Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Monday, June 15, 2009
Updated: June 16, 10:22 AM ET
Kobe '09: Change we can believe in?

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

I had trouble stomaching the 2008-09 Lakers for the same reason I've never bought Tom and Katie or Hillary and Bill. It always felt like something of an arrangement to me. Let's try to pull this off. It will put us in a better place. We can do this. I can tell the difference between "These guys love each other" and "These guys put up with each other for a few months because of the carrot dangling at the end." At least I'd like to think I can.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant brought a new look to the 2009 playoffs ... but did he shed his old flaws?

Ultimately, does it matter? That's what I want to figure out. The 2009 NBA Finals are over and I have three lingering questions, none of which, thankfully, include the words "referee" or "official."

1. Did Kobe Bryant change as a player/person/leader/performer from 2008 to 2009, or did his circumstances change?

If Kobe DID change, I swear on the souls of my children, I would admit it. I would say, "Yes, I watched every minute of the past two postseasons, and my God, Kobe finally put everything together, learned how to be unselfish and what a glorious day it was." After all, we're all in this together: It's in our best interests for Kobe to push himself up a level, simply so we can say we were there to witness it. I am jealous of everyone who watched Russell and Wilt and Cousy in their primes. I wish I could have seen a young Doc flying around in half-filled ABA arenas. I wish I could have watched the 1969-70 Knicks in person. In Kobe's case, we already knew we were following one of the better basketball careers of all time. That fourth title propelled him into the top 10 and yanked the "Can't win without Shaq" monkey off his back; ultimately, the exact ranking doesn't matter. He's one of the best players ever. He has to be mentioned now.

Of course, it's much sexier to blurt out angles like "Kobe changed!" in the spoken form. Announcers and studio guys speak in sound bites. They have to be ready to say something interesting as soon as the host looks at them and says, "What do you think?" For instance, Jon Barry told us after Sunday night's game that Kobe is the closest thing to Michael Jordan that any of us will ever see.

Ever?

I haven't even turned 40 years old. I have half my life left, if not more. You're telling me I won't see another hyper-competitive, super-athletic 2-guard average 30-plus a game and win an NBA title? (Hell, I just saw it three years ago with Dwyane Wade -- a performance that, by the way, surpassed Kobe's effort this month.) I found the constant stream of Kobe-related hyperbole to be a little off-putting; it was like hearing a buddy self-consciously mention how cool his girlfriend was so many times that it made you wonder, "Wait, is something going on here? It's almost like he's trying to convince himself every time he brings it up."

For two solid months, my readers kept asking why the media played up tired Kobe-related storylines at the expense of anything else that might have been interesting. (By the Finals, even a two-minute "Check out Adam Morrison on the Lakers bench, what an insane fall for the No. 3 pick of the 2006 draft, this has to be bittersweet" discussion would have been better than hearing how NOBODY UNDERSTANDS HOW GREAT KOBE BRYANT IS for the 350th time.) The simple answer is that the networks gravitate toward angles they think casual viewers like my mom or your 82-year-old uncle want to hear. The complicated answer is that you can't explain all the reasons why the 2009 Lakers were better than the 2008 Lakers in one sentence. Fortunately, that's why I'm here.

They had the second-best player in the league (Kobe), the second-best center (Pau Gasol), a talented forward with a unique set of skills (Lamar Odom), a breakout swingman (Trevor Ariza), a terrific leader and character guy at point (Derek Fisher), and that's about it. They caught three breaks from February on -- Kevin Garnett's knee injury killing Boston's season, Cleveland stupidly opting not to move Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract for one more piece, and Yao Ming breaking his foot in Round 2 -- and cruised from there. You would not call them great, just very good. I would compare them to the 2003 Spurs, 2005 Spurs or 2006 Heat -- the cream of a flawed crop of contenders.

Did they deserve to win the title? Of course. But they didn't win because Kobe "really wanted this" and "trusted his teammates" and "finally figured it out" and all that revisionist crap. Check out the relevant per-game numbers from the postseason:

Kobe Bryant
Kobe shot even more in the '09 Finals than he did in '08 against the Celtics.

