Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Kobe Bryant superstar, year one

Now that the Lakers have utterly collapsed as a dissapointing team (perhaps even finishing below the lowly Clippers) it's time to consider how year one of Kobe Bryant me, myself, and I went.

The good. Kobe is a supremely talented player and his personal statistics show this as he is second in the league in scoring and is shooting a decent 0.431 from the floor. He is bascially averaging 27, 6, and 6 with 4 turnovers per game. Not bad numbers at all. Kobe also showed more willingness to play harder defense this year and hasn't suffered any shoulder problems. He did have an ankle sprain recently but he is back and has played in 63 of the Lakers 78 games. Last year he played in 68 and had the shoulder problem.

The bad. If you watch the Lakers, they stand around much too much and wait for Bryant to initiate something. Bryant's penchant for dribbling the ball without really doing anything has increased which is partially to blame for the standstill in the offense. Kobe also appears to not have the support of his teammates with Chucky Atkins most recently calling Kobe out and with Kobe awkwardly declaring afterwards that Chucky was his "road dawg", whatever that means. Worse yet, the Lakers have only won 34 games to 44 losses.

The historical context. The last two times Kobe played in the equivalent number of games the Lakers won 56 ('03-04, 65 games played due to rape trial/injury) and 56 ('00-'01, injury). In the former the Lakers finished second place and in the latter they were NBA champions. Both happened with Bryant on the floor in the playoffs. The key to both runs though was Shaquille O'Neal, and this shows especially this year with Shaq being older and slower than during the three titles, but still leading the Heat very close to 60 wins in his first year with that team and a new lieutenant, D'wyane Wade.

Some would argue that Kobe's team and coach changed so dramatically that he would have been hard pressed to win in the competitive western conference. This is partially true. But one only need look back to Michael Jordan's first retirement to see how Scottie Pippen and crew were able to keep the Bulls aloft even without his Airness, arguably the games greatest all-time player. In 1994 the Bulls won 55 games and finished second to Atlanta in the Central division behind only two games. They made a deep run in the playoffs and were a serious finals contender. The next year '94-95, the Bulls won 47 games with a rusty Jordan playing in only 17 of those games with mixed results as he reincorporated himself into the flow before a dissapointing playoff run in which Jordan looked uncormfortable on the court during key moments of the game. In neither year did the Bulls plummet to the level that Bryant's Lakers have this year. In fact, the Bulls were serious title contenders in Jordan's first sabatical. Competitiveness of a conference can be debated, but a superstar doesn't let his team miss the playoffs. It just doesn't happen. Pippen lifted his game and with his help, his teammates responded in kind.

I know it's only year one, but I think this will show a trend over the rest of Bryant's career. A great player, prolific and efficient scorer, great defender (when he puts his mind to it), but lacking the qualities of leadership needed to make his teammates better and perform at a higher level than they could on their own. I think Kobe makes a great second banana, but a permier leader he is not.

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