You could argue the NBA is currently at it’s highest peak since the Michael Jordan void swarmed the league. Losing such a superstar that filled arenas, influenced the buying of merchandise, and drew the “casual” fan to the television set even at age 40, the NBA was nearly in a bad spot. People still had a desire for their basketball, but the college level garnered more attention.
Three years after Jordan’s final retirement, fans were exposed to dominance in a comparable fashion. This time, it wasn’t at the United Center in an NBA Finals environment. Instead, it came in front of Jack Nicholson and an overly-anxious Staples Center crowd, desperate for wins after losing a superstar center.
He sat next to his locker during pre-game, digesting the pepperoni pizza he recently devoured. Above all else, he had family on his mind. His grandma in the stands, the birthday of his grandpa, the emotions running through his body knowing she would likely only attend one game in his professional career.
It’s Kobe Bryant, and next to his name read “81.”
Recording the second highest scoring total for a game in NBA history, Bryant worked his tail off to set a new standard for individuals in the modern era, with Jordan aging and appearing in Hanes commercials over and over.
The more you reflect back to his 2005-06 season, and the destruction he threw upon defenders every season since, becoming the second generation Michael Jordan inches closer to a reality. It may have never been his goal to emulate No. 23, but he’s the only one to completely fill the missing gap when Jordan called it quits, and he handled the adversity of the Colorado case with maturity, not being affected by strong negative reaction playing on the road.
He’s never been the happiest, most satisfied, or the friendliest of people. You can thank Jordan’s legacy for that, and Magic Johnson‘s five championships as a Los Angeles Laker. The motivation is through the roof, in anything he does.
“Something that’s an attribute that both [Jordan and Bryant] have, is that you could set the bar at seven and a half feet and tell them nobody’s ever jumped that before, and they’d say ‘I can do it”, Phil Jackson once said.
Out-playing Bryant on the basketball court for one night, defeating him in the playoffs, and even having a more likeable personality, is all possible by stars in today’s game. Out-working him, however, is not.
Bryant’s 18-year career may not have been plagued with serious injuries at a young age such as Shaun Livingston‘s gruesome knee injury that nearly caused amputation, but he’s had his share of smaller, nagging injuries. He’s fought through the torn ligaments in the fingers, the bone-on-bone knee pain in the playoffs, the countless ankle twists resulting from defenders trying their best to prevent game-clinching buckets.
A larger, thicker plate of adversity was laid on the table for Bryant in April 2013, as tearing his Achilles tendon only brought an offseason full of downtime, and a healing process difficult for highly intensified competitors.
One aspect people fail to realize when judging Bryant’s six games of the 2013-14 season, is that he returned from the worst injury for an aging athlete in just eight months, when it’s normal projected to take at least nine, or closer to a year’s worth of training and rehab.
During his sixth game back in the rotation, Bryant sealed the deal in Memphis with a 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Tony Allen, one that’s familiar with getting bit by the Black Mamba from the outside. He wasn’t quite himself when he connected from 28 ft. away in crunch time during December. Earlier in the game, he had suffered an awkward fall to the ground, leaving pain in his left knee that he rubbed off. The words “lateral tibial plateau fracture” didn’t want to resonate in his mind, and it appeared as if they didn’t have to. Bryant finished the game — a win for the Lakers — while scoring 21 points on 50 percent shooting. The news came the following morning, knocking him to the sidelines for an estimated six weeks and, ultimately, the rest of this season.
It’s been a wild, up and down year for the 16-time All-Star. He’s had an opportunity to speak on more talk-shows than ever before, participate in commercials, and utilize his motivational speaking skills to the younger generation of students and basketball players. Perhaps one reason it was so difficult for Bryant to watch his team lose this season and work to help improve the talents on the roster, is because he knows half of the members on the Lakers won’t be back next season.
Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live Thursday evening, Bryant offered new light on how far he’s already reached in his rehab to get the venom back.