Hmmmmmm. Am I crazy ... or do those numbers look EXACTLY the same? He brought his turnovers down a little, did a little better from the charity stripe, and that's about it. Ironically, "Unselfish And Finally Getting It" Kobe averaged more shots in the 2009 playoffs than "Selfish And Doesn't Get It" Kobe did in 2008 AND made less of them.

But wait, you say. Kobe played so much better in the 2009 Finals than the 2008 Finals. Everyone kept saying it so it must be true! Actually, not really.

He averaged 6.7 more points and his assists jumped from 5.0 to 7.4. He also averaged 5.2 more shots against a team without a prototypical 2-guard to defend him. The Magic were forced to double him constantly and take their chances that Ariza, Odom and Fisher wouldn't kill them from deep. What happened? Those three guys made 21 of 45 3-pointers (44 percent). The 2008 Celtics defended him one-on-one, pushed Kobe toward their help defenders in the paint, closed out better on open shooters and even swallowed up Gasol to some degree. This time around, Kobe's teammates (and Orlando's defense) made his job easier. Last time? Not as easy.

The other key? Ariza. The '08 Lakers couldn't stretch the floor unless they (A) played Vlad Radmanovic (an unequivocal defensive liability), or (B) went small with Sasha Vujacic at the 2 and Kobe at the 3 (a problem against bigger 3s such as Paul Pierce). Ariza magically solved this issue by peaking at the perfect time, transforming into a first-class defensive stopper, making a staggering 47.4 percent of his 3-pointers (40-for-84 in the playoffs) and rising to the occasion when it mattered. He played the Horry/Posey/Bowen/Cooper supporting role to perfection. You cannot do better.

Thanks to Ariza, the '09 Lakers finally made sense: Their best five was Kobe, Gasol, Ariza, Odom and Fisher (well past his prime, but still occasionally effective). Not only did the '08 Lakers lack a "best five," they didn't catch any breaks. The '09 Lakers caught a few breaks. They stayed healthy when other teams didn't. Every time their opponents screwed up in crunch time and gave them a second life, they took advantage. They never collapsed like they did in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals. They deserved to win.

If you're playing the "Shut up, Kobe was better this spring!" card, your only real evidence is two signature Kick-Butt Kobe Finals Games (Games 1 and 5). But if you're selling the "Kobe finally gets it" angle, then why was he gunning for 40 points at the tail end of a Game 1 blowout when he had already taken 30-plus shots? In Game 2, why did he go one-on-four for the winning basket (and miss) and ignore three wide-open teammates? Why did everyone so willingly gloss over the fact that, from the second quarter of Game 3 through overtime of Game 4, he missed 31 of 46 shots and kept shooting, anyway? Or that, near the tail end of Game 5, Kobe was so desperate to drain the clinching dagger that he clanged two 27-footers and allowed Orlando to climb within 12? Or that he didn't have a single clutch moment in the Finals other than his sweet dish to Gasol during their frantic Game 4 comeback?

In my opinion, nothing fundamentally changed: Kobe still wants to dominate and he still wants to win, and sometimes, you can't do both. Before the 2004 playoffs, Phil Jackson described him like so: "Sometimes his needs to overwhelm the rest of the ballclub's necessity. ... As we get into the playoffs, that'll dissipate, because he knows that he's got to put his ego aside and conform to what we have to do if we're going to go anywhere in the playoffs. Any player that takes it on himself to do that [play for himself] knows that he's going against the basic principles of basketball. That's a selfish approach to the game. You know when you're breaking down the team or you're breaking down and doing things individualistic, you're going to have, you know, some unhappy teammates ... and he knows these things ... intuitively, I have to trust the fact that he's going to come back to that spot and know that the timing's right. The season's over, things have been accomplished, records have been stuck in the books, statistics are all jelled in, now let's go ahead and play basketball as we're supposed to play it."

Did Kobe do a better job of conforming this spring, or did the Lakers do a better job of surrounding him with efficient players who complemented him? Think about what he had in the 2004 Finals: Gary Payton sullenly standing in the corner, Karl Malone limping around, an out-of-shape Shaq who wasn't totally invested anymore, the immortal Devean George and Slava Medvedenko, a washed-up Rick Fox ... I mean, come on. Those guys battled constantly, with the battles centering around the same thing: Kobe wanted to spread his wings, everyone else wanted him to conform. They weren't invested in his individual success. They were threatened by it.

