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Kobe Bryant’s Petard

April 21, 2011 2 comments

Do you remember when Kobe and Shaq both played for the Lakers and people knew that, in order for the Lakers win championships, Kobe needed to limit his shooting and defer more consistently to Shaq?  Now, can you recall how often we hear people are saying that the Lakers play better when Kobe shoots less?  Over time, I don’t think the meat of what we’re saying has changed, but we’re saying it more respectfully now because Kobe has carried the heavy individual load that he so desperately coveted and because of his unhealthy stranglehold on the role of closer that previous Phil Jackson Lakers teams allowed to fall to whomever had the best shot after running offensive sets designed to produce multiple options.  Kobe Bryant is, without a doubt, the most versatile, dangerous scorer in the NBA, but we are unable to fully recognize that his unyielding ambition to stand out as an individual has consistently done more harm than good for all of the championship teams and potential championship teams that he has been on.  I believe that he has played better in his last two championship seasons than he did when he played with Shaq, but he has not evolved so drastically that he merits greatest of all time consideration.

First of all, during those first three championships Shaq was the best player on those teams, and the most obvious reason that Kobe’s numbers have improved qualitatively since Shaq’s departure is that he now plays in an offense designed for him to score a majority of the points. So that should raise a question. How is it that an all-time great’s team struggles more when he takes a lot of shots in an offense built to give him a lot of opportunities to shoot?  In other words, a guy whose best ability is scoring hurts his team’s ability to win when he scores too much. Unlike other all-time greats, Kobe hasn’t shown an innate understanding of how to employ his greatest talent in a way that allows his team to be as high above .500 when he uses it most. We know that being an entertaining scorer doesn’t make you an all-time great and neither does being the best player on a championship team, but if we examine Kobe closely those are the things that he contributes.

Shaq must have hated Kobe. I know it’s glaringly obvious now but look at Shaq’s behavior in his 2nd season away from Kobe.  Kobe obviously wanted to be top dog on his team, but I don’t think people noticed how willing Shaq was to give up that responsibility after he left.  Shaq happily played 2nd fiddle to Dwayne Wade in their championship run, but some combination of vitriol, envy, and or pride kept him from doing the same with Kobe and drove Phil Jackson out of LA.  If Kobe had the patience or the humility or the wisdom to do so, he might have begun winning championships sooner, but, if he had that, I probably wouldn’t find his status as an all-time great so questionable.

Traveling further down the Kobe sans Shaq path, I think Kobe hasn’t evolved beyond needing a Shaq, and it might be due to bad habits he picked up in his first season without him where he actually had to score 30+ in order to improve his teams chances of winning. In the summer that followed that season, we saw Kobe whining publicly about the lack of help LA management had provided him when he was the one that chased it away the previous season.  I don’t know if an all-time great has to be able to figure things out with his coach and superstar player so they can continue winning, but I think it certainly reflects poorly on him considering plenty of all-time greats had rocky relationships with their teammates but were able to work amicably enough to keep the band together. Nevertheless management responds to Kobe’s demands and gets him Gasol, but a healthy Gasol isn’t enough to win him a championship.  Kobe needs a healthy Gasol and a productive Bynum in order to win a championship.  I’m not including all of the other players and Coach Jackson because those were roughly equivalent pieces that they had in place when Shaq was king of the Lakers. Let’s do some more rough math. Kobe with Shaq equals championships. Kobe without Shaq doesn’t get to the conference finals. Kobe with Gasol equals out in 6 with a blowout loss in their last game. Kobe with Gasol and Bynum equals championships.

These are rough generalizations, but you also have to add the fact that in the first and last scenarios where championships are won, Kobe displays just as much of a propensity to shoot his team out of contention as he does to shoot them into contention.  This also relates to how predictable and static Kobe’s Lakers become in the final minutes of close games.

A contrast between Shaq’s Lakers and Kobe’s Lakers is that in close games Shaq’s Lakers had multiple options and attempted to run the offense in order to find the best possible shot late, and opposing team defenses had more variables to account for in the final minutes.  Shaq’s Lakers were more likely to look for the right basketball play than simply defer to the most macho player on the court.  Kobe’s Lakers are statistically worse near the ends of close games because the opposing team’s defense knows more often than not Kobe will take all of the shots in the final minutes in spite of the Lakers have multiple players, Odom, Artest, and Fisher, with the confidence to take those final shots. People are pleasantly surprised when they do it now, but Robert Horry who quietly shuffled out of the league recently used to be their most regular finisher because he had the confidence to step into a good shot when freed up by a well run offensive set.  Instead you have Kobe doing his best to convince everybody that he’s much better than Shaq. I understand that Kobe on fire approaches unstoppable, but if Kobe is just Kobe, which is still really good, then he can’t be as effective as he is over the course of a whole game because, unlike in the final minutes, an entire team’s defense isn’t dedicated to stopping him.

In spite of his gifts and his talents, his proven ability to undermine himself in his own self-magnifying pursuit of glory keeps me from being able to consider him an all-great.