Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Guessing Game: Kobe and the Definition of Legacy

Apologies for the protracted absence.  We've had family in town this past week and between work, the holiday, and tour-guiding them all over Atlanta's sundry attractions, I haven't had any time at all to sit down and write.  Since baseball is All-Star Breaking for the next few days and the NFL will be a hail of mini-camps and contract disputes until August, let's talk hoops.  The NBA has gone sideways with trades and signings over the past two weeks as the league's terrain undergoes a heavy re-landscaping.  The Hawks suddenly have cap space again, the Heat have Ray Allen, the Nets acquired Joe Johnson's contract and safely re-upped Deron Williams, the Pacers retained Roy Hibbert, the Knicks snatched J-Kidd, Houston's plans fell apart entirely, and the Timberwolves took a flyer on Brandon Roy.  Oh yeah, and the Lakers signed Steve Freaking Nash.

Before we go any further, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to Suns fans everywhere.  If this trend persists, Phoenix is going to wind up with almost as many basketball abandonment issues as Seattle.  The Matrix, Joe Johnson, STAT (whose departure looks great for the Suns in retrospect), and now Nash.  Sure, Robert Sarver is a doofus whose continual refusal to do spend what is necessary to build a winning organization has precipitated most of those moves, but the best guys always seem to leave the desert for other, more verdant (both metaphorically and literally) destinations.  Nash's departure, by far, is the worst blow to morale the Suns could have suffered, and though I suspect no one begrudges him leaving to pursue a ring in the seemingly infinite twilight of his career, his choice of L.A. has to rankle.  So, Phoenix, I'm sorry.

Now we come to the matter of exactly how this is going to work.  Over at Grantland, Sebastian Pruiti did his usual stellar job of assessing the on-court tactical ramifications, and Hardwood Paroxysm's Steve McPherson delved into whether or not Kobe is emotionally capable of ceding enough possessions to Nash to make their backcourt pairing functional.  The most intriguing question though, at least to me, is which voices in his head Kobe is and will be listening to.  Whose version of events would he prefer to be remembered in fifty years?  How is he defining the single word that has seemingly dominated every action of his career thus far?

What does "legacy" mean to Kobe Bean Bryant? 

I honestly think Steve Nash couldn't care less about the L word.  He's smart enough to know that he is a. arguably the greatest pure shooter in NBA history b. inarguably the best offensive point guard of his generation c. a future Hall of Famer and d. chasing a ring but absolutely content with that resume otherwise.  He's great but not All-Time Top 10 great.  And he's OK with that.  Kobe, obviously, is another story.  But we've had a hand in creating that narrative as well. 

Outside of those who bleed purple and gold, we as NBA fans have generally put Kobe in a hell of a tough spot over the years.  The same bloodthirsty, pathological competitiveness we praised in Jordan became the linchpin of all criticism and invective leveled at Bryant.  Kobe's a ball hog.  Kobe's an a-hole.  Kobe drove Shaq out of town.  Kobe only cares about winning if he can be the hero of the hour.  We buried him even as he came as close as anyone ever has to replicating Jordan's two-way transcendence on a basketball court.*  A guy who could score from anywhere on the floor in the teeth of any defense; a hoops savant who became a devastating passer when he opted to relinquish the ball; a vicious perimeter defender; an implacable demon with ice water in his veins and pale ghosts behind the eyes; Kobe The Destroyer was lord of all he surveyed.    

*Note: until LeBron's career is further along, anyway.     

And yet ... we never wanted to give him credit.  Even at the apex of his otherworldly powers, we tended to focus on the flaws.  I can't think of an athlete who has had their nits picked more than Kobe.  (Yes, even LeBron.)  And the thing about our collectively scrutinizing gaze is that it has irrevocably shaped his motivations and attitudes over the years.  Despite what he would have us believe, Kobe cares a great deal about what we think because in a way, we are the curators of his legacy.

After all, we're the ones who will tell our children and grandchildren what it was like to watch him play, but also who he was as a person, at least in the public eye.  That perception will resonate long after he plays his last game and his likeness is enshrined in Springfield.  And so what legacy Kobe leaves behind ultimately becomes a guessing game.  What, in the end, do we want of him?  The sixth ring is obviously a requirement to vault him into must-be-discussed-with-MJ-even-though-that's-patently-absurd status, but what aesthetic path to its attainment will we most appreciate?

Scenario 1: Kobe willingly subverts his game and allows Nash the keys to the offense.  His scoring totals and usage rate will decline, but Nash's artistry brings substantially increased output from Gasol and Bynum via pick'n'roll and pick'n'pop situations.  Meanwhile, Kobe winds up with a preposterous amount of open looks as defenses try to account for a point guard as surgically talented and nonstop as Nash having so many weapons at his disposal.  Also, Nash needs his considerable allotment of nightly rest.  Miraculously, Mike Brown is smart enough to stagger the rotations properly, Kobe can get his ball domination fix while the ancient PG is on the pine, and his notoriously petulant nature is still marginally appeased.  With Nash at the helm and Kobe as his most devastating option, the Lakers destroy the Western Conference because you simply can't stop that quantity and variety of offensive firepower, then defeat Miami in the Finals when the Heat can't handle L.A.'s interior size.  

