Monday, June 15, 2009

Happy Day in L.A.

Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers closed out the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Sunday night, solidifying their place as the team of the decade. Bryant has led the NBA’s most recognizable franchise to six NBA Finals appearances over the last ten seasons, and he now has four championship rings to his name.

Surpassing Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs for the most championships won in the decade is a great accomplishment, and one surely not lost on Kobe, but what really distinguishes this title run for the NBA’s most dominating talent is one giant, glaring absence.

Of course, I’m referring to ‘The Diesel’, Shaquille O’Neal. Alongside O’Neal, Bryant took his first four trips to the Finals, and won his first three championship rings. Like a shark getting his first taste of blood, the success Bryant achieved with O’Neal fueled his greatness, but it also illuminated his greatest flaw.

Bryant’s supreme confidence has been vital to his basketball success at every level. Announcing his jump straight from high school to the NBA, Bryant stood behind a podium, grinning from ear-to-ear, as if he knew something the rest of us didn’t, as if his crystal ball had shown him all of this- the championships, the droves of fans, the money, and most importantly of all, the legacy.

In the six seasons that separated Bryant’s third and fourth championships, he wore many hats- the next MJ, the immature whiner, the villain who forced Shaq and Phil Jackson out of town, the villain who allegedly raped a young woman in Colorado, the wrongly accused celebrity, the more mature whiner, the traitor who wanted out of L.A., and in time, the leader, the closer, the best.

His personality can be described as conceited and abrasive at worst, intense and business-like at best, but what Bryant really is, nah, what he has always been, is a winner. During the early years, the Shaq years, Bryant won and won often, but wasn’t yet mature enough to appreciate all of his success for what it was. Rather, Bryant thought that he needed his success to be on his terms. After five years of losing, however, Bryant decided a different strategy was in order.

In 2007-2008, after five years of catching fish for his teammates, Bryant decided it was time to teach them how to fish for themselves. Like a proud parent, Bryant sat back, surveyed, and saw his teammates grow in front of his eyes. Andrew Bynum, once the source of Bryant’s disdain, became his pet project, and his trade requests became requests for reinforcements.

In February of 2008, Bryant’s prayers were answered, as the Lakers were able to acquire Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol, a former Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star, provided the interior presence that Bryant needed, but didn’t require the spotlight that Bryant had worked so hard to monopolize. In the ’08 playoffs, the two thrived, leading the Lakers all the way back to the Finals for the first time since the Kobe-and-Shaq Lakers lost to Detroit in 2004.

However, with Bynum out injured and facing a hungry and talented Boston Celtics squad, L.A. came up just short. With a renewed sense of passion and faith in the team that had been built around him, Bryant worked tirelessly to ensure the failures of ’04 and ’08 wouldn’t be repeated.

This season, Gasol’s first full year as Bryant’s wingman, the two really clicked. Gasol’s ability to see the floor and pass out of double teams made him tough to double, but his polished post game and scoring proficiency demanded it nonetheless.

In the Finals, Bryant and Gasol repeatedly ran a two-man game, where Bryant isolated his man on the perimeter, Gasol flashed to the low post on the same side, and then the two took what the defense gave them. Bryant would dump the ball down to Gasol, knowing that his man couldn’t help with a double team. If the double team came from the far side, Gasol would hit the open man. If he was singled, he took to the rim or drew contact. If, heaven forbid, Bryant’s man cheated down onto Gasol, Kobe would make it rain.

The system, masterminded by the perpetually underrated Phil Jackson, worked to perfection against Orlando, making Dwight Howard look more like a 23-year-old project than a perennial All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year. The title, Jackson’s tenth, breaks a tie with long-time Celtic’s coach Red Auerbach, and sends Jackson into a stratosphere all his own.

Moving forward, questions exist about the future of both Bryant and Jackson. Bryant has an early termination option in his contract that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He will obviously garner maximum money regardless of his destination, but with all of his success in Hollywood, it would be a shock to see ‘The Mamba’ depart for greener pastures.

Jackson, on the other hand, could be a very different story. With 10 titles already in the books, the 63-year old Jackson has very little left to accomplish. Not that Jackson will look to move to another team, but riding off into the sunset with yet another championship doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. After all, the man’s out of fingers…

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