A lot of Lakers fans are getting worked up over the possibility that Kobe Bryant's going to win his first MVP ... and I wish they'd get over it. I really don't believe it's going to happen. In the history of the NBA, no one has ever played at such a high pitch, for so many years, without winning it -- except Kobe. Kobe Bryant, the best player in basketball for at least the last six years, has never even come in second. A couple years back, in '05-06, over twenty writers left Kobe completely off their ballots -- as in, they didn't think he was one of the top 5 MVP candidates in the league.
It won't surprise me to see that trend continue this year -- it won't shock me to see Kobe come in fourth this year, behind Chris Paul, Lebron James, and Kevin Garnett.
If Kobe does win ... it'll be because the anti-Kobe vote (as opposed to the pro-Paul/James/Garnett vote) ... gets split. Make no mistake ... if Kobe Bryant and I were the only two players in the NBA, I'd like my chances for MVP, with the current crowd of writers who vote that award. The anybody-but-Kobe crowd is a lot larger than the pro-Kobe crowd, among those voters...
Early in Kobe's career he suffered for playing next to Shaq. During their three-year run of championships, they and Tim Duncan were the three best players in the league -- despite which between Shaq and Kobe they accounted for only one MVP, Shaq's in 2000. I'd argue (and did at the time) that Kobe was more responsible for those three championships than Shaq. (Not but what Shaq deserved his regular season MVP in 2000 -- and probably one or two in the years previous to that, too.)
Frequently people point out that Shaq won the Finals MVP three years running; but in each of those three years, the Finals wasn't the most difficult series the Lakers played. The East was weak and the Lakers beat up on the Pacers 4-2, on the 76ers 4-1, and on the Nets 4-0. What each of those three teams had in common was that they lacked a center who could slow Shaq down in any meaningful way. The Pacers had Rik Smits at the end of his career; the 76ers had 90 year old Dikembe Mutumbo and Todd MacCulloch; and the Nets had ... Todd MacCulloch, who signed with them as a free agent in the 2001 offseason. Predictably, Shaq tore through them.
The story was different when Shaq faced big men who could make him work. The Lakers most difficult series in 2000 was the Portland series, where the Lakers were down fifteen points early in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to a very good Blazers team, before beginning the biggest Game 7 fourth quarter comeback in the history of playoff basketball. There's a good chance that without that game, the Lakers 3-year run wouldn't have happened ... and it's worth looking at the box score for that game, and seeing who led the team in points and assists ... and rebounds ... and blocked shots:
Shaquille O'Neal: 18 pts, 5 assists, 9 rebounds, 1 blocked shot
Kobe Bryant: 25 points, 7 assists, 11 rebounds, 4 blocked shots
In 2001 the Lakers put together the best post-season run ever -- 15 & 1. They swept the first three teams they faced -- Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio -- before losing one game to the 76ers in the Finals. (If I recall, it was the only time a team had won a championship while playing 4 straight 50+ win teams.) Despite losing a game to them, the 76ers weren't the best team the Lakers face in the post-season; the Spurs were. The Spurs won 58 games that year. They had David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Sean Elliot, Derek Anderson, Malik Rose, Terry Porter, Avery Johnson -- a deep, veteran squad. Had they gotten past the Lakers, they'd have handled the 76ers ... but they didn't get past the Lakers, principally because of Kobe. Kobe killed the Spurs in that series. They started that series off in San Antonio -- mostly because of injuries, the Lakers only won 56 games that year themselves -- and beat the Spurs behind 45 points by Kobe Bryant in the first game, and 28 in the second. Then they went home and humiliated the Spurs in Los Angeles in two straight games -- the Lakers were a very, very good team that year, when healthy -- and Kobe didn't lead the team in either of those two home games. But -- again -- the most dangerous team the Lakers faced that year was in the Western Conference, and had an MVP award been handed out for that series, there's no doubt who'd have won it.
2002's the only year I'd have handed the MVP to Shaq; the Lakers most difficult series that year was against the Sacramento Kings (you remember, the one Ralf Nader thought important enough to lead a national movement over...). It went 7 games (and overtime of the 7th game) and in the four games the Lakers won, Shaq was superb. Kobe led the team in scoring in the first win, but in the next 3 it was Shaq, and he had 9, 18, 17, and 13 rebounds in those four games. More importantly, Shaq, a legendarily bad free throw shooter, shot 13 of 17 in Game 6, and 11 of 15 in Game 7. It was Shaq at his best -- the sorts of games that make you wonder what he might have done had he worked at the game the way Magic or Jordan or Kobe have, over the course of his career. He was a superb talent, in an astonishing body ...
