David Friedman wins at basketball
Over the years, I have caught some flak from uninformed hacks--some of whom write for prominent publications--for stating that Bryant is the league's best player because he has no skill set flaws; I don't say that as a fan but rather as someone who watches the sport with an educated eye--and I have talked to enough coaches, scouts and players to know that they are seeing exactly what I am seeing. As Mark Jackson said during the third quarter, "He has no flaws as a basketball player. People got upset with me for putting Kobe Bryant in the same discussion with Michael Jordan. At the end of the day, just look at this guy's body of work. Look at the great players and listen to the way that they acknowledge that he's the best. It's incredible." The disconnect between how some fans and self proclaimed experts perceive Bryant and the way that informed basketball people view Bryant reminds me of the disparate perspectives about Scottie Pippen: basketball purists understand just how great he was but casual observers act as if he was an innocent bystander to Michael Jordan's brilliance.
Julius Erving's words of wisdom after this year's Hall of Fame press conference proved to be prophetic when he answered a question about what separates Kobe Bryant and LeBron James: "The years of experience, the fact that there is no substitute for that. In terms of his individual ability, he does things in a little bit more of a traditional sense to get it done. LeBron is kind of like a bull in a china shop. He is a fantastic talent. I don't think he knows how good he is. Looking at him coming full speed at 270 pounds, that is like Shaq playing point guard. It's like, 'All you little boys need to move out of my way.' But, the combination of offense and defense, finesse and power, Kobe is the package--and I think that LeBron would probably admit that. Well, maybe because of their egos neither one would admit anything! But, that is part of it, don't give anybody any quarter or do anything that will put you at a disadvantage. Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line."
James was my choice for regular season MVP this year, narrowly edging out Bryant; though the national media selected James in a landslide, I concluded my article on the subject with these words: "This year's playoffs may reveal whether Bryant truly passed that torch to James for good in March or if Bryant merely needed to get his second wind in order to recapture the torch during the crucible of postseason competition." During the 2009 playoffs, Bryant averaged 30.2 ppg, 5.5 apg and 5.3 rpg while shooting .457 from the field, .349 from three point range and .883 from the free throw line, mirroring the outstanding numbers that he posted in the 2008 playoffs: 30.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.7 rpg, .479, .302 and .809. Bryant led the NBA in total playoff points scored both years and had the highest playoff scoring average in 2008 (he ranked second to James' 35.3 ppg this year).
James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.
In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the 2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.
It is fitting that Bryant joined West on the list of Finals MVP winners and that he is the first recipient of that award since it was officially named in honor of Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the league's history (11 championships in 13 seasons) who, ironically, never won the Finals MVP (West won the first Finals MVP during Russell's final NBA season); no rational person can exclude Bryant's name from the short list of the greatest players in the history of the sport. When I wrote my five part series about pro basketball's Pantheon I limited the discussion to retired players but in part five I mentioned four active players who have performed at a "Pantheon level": Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Interestingly, prior to game five, TNT/NBA TV commentator Kenny Smith said that a fourth championship for Bryant would cement Bryant's place on Smith's list of the top 10 NBA players of all-time (this is the order in which Smith mentioned the names, though it is not clear if this is the order in which he ranks these players): Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant. It is difficult to take anyone's name off of that list but it is also difficult to leave out guys like Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving.
Bryant's Finals MVP caps off an extraordinary season in a special career: last summer, Bryant's clutch fourth quarter scoring carried Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, in February he shared the All-Star MVP with Shaquille O'Neal and then Bryant finished second to James in regular season MVP voting after leading the Lakers to the best record in the West for the second year in a row. Only Willis Reed (1970), Michael Jordan (1996, 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) won the regular season MVP, the All-Star MVP and the Finals MVP in the same season, so Bryant's second place finish and two first place finishes in voting for those three awards in 2009 are impressive. Bryant is also on a very short and distinguished list of NBA players who have won at least four championships, one regular season MVP and one Finals MVP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.
While this is Bryant's fourth NBA championship--not his first, despite what you might have heard--Lakers Coach Phil Jackson passed Red Auerbach by claiming his 10th NBA title and after the game he proudly wore a cap designed by his children and adorned with the Roman numeral "X." Jackson is renowned for his ability to make adjustments during playoff series and this year's playoffs provided more evidence of that, as the Lakers won two of the final three games in the Houston series and three of the final four games in the Denver series, including the last two. During this year's playoffs the Magic proved to be a team that provided a lot of matchup challenges but in game five the Lakers managed to simultaneously limit their three point shooters and hold Howard well below his usual scoring average, a most impressive defensive accomplishment that speaks both to Jackson's gameplanning and to how well his players executed what he designed. Of course, it helps to have a player like Bryant bringing those chalkboard designs to life while also exhorting his teammates to match his energy and effort even if they cannot match his skill: on one possession, Bryant very effectively double-teamed Howard on the left block and then sprinted all the way to the right corner to contest Lewis' three pointer and harass him into shooting an airball. Players know which players just talk about hard work and which players actually are willing to sacrifice, so when Bryant plays that hard on defense that attitude becomes contagious. As Van Gundy and Jackson noted during the telecast, Bryant's attitude and work ethic had precisely that kind of positive effect for Team USA, too.
While always giving Gasol the credit that he deserves for his well-rounded skill set, I have also insisted that Bryant has played a major role in bringing out the best in Gasol. Jerry West, who acquired Bryant for the Lakers and ran the Memphis franchise when Gasol was that team's number one option, recently said of Gasol, "His effort is certainly greater than it was in Memphis, I'll tell you that, and it's because Kobe Bryant has driven him to that point." Anyone who follows the NBA closely and understands the game realizes that even though the trade that brought Gasol to L.A. looks lopsided on the surface, the method to Memphis' "madness" is that the Grizzlies seriously doubted that Gasol could ever be the main performer on a championship caliber team; that is why they dumped his salary in exchange for young players and draft picks in order to basically hit the "reboot" button and start over. Gasol has found a perfect niche with the Lakers as the number two option; this is definitely not a case of the Lakers having two "alpha males," as Bryant rightly described the situation when he and Shaquille O'Neal were the two best players on three Lakers' championship teams from 2000-02: as Bryant said in his postgame press conference after game five, those teams were unique precisely because they had two "alpha males" instead of the more clearly defined hierarchy that typically exists on teams.
Although the middle three games of this series were close, the Lakers routed the Magic in L.A. in game one and then eliminated the Magic in Orlando with a decisive game five win. Not coincidentally, those were Bryant's two best games of the series, as he dropped 40-8-8 in the opener and 32-6-5 in the finale while only committing one turnover in each of those contests. A lot will be said in the coming days, weeks and months about how this performance will impact Bryant's legacy--and if it was not immediately obvious how foolish it was for John Krolik to suggest that Bryant's career would be defined by game seven versus Houston it certainly is glaringly apparent now; all of the excessive attention paid to Bryant's facial expressions was also silly: as West said, when it came time to win championships you did not see Michael Jordan laughing and giggling, either.
Perhaps Kevin Garnett, who had his own critics to answer after spending most of his career getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, put it best last year as he exulted just moments after his Boston Celtics won the championship over Bryant's Lakers: "What can you say now? What can you say now?