The Many Faces of Kobe Bryant

J.M. Poulard —  October 19, 2011

At 33 years old, Kobe Bryant has played for an astonishing 15 seasons in the NBA. He has been great for so long that it’s easy to forget that his game should be deteriorating to the point that he should now be a simple role player that contributes to a team with far better players than him (think Mitch Richmond late in his career). Instead, he is the best player on a team that will compete for the title when the season resumes and one of the best in the league today.  Mind you, no one plays for such an extended period of time without adjusting their games to better fit in with their talent level as well as their teammates. And thus, we look at the many transformations of Kobe Bryant the player, over the course of his career.

Face #1: The J.R. Smith (from 1996 to 1999)

1996-97 season: 7.6 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.7 SPG, 41.7% FG

1997-98 season: 15.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.9 SPG, 42.8% FG

1998-99 season: 19.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 46.5% FG

Young players with huge expectations generally end up on bad teams where they get a lot of playing time and are able to learn from their mistakes by getting a lot of minutes. But In Kobe Bryant’s case, things were a little different. The young star in the making joined a team with a dominant center in Shaquille O’Neal and quality players at almost every position. The end result was that Bryant would only get sporadic playing time, coming off the bench.

Consequently, Kobe initially failed to blend his talents with those of the team. He would come off the bench, get into games, catch the ball and break from the offense to try and create a spectacular play. More often than not, he was unsuccessful in his attempts and his penchant for highlight reel type plays earned him the nickname Showboat from the team’s starting center.

In his first three seasons in the league, Kobe displayed exceptional ball handling skills (some might forget this now, but at the time Kobe came into the league with Allen Iverson’s crossover dribble) as well as some jaw dropping athleticism. His inconsistent and often selfish play resulted in him only starting 50 out of 200 games he appeared in.

Face #2: The Penny Hardaway (from 1999 to 2000)

1999-00 season: 22.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 46.8% FG

 

With several members of the Los Angeles Lakers openly questioning whether the team would ever truly compete for a title with Bryant on the team, Phil Jackson came to town and helped steer the young guard and turn him into a championship caliber shooting guard.

Gone were the tricky crossovers and low percentage shot attempts; they were instead replaced with a more disciplined player who embraced the triangle offense and thrived on getting the team into its offense.

This version of Kobe Bryant was a deadly one-on-one player that few could truly stop because of his ability to break down defenses with his speed, quickness, ball handling and ability to finish at the rim. Those skills had always been present, however he was now armed with an offensive system that he not only understood, but also helped him figure out when to assert himself.

Kobe no longer seemed intent on leading the league in scoring and highlights, he was instead replaced with a player willing to dump the ball in the post and create shots for others. In turn, he would get the opportunity to decide games late in the fourth quarter with his playmaking abilities.

The transformation helped Shaq and Kobe win their title together.

Face #3: The MJ (from 2000 to 2003)

2000-01 season: 28.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 46.4% FG

2001-02 season: 25.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 46.9% FG

2002-2003 season: 30.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG, 45.1% FG

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons stated that Dwyane Wade’s performance in the 2006 NBA Finals was the closest thing the world had seen to anyone replicating Michael Jordan’s level of play. The comparison in itself was somewhat fair (at least statistically) but it essentially failed to take Kobe Bryant’s play from 2000 to 2003 into account.

Bryant may have had to share the court and the ball with one of the most dominant players in NBA history during this stretch, but this was his breakout party. In seasons prior, it was widely accepted that Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan were the best players in the league; but the 2000-01 campaign changed the opinions of many. Allen Iverson’s MVP season may have been the most interesting story that year, but this was also the time at which Kobe stopped being a sidekick and instead became an alpha male who would help the Lakers win two more titles in the Shaq era.

The young guard became a more dominant scorer intent on imposing his will on opponents by going on huge scoring runs. He may have seemed selfish early on, but by the time the postseason arrived, Kobe took his foot off the gas pedal a little but still remained a dangerous scorer who figured out the balance between getting his teammates involved and taking over games.

