Saturday, March 24, 2007

50 By Any Name Ain't So Sweet

Kobe Bryant and his 50-plus output for four games in a row has been the talk of the pro basketball world. Kobe’s taking the Lakers on his back. He’s mad as hell and doesn’t want his boys to miss the playoffs. Could he break Wilt's other record? Man oh man.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that S.O.L. thinks Kobe, while an extremely gifted scorer, is overrated and doesn’t belong in discussions of the greatest NBA players ever. I mean compare him to Pistol Pete, but Magic and Bird and Jordan? Dr. J? Oscar? Elgin? No. No. No. No.

Bryant has been shooting lights out of late – and he’s getting to the foul line a lot too. While he goes to the line fairly often (despite what his coach claims), he goes through stretches where he has huge swings -- four times here, 13 there. But the last four games, he's been living at the foul line. An interesting development considering it started after his coach called out the NBA refs for supposedly targeting Kobe. Fodder for the conspiracy theorists I suppose, but it's bullshit. And more than that, it proves how much Phillip has changed his tune since his sabbatical from the NBA.

Before the streak, Kobe’s Lakers had lost seven games in a row ( this a few weeks after dropping six straight) and were within two miracle shots by Kobe from losing number eight. To put this into perspective, no Phil Jackson team has ever lost more than five straight before this season.

Those shots he took, by the way, were the same ones he’d been chucking up and missing at the end of those string of losses. The same shots he criticized another scoring machine for taking himself during his 60-point outburst.

Don’t believe me? Find a replay of the end of their loss in Philadelphia. The Lakers were within striking distance in the fourth quarter when Kobe dribbled the ball the length of the court and with something like 16 seconds left on the shot clock, took a desperation three from three-feet behind the arc. It clanked off the rim and the Sixers turned the predictably long rebound easy two on the other end, all but sealing the win.

Afterward, Kobe's not-so-thinly-veiled comments were directed at his team, not inward. Never inward. "It was just bad execution," he said. "We've seen teams deny me on the floor before. When they do that, that's when you go deeper in the offense."

Translation: my teammates didn't make enough shots.

Maybe you should involve your teammates, Kobe. Translation: pass the damn rock.

Most players take shots like that and they're riding the pines. Not Kobe. He's 'great'. And when they go in, he's the MVP. (Don't get me started on Kobe should be the MVP nonsense. I hardly want to dignify that by explaining how wrong that is.)

Look at who the Lakers beat during Kobe’s 50-plus streak. Portland, Minnesota, Memphis and New Orleans. These teams are combined 60-plus games UNDER .500. Translation: they suck. Two of them - Portland and the Grizz -- are among the worst defensive teams in the league. Give the green light to any number of NBA players on any given night and they'll put 50 up against those guys. Way to go Kobe! Wanna play my high school next?

Pardon S.O.L. for not getting all giddy over Kobe or the Lakers. All of them but one weren't decided until the final minutes. Kobe's points barrage was the difference you say? Against teams like those, it shouldn't be. Not one of those wins makes up forthe Lakers getting blown out at home against Dallas or on the road against a fairly middling Denver team or getting LeBron-ed by Cleveland just before the All-Star break - or losing the season series against S.O.L.'s lousy New York Knicks. Playoff teams are supposed to beat lottery-bound teams.

Ah, but a Lakers fan would argue that these last four games have been different because they have their starters – Luke Walton and Lamar Odom – back from injury. Nice try but it don't fly here.

I like Walton’s game. He’s a nice complimentary player (which is like calling black athlete “articulate” I think) but he’s not going to make a huge difference on this team. And Odom. Man, I’ve always loved Odom’s game but reality has trumped perception – as well as he fills up a box score, Lamar just isn’t a difference maker. He loses focus, he makes bad plays and for whatever reason, he has difficulty finishing at the rim (if there was a stat for missed layups, he'd be in the top three in the league). He is probably the most frustratingly inconsistent talent in the NBA. Add to the mix his shoulder injury, which will probably require surgery in the offseason.

I think the Lakers have done yeoman’s work getting production out of big man Kwame Brown but expecting more from him at this point is just dreaming. And Brian Cook is never going to be the rebounder they need at the four, even when he comes back. And Vlad the Snowman? If the Lakers are counting on him to lead them into the second round of the playoffs, Chick Hearn is going to call out the fridge from the afterlife. This is the guy Jackson calls a "space cadet."

The better teams have proven they can stop the one-man Kobeshow, as we'll see in the coming weeks. First two should-win games - the enigmatic Golden State and crappy Memphis, again -- spurring predictions that Kobe will go for 60-plus six games in a row. Color me excited. Let's see him go for 60 against Houston (Jeff Van Gundy would rather eat his shoe than let Kobe score that many points) AND win the game. After the Lakers have a brutal stretch of eight home-away matchups - two against Denver, two against the Suns and two against the suddenly surging L.A. Clippers. Seriously, if the Clips continue playing well and take those two games against the Lakers, they could pass them in the standings. Not that I'm predicting that here.

And while Kobe’s firing up 20 more shots a game then his teammates (as he did against New Orleans), how is that going to prepare them for when it’s on them to make baskets?

This leads to another oft-made point here and that is that if Kobe wants to be considered great, he has to not only play great, he has to be a leader -- on both ends of the floor. At one time, he was considered a premier shut-down defender but he doesn't seem interested in playing 'D' anymore. I refer you to this excellent blog. Basketbawlful writes eloquently about what he calls the myth of Kobe's defense. In it, he makes a number of compelling points in comparing Kobe to Steve Nash, who is widely considered a defensive liability (not by S.O.L.).

(And really, the discussion about who's a better player between Nash and Kobe ought to end on who makes their team better. In almost any category you want to measure, any meaningful statistical analysis, Nash means more to his team in terms of wins and loses than Kobe does. Simply put, Nash makes his teammates better.)

Basketbawlful is one of the few NBA observers who has noticed how often Kobe's been torched by the guy he's guarding this season. Did anyone notice how many points Memphis' Mike Miller (sounds like a blues guy, doesn't it?) put up against the Lakers? That's right, folks, 33. And who was guarding him? Oh, dear, yes. We already talked about Agent Zero's 60 (Kobe ASKED to guard him in the fourth and it made a difference only in Arenas getting more points). And when LeBron was going off on the Lakers in the fourth quarter of their victory last month, he was doing it against Kobe, in the fourth, with the game on the line.


Undercover Black Man said...

I've been waiting for you to drop this bomb on Kobe's head, S.O.L. Worth waiting for. Splendid analysis.

As I've said before, I love your sportswriting. I'm not even a big basketball fan; I understand a fraction of the game's nuances that you do. But I can fully understand every point you're making, and it's very, very entertaining to read.

S.O.L. said...

Thanks, UBM. Coming from you that is all high, high praise.

Undercover Black Man said...

And then, with the game on the line... he travels. Way to go, champ...

justjudith said...

hooray! another woman who loves sports and knows what she's talking about. i agree with everything you wrote about kobe. he is as interesting a figure in sports as there is and i'm not even a fan of his.

S.O.L. said...

Thanks JustJudith - we are in a small but powerful club. :-D And, we can talk to guys in bars, too.

UBM, that game was such a microcosm of the Myth of Kobe. And the next game, he dishes out 13 assists and isn't even the team's high scorer and they win. Mmmm. If we get it, why doesn't Black Mamba?