For all of those basketball fans and those in the media who said Kobe Bryant would never win a title without Shaquille O’Neal, and then witnessed it Sunday night, I have two words for you on behalf of Mr. Bryant:
Now why, I’m sure you’re wondering, would someone want to thank their critics?
Simple. You helped to create the seething, teeth-baring, smoke-breathing monster that we saw in this postseason. And all it took fuel him the whole way there was more and more criticism.
He’s a ball hog. Throw out the fact that he had his best shooting percentage during the regular season since 2001-02 — the last year he won a title with Shaq — and you’ll notice that his scoring average went down for the third year in a row, and he shaved off about half a turnover per game, despite also shaving off half an assist per game. But check this out: this year, he played just over 36 minutes a game, his lowest per game average since he became a starter ten years ago.
What does this all mean? That he had a better team around him, that he didn’t have to do it all himself, ergo, he was able to finally trust his teammates. Before this year, the only person that would’ve merited such trust was Derek Fisher (and who was it that got the assist to Fisher for the dagger three-pointer in Game 4 of the finals? Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to look it up…)
Jerry West, Kobe’s former mentor, proclaims LeBron is the best player in the league. You will not hear me of all people broach this topic now. In my opinion, it’s not a fair scenario (but that’s not my point). When the time came for the league’s two biggest stars to face adversity in their respective conference finals and lead their teams to the next round, Kobe’s team succeeded. LeBron’s did not.
Yes, you can argue that Kobe’s supporting cast answered the bell, while LeBron’s virtually ran away from it, but when crunch time came, when everybody knew that Kobe would have the ball in his hand and was moving for the kill, he got that kill. He proved why he is called “the best closer in the game.”
The Lakers will choke against the Rockets. No Tracy McGrady in the playoffs? No Yao Ming after Game 3? No problem for the Rockets. What bothered me most about this is during this whole run, nobody gave any credit to the Rockets for battling through without their two biggest stars. Everybody made it more of, “the Lakers are blowing it” than, “the Rockets are showing tremendous heart.” And in Game 7, knowing what was at stake, even Kobe had sense enough to know that deferring to his big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, would make the difference in the game. (I could go off on a tangent on how people just don’t respect Kobe’s basketball IQ, but I don’t feel like blogging all night.)
The Lakers will choke against the Nuggets. OK, so yes, the Lakers weren’t 100% sharp against the Rockets, the Cavs got pimp-slapped by the Orlando Magic, who had also beaten the Boston Celtics before them. But did it make as much sense to simply jump on the Nuggets bandwagon?
Yes, I’ll agree, the Nuggets wasted the New Orleans Hornets and the Dallas Mavericks, but for probably the same reason why the Cavs killed the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons: because it was expected. Those lop-sided matchups ended the way they were supposed to, with the more talented team decimating the lesser talented.
Nevertheless, cheering for the Nuggets became the sexy thing to do, especially after the Cavs began to falter in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was the sexy pick for two reasons: a) because they had played such impressive basketball and hadn’t faced any real competition, and b) because all of the LeBron worshippers believed that if the championship wasn’t LeBron’s to win, then Kobe couldn’t have it either. And when the Western Conference Finals were tied after Game 4, everybody just assumed it wasn’t the year for the league’s two best players to square off.
Enter the “angry-dog”-faced Kobe. The rest is history.
The Lakers will choke against the Magic. Ha ha ha ha ha. You guys really thought that would happen? You thought a well-balanced offensive team that won 60-plus games in the league’s tougher conference would succumb to a three-point-shooting freak show? Nothing against the Magic, they played admirably in Games 2, 3, and 4, and without the ghost of Nick Anderson haunting Dwight Howard late in Game 4, Howard hits his free throws, closes out the game and the series is tied.
But the Lakers did what was necessary to win, even when it meant Kobe knowing when to take the back seat and when to defer to someone else. (And don’t forget, even the great Michael Jordan had to learn to defer to John Paxson and Steve Kerr… even after he punched him in the face.) And it seemed only fitting that Kobe and Fisher — the misfit and the disrespected “old man” — teamed up to deliver the crushing blow.
He will never win a title without Shaq. 32.4 points per game, 5.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists in perhaps the best five-game stretch we’ll ever see from the Black Mamba helped cap off his journey out of basketball purgatory. After the Lakers fell to the Pistons in the 2004 finals and the team was subsequently dismantled with Shaq’s trade to Miami, all the blame fell at Kobe’s feet, some deserved (even from Phil Jackson), some largely undeserved.
Was he young and immature at the time? Yes.
Was he a threat to Shaq’s dominance on the floor and in the locker room? Yes.
But did he show up for training camp three years in a row out of shape and missing games in bunches because of injuries and lack of conditioning? No, but Shaq did.
So when it came time to decide between renewing the contracts of your two biggest superstars that made it clear they could no longer co-exist, GM Mitch Kupchak chose the younger star still yet to enter his prime over the aging one that was about to leave his prime. It was a no-brainer. (Notice I didn’t mention that Kobe had any say in the matter. Why? Because he was ready to go to the freakin’ Clippers!)
When Shaq and Kobe’s run came to an end, there was only room enough for one superstar in everyone’s hearts, and Shaq was the more lovable of the two. He had the funny commercials, the playful demeanor, the locker room and press conference jokes, the bad movies, ridiculous video games and failed music career… well, you get my point.
When the lovable character was removed, the other one took the brunt of the blowback. But they have now both won titles without each other. The divorce is final, and both have moved onto healthy relationships and are very happy. But don’t expect that “Bruce-Demi” relationship to happen because that would make Sasha Vujacic “Ashton”, and I refuse to entertain that scenario because eventually I need to sleep tonight.
We can go back and forth all day about Kobe and Shaq, Kobe and LeBron, etc. But the fact of the matter is that when Kobe Bryant fell after 2004, many believed he would never recover from it. They thought he would create his own self-destruction and forever doom himself and those around him to fail. However, he rose above his mistakes, his critics, and his obstacles to do exactly what people said he couldn’t do: lead a team to a championship. He had plenty of help to get there, from the Lakers’ front office, to his family, to his teammates, to Phil Jackson.
But he also had some big assists from those who preyed on his downfall.
So, once again, thank you.