Thursday, May 8, 2008

Kobe Comes of Age

Kobe Bryant deservedly won his first NBA MVP award this week. It has been a long time coming for Kobe & he won with 1,105 points, comfortably ahead of runner-up, New Orleans point guard, Chris Paul who finished with 894.
The more Kobe wins & maintains his current level of play, he undoubtedly moves closer to being included in those 'greatest ever' conversations when he retires. Some say he's already there. Others want to see a few more championships & MVP's first.
He's only 29 years old & has at least 3 or 4 years left of still of being a superstar, and a further 2 or 3 years of being a player better than most others in the NBA. And even this is a bit of an undersell, because barring any career threatening injuries, he could conceivably still be playing 10 years from now.
Also, it's unfair to fully judge his career until he's retired at least once so, whilst he isn't there just yet, there is still plenty of time for him to ensure he gets an invite to the NBA's version of L'Ultima Cena.
His 12 seasons have already yielded 3 NBA championships, 10 All-Star game appearances, 2 scoring titles and countless other awards & this latest individual accolade will sit high in Kobe's trophy cabinet, hopefully, just below his championship rings. He hasn't always been a 'team first' guy, but lately things have changed and the reason is simple. He's matured.
Kobe's early years had a lot of success and he's always been a highlight-reel editors' dream, but some of that success was marked with an asterisk because of who he bunked with, especially during those championship years. Added to that, he was brash and cocky, a loud mouth in the NBA schoolyard who had a big brother that nobody could mess with.
The game must have seemed pretty easy when he was being piggy-backed by Shaq to those 3 championships. Certainly Kobe did his part in the winning, but Shaq was always going to win the title at least a couple of times, be it with Kobe or some other young stud. Some part of Kobe's success had to be about being in the right place at the right time.
Then, after a tumultuous 8 year marriage, the Lakers finally divorced Shaq & Kobe. Their union had more success & lasted longer than most do in Hollywood, but in the end, the divorce papers read the same; irreconcilable differences. Everyone had their say on who was going to come out of the settlement better. And 'most' thought that would be Kobe. Shaq's old legs went to Miami while the Lakers picked up a couple of promising role players. More importantly, Kobe was still young, not even in his prime yet and above all, determined to prove that he could do just fine without the big Aristotle.
In the first 2 years after the breakup though, things hadn't gone quite as planned for Kobe. Shaq had won another title with his new, younger bride in Miami while Kobe was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round one year and missed them altogether in another.
Kobe was now well & truly on his own and he had to grow up & fast. He found that with all the opponents defense focused on him, his supporting cast wasn't so great after all and winning got a whole lot harder. He had nobody decent enough he could defer to and it seemed that if the Lakers were to have any chance of winning, he would almost have to score every basket. He was missing Shaq but there was no way he was going to admit it. He could still score whenever he liked, but after all the years of winning, he suddenly found out what losing was like. And he didn't like it. Dumping 50 or 60 points regularly on opponents didn't mean too much when he wasn't competing for the big prize at the end of the season.
He realized what he needed to do was what all the truly great players do, make those around them better.
This season more than any other, Kobe has been all about the TEAM. He still scored at a 28ppg clip, good enough for 2nd in the league, but it was how he brought the rest of the team to the party that was most impressive. Lamar Odom has always been a solid veteran & of course the addition of Pau Gasol helped take the Lakers back to the top of the pile in the ultra competitive Western Conference, but it's the way guys like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and Andrew Bynum have grown in confidence. Much of this can be attributed to Kobe. Previously, he didn't trust anyone on his team. Now, not only does he trust his teammates, he looks for them, encourages them, relies on them and revels their success, like a proud father.
'The Next Jordan' tag gets bandied around loosely & often. Any rookie who throws down a monster jam seems to meet the initial criteria required of a Jordan apprentice. Inevitably though, it's a weight too heavy for most to carry. Penny Hardaway, Vince Carter, Grant Hill & even Jerry Stackhouse among others have all been dubbed as MJ's second coming. All have produced their share of highlights and acrobatics at some point during their careers, but none has seriously been able to get anywhere close to tying Jordan's shoelaces, let alone be considered on a par with basketball's most famous name.
Kobe, so far at least, brings the pyrotechnics on a game by game basis, now he needs to show that he is truly great and lead the Lakers to more championships. He's in his prime and he now also has the support, now we'll see if he can put all the pieces together.

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