Kobe says that from a health standpoint, he's 100%, but not there yet when it comes to basketball. He's going to kill, I'm telling everyone
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) May 9, 2014
Another significant issue as it pertains to making a comeback is the understanding of when a player is physically ready. Your body can be 100 percent, as Bryant claimed his Achilles was when he made the December 8 return to the court. It’s another thing to be in basketball shape, ready to endure the miles on the court, quick movements, hard pounding while driving to the rim. This isn’t the NFL …. but it’s just as demanding and puts a toll on the human body. Especially at age 35, as the body becomes more suspect and fragile.
Seriously, do folks forget that nearly all of Bryant’s 2013 offseason wasn’t dedicated to the basketball court? It was about healing the tendon, and working in the exercise room to strengthen the foot to prevent a career-ending re-tear. Basketball activities were resumed around the beginning of the season, but he still had pounds to shed off his body, and there’s no argument the NBA’s increased pace over the last three seasons has made it tougher to prepare for.
During his short time on the floor this season, it’s obvious fans weren’t happy about the turnovers, but part of the blame for that is just the time away from game speed. Other than that, we were shown flashes of his old style, the type of game we all want to see him play as a veteran.
The clip above is a prominent example of what we can always expect from Bryant, including next year. The mid-post game — eventually switching to a face-up — against P.J. Tucker worked for Bryant in the December 9 meeting vs. Phoenix in just his second game back. Although Pau Gasol likely won’t be re-signed by the Lakers, his two-man game with Bryant has been a major key to success. Notice how Gasol and Bryant are always on the same page offensively, and Gasol quickly moves to the right side of the court, forcing Miles Plumlee to keep a body on him.
That created a clear-out for Bryant, without a second defender (Plumlee) bringing help and clogging the drive. Bryant’s explosiveness may take a hit, but give me his ability to create separation and post-up scorers over dunks any day.
If you haven’t placed your chips on Bryant playing with the same attack, using his footwork and creativity …. you need to watch film. In the above play, again in his second game after Achilles rehab, he’s working his craft on one of the best one-on-one defenders in the West in Tucker. Tucker is the bigger build — nearly 230 pounds and the same height — and Bryant gets where he wants in the isolation post-game. Being able to put together the footwork with the fade away jumper is a craft that very few can master, and it would be sacrilegious to not include Bryant’s name with Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon when it comes to finding their groove with their feet.
For his final two seasons (at least that’s what he’s planning on), don’t expect the same ridiculous, demon-possessed man we saw in his “playoff guarantee” for the Lakers last year. We don’t want you to feel let down. The posterizations can still be there, but it’s all about being focused on improving his teammates if his scoring has to take a dip. Even though he racked up a ton of turnovers in his six games (34), he was looking to dish the ball off to find easier scorers.
Opening night of the 2014-15 season will be the first time in over a year we’ve seen a healthy superstar for the Lakers, a team that fully buys into his energy and passion driving them into the playoffs, despite the surrounding pieces.
Jeanie Buss, part owner of the organization, offered her take on Thursday regarding the large $48.5 million contract Bryant inked in late 2013.
“(Bryant) was a great investment for the organization,” Buss said. “To me, he is worth every dime that we’re paying him, and we’re going to have the opportunity to show how much we appreciate everything he’s done.”
Bryant’s legacy, and work ethic certainly drive that point home, but we’re about to find out soon enough if his on-the-court play backs up the large figures. His only shot at a sixth championship rests on the decision of max-contract level guys (Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Love, etc.) coming to Hollywood, so it’s up to him to make the move sound enticing with his recruitment, but even more so with his level of play after injury.
There’s still guys out there that are desperate for a title, to make it to the big stage in June at least once, Anthony being the headline of that paper. There’s still guys that are willing to play with the Lakers’ most prized and expensive possession, if it’s the same Bryant that ambushed the league last season for 27.3 points per game on 46 percent shooting.
However, there’s not many guys that want to join this unfamiliar, uncertain, and never before seen Bryant, one that doesn’t even know himself if the injuries will stay out of town.
That’s up to only one man, draped in purple and gold for a 20-year career. It’s also why this offseason is the most crucial in Bryant’s career, if he wants to end the 20 years with a cherry on top.