Not the 2009 Lakers. Take Gasol, who shot 62 percent from the field in the last two rounds. You know how many shots he attempted in those 11 games? 120. You know how many big guys would have been happy with a situation in which their coach said, "I know you score six out of every 10 times we get you the ball, but you're going to have to live with 11 shots a game because we can't win a title unless Kobe's happy?" Not many. Shaq didn't like the arrangement and got shipped out of town. Gasol came from NBA Hell (Memphis), and he was willing to sacrifice to make the Lakers better. He's a big reason they won. He crashed the boards, killed himself on defense and reinvented himself as a complementary sidekick of the highest order.

Did you hear about Gasol's sacrifice during the playoffs? Not really. Just like you didn't hear about Odom's willingness to give up minutes and touches during a contract year (a rarity in the NBA these days), or Ariza's red-hot shooting and the irony of Orlando giving him away last season. We always heard about Kobe sacrificing, but really, the key to the 2009 title was that he finally found three talented sidekicks willing to sacrifice for him. Big difference.

2. Did the '09 Lakers really like each other, or was it like a Bill-Hillary thing?

I don't know. I couldn't tell. The media tried to convince us that, yes, Kobe and his teammates really did love each other. We witnessed everything short of Kobe taping an "Oprah" show so he could jump up and down on her sofa. (Wait, I guess that was the premise behind "Kobe Doin' Work." Scratch that thought.) As I watched the Lakers celebrating Sunday, I thought it looked like a bunch of actors celebrating the game-winning scene in a sports movie. Maybe it was because the Penguins seemed so genuinely euphoric in Detroit on Friday night; 48 hours later, any team that didn't match that same passion was going to seem suspect. I just know the Kobe-Jackson hug was so contrived I kept waiting for the director to come in and say, "Cut, cut ... guys, we're gonna have to do this again."

Kobe Bryant
Kobe's assist totals did spike in 2009, making the Lakers a more-rounded offense.

Here's my theory: I believe the other Lakers made an arrangement of sorts -- no different than the Clintons probably did back in the day -- even if they never came out and admitted it to themselves. This might be something of a flawed relationship, but we give each other the best possible chance to win. Let's make this work and keep our eyes on the prize. We don't have to be in love, but we can still love and respect one another. Maybe that's why I kept expecting the loudspeakers to play Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" as the Lakers were celebrating Sunday.

Again, the lightning rod here is Kobe. If you want to play the "We'll Never See Anyone Like Him Again" card, you're probably right ... but not for the reasons you might think. He grew up atypically from most NBA stars, the only male child of a successful professional player, someone who never had to worry about money and even spent seven formative years abroad. The Lakers acquired him when he was 17. He started an All-Star Game when he was 19. He signed a $71 million contract when he was 20. He married when he was 22. He won three titles by the age of 23. He became a father at 24. He also became the most polarizing figure in sports at 24, thanks to whatever happened in Eagle, Colo. The next four years were awkward as hell -- the league's most gifted player struggling on a series of forgettable teams, the most-discussed athlete in any sport, someone who learned to feed off constant negativity much like Barry Bonds did -- before fate intervened in October 2007, when a trade to Chicago fell through and Gasol/Ariza were gift-wrapped for Los Angeles a few months later. The rest is history.

Watching from a distance, what stood out (and still does) was how alone Kobe seemed during that stretch. Unlike Jordan, Shaq, Manning or Tiger, we never saw his parents in the stands. Unlike LeBron or Brady, we never heard about his close-knit group of buddies who had his back and attended every game. Unlike Duncan, Nash, Barkley, Favre or Magic, we never felt like his teammates doubled as his buddies. Unlike Bird, Kareem or Jordan, there wasn't a mystique that went with him, an undeniable force of personality that set him apart.

