Royce Webb, the NBA editor of ESPN.com, tweeted this last Friday.
Is this season good or bad for Kobe’s legacy? Playing incredibly well for his age, scoring like crazy, losing a lot.
— Royce Webb, ESPN NBA (@RoyceWebb) January 11, 2013
In order to determine how this season affects Kobe Bryant’s legacy, it is imperative to reflect upon where his legacy currently stands: Bryant is a five-time NBA champion, who wants everyone to know he is obsessive about winning. He experienced success very early in his career while playing Robin to Shaquille O’Neal’s Batman, winning three championships together. Tired of having to share the spotlight with another alpha male, Bryant reportedly offered the Lakers’ management an ultimatum between himself and O’Neal. Having forced Shaq out of Tinseltown, Bryant experienced two and a half years of posting outstanding individual numbers overshadowed by the lack of wins. Then Pau Gasol fell into the Lakers’ lap, and Kobe got to finally prove he was able to win a championship without Shaq, twice. Which brings us to current day, Kobe’s kind of stuck in a weird spot right now, surrounded by Dwight Howard, ageing superstars, and mediocre role players.
Heading into last night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers were 16-21, in danger of missing the playoffs for only the second time since Bryant became a Laker. In other words, where the Clippers usually are at this point in the season.
How much of this fiasco is Kobe Bryant’s fault? If I had to put a percentage on it, it would be somewhere between 15 and 20.
Sure, the Lakers have lost an extraordinary amount of games when Bryant scored 30 or more points, so many that many writers (including myself) have lost track. But Kobe plays hero ball when he sees it is necessary for success, well most of the time anyways. When he sees that his posts, Dwight and Pau, have less confidence than a teenage boy asking a girl on a date for the first time, how he’s supposed to trust them with an entry pass? Before Steve Nash returned, was he really going to trust Darius Morris and Jodie Meeks with shots he could hoist himself? Of course not. This is Kobe Bryant we’re talking about, he didn’t get to become the fifth all-time in NBA history by deffering to others.
Now on the defensive end, his effort level has been porous and there’s no excuse for that, but I suspect that he cares so little on one end of the floor because he’s exhausted from carrying the load on the other end. Before you demand that I get off my soap box, let me present your counter point for you, why does Bryant insist on carrying the load so much when this is arguably the most talent general manager Mitch Kupchak has acquired around him?
Which then brings us to another aspect of Bryant’s legacy; Kobe Bryant as a teammate.
Bryant has been deemed uncoachable by his former coach Phil Jackson. Bryant very publicly thrown former teammate, Smush Parker, under the bus by calling him “the worst”. In Game 7 of the first round matchup against the Phoenix Suns in 2006, Bryant stubbornly only took 3 shots in the second half as if he wanted to show the world how bad that Laker team was without his sublime scoring ability. Bryant also has a reputation around the league as being somewhat of a loner whose only close friends who play or played basketball professionally are Brian Shaw, Derek Fisher and Devean George.
So has Bryant, the 35-year-old elder statesmen who is somehow remaining relevant in the league, really changed that much from the 28-year-old gunner who was in the prime of his career? Probably not, as he says himself, what he does best is score and score he does no matter who’s setting the off-ball screens to get him free.
The decline in Bryant’s individual game is slight but evident. His first step isn’t as quick as it was, thus he prefers to methodically pull up for jumpers rather than explode to the basket. And as mentioned a couple paragraphs above, the 9-time NBA all-defensive team member has been living of his reputation as a great defender rather than playing great defense for a couple years now.
Decline is inevitable in every public personality’s career. You can age gracefully like Julia Roberts or crash and burn like Lindsay Lohan. What we’re seeing this season with Bryant is enigmatic, part Julia Roberts and part Lindsay Lohan.
For the player who was once quoted as saying things like “I want to be the best simple and plain…to be the best you have win…and that’s what drives me” and “every year we don’t win a championship is a wasted year of my life,” he sure isn’t putting his money where his mouth is right now. That’s why I attributed 15 percent of the Lakers’ failures this year to Bryant: he isn’t optimizing his talents to allow the team to win every night.
Some games he does, take the Christmas day victory against the Knicks for example. Bryant, set the tone early, scoring 34 points on 58 percent shooting before allowing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to run the high pick and roll to perfection to close the game out; and Bryant effectively embraced the role as the world’s most dangerous decoy.
But other nights it appears he seems more concerned with catching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time leader in points scored than he is with leading the Lakers to victory.
Bryant needs to figure out his identity crisis soon, before it becomes too late for the Lakers to make a major push for a respectable playoff seed in the highly competitive Western Conference.
Back to the original question of how this season of great expectations colliding with horrendous results will impact Kobe’s legacy though.
What you can’t erase, alter or refute is what Bryant has already accomplished: five titles, 14 All-Star game appearances (soon to be 15), two Olympic gold medals and two scoring titles (with a chance to make it three this year). But what might hinder Bryant’s legacy is how he handles the next year and a half of his career before he’s supposedly retiring from the NBA.
When sports fans 50 years down the road debate Kobe’s legacy, they won’t deny his greatness but if this season is a representation of what’s to come, fans might also bring into the conversation that the guy stuck around too long, was desperate to play his brand of basketball and valued his individual accomplishments over the communal fate of the team (funny how history repeats itself and how eerily similar 2012 is to 2005-2007 isn’t it?).
One thing that is irrefutable is that Kobe’s career is in its final act. Can’t believe I just typed that, hold on a second there’s something in my eye.
Okay, back on track.
Even Kobe himself has accepted that fact, apparent by his surprising embrace of social media on Facebook and Twitter (and his wife on Instagram). It appears that Kobe wants to go out on his own terms. Sick and tired of the rhetoric the media delivered about him for 17 years of his professional career, Bryant’s now on a mission to define his own legacy, one ice bath at a time.
In the long run, Bryant has had too many great seasons to off-set this one shoddy one. And heck, if barely anyone discusses Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizard years in the same breath as his apex with the Chicago Bulls then it’s only fair if we excuse Bryant for having two or three selfish seasons out of 17, right?