AS A RULE, any conversation between NBA geeks eventually finds its way, seemingly on its own, to one of three players: Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, or Kobe Bryant. It’s only a matter of time.
Westbrook, Rondo and Bryant fascinate because they all have robust identities as players and yet are always able to surprise us with their performances. Each identity is defined and known, yet, like any great character, that identity is not without conflict. The thing that makes each great — Westbrook’s speed and aggression, Rondo’s intelligence and unorthodox skillset, Kobe Bryant’s passion for points — is also what gets blame when they fail.
When Westbrook stumbles, it’s because he was trying to run too fast. When Rajon Rondo disappears, it seems a puzzling, conscious choice. Kobe Bryant will shoot his team into a game then shoot them right back out again.
None of them play by the rules of convention: even their failures are thrilling.
Bryant may not be the best player in the NBA or even the best player at his position, but he’s spent about a decade as the NBA’s most spectacular performance artist. Who else misses a few tough shots then responds by shooting an even crazier shot to get back on track? What guard demands to be a go-to lowpost option on a team with multiple dominant 7-footers? Who thumbs his nose at the basketball gods like Kobe?
The specific scenarios and performances that only Bryant can create are what I call Kobe moments. Think back to that terrible first half against lowly Australia in the Olympic quarterfinals. Bryant repeatedly lost the ball on offense, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with his shot.
Kobe’s response to one of the worst halves in his Olympic career? Shoot a hell of a lot of 3’s!
And he made them — six in a row!
After the fourth one dropped through the net and it became apparent that his teammates were just going to keep feeding him on literally every possession, Olympic competition became pure theater. And even when his missed his last shot so badly that it failed to draw rim and slapped off the backboard, it seemed to make perfect Kobe sense.
It was the type of performance that led Ethan Sherwood Strauss to wonder whether we’ll ever see another player like Kobe, because it may be that no one else will ever be allowed to play that way.
FOR THE LAST COUPLE SEASONS, the most captivating story in the NBA wasn’t Bryant, it was the Miami Heat. Like Bryant in the midst of shelling Argentina, the 2010-11 Heat reached a point where virtually anything they did was fascinating.
Loss to a bad team … sign of the apocalypse!
Victory over a great team … proof of their glorious, destined greatness!
Loss to a good team … you can’t just buy a ring!
The Heat incensed the passion of NBA fans for two reasons:
- For the first time ever, LeBron James was personally interesting in a way that eclipsed Kobe Bryant.
- Of any team in recent memory, Miami posed the most exciting basketball questions.
Point #1 needs no elaborating.
The on-court question Miami posed was: can two players who have lived their entire basketball lives in environments specifically designed to augment their talents thrive when forced to co-exist?
Every NBA team is an eco-system (Kobe: “I eat first”) and because everyone on a team needs to know what to expect from one another, everyone needs to have a uniform understanding of the hoops food chain. Between 2003 – 2010, James and Wade had successfully patrolled their hermetically sealed environs while their GMs and coaches tried to create a system in which they could thrive.
In the end, it turned out that there was no way to solve Miami’s James-Wade conundrum other than for one player, James, to adapt, evolve and fundamentally change his basketball identity. That took about two years. When Miami solved Point #2, Point #1 became moot. As a “personality,” LeBron James is once again boring.
The 2011-12 Heat, despite winning the title (or perhaps because they won), were less enthralling than the 2010-11 Heat. Barring the bizarre (like Chris Bosh biting a fan), the 2012-13 Heat will be even less so.
BUT THE FACTORS that made the Heat so important to the NBA conversation will also make these Lakers the centerpiece of the 2012-13 season. As discussed, Kobe is an evergreen topic all on his own. Add in Steve Nash (Kobe’s long time enemy and known guru of positivity) and Dwight Howard (know to be at best semi-professional with a mic in his face and of whom Kobe reportedly is none to fond) and from a personality perspective, the Lakers are nearly as intriguing as the 2010 Heat. The difference will be in the intensity of emotion — The Heat players’ move seemed “above their NBA station” whereas this absurd spending spree is just the sort of thing we expect from royalty like the Lakers. Yet L.A. is one of the only cities where being a “personality” is lucrative a full time job, and the expectation of personal drama is high.
On the court, things are even more interesting than they were in Miami circa 2010. In Kobe, Nash and Dwight, the Lakers have three players, not two, who blossomed while having the entire roster designed around them. People say that LeBron James and any four guys will be great, and although there are certain types of players that best conform to his preferences, in a way that statement is true. But Steve Nash’s best teams have needed exotic components like 3-point shooting centers and Dwight Howard spent his best years in Stan Van Gundy’s specially designed 4-around-1 system. In L.A., Dwight will share the court with two other excellent post players while Nash tries to get Metta World Peace to run like 2006 Shawn Marion.
As many have noted, Nash and Dwight’s don’t have to change much at all to perfectly complement one another.
Then there’s Kobe, the player who doesn’t follow the rules, right in the thick of it. To make it work, the Lakers have brought in Eddie Jordan and his modified Princeton offense. The idea: to move everyone out of the prime real estate on the court — that nearest the basket — to make it easier for four great players to all make use of it. Go away from the space you want to use.
How natural will it be for players so accustomed to “eating first” to take turns?
The most delicious thing about this Lakers season is that Kobe is still the key. He’s the one with the most power to break away from the system, the rules he’s always been willing to ignore, and he’s also the one with the most responsibility for holding it all together. Bryant’s work off the ball can be magnificent and, in theory, by subverting some of the instinct that makes him such a reactive performer (to his last shot, to his team’s last shot, to his opponent’s last shot), he can make sure all the trains run on time. And there will be times when Bryant decides to do his own thing and, as he did in the 2010 Western Conference Finals against Phoenix, rain ridiculous fadeaway 3-pointers to his team’s benefit. However this kind of behavior will more often than not be a problem.
No how many people really expect Kobe Bryant to change as radically as LeBron James did? Can Bryant’s iron will manifest on the court in a new, more measured way?
Bryant has used self-defining interview answers (how many times has Kobe told you how competitive he is? More or less than 500?) to layout what amounts to a “Kobe Knows Best” manifesto. Have you counted the rings, lately? Despite a few charitable looks for Andrew Bynum early in the regular season, nowhere in those pages is “I let other people decide how the offense flows.”
It’s not even possible to compare the swell of media that in 2010 washed up on South Beach to the hurricane of microphones, cameras and questions awaiting these Lakers in Los Angeles. But it won’t be a manufactured event — there are some new and thrilling basketball questions posed by this team. And at the center of it all, at the eye of the storm of predictions and expectations, is the most interesting man in basketball — Kobe Bryant.
Success or failure, I, for one, can’t wait to see the show.