by Eduardo Maisonet, III / @edthesportsfan
Let me say a few things that I’m sure most of you already know.
Kobe Bryant, in his 17th season and at age 34, is having one of his finest offensive campaigns on his entire resume. Kobe’s having his third highest scoring season to date (28.1, entering Wednesday), his best shooting performance of his entire career (48.1 percent from the field), and the fourth-best PER (player efficiency rating) season of his career. Not since the days of Michael Jordan have we seen someone so senior in his career put together such a campaign, and to be frank, this age-34 season by Bean is eclipsing everything Jordan did at the same age from an offensive perspective.
Yet, in a season of offensive wizardry, the Los Angeles Lakers as a whole have been offensive to our eyeballs. Wild off-season acquisitions, two head coaches, Smush Parker slander, infighting amongst the players, tons of injuries and a general lack of discipline emanating from the team, have many questioning if this team is capable of making the Playoffs. Yes, a team with four future Hall of Famers is more likely to have a pick in the lottery versus making the Playoffs. Oh wait, their 2013 draft pick is headed to the Phoenix Suns. Never mind.
Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball this season has been fascinating to witness. On one hand, he’s been so good in carrying the scoring load that you almost have to consider absolving him of any blame. Just look at him! You’d never think he had a major knee operation and played in almost 1,500 games (regular season, Playoffs, internationally) since age 18. But in almost every game I’ve watched, the same things seem to keep happening to Kobe and the Lakers.
Kobe’s getting beat on the defensive side of the ball, repeatedly. (The Spurs-Lakers game sticks out. Tony Parker said that they knew that could go at Kobe, and Danny Green hits a game-winning three on Kobe’s late reaction? Man.) Kobe’s holding on to the ball so long that he seems reluctant to give the ball up to the open man, repeatedly. Kobe hardly ever gets back on transition defense, his rotations are consistently late, and his only real way of showing leadership has resorted into throwing his teammates under the bus to the national media.
It seems like Bryant’s determined to show us that he can continue to score at this pace, get his buckets and prove to us that he still is the best in the world. (My God! Is that…CM Punk’s music?!?)
It sounds stubborn to me, and it reminds me of another great Laker player who was deemed selfish by many of his peers. That would be Wilt Chamberlain.
Everyone remembers the great statistical feat that The Stilt put together during the ’67-68 season where he became the first and only center to lead the League in assists. (By remember, I mean that you may or may not have heard about it historically, read about it, or just heard of the urban legend. The majority of the SLAM demographic wasn’t watching basketball in the late ‘60s, but I digress.) The ’67-68 Philadelphia 76ers were the defending NBA Champs and had finally defeated Boston in the process. The Sixers had six scorers averaging over 11 per game, and still had their four future Hall-of-Famers in Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker. With the formula of Championship success now in place, it seemed like going on a run of Championships was in place. Instead, Wilt decided he needed a new “challenge.” That challenge was to lead the entire NBA in assists, which he did, as his 702 dimes surpassed Oscar Robertson for the top tally. What an effort by Chamberlain. Except there was one problem…
The Sixers didn’t win the Championship that season. Didn’t even make the Finals actually, as an aged Celtics squad found a way to overcome the mighty Sixers and eventually won another Championship banner. You know what else happened? Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers. (Chamberlain also wanted to move west and date white women.)
What was evident in Chamberlain was that it was obvious that he was capable of literally doing anything on the basketball court, outside of shooting free throws. Yet and still a man’s legacy that holds great statistical achievement has endured stress because of a lack of winning Championships.
With Kobe, doing what Kobe does has always been an entity that ran its own course, with the Lakers as a whole figuring out how to work around Kobe. For the Shaqobe era, Kobe was virtually perfect. Score at will, and defer to Shaq when necessary. During the second era of Phil Jackson, Kobe served as the lead dog, but the philosophy of the team was still based on the triangle, playing tough defense and Kobe could close when necessary. Kobe neither has Phil to lean on now, nor does he have the defensive strength of prior years and a roster that suits his talents.
This Lakers team, when fully healthy, has plenty of guys to score. Scoring isn’t the flaw of the Lakers, (they’re fourth in the League in team scoring and somehow still have a positive scoring differential while being four games under .500) the flaw of the Lakers is that defensively they’re repugnant, they don’t facilitate the ball, they seem to lack leadership and they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves as a team.
These are things that we’ve seen Kobe do in spurts, but now that it’s something they crucially need, Kobe’s nowhere to be found. Grantland’s Bill Simmons noted that Kobe read Bill Russell’s book, Second Wind last year. One of the things that stood out was the fact that Kobe said he learned about Russell’s desire to watch his team play and notice the weaknesses of his own team. Once he figured out the weaknesses, he decided that his focus would be to cover up those weaknesses. Kobe has failed to do any of those things thus far, and he might as well say he wanted to decorate his bookshelf versus say that he’s applying a Russell-ism to his game.
Or he must think we’re fools.
Eddie Maisonet has been a contributor to SLAM since 2010. He is the Editor-In-Chief of The Sportsfan Journal and loves women who wear big hoop earrings. Follow him on Twitter to keep up with more of his shenanigans and tomfoolery.