With Kobe, everything is working
It's not often that you get to write the words "Kobe Bryant" and "easy" in the same sentence. This is a man who has treated shots as though they were Olympic high dives with more points to be gained through degree of difficulty. You can't plug his name into the clichéd ghetto-to-gated-community plotline; his path travels from Philadelphia to Italy, and includes (technically) Charlotte, N.C., and (regrettably) Eagle, Colo. It would take a complex formula to determine the exact division of credit/blame between him and Shaquille O'Neal when it comes to their three championships together and their eventual, inevitable split.
Yet when it came time to think of an athlete to summarize the past decade in Los Angeles, an athlete to focus on for the launch of a Web site dedicated to this city's sports, the easy choice was Kobe Bryant.
Kobe made this really easy. And of all his accomplishments -- the four championships, the MVP trophies from the Finals, the scoring title, you name it -- getting to the point of simplicity might be his most remarkable. For the first time, watching Bryant requires no justifications or qualifications. There is no battle for control of the team, no court case hanging over the season, no trade demands issued. Isn't it amazing that as the expanding media sphere manufactures more celebrities and ensnares an increasing amount of them in its gossipy grip, the amount of controversy surrounding Bryant decreases?
We are finally free to simply observe him as a basketball player, one who continues to evolve, pushing himself and the game to its limits. He gave the most insightful look yet at his inner machinery earlier this season when he said, "I just can't stop. [There's] not something that motivates me. It's just how I am." It's that simple. And that powerful.
The latest refinement to his game has produced a scorer who is more effective than ever. Now he succeeds on precision instead of sheer volume. He has shifted his office space to below the free throw line, entering the post, playing with his back to the basket and attempting to score by falling away from his opponents rather than trying to soar over them. The result is he's making more than 48 percent of his shots for the first time in his career.
He also has passed up shots he would have taken in the past. His previous operating philosophy was that any shot he took had to be better than whatever his teammates could attempt, even if it meant heaving the ball at the hoop with his left hand while his right arm was hanging like a wet sock because he'd just injured his shoulder. Now, he'll get into the lane and forsake his own scoring opportunity if he believes there's a better option elsewhere. The irony is that his assists average was higher in the early seasons of the decade, when he was considered more selfish. These days, he's willing to take a secondary role on more plays, passing the ball to someone else and letting him set up the score.
The only thing Kobe could do before that he can't do now is win the dunk contest, as he did in his rookie season. Today, he wouldn't even beat out teammate Shannon Brown. Bryant will admit that even in his best years he couldn't jump higher than Brown. Part of winning wars is recognizing which battles are worth fighting.
Michael Jordan once said the quality Bryant possessed that reminded him most of himself was the desire to distance himself from contemporaries. For Jordan, it started off with Clyde Drexler, then advanced to Magic Johnson once he became the obstacle to winning a championship and gaining acclaim as the greatest in the league.
Bryant constantly forces his way into that classic sports argument -- who's better? -- right on through his current sparring partner, LeBron James. (There's far from a consensus, but I'll pass along the observations of one longtime scout: "For me, it's Kobe, and it's not even close.") James needs to win championships (plural) before the comparison is really valid. Eventually, he could overtake Bryant. If not LeBron, then Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade or perhaps someone we don't even suspect yet.
It's testament enough to Kobe that he's even in the discussion after 13 seasons in the league. He has worn out the previous arguments, including Kobe vs. Grant Hill, Kobe vs. Penny Hardaway, Kobe vs. Vince Carter and Kobe vs. Tracy McGrady.
But more importantly, he prevailed over that part of himself that seemed to have a pathological need for drama, that savvy infant side that knew a well-timed outburst could upstage the NBA Finals, the All-Star Game or any other event whenever the focus had shifted from him. He no longer veers to the extremes of either excessive shots or conspicuous passivity. Last season was notable not only for the team's championship but for the lack of controversy involving Bryant.
Some will never be able to forget his past transgressions. He's certainly given his critics more ammo than Rambo. He can make it hard for his fans to defend him (or even represent him, after he changed jersey numbers). But isn't the essence of Los Angeles to judge people on what they are about right now? It's a place where you get to reinvent yourself, as many times as you like.
Our first memories of Kobe, the excitable teenager who seemed to place entertainment value over effectiveness, the one Shaq dubbed "Showboat," are as outdated as the "Oops! ... I Did It Again" version of Britney Spears. He's gone from patterning himself after Michael Jordan to learning firsthand from Hakeem Olajuwon, just as Magic Johnson once went from mimicking Oscar Robertson to adapting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hook shot. Jump shots below the free throw line but outside of the lane now make up 29 percent of Kobe's shots, up from 23 percent last season.
Bryant has stayed at the top of the game specifically because of his desire to change. For a while he veered in the direction of believing he could do everything by himself. All that ever got him was frustration and first-round playoff exits. He had to acquiesce. The season that brought him his greatest post-Shaq triumph coincided with his lowest scoring average since Shaq left.
I just can't stop. [There's] not something that motivates me. It's just how I am.” -- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant
It isn't always easy to acknowledge your shortcomings, or even recognize your own athletic mortality. But Kobe could feel the lift departing his legs before we could see it, so by the time we realized he couldn't outjump people anymore he already adapted his game to compensate for it.
Now he values real estate over airspace. If you're in the right position, you're halfway there. Bryant has become adept at selecting his spot, going to it and rising up to shoot, with the defender helpless to do anything about it. Or watch him lurking around the basket, cashing in opportunistic rebounds for easy putback shots.
Bryant has always had a voracious appetite for the ball (teammates and coaches speak with simultaneous disapproval and awe at the way Bryant can rush to the rock and demand it), but as his understanding of positioning and anticipation has grown the ball now finds him, the same way the puck always seemed to make its way to Mario Lemieux's stick.
If Norma Desmond clinging to her past in "Sunset Boulevard" is the ultimate Hollywood sad story, Bryant has been the exact opposite. By abandoning his old personas he has become more relevant than ever.
As much as the sports landscape is his, he also belongs to Los Angeles. Any remaining doubt was eliminated during baseball's National League Championship Series, when the Dodgers played his hometown Philadelphia Phillies and Kobe showed up, sat next to Frank McCourt and Tommy Lasorda, donned a Dodgers cap and threw up an "L.A." sign when he was shown on DiamondVision.
The reason Kobe formed such a bond with this city is that he represents its most unappreciated trait: hard work. Far below the Hollywood sign, Los Angeles is a place of predawn call times on the set, of hard labor at the port, of manual labor and legal wrangling. And the constant in Kobe's career has been his effort.
It didn't matter if you were happy to see him win a championship without Shaq or upset that he had been rewarded after plunging the franchise into three years of upheaval just to satisfy his curiosity. There's no denying that it wasn't simply bestowed on him. He earned this most recent ring and everything that came with it, including the adulation from the humongous crowd at the Coliseum championship rally and the shout-outs from Lil Wayne and Kanye West, who performed at the Lakers' private party.
Kobe Bryant put in the work, he reached the top.
Sometimes the story really is that easy.
J.A. Adande is a columnist for ESPN Los Angeles and covers the NBA for ESPN.com.