following the 2006-07 season in which Kobe told the team that he wanted to be traded if Jerry West didn’t regain full authority of the team. He ranted on a now infamous internet video that the Lakers needed to trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd.
Kobe would eventually back down from the rumors and perform again at a high level. His scoring output wasn’t as flashy, but his all-around game was more impressive. Kobe would go on to win the MVP that season, his only regular season MVP to date. As for the Lakers, aided by the blockbuster trade for Pau Gasol, the team went on to the Finals and renewed their historic rivalry with the Celtics.
The Lakers, however, would be left embarrassed multiple times in the series. Starting with a Game 4 meltdown that saw them surrender a 24-point 3rd quarter lead, the Lakers showed they had a long ways to go to win a title. The Finals ended with a 39-point blowout of the Lakers.
The following season, Kobe led the road to redemption for the Lakers, ending the season this time with an NBA title over the Magic. The title was Kobe’s first without Shaq and quieted those that said he couldn’t win without Shaq. Kobe would also capture the Finals MVP award. However, many doubters still said it wasn’t legitimate as Kobe didn’t beat the Celtics to win the title.
He got his chance just one season later when Kobe met the Celtics in the Finals for the 2nd time in 3 years. The epic series was capped off with a Game 7 for the ages. Despite Kobe not performing well in Game 7, the Lakers battled back from down 13 and won the game. Kobe came away with the Finals MVP for the 2nd year in a row and really began quieting the doubters.
This season, Kobe really began an assault on the all-time scoring list. Now 8th on the all-time scoring list, Kobe is closing in on many of the greatest of all-time.
With the All-Star game now over, this may be Kobe’s last year at this level. He may still get into All-Star games based on popularity, but Kobe’s game is beginning to decline. And as it happens, take a moment to appreciate what Kobe has done on the court.
In an age where the best in the game team up with one another, Kobe has remained ‘The Man” in LA for his career. And in an era where most people hate the hugs and handshakes between opponents before games, Kobe is the one last competitor. He never chats with
the opponent before games and this past post-season, he shut off his cell phone to avoid distractions. He’s never had a Twitter or Facebook fan page. He’s an old age player that we desire for now-a-days.
But he still has it left in the tank. I myself had begun to doubt how much Kobe had left and if he was playing injured. Then I watched the show he put on in the All-Star game. He hit jumpers, drove to the basket and finished like we hadn’t seen in a long time, and had some lots of explosion. He even threw one down as LeBron tried his chase down block, my personal highlight of the night
Hate him all you want, but you have to respect what Kobe has done.