There is no doubt that this title meant as much to Kobe, and to the public’s perception of his legacy, than perhaps any title has meant to any player in recent memory. In that spirit, we have been showered with stories praising Kobe, dissecting his relief, evaluating his transformation, figuring his place in history, analyzing his relationship with Phil and his teammates, etc., etc., ad nauseam. This has been fun, even if much of it is puffy, revisionist, or based on somewhat distorted generalizations about the facts (both statistical and otherwise).
But we’ve also seen something of a Kobe backlash. This must be the case with Kobe, who polarizes and divides the sports world in strange ways usually associated only with religious/political figures. When you watch Kobe, you care. You don’t lukewarmly clap as you do with Lebron, Wade, Paul, Duncan, or even Jordan. You follow with whole-souled loyalty and love or unbreakable hatred and opposition. No matter where you stand, you care about Kobe; you are interested in him; and you watch him with real emotional investment. Accordingly, having Kobe push through the finals every year is a boon for the league. No one stands at the water cooler debating Spurs-Pistons, or even something seemingly epic like Celtics-Cavs.
The sports world might be more obsessed with Kobe’s legacy than perhaps any player in league (or sports) history. Jordan dispassionately ascended to the pinnacle; Duncan and Shaq are casually placed somewhere in the top 5-10 range; we didn’t argue about Magic and Bird’s place, they just kind of arrived near the top. But we argue and wrangle and declare Kobe’s place in the hierarchy of gods with a different spirit – one attended by stretched stats and forced comparisons. By the time his work is finished he’ll have put together a stunning body of work. If he plays another 5-6 years and LA makes several more deep playoff runs, we could be looking at something in the realm of 5-6 titles, 8-9 finals appearances, multiple finals mvp awards, 15-16 all nba first teams, 12 all nba defense teams, 3-4 all star mvp awards, 3rd all time scorer, all time playoff scorer, two time olympic gold medalist, not to mention the unparalleled highlights. He’ll have won the title with two wholly different teams, both opposed by (potentially) all time top 5 greats in their prime (Duncan and Lebron). This may be optimistic, but it’s more possible than you think.
The Kobe haters sense this and know that this title acts as a swift and final counter to their long paraded criticisms. They see that Kobe is on his way to achieving something un-rebuttable (if that is a word) and that drives them mad. And so, we hear old and new criticisms whispered (or trumpeted in Simmons case) against Kobe:
This Laker team was just the least flawed among a flawed group of contenders.
Kobe still has not learned to trust his teammates and make them better.
His relationship with Phil and his teammates is staged; they can’t stand him at heart.
His numbers look sparkling but he was inefficient and selfish; the real credit belongs with Ariza, Gasol, and others.
Even with this title, Kobe is not Jordan and is now worse than Lebron.
The goal of the Kobe hater is clear: undermine, undermine, undermine. Now, as a Laker blog we are duty bound to defend our shining knight. More significantly, we are a blog devoted to reason, evidence, and substantive discussion. We despise fluff and all of its corollaries. As this recent wave of Kobe attacks are based on shallow and/or false interpretations of the factual record (or no facts at all), they will be addressed in turn. Above all of that, I’m bored and enjoy arguing, so I will take on take on some of these Kobe criticisms.
Now, in full disclosure, I am an unabashed Kobe homer. But I am reasonable and mostly capable of objectivity. Above all, I support my conclusions with facts. I don’t interpret facial expressions, read minds, reconstruct conversations, or analyze hugs and handshakes. Such is irresponsible journalism, and, even though I am not a journalist, I find it somewhere between silly and offensive.
1. Kobe is Not Jordan
This is often used in support of the go to anti-Kobe argument: that he is not Jordan. How many times have we all heard this? “Yeah, well, he may have X, but Kobe’s still not Jordan no matter what he does.” The most relevant and simple response is, of course, who cares. We have nothing riding on Kobe being Jordan. We care about titles and glory for LA and we receive an abundant portion of both. Furthermore, as Dex noted so eloquently, why this fascination with ranking athletes? Given the wildly different context in which every superstar plays, we are fundamentally incapable of objectively comparing them. Wilt vs. Shaq? Stockton vs. Cousy? Bird v. Lebron? There’s no way to accurately make these comparisons. But even if we could, why do we need to? More Dex: we don’t sit around and rank Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Joyce. They are all transcendent geniuses and we simply appreciate that they mastered their craft and brighten our world in different, though always brilliant ways.
