Category Archives: Comparing Eras

Comparing Kobe

Hey! Been a while. Sorry about that, internet. I’m glad to see you held up nicely without me for a few weeks. Now that David Blatt’s firing in Cleveland is generating all types of internet chatter, it looks like you’re going to be just fine even after I abandoned you.

I might have some hoopservations about David Blatt one day, but it looks like just about all the angles are being covered. Today’s hoopservation is about Kobe Bryant, who announced his retirement recently. Since the announcement, I’ve heard lots of folks engaged in hoopservations about his legacy. His career is really a fascinating one, because it provides evidence for a wide range of opinions. Hate Kobe? You’ll be able to point to his lousy record without Phil Jackson, and hanging on for what now looks like about 3 years too long. Love Kobe? You’ll be able to point to the unparalleled (I think, but invite all 8 of you readers to correct me if I’m wrong) career path of winning 3 championships as the second-best-player, then emerging as the best player on 2 other championship teams. At the rate this season is going, the Lakers’ win percentage will fall below .150 somewhat soon, and Kobe’s career shooting percentage will fall below 35% shortly thereafter. Before either of those things happens, I submit a few guidelines for comparing great players:
 
Let’s be realistic about evaluating the teammates of a champion – I laugh when I hear people say “yeah, Kobe won two without Shaq, BUT LOOK WHO HE HAD! He had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.” Pau Gasol’s a nice player, but he hasn’t won anything significant without Kobe. And Andrew Bynum? C’mon. Kobe Bryant’s achievements are diminished because he was carried by Andrew Bynum?

The career arc matters – Kobe came into the league as a sort of phenom, with talent that was recognized as unique. He wasn’t selected at the top of the draft largely because there wasn’t precedent for a guard coming straight from high school and excelling. But, when he did excel, it wasn’t a shock. Thus, it can’t be diminished as the consequence of playing with great teammates, or for great coaches. It’s an important distinction between the great ones like Kobe, and guys who are drafted lower, wind up in a great situation, and excel. To name a few such guys, I’m thinking of Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Nobody compares those guys to Kobe, but the point is more general. Part of the analysis of a player’s career requires us to look at what he was expected to be, and also the situation he stepped into. Before we get carried away saying a second-round pick is better than a consistent All-Star, because the second round pick makes important contributions to a winning team, we should consider the career arc. The guys who we regard as the best in the league should be the ones who made a bad team competitive or a mediocre team great. Making a good team better is a meaningful achievement, but if nothing in the career arc points towards superstardom, we shouldn’t regard those guys as superstars. I think what Kawhi and Draymond are doing this season is remarkable, but before I rank them among guys who have shown the ability to be the best player on an otherwise mediocre team (Carmelo, CP3, Bosh), I need to see them join an otherwise mediocre team and make that team good.

The entire career matters – Kobe is now in his third season of not being an impact-making NBA player. It doesn’t erase his achievements over the rest of his career, but it’s not irrelevant, either. Every season a great player decided to play is part of his legacy. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are boosting their legacies by playing at a high level after so many years, while Kobe is hurting his. Kobe can’t be blamed for his injuries during the past two seasons, but at some point you’re simply playing past the point of being effective. Better to call it a career after 17 years and be judged on those achievements than to stay for 3 more ineffective years. At the same time, a short career is harder to view as a top-10-of-all-time career. Larry Bird, for example, played 13 seasons. Comparing Kobe to Bird, the fact that Kobe was in his 17th season before his production really declined is a feather in his cap. But, this is one of the hardest cross-era comparisons to make because the longevity enjoyed by modern athletes is the result of nutrition, training, and rehabilitation advancements that simply weren’t available previously.

The circumstances matter – All a player can be asked to do is win with the team he started with. If he doesn’t win, there are circumstances that might excuse coming up short. If, say, his teammates are always terrible, there’s room to speculate about what would have been accomplished with better teammates. If he wins, there might be factors that diminish the shine. If, say, he never won with his original team, and then went ring-chasing to a better team, the shine is diminished. Kobe’s career achievements are boosted by the fact that he stayed on one team for 20 years, through some great times, some challenges, and some disappointments. Most will respond “why would he leave? His team was awesome.” That’s valid, to a point. Yeah, he needed Shaq to win his first three titles. Then Shaq left. And Kobe stayed. Over 20 years, he battled whatever adversity was in front of him, with varying degrees of success. When the dust settles, it’ll be clear that he had some lousy years, fell just short a few times, and accumulated 5 rings along the way. Those circumstances matter, the same way it would matter to the legacy of a different all-time great if he – GASP! – quit on his team, signed with a team that already had, say – hypothetically of course, because nobody would ever do such a thing – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and then won two. Wanna be considered among the absolute best of the best? Then go earn it. Kobe certainly tried to.