Who did Kobe have? His wife, his daughters and his agent. That's it. During Sunday night's celebration, when Kobe's family materialized immediately -- almost on cue -- the cynical side of me wanted to throw up, but the rational side was thinking, "Of course, they're here. He doesn't have anyone else." I wouldn't call the situation weird or anything, just atypical for a league in which stars normally surround themselves with longtime friends who knew them before they were famous. And it fits in with the rest of the Kobe package: He's an unconventional superstar in a conventional league. Almost like a successful child actor who beat the odds and turned out relatively normal.

Two months ago, I wrote that Kobe made a mistake playing in the 2008 Olympics because his biggest threats (LeBron, Paul, etc.) were given a glimpse into what made him him -- how hard he worked, how committed he was, how he was consumed by basketball -- and argued that he inadvertently gave away a competitive advantage. When I mentioned this theory to colleague and longtime Kobe expert J.A. Adande during a recent podcast, Adande respectfully disagreed, saying Kobe NEEDED that experience. He needed to fit in with that crew. He needed to be accepted as one of the guys. He craved that social respect from his peers. He wanted to crack jokes, bust chops and everything else. He would absolutely do it again, Adande maintained.

Listening to the argument, I joked Kobe sounded like one of those high school seniors who killed herself finishing with a 4.0, running the newspaper and the yearbook and playing three sports, and only realizing right at the end that she had never bothered to develop any lasting relationships. Like Ione Skye in "Say Anything," actually. But Adande was right. Kobe was making up for lost time. Most superstars prove themselves statistically on inferior teams, work up a healthy hunger for winning and getting over the hump, then make all the necessary sacrifices to make that happen. Kobe went in reverse -- he enjoyed team success early without ever establishing his statistical chops, leading to some serial ball-hogging, four scoring titles and even an 81-point game. After that, maybe he realized there was a better way and awkwardly reinvented himself from there. A little like watching A-Rod, actually -- another "child athlete star" -- only Kobe learned to play the part and A-Rod still can't figure it out.

That brings us back to Sunday. There was a certain detachment compared to other moments we witnessed over the years: the Celtics breaking the Sweaty Awkward Hug record as the '86 Finals wound down; Magic's Lakers flipping out after vanquishing the '87 Celtics; Isiah's teammates hoisting him in the air after the 1990 Finals; the prolonged, "I couldn't have done this without you" hug between Jordan and Pippen after a grueling 1998 Finals; Duncan beaming as he watched Tony Parker accept the 2007 Finals MVP; even the crazed display of emotion from the Celtics last June. We can tell when a team connects as a whole. We can. I wasn't quite there with Kobe and the 2009 Lakers, for the same reason that those overachieving high school girls can't make up for lost time just by hitting a few parties after final exams. Nice effort, I understand why you did it ... but no. You can't change who you are.

One last thought: Will Kobe's teammates make the same sacrifices next season that they did this season? Pat Riley argued in his book "Showtime" that a defending champion's biggest threat is the "Disease of More" -- players wanting more shots, more money, more minutes, more everything. He also argued younger teams are more likely to fall prey to this disease. The 2008-09 Lakers happen to be a fairly young group of guys. Will Kobe's supporting cast remain as unselfish next season? I am dubious. Arrangements only last so long.

3. Why was the media so desperate to convince us Kobe HAD changed, that his quest to win a fourth title was a storyline that dwarfed all others, that we needed to understand this was a GREAT PLAYER WE ARE WATCHING, that he really wants this, that he's like a coach out there ... I mean, what was the motivation here?

I wish I knew. It was perplexing. In my opinion, the following storylines were more interesting ...

Storyline A: I have written about the "Nobody Believes In Us!" phenomenon many times, but the 2009 Lakers were the first "Nobody Believed In Me!" team. As Washington Post columnist Mike Wise pointed out, the key Lakers were alternately dismissed, dumped by a previous team, pigeonholed as a certain type of player, overlooked for whatever reason or thought to be washed up: Kobe, Odom, Gasol, Ariza, Bynum, Fisher, even Jackson. All of them had something to prove -- not as teammates, but as individuals. Now that's a unique angle. I wish I had thought of it first.