Nevertheless, as Kobe comparisons with Jordan will never go away, let’s ensure that they proceed on the facts, not some revisionist and agenda-driven notion of them.
This chart represents four sets of finals statistics from MJ and Kobe. Which set is the most impressive? It has to be Player D, right? Although he shot a somewhat lower percentage from the field than Player B, this is more than overcome by the higher free throw and 3 point %’s, along with significantly higher rebound and assist totals. Players A-C is Jordan during his last three finals runs (98, 97, and 96); Player D is Kobe in 2009.
Beyond showing that Kobe is indeed firmly in Jordan’s ballpark (at least “Phase II Jordan”), these statistics rebut a few attacks levied against Kobe recently. First, they show that Kobe is as willing of a passer, if not more so, than Jordan – and this is at the end of Jordan’s career, when he was supposedly the most team-oriented. Kobe has been accused of recklessly jacking up shots on a solo mission, with Jordan held up as the prototype. But Jordan shot as frequently as Kobe, even though his shooting percentage in two of the three finals is lower than Kobe’s. Jordan didn’t just pass to Paxson one day and ride off to a pass-happy, gunner-controlled sunset.
Did Kobe take some ill advised shots? Undoubtedly. But what does that prove? What superstar wing doesn’t? Besides Jordan, only two other players in nba history have averaged 30 points and 7 assists in the finals – Kobe and Jerry West. Kobe’s unselfish playmaking in the finals is nearly unparalleled. By way of comparison, Wade, who gets so much credit for his 2006 finals run, averaged 3.8 assists per game – half of Kobe’s total.
Second, Kobe was as efficient as Jordan during his last three title runs. Jordan’s free throw and 3 point percentages were lower every year. Much is made of Kobe’s struggles in games 3 and 4 of the finals, but Jordan was equally capable of having an off night. In the 98 finals Jordan shot over 50% once and put up shooting nights of 9-26, 14-33, 15-35, and 13-29. In the 97 finals, Chicago lost games 3 and 4 as Jordan shot 9-22 and 11-27. In 96 against Seattle, two of the final three games witnessed 6-19 and 5-19 performances. My point is that it is disingenuous to knock Kobe for having an off game now and then. Yes Kobe sometimes forces things when he doesn’t have it, but it is revisionist history to say that Jordan didn’t sometimes do the same. Much like Kobe’s Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls were complete teams that were fully capable of winning when he showed his mortal side. And, like Kobe, Jordan was capable of controlling a game even with a struggling jumper.
When evaluating and comparing efficiency, we also need to place these performances in their proper context. Kobe’s last two finals runs have been against the teams that finished first in defensive efficiency (Boston and Orlando). Is it fair to hold it against him that he shot a few percentage points lower than usual? Continuing the above comparison, Jordan’s 98 finals were against the league’s 16th ranked defense (Utah), and the 97 finals against the 9th ranked defense (Utah). If Kobe played against Milwaukee or Dallas in the finals (two middle of the road defensive teams), what would his numbers have looked like?
Now, my point is not that Kobe is as good as or better than Jordan. He has obviously not put together an equivalent body of work. And, it is fair to point out that Jordan was 32-34 during the three finals runs listed above (although with much less mileage than Kobe will have at a similar stage due to college and baseball). More importantly, Kobe has not approximated Jordan’s first three finals runs, which are simply off the charts. For example, 1993 against Phoenix: 41 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists on 50.7% shooting. Although even these great early finals runs for Jordan need to be read in context. With respect to the Phoenix series, note that (1) Phoenix had the 9th ranked defense, and (2) the league shot almost 2% points higher in the early 90s compared with recent seasons. I keep harping on the former point because it is salient — in any year it is difficult to maintain peak efficiency against the very elite defenses. Consider that in those same 1993 playoffs Jordan faced the league’s #1 defense in the conference finals (New York) and had a nightmare series, averaging only 10 makes on 26 attempts, good for 40% shooting. In the first three games of this series, he shot 10-28, 12-32, and 3-18. In the final game he went 8-24. That represents 4 of the 6 games (although he did have a huge 54 point explosion in game 4, when the Bulls were down 2-1 and needed a win).
