Commentary

Bryant is more valuable than ever

While Kobe probably won't win NBA MVP, he could be having his best season yet

Updated: March 10, 2011, 1:58 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

His story is too familiar.

His team has neither shocked nor awed us.

And so another player likely will be honored as the NBA's Most Valuable Player while Kobe Bryant, arguably the greatest player of his generation, is left to stew privately and console himself with remembrances of how much better it feels to win these types of awards in June.

A player with a better story, such as Chicago's Derrick Rose.

A player whose team has shocked us, such as the Knicks' Amare Stoudemire.

[+] EnlargeLakers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant has become an extension of Phil Jackson, remaining calm and focused during the Lakers' deepest struggles this season.

A player who can't help but inspire awe, such as Miami's LeBron James.

The MVP award is voted on by people who tell stories for a living. Basketball writers who look for drama and conflict in the games and people they cover.

Greatness -- sustained, stubborn greatness like Kobe Bryant has been able to maintain throughout his career -- makes for a flat story arc.

And in the eyes of the writers who vote on the award, he completed his arc in 2008 when he won his first -- and likely only -- MVP award by finally learning how to elevate his teammates.

What too often gets lost is that he's been doing that ever since.

In fact, this season might have been his greatest accomplishment as a leader, as he's helped Phil Jackson to guide the Lakers past fatigue, malaise and the unquantifiable pressure to three-peat as champions to arrive at what now appears to be a late-season crest heading into Thursday's game in Miami.

"He hasn't gotten any worse than what he was [during the 2007-08 season]," teammate Pau Gasol said. "It's the other way around probably."

This season Bryant has been patient when he would have been petulant in the past. Selfless when he would have been self-absorbed.

He has even tolerated -- maybe even promoted -- talk of his teammates' brilliance, such as the early-season MVP chatter about Gasol or the All-Star campaign for Lamar Odom.

He has been, in many ways, more valuable than ever.

But doing what you're expected to do, even if no one else in the NBA could do it as well, doesn't usually win MVP awards.

"To me, Kobe is the best player out there," Gasol said. "But obviously there are players that are playing at a high level for their teams and contributing to their teams being in a certain position, so they're getting credit for that, and I don't blame them."

Still, there's something sad about that.

That the story matters more than the finished product. That the same genius brushstrokes for which Bryant was honored in 2008 are still genius, but now feel too familiar and worn to be honored again.

Few players have ever mastered the individual and team game the way Bryant has in recent years. He has become, against all odds, an extension of Jackson on the court and in the locker room. Calm, confident and always cognizant of the ultimate goal of winning a championship in June.

He also has been able to maintain a level of play while his contemporaries -- Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson -- have fallen short, and his successors -- Rose, James and Chris Paul -- must now aspire.

I reached out to a half-dozen people around the league whose opinion I respect. Former coaches Mike Dunleavy, well-regarded agent Todd Ramasar, ESPN.com's statistical analysis wizard John Hollinger, a writer who votes on the award and several current NBA front-office sources who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

Not one of them thought Bryant would win the MVP award this season. Rose, Stoudemire, Paul, James and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki were the most consistent choices for who should win, with Rose's name at the top of most ballots.

Ramasar thought Rose would win but argued for a split-award between Boston's Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, because of the way the Celtics have been able to weather the myriad injuries that have plagued them this season.

For most, Bryant was barely even in the discussion even though his statistics compare almost equally with all of them and favorably to the presumed front-runner, Rose.

Hollinger pointed out that Bryant's player efficiency rating and adjusted plus-minus ranking -- a measure of points per 100 possessions -- were better than Rose.

"Look," Dunleavy said, "it's just hard to win when the bar is set so high to begin with. All of a sudden somebody new comes on the scene or there's a big turnaround, and people just want to go in that direction.

"I think a lot of times, it's hard to understand how hard it is to play at that level every night, for a guy like Kobe to do what he does every night when the expectations are there and defenses are all geared up for you."

Dunleavy was speaking as both the coach who spent the better part of a decade trying to figure out how to beat Bryant and the coach who was once charged with succeeding Pat Riley as coach of the Lakers.

Only a few men can really understand the pressure that comes along with coaching under those circumstances. So it isn't surprising that Dunleavy was the most emphatic in making the case for Bryant.

"All these awards are based on the regular season, so it doesn't manifest what kind of great job they did in the regular season until you see what happens in the playoffs," he said.

"You're not going to see the full body of work in the regular season. You're not going to be rewarded for a lot of the things you do, where you built a team to peak at the right time or you've been totally unselfish to get the confidence of your teammates up so they'll be ready to come through when you get to the big stage.

"The Lakers, pre-All-Star break, were terrible. They lost to Cleveland, and people were saying they were dead. Maybe rightfully so.

"But while everybody else was off having vacation, this guy [Bryant] went to work and put up 37 in the All-Star Game. I think he was sending a message out to his guys like, 'OK, it's time to roll.'"

The Lakers are 8-0 since the All-Star break, including impressive road wins in Portland, San Antonio and Atlanta. They've looked sharper and more focused.

Bryant, as always, has been their leader.

But his story is too familiar.

Greatness like his is admired but not always appreciated in the moment.

A better story likely will be deemed more valuable, leaving Bryant to the consolations of June.

Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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