No regular season MVPs for Kobe. Despite stuff like this --
"If I had to pick the single greatest player on the planet, I take Kobe Bryant, without hesitation." -- Michael Jordan
"At the end of the day Kobe will go down as the greatest player to have ever played the game. His mentality, his approach -- he tries to seek and destroy. There is really nothing he can't do on the basketball court. The main thing is his will. He is not satisfied with just beating you. He wants to put the dagger in you. I think that is a lost art to a certain degree in this league." -- Mark Jackson
"Kobe is more skilled than Jordan, a better shooter. Michael has bigger hands, and that helped him a lot." -- Phil Jackson, who coached both
"Kobe is the most talented in the game on both ends of the floor" -- Gregg Popovich
"Kobe is the best basketball player in the world." -- Charles Barkley
"I'm not saying that he's the most valuable player, but he's certainly the best player. And it's not even close. He is utterly dominant." - Mike D'Antoni
After the 81 point game: "I don't know if anyone could have stopped him last night. It's so senseless to me to say he shouldn't take over like that. You give the same amount of shots to everybody else and they're not making that many, I know it. Players are jealous of greatness. Kobe is a unique talent and a unique person. His belief that he can jump to the moon is never going to change. But I admire him, what he's been able to overcome. You would think he would be a fair-haired man of the NBA with what's he's already done. But he's taken a fairly good battering." -- Jerry West
... and so he has.
Was it because of this? In the summer of 2003, Kobe was accused of raping a woman whose name I won't use here, despite it being fairly common knowledge at this point. After his accuser got nailed lying repeatedly on a variety of points, and after her rape kit came back with the DNA of two different men in it -- the second man's DNA apparently, and there's no genteel way to put it, contributed after Kobe's -- the accuser quit the criminal case and took a multi-million dollar payment to settle the civil case. And Kobe walked.
It's a nasty episode. The best case scenario is that Kobe cheated on his wife with a woman who took it as an opportunity to blackmail him for millions. The worst case scenario is that he raped a woman so crazy that she then went off and had sex with someone else on her way to have her rape kit taken....
Nasty episode ... but the truth, and this may anger some ... the truth is, I don't think most sportswriters are holding on to this. Maybe a few, but it's not what's kept Kobe from an MVP. Most of the press had a negative view of Kobe before that happened, and the rape allegations are so unrelated to what goes on on the court (the basketball court, that is) ... that I'm really skeptical that this is what's at the core of it.
Almost from the moment Kobe Bryant walked on the court, he encountered a level of bile that was really unusual. He was polite, soft spoken, well mannered, didn't talk badly of others (unlike, say, Shaq) ... and sportswriters hated the guy. From Day 1, they did. He came in during the closing days of the Michael Jordan Era. ESPN had just named Jordan the greatest athlete ... of the 20th Century. Ahead of Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali and Pele and Jim Thorpe. (And in basketball, ahead of Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. Call me a Lakers homer if you like; Magic and Russell are #1 and #2 on my list of best all-time basketball players; Jordan's #3.) We were treated to paens along the lines of "we shall never see his like again," and so on. Jordan was "our generation's Babe Ruth."
The problem wasn't that Kobe had been compared to Jordan; that's happened a lot. Harold Miner ("baby Jordan" was his actual nickname.) Penny Hardaway. Grant Hill. Vince Carter. Tracy McGrady. The list of "Next Jordans" has been huge, and none of them got the bile that Kobe did. Because they weren't the next Jordan, and (with the possible exception of Grant Hill, had he not had his career ruined by injury) ... never really had a chance to be.
But Kobe has been. You couldn't put a playing card between the gap between Kobe Bean Bryant and Michael Jeffrey Jordan, as basketball players. Jordan was more efficient overall; Kobe the better offensive player. Jordan better at getting to the rim; Kobe the better shooter overall. Jordan the slighty better defender; Kobe the better dribbler and ball handler. Both of them are murderous cuthroats who wanted to win more than anyone else around them. And it's not the fact that Kobe got compared to Jordan that angered all those sportswriters, back in the day; it's the fact that he held up to the comparison that so enraged them, when their "immortal Jordan" columns were still recent enough to be fresh in people's minds.
(You want to know who we really aren't ever likely to see again? Magic. Yeah, I know, homer, Lakers fan, and so on. I cop to it. But Lebron James is the closest thing we've seen to Magic Johnson, a ball handling big man, and I want to see James win a ring before I start stacking him up next to Magic. Which I think James will do, though he may need to leave the Cavaliers to get there.)
