This is the last championship of this decade. This is Kobe Bryant's last chance to mark himself as the dominant player of this decade, and probably his last real chance to stake any sort of claim toward the greatest player ever.
For the most part, the NBA has had clearly defined eras, and for the most part they've conveniently fit into decades. The dominant player of the 1950s was George Mikan, the first great NBA center. He won five championships (but no Most Valuable Player awards; the NBA didn't begin handing out MVPs until 55-56 season.)
The dominant player of the 1960s was Bill Russell, the center for the Boston Celtics. He won 8 championships in the 60s, plus 3 in the 50s; he won 4 MVPs.
In the 70s it was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He won only one championship in that decade. (This depends on how you define decades, since the NBA season covers two years, and Kareem won his next championship in 1979-1980. For the purposes of this post, I'm treating each season as a part of the decade in which it ends.) But despite his single championship, no one else did much better in the 70s, and Kareem won 6 MVP awards during that period.
In the 80s it was Magic Johnson. He won 3 MVPs and 5 championships. In a situation that mirrors Kobe's, he had a competitor: Larry Bird. Bird won 3 championships and 3 (consecutive) MVP Awards. But Magic went to the Finals 8 times in the decade (a 9th in the 90s), and Bird only managed it 5 times.
The 90s was Jordan. 4 MVPs (plus 2 in the 80s); and 6 championships.
The 00s has been more fragmented, at least in terms of great players. At the MVP level this is due to the media (which votes on MVPs), and not to the actual caliber of the players. The media's voting in this decade can only be described as irresponsible; they in turn screwed Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe, over the course of the last decade and a bit. Tim's Duncan's only won twice; Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal have only won once apiece. During that same period the NBA has awarded MVPs to Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash (twice!), Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson. Shaq's been cheated out of at least two MVPs, in 98-99; it went to Karl Malone in a year when Shaq was turning in one of the most stastistically dominant peformances in NBA history. In 00-01 the media handed it to Iverson, when Kobe was clearly a better guard and Shaq was still statistically tearing the cover off the ball.
I don't begrudge Garnett his MVP, though Kobe probably deserved it that year, he was on trial in Colorado and hell would have frozen over before he'd have won it. But the two years following -- Steve Nash? Twice? I like Nash, he's a great player and a joy to watch, but he's also the least deserving MVP in my adult life. And to follow him with Nowitzki was adding insult to injury -- that was three years of anybody-but-Kobe. (Or Duncan, for that matter, who deserved it more than any of the guys who won those years.)
But let the petty annoyances fade ... in this decade, Kobe's won 3 championships, and 1 MVP. Duncan's won 3 in 3 tries, and 2 MVPs. If Kobe wins this year, he'll have won his first championship without Shaq, fourth overall, in his sixth appearance in the NBA Finals, and will have cemented his claim as best player of the decade.
But it'll do more than that. It'll nail down his claim to third greatest guard of all time behind Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and will catapult him into the discussion for GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) ... though he'll have more work to do to in coming years to live up to that.
Most people would concede Kobe is the greatest offensive force the game's ever seen. But the game is offense, defense, and leadership, and under defense Kobe is merely one of the better players the game has ever seen, and under leadership ... well, this is his second shot at leading a team to the championship. I didn't think they were going to win it last year -- there's an actual blog post where I laid out my feelings that the Celtics would win it last year, much as I disliked the idea -- and they didn't.
I do think they're going to win this year. They have home court, they have more talent than the Orlando Magic, and God knows they've been carrying the burden of their epic flameout in the last game of last year's Finals for the entire year since. When the Orlando Magic won the Eastern Conference Championship, they smiled and laughed and gave every indication of being pleased with themselves. The Lakers, at their trophy ceremony, looked like they'd just barely avoided being shot.
(It's not just the players. A few months back I asked a friend, a fellow Lakers fan, if he thought the Lakers were going to win it all this year. His grim answer: "They'd better.")
This is it for Kobe. I think he's one of the greatest ever to play the game, I think he's the greatest player the game's seen in the last decade, and I think he still has a legitimate shot at GOAT ... and all of that rests on this next series. Jerry West was one of the greatest the game's ever seen too ... but no one has ever really argued for him as GOAT. Because, when he got to the Finals, he lost. And lost. And lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost -- eight times, in all.
It's not often a single series means so much to a single player. But this one does.
I'm really sorry the Lakers didn't get to go head to head with the Celtics again this post-season. That would have been fitting. (I don't really care that they're not going to face LeBron -- in the grand Scheme of Schemes, it's a matchup that didn't interest me particularly.) As is, I'm probably going to change the quote on the graphic for this blog. If Garnett comes back healthy next year I'll put it back up again for the playoffs, but the top guys on the Celtics are elderly, and reaching the point where the productivity of basketball players typically drops off a cliff. Rondo's a stud, but he's not going to carry that team by himself with the big 3 aging.
We're back in the U.S., and back in Los Angeles. Court date next week to determine what happens with our 13 year old boy, Bram -- he's just undergone 8 hours of "reunification therapy," with his biological father, with another hour and a half scheduled for Friday. (According to Bram, quite a lot of it consists of Alan bitching about me. Shocker, that.) Quite a bit more coming on this subject, to be sure. The last year has been a fascinating one, and I will be writing about it at length ....
And yes, yes, yesssssssss ... there's more AI war coming. As soon as we have time to breathe, I'll publish the first half as an e-book. That at least ends at a nice stopping point after Trent surfs on a house. The rest will have to wait for things to settle down again, which is sort of the living definition of what the last year hasn't been. Though my sons have all learned to ride horses.