Still, Kobe’s not Jordan. His career resume and best playoff performances still fall short. We don’t ultimately care, but many of the arguments that attempt to discredit Kobe by pointing to Jordan simply get the facts wrong. I don’t want to hear that Kobe’s on a stubborn solo mission, won’t pass, and has too many mortal games — and have Jordan thrown in my face. Kobe just put up a finals that was on par with and probably eclipsed Jordan’s last three finals, and he did so against the league’s best defensive team.
And, in some respects, I’m glad Kobe’s not Jordan. I’m glad he doesn’t “command” a room the same way. Kobe’s devotion is basketball and basketball alone. (Can you imagine if Simmons told Bird he wasn’t as good as Magic because he couldn’t “command a room”? He’d be appropriately slapped in the mouth). Maybe Kobe will also avoid some of Jordan’s pitfalls along the way — diminishing comebacks, failed front office ventures (the irony is that Kobe got more out of Kwame than Jordan ever did). But that’s all besides the present point. By any measure Kobe just put up a grade A finals for the ages — even if it’s compared to the Basketball Prototype.
2. Kobe is Not Lebron
Now, this is also true: Kobe is not Lebron. But now I’m speaking metaphysically as opposed to comparatively. The common argument goes something like this. Lebron is better than Kobe because his stats are far superior; the only reason Lebron didn’t beat Orlando and Kobe did is because Lebron’s teammates forsook him.
The truth is that Lebron’s stats against Orlando (and during the regular season) are far superior to Kobe’s, but they don’t tell the whole story. Lebron and Kobe’s stats vs. Orlando:
What do we make of these numbers? Well, in terms of pure volume Lebron wins out. He also shot a significantly higher percentage from the field. But I want to extrapolate from the team offensive efficiency and three point shooting numbers. Both LA and Cleveland demolished Orlando’s league leading defense with 110 ratings, but LA did it as a team and Lebron did it alone. One way of viewing this is to praise Lebron over Kobe; the other is to recognize that Lebron was less capable of opening up the game for his teammates. I posit that Kobe’s refined offensive game actually is much more conducive to creating and enhancing teammate opportunities, even if Lebron is usually praised as the more willing passer.
Ric Bucher actually got me thinking about this in a Simmons podcast. He said that while Lebron put up sparkling numbers, he did so very inefficiently – but not in the sense that he shot a low %. Instead, Lebron’s lack of post game and three point shooting force him to dribble endlessly while searching for an opening to penetrate, eating away at the shot clock and leaving teammates standing stagnant. The result was often a powerful Lebron drive or free throws, but it came at a heavy cost for team play – the defense can largely play him one on one, play off him a few feet, and stay at home on his teammates. Orlando did this beautifully and Lebron fell for the trap, leading to his teammates really struggling to get easy opportunities from the field. It was Lebron or nothing every possession.
Compare this with Kobe’s game against Orlando. Kobe is the single best post up guard in the league – his strength, footwork, and moves render him deadly on the block. As a consequence, Orlando had to double team Kobe every time he got the ball down low. Furthermore, Kobe’s unlimited range force his man to stick with him out past the three point line, even on the weak side. Kobe can score from anywhere with very little effort, whether it’s in the post, outside the three point line, on a pick and roll, in the midrange, etc. He’s also a deadly free throw shooter so the defense has to play him honest. The result? Kobe is much more capable of efficiently breaking down a defense than Lebron. Why was Fisher wide open for the game-winning three in overtime of game 4? Because Orlando had to double Kobe in the post. Why did Trevor Ariza shoot dozens and dozens of threes with no one within 10 feet of him? Ditto. Why do Pau and Odom work such an effective high-low game after Kobe initiates the pick and roll? Because the defense knows Kobe can pull up quickly from anywhere. Why did Gasol see so much single coverage? On and on we could go.
This is how a team starting Smush Parker, Brian Cook, and Kwame Brown finished 8th in offensive efficiency in 2006. Think about that. So, while Kobe may not shoot the same percentage from the field as Lebron, his diverse, quick-hitting, polished offensive game makes him much more capable of breaking down the heart of a defense and opening up opportunities for others. All of those easy shots were there for Fisher, Ariza, Gasol, and Odom because of Kobe. And credit to them for rising up and making them.
I recognize that Lebron may have had a superior regular season than Kobe, but remember that one of them consistently cracked the elite teams and the other did not. In terms of driving a team to success, Kobe is still miles ahead of Lebron.
