Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kobe: MVP?

Whole lot of buzz over Kobe these days, and rightfully so.  The man is on a mind-boggling tear this season, racking up over 40 points in almost a third of his games so far and a scary 45.5 PPG average in January.  This now has him firmly placed in all MVP talk, despite the Lakers’ 22-19 record (11th in the league).  Moreso than any other MVP candidate, this has made Bryant a galvanizing topic amongst fans; either he’s the best player in the NBA or he’s a selfish show-off that can’t play team-ball.  George W may have competition as a divider.

I won’t try to pretend that I’m of two minds on this.  I don’t feel that he should be MVP, even if he continues this offensive display.  Now let me immediately temper that before I get labeled as a hater.  What Kobe is doing is nothing short of earth-shattering.  I strongly doubt any other player today could do what he’s doing even with a concerted all-out effort, and can’t make up my mind if Jordan could (80’s Jordan did go after things like this).  Shaq might have been able to do so in his prime if he ever bothered trying to reach his max potential as a player. If I were designing NBA 2k7, obviously I’d build Kobe with the highest rating in the game, even above the vast majority of the Hall of Famers.

Here’s the rub: I don’t think that he qualifies as the most valuable player in the NBA.  In the NFL, if a running back chases after a 2200-yard season and gives you not one but two 300-yard games, he’s MVP without thinking about it.  Peyton Manning ran away with it last year after putting amazing numbers at QB.  If you crank out 65+ homers and/or 130+ RBIs in MLB, you’re a cinch even if the club misses the playoffs.  In those two sports, individual stats directly indicate contributions to team success.  A 5-touchdown game from Shaun Alexander can’t be anything but positive for Seattle.  Experts don’t accuse Johan Santana of putting himself over the Twins for his 238 strike outs. The trick is, the NBA doesn’t work like that.  In basketball, an individual can overplay his role and upset team production, chemistry, and success.  No individual in the history of the game won championships by being the whole show.  Success in this league comes when the sum is greater than the parts.  Look at the league-terrorizing Pistons and then at the Lakers to see my point, or Memphis versus the seemingly-more talented Knicks.

To be MVP, I believe that recipient must lead his team to be one of the top in the league.  With all due respect to Kobe, can we truly say that this Laker team is playing at as high level as it possibly could?  Consider Steve Nash last year – he won the MVP award by driving his Suns teammates to play above themselves and race to the best record in the league.  Replace Nash on that team with anyone else in the league and it doesn’t happen.  Can the same be said about Bryant?  If LeBron replaced him on the roster, would the squad be worse off?  Would Odom still be nursing his second worst scoring average of his career?  I have an awfully hard time believing that Lakers wouldn’t be more of a team and be at least a game or two better off.  That’s my litmus test.  Kobe doesn’t pass, in my opinion.

I find it fitting that the only person brought up regularly in regards to the 81-point game is Chamberlain.  Wilt had a lot in common with Kobe: he had both adoring and despising fan bases, and took a lot of heat from critics for allegedly being more concerned about person glory and stats than team success.  Wilt got two rings, one in 67 (Philly over the Dynasty Celtics) and another in 72 (also against the Celtics).  In both cases, it’s been widely reported that he had to be heavily leaned on by strong-willed coaches and players (Alex Hannum , Bill Sharman, Jerry West) to lay off the scoring and focus on defense, rebounding, and passing.  It’s not much of a coincidence that each time he got a ring, it coincided with a new career-low in scoring.  For many purists, he’s best remembered as the most dominant player in history, but not the best player in history.  It’s a distinction that Kobe shares, in the minds of those like myself.    

Another couple of players that act as historical examples or Elgin Baylor and Dominique Wilkins.  Both were perennial All-Stars and spectacular league-topping scorers that were worth the four times the price of admission.  Neither managed a championship, and in the season following Baylor’s retirement, the Lakers won their first title in 17 years.  

Am I suggesting that Kobe is one-dimensional?  Absolutely not.  I look at him as the Anakin Skywalker of the NBA.  Potential and ability far beyond anyone around him, but he loses the big picture and focuses said ability on empty accomplishments.    Hopefully Kobe comes around and embraces a team concept again rather than shun any and everyone that might compete for his limelight.  I think deep down, most people want to see him finish his career winning championships and dominating the game.  Only that he do so with the Lakers, not as the Lakers.


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