Where he ranks on the list of all-time greats will be the subjection of conservations – ahem, hoopservations – for many years to come. But why wait? I hope to hear your thoughts in the comments.

2 Comments:

  • HowMyAzzTaste

    I’d like to hoopservate Kobe dying in a fire. All Kobe has ever cared about is Kobe, and trying to make people compare Kobe to MJ. Because that was the measuring stick which he himself defined, and he came up way short, I think we have to conclude that for all its sparkle Kobe’s career was a failure.

  • JGrub

    I think you have to respect what Kobe has done. Never mind his last 3 yrs of injury. Jordan had Pipen, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Lebron with Wade and Bosch, Kobe had Shaq and Gasol. Bynum is a bum and a fat over rated one at that. He was what Eddie Curry was to the Knicks. Lots of potential even some flashes but never consistent. Also some would say Kobe was selfish etc.. but aren’t we judging on his Bball skills and what he had done. If we had to throw in the personal lives and pass judgement then do we bring up Chambelin being a man whore and using women, Jordan’s gambling? I’m not saying I like Kobe but you have to respect what the man has done. Even more impressive is he did this straight out of HS. I have to put him in the conversation of top 15 probably, maybe 10.

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When LeBron came into the league, I wanted to watch him chase greatness.  Really, I did.

I’d be dishonest if I said that I actively rooted for him to surpass Magic, Michael, and Larry, but I  certainly wanted to watch him try.  Watching historic greatness is one of the most fun things for a basketball fan to do.  Fans of different generations have the guys whom they defend in arguments about who was the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, for those who aren’t familiar with the acronym).  I already got to watch Michael, and I was interested to see what the Next Big Thing did.

I wasn’t sure I liked him – his “Chosen 1” tattoo is kind of obnoxious, as far as I’m concerned – but I was willing to reserve judgment until I saw how he handled the difficult moments. To me, that’s the true test of greatness – how one handles the difficult moments.

After watching his career in Cleveland, I felt like he was a disappointment.  It’s not that he did anything wrong, in fact, he was phenomenal.  It’s just that he didn’t live up to the hype.  (To be fair, I don’t know that anyone could have.)  True greatness, the type that puts someone among the top-10 players ever, manifests itself consistently, with hardly any deviation.  It does not manifest itself in magnificent bursts, followed by disappointing disappearances.  That’s why LeBron’s career in Cleveland – capped by his incomprehensible performance last year in Boston during the playoffs – left me feeling like he failed to live up to the hype.

In any event, by the time the off-season rolled around, that was water under the bridge, and the questions shifted from LeBron’s past to his future.  He stood at a fork in the road, with a decision to make.  (You might have heard about it.  It had its own TV show, called The Decision.)  One path was The Easy Way Out, and the other was The Path To Greatness.  He was perfectly within his rights to choose either one, so all of the LeBron defenders who tell me that it’s a free country, and we all get to choose where we want to work, can spare me. I’m not saying he didn’t have the right to make The Decision he made.  I’m saying that his Decision, like all decisions, has consequences.  And the consequence should be that he took himself out of the debate about who’s the G.O.A.T.  He might win a championship, but he’s out of the running for The Crown, The Heavyweight Championship, The Top Spot On The Totem Pole.

Rather than try to elaborate with my own words, I resort, as I often do when explaining something important, to the wisdom of Yoda.  (Admittedly, I’m too angry right now to claim to be following all of Yoda’s words.  But whatever.  LeBron’s the one who tattooed “Chosen 1” on his body.  I’m just a fat guy sitting at a keyboard.  Nobody is mistaking me for a Jedi Knight, or for one of the greatest basketball players of all time.)

Yoda knew that The Easy Way Out is not The Path To Greatness.  He explained it to Luke in the following dialogue:

Yoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?

Yoda : No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

Quoting Yoda is appropriate, because, watching the Heat march through the playoffs this year, I think often of the scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan and Anakin battle.  Anakin embodies LeBron; the talented young Chosen One, who does not want to pay his dues to earn the glory he thinks he deserves.  Obi-Wan embodies the great players who came before LeBron.  Each of them resisted the path that tempted LeBron (Ewing never ran to Utah to play with Stockton and Malone, Barkley never ran to Detroit to play with Isiah and Dumars, etc., etc., etc.)