Probable legacy ramifications upshot: Everyone who has eviscerated Kobe over the years for being a ball-stopping egomaniac gets a little misty as they discuss this final, wonderful capstone to his career.  "He finally figured it out," they'll gush.  "Kobe learned to share, to be not just a great basketball player but a consummate teammate!"  Everyone loves a redemption story, and in many people's eyes, this would be the ultimate NBA iteration of such.  Conversely, everyone who perpetuated the "he can't win without Shaq" and then, after he did, the "he only won his first three because he had Shaq" argument will shout that he only got his last ring because Nash showed up to run things and put an aging demigod over the top one last time.     

Scenario 2: Kobe plays nice for the first six weeks of the season, then reverts to form.  Nash, because he's wired the way he is, plays along, knocking down shots from all over the perimeter or finding Bynum and Gasol for easy looks down low.  Nash winds up enjoying the decreased workload's lesser physical toll and flourishes as one of the most dangerous and versatile second options of all time.  Meanwhile, Kobe continues to kill people in iso's, but is much more comfortable because he can give it to Nash for stretches if the trapping becomes to heavy and persistent.  Also, opponents now live in mortal terror of doubling The Mamba with the most dangerous shooter ever roaming the arc.  Nash essentially becomes a much better version of Robert Horry in the playoffs, while Kobe remains the archetypal alpha dog and closer, drops 38 in the clinching game, and takes Finals MVP along with his sixth title. 

Probable legacy ramifications upshot: Those who have always found Kobe's brand of me-first annihilation somewhere between distasteful and VIOLATING THE SANCTITY OF THE GAME says that despite six rings and a litany of individual career achievements, Kobe was a mean, selfish S.O.B. who didn't or couldn't "play the game the right way."  Meanwhile, those who drink the Mamba Kool-Aid declare that while Nash was a wonderful addition to the team, Kobe was the reason they won the title because he's clutch and a proven winner and everything else you hear from that crowd.

(Note: if the Lakers get bounced in the second round again, it will be Kobe's fault in many people's minds.  Either he was selfish and didn't relinquish enough touches to let Nash achieve maximum efficacy, or he was too old to sustain his dominance and couldn't cowboy up anymore, and gave the rock to Nash too much.  Both viewpoints are somewhat idiotic, but we are illogical creatures and that's how we operate sometimes.)

Ultimately, whatever percentage-based alchemy of hero ball and and letting Nash be Nash Kobe settles on for the coming year will dictate which of the above reactions is most prevalent among the fans and scribes who determine the fates and gradations of NBA history.  Kobe knows this, and he's probably sitting somewhere right now wondering what his best course of action is; not just to get that sixth ring, but to do so in the most beneficial fashion for his legacy.

To be fair to Kobe, he only has to deal with this because Jordan came first.  MJ had the luxury of not worrying about any future historical context, because he was creating that context on the fly.  (Pun intended.)  There was nothing in the past for him to be compared to.  As someone said shortly before he was drafted, Jordan was Dr. J, only with a jump shot.  And killer perimeter defense.  And even more killer will and instinct.  Like Doc, Jordan had a prominent showmanship element to his game, but it was calibrated to destroy and demoralize, not amaze and entertain.  The point is, Jordan wasn't the least bit concerned with history and his place therein.  He was a gunslinger, rolling into town to call out the best and fastest any adversary had to offer.  Then, the flash of steel in sunlight, the report echoing in the dusty street, a dead man on the ground.  And Jordan on his horse, riding on to the next town, the next challenge.  And so on.  Jordan made history by destroying everything in his path.  Kobe knows he must destroy everything in his path in order to make history.  It's a subtle difference, but I believe it explains much of why Kobe is the way he is.        

A hundred years hence, some NBA historian will dig up Kobe's numbers.  Five (or six?) rings, insane point totals, finals MVPs, PER or whatever replaces it in the metrics crowd, win shares, etc.  The numbers won't matter.  We all know Kobe is a badass; we don't need stats to back up the obvious.  What will matter is how we remember him.  This next season will begin (and possibly entail) the final chapter of Kobe Bryant's career.  His legacy is up to him, but it's also up to us.  The question is what do we want from Kobe, but it's also what does he think we want?  Alpha winner/killer?  Integrated, unselfish cog in the machine?  Whatever the outcome, how he elects to play this season won't just be the last word on his legacy, it will be a referendum on ours as well.  Who is Kobe Bryant, basketball player?  Who are we, basketball fans?  And precisely how are those things connected?  I don't know yet, and neither do you.  Neither, maybe, does Kobe. 

But because this is sports and we love prognostications, go ahead.  Take your best guess.  

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