For much of the year – or at least once Kobe Bryant quit complaining about his teammates and management and demanding a trade and started playing the basketball that he’s paid $19.5 million to play – pundits have more or less anointed Bryant the modern-day Jordan. And, in a historic nod eerily similar to 1969, when the press all but crowned the Lakers the champs over the Celtics even before the Finals started, reporters filled newspapers and web sites with stories of an inevitable Lakers’ title and a Bryant legacy – again, all before any players even took the court for Tuesday’s Game 1.
Not only is Kobe Bryant not the modern-day Jordan, and not only aren’t the Lakers assured of winning a title this year and cementing a Shaq-free legacy for Bryant, the Lakers’ biggest obstacle in winning the title may be Bryant himself. Here’s why:
Myth 1: Kobe Bryant has learned the value of playing team ball.
Unless you’ve been in a coma the past half a dozen months, you’ve read and heard reams about this. The Lakers are winning because Kobe has learned to pass the ball. The Lakers are winning because Kobe has learned to trust his teammates. Gone is the player who forced bad shots throughout the 2003 Finals in an attempt to seize the limelight and prove he wasn’t Robin to Shaquille O’Neal’s Batman. Gone is the player who grudgingly entered the 2006 playoffs against the Phoenix Suns passing the ball and helping the Lakers to a 3-1 lead before reverting to his gunning ways as the Lakers lost the next two games and then, in Game 7, famously quit on his team and took only two shots in the second half in a childish effort to show up his teammates as benchwarmers who couldn’t win on their own.
In a close game, with the clock winding down, passing isn’t the last thing on Kobe’s mind — it’s not even on his list. He demonstrated this in the final minutes of close games against the Spurs, even though Gregg Poppovich wasn’t smart enough to double Kobe as the Celtics have done (and as they did with Lebron James) under Tom Thibodeaux. In the Lakers’ infamous Game 4 victory that was sealed when referees ignored a game-winning foul by Derek Fisher in the final seconds of play, the only reason the Spurs were in a position to win was because Kobe had made two consecutive, selfish plays at the other end.
The first came with the Lakers comfortably ahead and needing only to eat up the clock and watch the Spurs whither; instead, Kobe made a hasty drive to the hoop and missed.
The second came when the Lakers had the ball back and, again, were comfortably ahead and needed only to use up the 24-second clock and take a good shot, then wait out the final tense seconds; instead, Kobe took and missed a difficult corner jumper under pressure even though his teammates were less crowded and there was plenty of time to work the ball for a better shot.
Last night, in Game 1 against the Celtics, Kobe stuck to the script for the most part and passed for much of the game as the Lakers slowly took control and led the Celtics by halftime. Not only were Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher LA’s leading scorers, the Lakers were playing so well as a team that they actually gained ground with Bryant on the bench. But late in the second half, as crunch time got closer, Bryant reverted to form and stopped sharing the ball. As Kobe forced a series of shots that missed badly, his teammates could do little more than stand around and watch as Kobe shot his team out of the lead and the game. Why? This brings us to:
Myth 2: Kobe Bryant has put his ego behind him.
The other popular fantasy about Kobe this year is that he tamed the selfish, egotistical drive that steadily unraveled the three-peat Lakers team led by Shaq and that discouraged Kevin Garnett from joining the Lakers (the Lakers were set to deal Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown for Garnett last summer until Kobe’s high-profile criticisms of his teammates and front office convinced Garnett that the last place he wanted to go was the circus in LA, according to today’s New York Post)
Kobe may have learned to say more of the right things, but the mamba has not changed its stripes. The self-absorbed player who so desperately sought the spotlight that he chafed alongside Shaq and used to dramatize supposed injuries and illnesses in an attempt to mimic Jordan’s famous heroics surfaced again last night. It began midway in the third quarter, when Paul Pierce collapsed to the floor with a knee injury and had to be carried off the floor. Kobe went to the bench soon after, and was sitting and watching when Pierce emerged from the locker room minutes later in a flourish that had onlookers comparing him to triumphant returns from injury by Willis Reed and Larry Bird — exactly the kind of moment Kobe had always sought to manufacture. It had to kill Kobe to see that, after all his energetic but fruitless efforts at melodrama over the years. Worse yet, once Pierce had warmed up he drilled consecutive 3-pointers oves Kobe in the closing moments of the third quarter. Until then, Kobe had been shooting more but still more or less within the LA offense. But after Pierce’s flurry ignited the Boston crowd, Kobe spent the final quarter impersonating a human tommy gun. Passing was no longer an option; Pierce was stealing the mamba’s glory, and the only way to steal it back was by winning the game singlehanded — vintage Kobe style. There were three problems with that. One, he was missing as many as he was hitting. Two, when one player is gunning, his teammates stop moving for the ball and wind up standing around watching. And three, teams that stand around are in no position to rebound. The rest of the way, Kobe alternated between forcing up bad shots and passing in desperation once he began to realize his shots weren’t falling. Neither approach worked, as it alternated between ignoring his teammates and giving them the ball when they weren’t in good position to score.
Myth 3: Kobe Bryant has matured and is now a better person.
Instead of ridiculing them in the press, Kobe now buys his teammates dinners. Instead of calling for them to be traded, he praises them to reporters. Kobe is no longer the rape suspect who bought his wife’s forgiveness with a ring the size of a basketball, no longer the player who blamed everyone but himself when the team went on a losing streak in 2001 when Shaq was hurt.
All anyone really knows for sure is that as recently as the pre-season, Kobe was dismissive of Andrew Bynum and the rest of the Lakers’ cast, and derisive of the owner who stuck with him over Shaq and Phil Jackson in 2004.
Can someone’s personality change so profoundly so quickly? Anything’s possible, but nothing in his past suggests that Kobe is anything but a frustrating defeat away from his next public eruption. The only sure thing, when it happens, is that no one will be surprised.