After the sportswriters, Kobe got hammered by his own teammate, Shaquille O'Neal, the master of the passive aggressive, sniping backbite. People have blamed Kobe, his entire career, for the feud with Shaq -- but Shaq's on his fourth team, and he's badmouthed at one time or another virtually everyone he's ever been professionally linked to -- the Orlando Magic and Penny Hardaway; the Lakers, Kobe, and Phil Jackson (and the entire city of Los Angeles, while he was at it: bite me, big man.) Recently, after the trade from Miami, he's sniped at the Heat and Pat Riley.
But during Shaq's prime, he had the fortune and the misfortune to play next to the second or third best player in the game, his first few years with the Lakers; and the best player in the game, his last few. And he hated it, and Kobe, and the better Kobe got, the more Shaq hated him. Until, at the end, Kobe started firing back. The memory everyone has is that Kobe and Shaq feuded the entire time they were in Los Angeles (and in the locker room this may have been true.) But only Shaq was public with his side of the feud, until the very end ... and permitting that to happen was a terrible mistake on Kobe's part. When you've got someone determined to take a fight into the gutter (and if this sounds like a personal observation on my end, you wouldn't be wrong) ... you either get down in the gutter with him, or you walk away, or you lose. So Shaq's side of the story got told, and plenty of people observed that he was childish and petty ... but for years and years he was childish and petty and the only one talking.
And then the dynasty broke up. The Lakers Reloaded squeaked by the Spurs in an astonishing series, and then lost in the Finals to the Detroit Pistons in 2004 in an equally astonishing five game asskicking. Shaq requested a trade, the Lakers fired Phil Jackson, resigned Kobe, and abruptly the Lakers had to rebuild ....
This, too, was Kobe's fault. Kobe's selfishness broke up the Lakers Dynasty. If you follow sports even casually you've heard this accusation.
It's not true, or at least no more than peripherally true. Shaquille O'Neal requested a trade in the 2004 offseason. Shaq did that. Kobe didn't request the trade for him; Shaq did that. This is, of all the various lies told about Kobe over the years, the one that most perplexes me. "Kobe got Shaq traded." Unless Kobe kidnapped Shaq's children and was holding them hostage, I simply fail to see how that can be true.
Shaq and Jerry Buss, the Lakers' owner, had been fighting all year over the contract extension Shaq wanted. In the pre-season, Shaq screamed at Buss, in public, on the basketball court, "Pay me, mother******!"... try that with your boss. Let me know how it works out for you. In Shaq's case it came down to the Lakers deciding to rebuild around Kobe, the recognized best player in the game, rather the aging Shaq. And, in retrospect, it was the correct decision. The Lakers today, if healthy, are the most talented team in the league -- Kobe, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. Lamar Odom's probably one of the top 15 forwards (both 3s and 4s) in the league and he's the Lakers #4 option in that lineup. All of those players except Kobe came to the Lakers due to the Lakers decision to trade Shaq -- Bynum came in the draft the following year, after the Lakers missed the playoffs; Odom came directly in trade for Shaq; and Gasol came in trade for Kwame, who came for Caron Butler, who came for Shaq.
So the Lakers decision to rebuild looks wise, in retrospect. And whether it was or was not wise ... it never was Kobe's decision. He didn't deserve the blame he got for it, and he doesn't deserve credit for it today; it was Buss's call, Buss's team, Buss's static and praise, end of day.
And Kobe's still not going to win the MVP barring a major vote-splitting screwup among the anti-Kobe crowd ...
... but he has a shot at a championship this year, for the first time since Shaq left; and the Lakers will probably be the favorites next year, regardless of what happens with the Celtics or Spurs (or Pistons, conceivably) this year. Three more rings for Kobe, to match Jordan's six -- calling it now. Gasol, Bynum, and Odom will be the best front line in the NBA when they're all healthy; Kobe will be the best player in the NBA for another year or two, until Lebron James finally overtakes him. Even after James does (and he will) basketball, as Kobe knows all too well (and always knew, all those years he deferred his game to Shaq, because Shaq was both unable and unwilling to defer in the other direction) ... basketball is a team game: and Kobe's team is set for a hell of a run.
It's better than an MVP. At the end, what really matters are the rings. Another generation of sportswriters will come along, and they'll see what this generation's been too blinded to see, too vain to admit, and too foolish to understand.