And thus, from 2000 to 2003, Bryant had 16 40-point games and four 50-point games during the regular season. During the same stretch, the superstar managed to exceed the 30-point plateau 22 times (in 47 games) during the playoffs.

Kobe was a sensational and unstoppable scorer during this period but still managed to improve another facet of his game: his defense.

Starting during the 2000-01 season, Kobe Bryant became the most destructive defensive guard since Gary Payton. No elite perimeter player was safe from his wrath: point guards, shooting guards and small forwards all got a taste of this new Kobe; whoever he was assigned to guard was pretty much taken out of the game and whoever had to guard him in turn got lit up and could not do anything about it.

Face #4: The Scottie (2003-2004)

2003-04 season: 24.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 43.8% FG

After getting eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals, the Lakers figured that they needed to acquire talent to once again compete for a championship. With Duncan dominating them in the 2003 postseason, the purple and gold desperately needed a power forward capable of not only defending the Big Fundamental but also score on him to keep him occupied on defense.

And with that, Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined the Lakers for a chance to help L.A. get back at the top of the mountain.

Shaquille O’Neal would remain a vital option on offense, but now the ball had to be spread a little more amongst the other players to ensure a good offensive balance as well as keep all the stars happy. Many predicted that Bryant would have problems adjusting to a lesser role on offense and meshing with his new teammates all the while facing his ongoing battle in the court room after being accused of sexual assault.

And yet, what emerged that season was a Kobe Bryant that filled in the blanks. Indeed, the superstar guard often deferred to his new teammates all the while directing them to spots on the court where they would be best suited to get high percentage shots as a result of defensive rotations.

During this run, Kobe essentially became a combination of the Scottie Pippen that led the Blazers to the 2000 Western Conference Finals and the Pippen that led the Chicago Bulls to 55 win during the 1993-94 season (when Jordan retired the first time). Anything the team needed, Bryant provided.

Kobe was still a gifted scorer and elite defender, but he picked his spots more than in previous seasons. If the offense was crisp and the team was creating good shots and converting them, he would stick to the script and only take shots when available. However, if the offense bogged down and the team was in a rut, Kobe became more aggressive and took over the scoring duties; going on some impressive runs.

For instance, when Karl Malone got injured in December, the Lakers needed to rely more on the former Lower Merion star because the Mailman was such integral part of the team with his scoring and passing. The end result was 9 30-point games during the absence of the power forward (as opposed to just two such games prior to Malone going down).

But Kobe’s role that season did not center merely on offense. If an opposing player got hot at any point against the Lakers, Phil Jackson would switch his off guard onto him to cool him off. The perfect example came in a March home game against the Orlando Magic in which Tracy McGrady torched the Lakers through three quarters and helped his team take a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter.

McGrady had 37 points going into the final quarter of the game, most of which came off 3-point field goals, transition baskets and midrange jumpers at the expense of Devean George.

Bryant picked up T-Mac in the fourth quarter and shut him down for the remainder of the game as the Lakers rallied back to win in overtime, with Bryant making a multitude of tough shots to seal the game.

This Kobe may have only manifested himself for one season, but he was one of the best versions of this said player ever.

 

Face #5: The Tracy McGrady (2004 to 2007)

2004-05 season: 27.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 43.3% FG

2005-06 season: 35.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 45.0% FG

2006-07 season: 31.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 46.3% FG

Chucky Atkins, Tony Bobbitt, Tierre Brown, Andrew Bynum, Caron Butler, Brian Cook, Vlade Divac, Maurice Evans, Jordan Farmar, Devean George, Brian Grant, Jim Jackson, Jumaine Jones, Aaron McKie, Stanislav Medvedenko, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Laron Profit, Vladimir Radmanovic, Kareem Rush, Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and Shammond Williams. In case you failed to see the common denominator, those were the names of the players that shared the court with Kobe Bryant at one point or another from the 2004-05 season to the 2006-07 one. Needless to say, these players were selected to a combined 0 All-NBA teams.