3. Kobe Remains a Poor Leader; He Does Not Make His Teammates Better and They Dislike Him
This is the final criticism I’ll address, and by far the most infuriating. There are variations on this theme, but the attacks usually boil down to Kobe being simply unlikable and/or selfish.
First, Kobe as likable. Really analyzing this requires the kind of facial expression and lip reading mastery that I don’t yet have a degree in (Simmons rejected my application). And, while I do believe that Kobe’s teammates like him, at least much more than they ever have before, that is ultimately besides the point to me.
Kobe is the leader of that team; the general. I honestly don’t care whether he has bubble baths with the guys after hours or not. I don’t care whether he makes them laugh or plays cards with them. I’m guessing that Lebron, and most nba alpha dogs, are much better at these things than Kobe. The question is whether the leader commands his teammates respect and brings out the best in them on the court. And it is simply dishonest to say that any other superstar in the league gets more out of his teammates than Kobe.
First, it is acknowledged by all, friend and foe, that Kobe had a transformative effect on the other Redeem Team members. He is unmatched as a worker, professional, and student of his craft, and this quickly rubbed off on Lebron, Wade, Howard, Melo, etc. They were all quick this year to point this fact out and credit Kobe for their career years. Everyone, even Simmons, recognizes this (although he did find some way to pervert Kobe’s Olympic experience into a “mistaken” and “foolish” sharing of trade secrets… blah blah barf. Simmons, here’s a column suggestion, how about comparing Paul Pierce’s splendid USA basketball experience in 2002 with Kobe’s?). The maturation of Lebron, Wade, Melo, Howard, Paul, Deron and co. seems to be initiating another golden era for the league (leaving behind the carter-iverson, spurs-pistons and other ice-age-ish periods). Shouldn’t Kobe get some credit for this?
If Kobe proved so powerful in transforming superstars on the Olympic Team, then why don’t we believe he has had a similar impact on his Laker teammates over time? If you look back at recent Laker teams and players, you’ll see that this has to be the case. The last few Laker teams are absolutely littered with mediocre players that achieved some measure of never to be reproduced success next to Kobe.
Kwame Brown. Smush Parker. Chucky Atkins. Brian Cook. Chris Mihm. Kareem Rush. Jumaine Jones.
Where are they now? Will we ever hear from them again? Do you realize that the 2006 Laker team won 45 games in the West with Smush Parker starting 82 games (3rd leading scorer), Kwame Brown 49, Brian Cook 46, Chris Mihm 56, and Devean George as the 6th man? Really ponder that. Will Smush Parker ever play again in the nba? Will Brian Cook ever play in the rotation again for a playoff team, much less start? Consider that Smush Parker has a 12.5 PER playing on the Lakers and a career 6.9 PER otherwise; for Brian Cook it is 14.6 with Kobe and 8.5 without. Doing this kind of PER comparison could be its own post.
Now think about Kobe’s teammates on these finals teams. Will Radmanovic ever start again for a finals team? Will we ever hear from Sasha or Walton again if they leave Kobe’s side – and both have been critical performers on finals teams? How many career three pointers did Trevor Ariza make before Kobe gave him his shooting program last summer? (Nine). Would Gasol ever have made an all nba team or been considered a top 10 overall player on Memphis? How much money has playing with Kobe earned Ariza, Sasha, Walton, Smush, Cook, Kwame, Turiaf, Fisher, etc., etc.
Some people in life are simply uncomfortable with mediocrity. They do not stand for it. Kobe is that teacher we all had in high school that was all business, made you do four hours of homework every night, show up every day, and pour everything you had into each assignment, paper, or test. You hated that teacher. You may have often complied out of fear, but by the end you learned a hell of a lot more than you ever had before and appreciated it. That’s Kobe Bryant. He may not be Mr. Kicks and Giggles, but you will absolutely work your tail off and play better than you ever have before under him. As Jerry West said recently, “Kobe approaches the game the right way. Not smiling around and glad-handing guys on the other team. I watch some of these guys laughing and joking before the game or on the bench. If it’s that damn funny … maybe that’s a sign of weakness.” And all of this is on top of how easy he makes the game for others on the court, which we’ve addressed.
