Monday, December 3, 2012

There is no buzz-beater for greatness

Kobe Bryant’s story is an interesting one.  Filled with talent, promise, money, fame, set-backs, slumps, awe-inspiring finishes, dunks, friendships, friends he says would not have been successful without him, and friends that call him super old.  He’s produced some of the NBA’s greatest plays and moments of my brief lifetime.  He’s also produced some of the more character-less acts done by professionals - which is saying something.

And yet, despite all that, “Kobe!” is what any kid calls out when he practices his buzzer-beating fade-away.  (Ok, let’s be honest – it’s also what all high schoolers, college students, and young adults call out as well.)  Take a poll – who is the “clutchest” player in the NBA, who is the best closer, who would you most like to have taking the final shot for your team? Kobe.  (Challenged in the last year by Kevin Durant.)  Who sells the most jerseys around the world – most notably in China? Kobe.

Not too long ago, Kobe Bryant was pushing the envelope to have the conversation about who was the greatest player of all time.  For a while, at least, it appeared that the straight-out-of-high school shooting guard would at least present a credible challenge to Jordan for this position.

And now it’s gone, poof, disappeared - just like $100 dollars in a money-market account.  Somehow, a man with only one fewer championship ring than Jordan, ranks 5th on the all time scoring list (Jordan is 3rd), and has long been considered the best “crunch-time” player in the NBA – who still has two or more seasons left in his career – isn’t even given a chance.  Jordan has been deemed safe, at least until Lebron wins 7 of the next 9 championships and 5 of the next 9 MVP awards.

When did this happen?  How did one of the most talented figures in the league’s history lose his chance to be the greatest player of all time before his career is even over?  There are 4 dates on which I believe you could pinpoint this loss, and I believe there’s a strong case for each one (meaning I could be convinced any of them are Kobe’s true denouement).  Here they are…in order of how much they affected Kobe’s opportunity at complete greatness.

July 14, 2004 Shaq trade
The continuing feud between Kobe and Shaq had plenty of ups and downs.  Neither player found it easy to hold their tongues around the press, even when required to do so by their coach.  Kobe didn’t attend Shaq’s wedding; Shaq had his bodyguard call Kobe during his legal issues; Shaq criticized Kobe’s shot selection; Kobe criticized Shaq’s weight.  Before I even get to what could have been if Shaq hadn’t been traded, it is wildly important to note that the disagreements with Shaq (and some injuries), potentially cost the Lakers the 2004 NBA finals, and disrupted their entire 2002-2003 season.  That’s two titles they have left on the table already. Ok…onward.

Together they combined one of the greatest duos the game has seen.  Not just because they were two perennial all-stars, franchise players, and phenomenal talents on the same team, but they co-existed on the court in entirely separate spaces.  The overlap in playing area experienced by more recent co-stars, Carmelo and A’mare, Wade and Lebron, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings (jokes…kind of), was never an issue.  This is not to say they functioned well together on the court, as both wanted more touches than they received, but they were both so dominant in their own space.

Which is the travesty of the trade executed for Shaq on July 14, 2004.  A variety of factors led to this decision by LA ownership (Shaq’s contract demands, the departure of Phil Jackson, and the issues with Kobe, but an amicable relationship could have held the potential for another 2 or 3 titles.  At some point Kobe would have needed to make a name for himself and show he could win without Shaq, but the case is much simpler if he has 6 rings before the two part ways.  If Kobe enters this season with 8-9 championships and a few finals MVPs…how is the great story of this season about anything other than whether or not Kobe can gel enough with Superman and Nash, get himself 10 titles or more before he retires, and become the greatest player of all time?

(I guess it should be noted that since Shaq has left the league he has labeled Kobe as the greatest player of all time, but the drama at the time certainly cost Kobe a handful of chances.)