Here’s a link to a video of the battle.  (If you’re not interested in lightsaber fights, you should skip to 5:30, when the important dialogue begins, or, if you’re really antsy, to about 6:50, which is right before Obi-Wan cries out “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!!!!!)

Is comparing him to Darth Vader too harsh?  Maybe.  But he’s the one who got a tattoo that says “Chosen 1,” and then took The Easy Way Out, so he essentially invited a comparison to Anakin Skywalker.  Don’t blame me.

Whether it’s  too harsh or not, the bottom line is that LeBron’s Decision (you know, the one that had its own tv show) can destroy the game.  Now that a precedent has been set that joining up with a team that’s already set to contend for a title can be a legitimate way for a potential G.O.A.T. to boost his legacy, the future of the game has been put at risk.  Competition is the very essence of the game we love, and if it becomes possible to achieve the perception of greatness while ducking competition, well… then we gots problems.

To illustrate, ask yourself: what should Chris Paul do when he becomes a free agent?  What should Dwight Howard do?  What if they don’t want to take the Easy Way Out, but they also don’t want to be martyrs, who, just for the sake of courage, spend their careers without a legitimate chance to win a title?  Because of The Decision (I don’t know whether you heard about it – it had its own tv show), they have little choice.  Even superstars who want to take the Path To Greatness see that the obstacles on that road are now more daunting than they used to be.  Cowardice now seems like the only way for a superstar to wind up on a contender.

The game is now heading for a future where 3 or 4 teams have clusters of stars, and the rest of the teams in the NBA have no shot at competing.  In other words, the game is serious trouble.  All because The Chosen One selfishly made a Decision to take The Easy Way Out.

Thankfully, all is not lost.  LeBron has chosen the Dark Side, and his march to a championship continues, but there are still two ways for the game we love to be saved.  The first way involves we fans saving it from the selfish Chosen One.  We fans are the ones who control the legacies of the people who play the game, which means that we have control to ensure that cowardice is not rewarded.  To do so, we must pay close attention, because it is sometimes hard to perceive the difference between The Easy Way Out and the Path To Greatness.  On both roads, one needs help from teammates to reach the end.  On both roads, one can accomplish extraordinary things.  The difference is that, on The Easy Way  Out, there are places to rest, and have your teammates carry you closer to the finish line.  On The Path To Greatness, there is no rest.

Having chosen The Easy Way Out, LeBron now gets to rest.  He now winds up in the NBA Finals after having two playoff games of 15 points, and one of 16 points.  These are the types of things that happen while traveling The Easy Way Out, but not The Path To Greatness.  We fans must keep this in mind, and not treat him as one of the top-10 players ever.  Then, hopefully, the other superstars who will one day stand at a fork in the road will have the courage to avoid the path that the Chosen One selected.

The second way to save the game we love is for the Chosen One to lose.  As Yoda said: “”Stopped they must be; on this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader.  I know it is a challenge, young Jedi, for Vader is very powerful, and he has surrounded himself with a roster of teammates who were capable of competing for a championship without him.  If you end your training now, young Jedi – if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil.  Because, unlike Vader, young Jedi, you do not have teammates who can carry you when you are weary.  If you rest for even a moment, young Jedi, you will allow Vader to win.  So, listen to me, Dirk, and continue to train.  Then go drop 50 on his cowardly butt, and you can save your game from destruction.”

1 Comment:

  • Enlighted One

    Wow. That is a lot of Hate!!! You definitely would be nominated for Hater of the year at the Hater’s Ball (DC Show ref).

    That being said, did Magic play with Kareem and Worthy? Didn’t Clyde Drexler and some others team up with Hakeem to win. Also didn’t Malone and Payton team up with Shaq and Kobe to win a championship. Shaq played with Kobe (arguably both could be considered in the top 5 to ever play the game). Jordan and Pippen were nominated in the 50 best players ever and Jordan is arguably the best to ever play. For all the hate that everyone has against Lebron for choosing who he works with it, it sums up to jealousy. Last night Van Gundy stated this and he made a great point.

    Lebron should be applauded and emulated. Lets look at some of the positives he has done verse others in our beloved sport – he actively sought out Warren Buffet. He took the power of making his professional life more fulfilling. Don’t we all do this when we search for a new job or career. He has two kids with the same woman and has never been accused of negative or illegal activities. So far he has embraced being a role model. He plays team first basketball – what he loves passing – the horror. He loves playing defense – don’t follow that habit.

    I hope Lebron wins, dances, and then Miami throws a party even more out there then their intro party. When this happens you will see me in the middle of it. Don’t hate because our game is captivating and beautiful to watch.

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