With Shaquille O’Neal getting traded to Miami, Karl Malone retiring and Gary Payton switching NBA addresses, the Lakers quickly became a team in dire need of talent to surround around their franchise player. And unfortunately for Bryant, the team failed miserably to provide him with any stud players. The end result? A Kobe Bryant that emulated Tracy McGrady circa 2002.

Every offensive possession became a Kobe Bryant movie casting: which actor will be the leading man in the Lakers movie tonight starring the Black Mamba?

With the team lacking players able to create high percentage shots for themselves, Kobe had to essentially create the offense for the whole team. That meant taking the majority of the shot attempts, and also setting the table for everybody else.

The strategy was obviously not ideal but it would help the purple and gold stay afloat for most games, provided that Kobe play 48 minutes per game; which was never going to happen. Thus, whenever Bryant had to miss time due to injury or simply go to the bench for a rest, the team fell apart.

Mind you, when Kobe was on the court though, it was just a thing of a beauty. Given the fact that he was the team’s only true scoring option, he saw a steady diet of defenses geared to stop him, contain him, frustrate him and force him to give the ball up. And yet, he outsmarted them by still getting the shots he wanted because he was still a terrific athlete who could score in a variety of ways.

Bryant scored from downtown, midrange and at the rim because he was a good shooter, terrific ball handler and great finisher who also happened to still have the first step and quickness to breeze past defenders. In addition, he could set up shop on the low block or in the pinch post (around edge of free throw line) and put defenders in a torture box of pump fakes that defenders always bit on.

This version of Kobe eclipsed the 40-point plateau 27 times and most famously rang up a staggering 81 points against the Toronto Raptors and killed any and every comparison ever made between him and the likes of Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson.

Face #6: The Kobe that was always meant to be (2007 to present)

2007-2008 season: 28.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.8 SPG, 45.9 % FG

2008-09 season: 26.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.5 SPG, 46.7% FG

2009-10 season: 27.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 45.6% FG

2010-11 season: 25.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 45.1% FG

After years of waiting for his front office to surround him with quality players, Kobe Bryant went on a tirade during the summer of 2007 and made a public demand to be traded. When that did not happen, he went back to work and played at a high level as usual. The team had some quality veterans in Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom and a promising young center in Andrew Bynum; but they were missing a second star to help take some pressure off the star guard. And then, the Pau Gasol trade happened (and the rest of the NBA had the mother of all hissy fits; the only way the backlash could have been worse was if Gasol hired Jim Gray to host a half-hour television show in which he announced he was taking his talents to Hollywood).

Bryant once again had an elite player alongside him that could not only create high percentage shots for himself, but for teammates as well; Kobe included. Consequently, the load on the superstar’s shoulders lessened and his game changed to some degree. With Gasol on board, Kobe no longer needed to recklessly attack the basket to get the team out of scoring droughts, instead he could focus on Pau’s interior game but also take over when necessary.

The addition of the Spaniard helped ease the transition of the athletic Kobe to the much more grounded one. Bryant would still attack the basket on occasion for thundering dunks, but mostly his game would become a perimeter oriented one that relied heavily on midrange shots.

This version of the Black Mamba relies more on superior footwork, jab steps, pump fakes and hesitation dribbles to set up defenders for fade away jumpers. And once opponents start to press him to prevent him from getting space on his jumpers; that’s when Kobe fakes them out of their shoes and takes the ball to the rack for a finish or to get fouled.

He will gladly defer to his teammates and let them run the show depending on the opponent, but with the game on the line, there may not be a more feared player in the game today. His level of sophistication as a basketball player makes him impossible to defend which in turn leads to a variety of clutch plays.

Although the Lakers star probably did not envision losing some of his athleticism at this age, he certainly always saw himself as the best player on a championship team; and that is exactly what he is today. His combination of experience, skill and basketball intellect make him one of the greatest players in the game today and a once in a generation talent.

And he’s not even close to being done…

J.M. Poulard

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