June 17, 2008 Loss to Cs
The last point of the previous section is simply reiterated here.  Yes, this one loss only adds one title to his collection instead of 2 or 3.  Yet if the Lakers had won this series, as well as the following two, Kobe has 6 titles heading into the Dwight Howard era in LA, and he likely has 3 finals MVPs to go with those titles.  Moreover, he has now done the same thing as Jordan did before him: two sets of 3 rings, a few years removed from each other.  That grows the comparisons significantly.

And it provides the platform for Kobe to only need one more championship to pass Jordan.  He could be comfortable during the regular season, riding Dwight and scoring enough each night to keep on pace to break the record if he wanted to, and give it all in two rounds of playoff appearances.  Instead, even if the Lakers win titles in the ensuing two years, Kobe still falls short of being able to compete for the title of “greatest of all time”.  Lacking the NBA season MVP titles Jordan has, it will take significantly more than one more title to have any reasonable claim in that debate.

July 1, 2003 Rape charges
Perhaps this should be the most important thing.  A ruined public image destroys the public’s ability to label an individual as “great”.  What father would want to tell his son, “Kobe is the greatest of all time,” only to have their son google Kobe and read all about his legal struggles and accusations of assault, battery, and rape.

(In this way, Kobe and Chris Brown have remarkably similar career paths.  Promising and lucrative beginnings, and then just when they are hitting their prime they have massive public-persona set backs.  Both were self-inflicted, so I’m not trying to defend anyone.  Just sayin – Graffiti has easily been CB’s best album, and if he doesn’t ruin his image with the Rihanna situation it probably becomes one of the best selling R&B albums ever.  And who knows how much Kobe’s legal issues messed with the next season (when they lost in the finals), the feud with Shaq, the confidence of his teammates, the ability of LA to recruit players after Shaq left, etc.  I’m just sayin…)

At any rate, you can more talent than everyone else combined, but if you aren’t a pleasant person to be around, much less have severe legal issues that involve the abuse of a woman, people will be more than a little reluctant to label you the greatest at anything.  Except maybe destroying your shot at greatness.

October 29, 2003
January 19, 2005
March 20, 2005; Lebron
Since Kobe’s entrance into the league, the world has changed.  Now, everyone wants to know what is next.  Comparisons are constant: among analysts, players, bloggers, social media followers, etc.  As the boom in human connections through the internet took off, there were plenty of people who wanted to compare Kobe and Jordan.  Plenty wanted to give Kobe the chance to over-take Jordan.  As we’ve covered, he, with some occasional help from others, squandered some of these opportunities.

But Kobe had no control over what I believe has been the greatest obstacle to his quest of greatness.  On October 29, a young man named Lebron James played his first NBA basketball game.  He shot 60 percent and recorded 25 points (a prep-to-pro player record for a debut), 9 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals.  The hype was real.

Lebron was impressive in his first season, and Cleveland was a much-improved squad over the previous year.  But in just his second season, Lebron cemented his ascension into the upper-stratosphere of the NBA’s current talent levels.  First, in January of 2005, he became the youngest player in league history to record a triple double.  Almost exactly two months later, he smashed Cleveland’s individual game scoring record and put up 56 on the Raptors.  In just his third year in the league he would convincingly lead Cleveland into the playoffs.

The next year Cleveland would make the playoffs (and Lebron would debut with a triple double).  The year after, the Cavs would reach the finals after a performance in the series winning game against the Pistons that drew “Jordan-esque” comparisons.  Honestly, there were just too many dates to list.

Lebron was, and is, the next big thing.  Despite Kobe's fame, talent, and pension for hitting game-winning shots, when someone else showed up who may challenge Jordan’s hold on the greatest of all time, he was quickly left behind.  Perhaps his legal transgressions made it easy to do so, perhaps his feud with another great had turned off some fans, and perhaps he still had opportunities to create his own legacy in spite of Lebron.  But the focus on greatness shifted, and unfortunately for Kobe, it isn’t coming back.

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