Storyline B: OK, this has nothing to do with anything ... but I can't stop thinking about Joey Buss. Granted, there's a chance I would have been just as tongue-tied on national TV at age 19. But who thought it was a good idea to have him speak extemporaneously in front of a worldwide audience? How did he become the "alternate governor of the Lakers," and what does that mean? Are people in Southern California frightened that two of their governors are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joey Buss? Did they throw him out there to answer the question, "What would have happened if Fredo had gotten control of the Corleone family?" Did they bring him out to make the Maloofs feel better about themselves as overmatched legacy kids? Has he ever been discreetly stared at by a bunch of country club workers and had one of them say, "Fifty bucks says the Buss kid picks his nose." Do I have to retire the Unintentional Comedy Scale now?

Where was Jerry Buss? Where was Jeanie Buss? How did this happen? How can I get more Joey Buss in my life? And why didn't I know about him before Sunday night? More importantly, when are they putting the Buss boys in charge of the Lakers????? I vote for right now. Like, today. This moment. Please. I am begging you. This would be like a cross between the Hank Steinbrenner Era and "Tommy Boy." I never thought there would be a silver lining with a Lakers title, but dammit, there was.

Storyline C: The 2009 Lakers were built the same way someone goes on a three-hour craps run. In other words, don't even think about duplicating it. Seven solid "What if that coin flip had turned up tails instead of heads?" moments shaped the team. Namely, what if Jackson hadn't developed a relationship with Jeanie Buss? (No way he comes back to deal with Kobe again otherwise.) What if Anthony Carter's agent hadn't forgotten to send in his contract in time during the summer of 2003, creating enough cap space for Miami to sign Odom as a free agent, then giving Miami enough pieces to trade for Shaq a year later? What if the Lakers had traded Odom like they almost did about 35,000 times? What if Kobe hadn't blocked the Chicago trade -- and he did -- right before the 2007-08 season because the Bulls were giving up too much? What if Chris Wallace hadn't given them Gasol for 30 cents on the dollar? What if Otis Smith hadn't done the same in giving away Ariza? And what if Fisher's daughter hadn't fallen ill, forcing an unprecedented situation in which Utah released him from his deal so he could play for the Lakers?

(That's seven "what ifs." Seven. Amazing. The Chicago part remains the most incredible. You forget how close that was; I don't think I saw it explored once during the Finals.)

Storyline D: Kobe and Phil. I know, it has been done. Many times. But the story had so many layers that I still don't feel as if we nailed all of them. My favorite image of the 2009 Finals was Phil's face after Kobe went one-on-four at the end of Game 2, something I jokingly called The "Should I point out to him that MJ would have absolutely passed there?" Face in my column.

You know what his reaction reminded me of? Being married. Spend enough time with a person and you accept their strengths and weaknesses for what they are. For instance, I am messy. I leave clothes on the floor. I will make coffee in the morning, mistakenly leave a little coffee on the counter and not clean it up. I'm just selfishly absentminded about little things like that. My wife stopped complaining about it around three years ago. When I do those things now, she just makes the Phil Jackson Face. Crap. I'm stuck with him. It's not even worth getting into it. The plusses outweigh the minuses. Let's move forward. Jackson never made that face with his first wife (Jordan); with his second wife (Kobe), he makes it every so often. You could say they're an imperfect match, and if you want to keep the domestic analogy going, they even legally separated in 2004 after a couple of unhappy years. Now they might go on like this indefinitely.

It's just one more reason why Phil Jackson is the greatest basketball coach ever. He sold the greatest player ever on the benefits of being a good teammate, which wasn't an easy task because Jordan was a demanding, insensitive jerk at the time. Jackson nearly brought the Bulls to the '94 Finals without the greatest player ever, which remains the single most incredible coaching job of my lifetime. He won 72 games. He won 10 titles. Last but not least, he harnessed the talents of the single most difficult superstar not named "Wilt" the NBA has ever seen. He did this gradually, over the span of a solid decade, and he even had to walk away once for effect. You can't credit him for "changing" Kobe, just for nudging him in the right directions and helping him understand the balance between dominating and winning. What Kobe did with that understanding, ultimately, was up to him.