Bill Simmons just wrote an article that alleged Kobe has not changed from last year. He even pointed to fancy numbers showing that Kobe’s playoff performance this year was similar to last year. He doesn’t realize that he’s proven my point. No, Kobe has not changed from last year. He’s the same dominant superstar that drove his team to blitz through the most brutal conference in decades. But his teammates have changed, and Kobe was the one that changed them. That is the story of these playoffs — the transformation of Gasol, Ariza, and Odom from timid softies to rise to the moment men. They now own Kobe’s work ethic and killer instinct. And they are doing things that no one thought they would ever do. Just like Lebron and Wade and Howard and Melo before them… The Lakers won 65 games; they did not lose three games in a row all year or two in a row during the playoffs. They were 4-1 in closeout games and simply crushed their opponents in each of the four wins. Why? Because the team possessed the spirit of Kobe.
4. Finally, a Word to Mr. Simmons
I like Bill Simmons. I am genuinely excited when he writes a new column on the nba. I will buy his new book the first day it comes out and probably enjoy it. But sometimes you need to call a spade a spade. Bill’s had a rough playoff run. He’s said things like:
• “I have been saying that for 2 months now. What we’re watching this spring is basically the 2006 Lakers, only with Gasol replacing Chris Mihm, Kobe being 15% worse, Bynum being 20% better and Ariza being a slight improvement over Ariza. It’s a limited team that lacks toughness and can be beaten.”
• “The ’09 Cavs are the ’91 Bulls reincarnated… everyone keeps underestimating them and nobody realizes that they are about the blow thru these last 2 rounds.”
• “The Magic just needed 7 games to beat a Celtics team that had 2 scorers with dead legs, Scalabrine/Marbury/House as their bench and actually ran a game-ending play for Glen Davis. Don’t start thinking Orlando is good please.”
• “Dwight Howard couldn’t score 40 points in a game if he was going against Yi Jianlian’s chair.”
These ironclad, can’t be otherwise predictions have proven not just wrong, but embarrassingly wrong. That would be okay given that he’s just a fan like the rest of us – we all are wrong and most of us didn’t see Orlando coming. But he has the hubris to persevere in omniscience. Whenever Simmons is wrong, he always follows the same pattern: (1) blame the failed team’s coach, and (2) use hindsight to tell us what the losing team should have done to win. Just admit you blew it, Bill. Admit that you misread Cleveland, Orlando, and LA. Admit that instead of blaming Cleveland’s loss on bad coaching and the failure of Cleveland’s role players you should have considered these facts before making your predictions – that Brown’s offensive lack of creativity and the playoff inexperience of Cleveland’s role players might be a problem after all. Monday morning quarterbacking doesn’t become front page espn writers.
While we know you have to undermine LA’s title as a Boston fan, do you really want to start comparing how our team was built with Boston’s current roster? Do you really want to talk about non-repeatable good fortune? Do you want me to list your quotes damning Doc and Ainge for openly tanking in 2007? Do you really believe that LA’s roster is some cosmic accident wholly unlike every other title team in history? Because if you do, I have some Paul Pierce 2002 FIBA World Championship cards I need to sell.
And, while you were quick to point out that LA didn’t have to play Boston in this years finals (which is assuming a lot), you failed to note that Boston was lucky not face Ariza or the one-legged Bynum. Do you have any idea how painful it was to watch Radmanovic guard Pierce as opposed to Ariza? I would gladly replay the 2008 and 2009 finals, both against Boston, with LA’s current team. Would you?
But, beyond that, Simmons most recent attack on Kobe is agenda-driven nonsense. We get it, Bill. We know you hate Kobe. We know you hate that he now has more titles than Bird. We know it eats away at you that the Celtics are probably a one and done band of mercenaries while the Lakers are built for the long haul. We know that the Lakers have won 9 titles and been to 15 finals in your lifetime compared to 4 and 6 for the Celtics. We know those 60s Celtic rings came in a different NBA — pre-expansion, salary cap, globalization, etc. We know that, as a Celtics fan, you have sworn a blood oath to discredit and undermine LA and Kobe at all costs – even if it infects the tone and quality of your writing. But, please, give us Laker fans the courtesy of relying on actual facts and evidence to support your arguments. Don’t rewatch the finals celebration a dozen times searching for one missed high five or false smile. Don’t read Phil’s mind. Use your army of researchers to give us something meaningful to actually chew on and think about. Because what I see when I study Kobe is the game’s preeminent player, leader, teammate, and winner.