Anyway, I could have listened to people explain the Phil-Kobe relationship all day. Frankly, I still don't understand it myself. But if a coach spends enough time with a player, they really do start to feel like a married couple. Russell and Auerbach were like the Cleavers. Havlicek and Heinsohn were the Bunkers. Magic and Riley were the Huxtables. Jordan and Jackson were the Simpsons. Duncan and Popovich were the Barones. Phil and Kobe? They were definitely the Sopranos. And I don't need to tell you who was Tony.

Kobe Bryant
If you want to remember anything about Kobe '09, remember his remarkable ability to bring it every night.

Storyline E: I'm all for appreciating Kobe's greatness; it's just that my colleagues sold the wrong angle. Since he squashed the Chicago deal, Kobe has won MVP, All-Star MVP and Finals MVP awards; he played in two straight Finals and won a title; he starred on an Olympic gold medal team, took over as its alpha dog down the stretch and handled business in what was shaping up to be Spain's version of the 1980 USA-USSR hockey game; and most amazingly, he played in the maximum 164 regular-season games and 44 playoff games without getting a summer break because of the Olympics. And he did it despite turning 30 in August 2008 and passing the usually dangerous 1,000-game mark last season.

You know what? We just witnessed one of the great two-year stretches in the history of professional basketball if the determining factors were durability, consistency, individual success, team success, statistical excellence and degree of difficulty. Kobe's 2007-2009 stretch ranks alongside these post-shot-clock efforts (in no particular order): Bill Russell (1961-63), Jerry West (1964-66), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68), Bill Russell (1967-69), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-72), Larry Bird (1985-87), Magic Johnson (1986-88), Michael Jordan (1990-92), Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-95), Michael Jordan (1996-98) and Tim Duncan (2001-03). Not a fraud on the list.

I would rather see Kobe linked with everyone above and not just Jordan, if only because the MJ comparisons are tiresome. We're never seeing another Jordan, just like we're never seeing another Brando or Lennon. It's just not happening. They might compare statistically and stylistically, but Jordan could command a room of 10 people or 20,000 and get the exact same reaction: Every set of eyes trained on him for as long as he was there. His personality, his charisma, his aura, his passion ... indescribable. Like nothing I have ever seen. Nobody remembers this now because he hasn't played in awhile, but Jordan was always the coolest guy in the room. Without fail. He was like Doctor J. crossed with Sinatra. Remember those dopey ads when somebody said, "My broker is E.F. Hutton," and everyone else in the room froze? That was what happened to an arena when Jordan walked in. You would freeze, and you would hear screams, and then it would be a sea of lightbulbs. And everyone was saying the same thing, "I get to say I watched Michael Jordan."

Kobe always wanted people to feel that way about him. He shaved his head, made music videos, jumped cars for viral videos, changed his number, stole MJ's fist pump, created that creepy face where he stuck his bottom two teeth out ... none of it worked. He will never command a room like Jordan did. Sorry. But he does share one crucial trait with Jordan: He's a professional of the highest order. He shows up every single night. It's just ingrained in him. Since they acquired Gasol 17 months ago, the Lakers have not lost three games in a row. Why? Because of Kobe. He will always try hard. Always. It's the best thing about him. And really, that's what made Kobe's performance special this spring: The degree of difficulty for someone maintaining that intensity for 20 months -- without missing a single game or getting a summer break -- is absolutely off the charts. It's remarkable.

At this specific point in his career, Kobe Bryant shouldn't have been able to play as consistently well as he did. He shouldn't have been able to survive overtime periods in Game 2 (his 205th straight game in 20 months) and Game 4 (No. 207) and thrived in Game 5 like he was playing Memphis in mid-January. Basketball might be a team sport, but in this specific case, an individual's will stood out and made the accomplishment of the group seem ancillary.

Look, I don't know how much of Kobe's personality is contrived. I don't know if this is the same selfish guy we watched five years ago, only with a freshly polished veneer that hides every demon lurking inside. I don't know if he learned how to play the part of a leader, almost like a trained actor, to throw everyone off his selfish scent. I don't know if he's sitting there tonight thinking, "I won my fourth title!" instead of, "We won the title!" Odds are, we will never figure these things out.

But I do know this: What Kobe Bryant accomplished over the past 20 months ranks up there with anything that ever happened in the National Basketball Association. He walks among the NBA gods now. Like it or not.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.