By Chris Le
What a season.
Removing bias (that is, my man crush on LeBron and the Spurs and my hatred for anything Lakers), this was a season that genuine basketball groupies will remember for a long time.
Drama, unpredictability, history—all there in hefty doses. Which made for a season of simple, childhood-like fun. So fun, in fact, I’m erasing from memory accepting that it ended with the Lakers hoisting the trophy.
From an analyst/writer’s perspective, what’s most appealing about the NBA year is that it provides and answers its own questions. Throughout the course of the eight-month season, opinions are verified (like, which is the best team?), some amended (who’s the best player?) and others left to be determined (who’s the best ever?). And it keeps us guessing.
This season was especially fickle: LeBron raped the regular season, the Lakers faded with Kobe looking old and beaten, ditto with the Celtics; then in the playoffs, the Magic looked invincible, then vincible (which is an actual word according to dictionary.com. I’m willing to overlook its omission from the more credible Merriam-Webster because it’s probably the most apt description for the 2010 Magic that could ever exist—unless the Oxford English Dictionary approves “Rashardible.”), the Celtics rode the Delorean back to 2008, and Kobe clicked into Jordan mode.
Each turn of event, at its respective moment in time, altered the basketball landscape and, in my mind, projected a different Finals matchup. Between LeBron and Kobe, the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Cavs, I vacillated about 745 times.
And yeah, I realize the irony with my last post, in which I bemoaned the tendency to overreact. Yet here I sit: a prisoner of the moment, a hypocrite, even worse, the dreaded flip-flopper.
But I couldn’t care less.
Whenever I’m accused of hypocrisy, I think back to junior year of high school, Mrs. Marc’s class, English 11 Honors: American Literature—the first time I laid eyes on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, in the essay that changed my life, once wrote:
Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.
If the pimpest of all Transcendentalists (sorry, H.D. Thoreau) supported waffling, then I can do the same without indignity.
So, summoning my inner Emerson, here is—in hard words—what I think today. But ask me again tomorrow.
Before the Playoffs: Deron Williams is the best point guard in the league.
After: Deron Williams was the top dog during the regular season and throughout the first round. As the most consistent, and at times most dominant, lead guard all year, the race wasn’t close at all, really. And once he finally convinced me, I stayed convinced for about, oh, five seconds. Rondo then went into “Fuck around and got a triple-double” mode. Followed by Nash decimating the Spurs, displaying a ruthlessness and a will to win on par with the legends—only to be dismissed by the Lakers.
So, to recap: I went from Williams, to Rondo, to Nash, and back to Rondo. I’ve flip-flopped more often than Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Vlade Divac combined.
Have I learned my lesson? Have I finally grown a pair and stuck with Rondo?
Not quite. Like George Clooney, it’s up in the air. Because I’m still waiting on my boy Chris Paul, who, once healthy, will run a train on the league worse than the one given to Edward Norton in the shower by that big Nazi guy in American History X.
Before the Playoffs: The two-month-long NBA postseason is the most entertaining stretch in sports.
After: Confirmed. More than ever, perhaps. With this year’s unpredictability—from the demise of the Cavs to the Celtic phoenix rise—and the added theater of free agency and a looming draft, it’s bar none.
The playoffs can, however, be improved.
How? Show more crowd reactions. Aside from the game itself, it’s my favorite part of watching the NBA on television, really. Nothing makes me smile like an entire section of people—always of jumbled demography—erupt in spontaneous orgasm after a play, or seeing the team bench rolling on the floor and holding each other back, with faces of something filthy like they witnessed an emcee lyrically murder another in a freestyle battle. Grown men with potbellies jumping like children after a LeBron tomahawk slam, the pure joy on their homely faces is immediately transferred to anyone watching at home.
Sixty percent of today’s reactions, I realize, would consist of frat boys chest-bumping, flexing biceps and lifting their Affliction T-shirts to reveal their not-really-but-maybe-at-the-right-angle-and-in-the-right-lighting six-pack abs. It’s a risk, but a risk worth taking.
That’s why I miss the old days. Check out any highlight reel from the mid-80’s on back and you’ll see balding middle-aged white guys who look like accountants awkwardly high-fiving or cupping their faces in awe. (Like this. Or this Zach Galifianakis-looking dude.) White people are awkward.
Before the Playoffs: Katy Perry is annoying and can’t dance.
After: She still can’t dance (which, for a pop star, isn’t a career death warrant; look at Rihanna and Mary J. Blige), but “California Gurls,” an irresistibly charming paean to West Coast hotties, has momentarily saved her from my immediate criticism and maybe even bolstered her mass appeal.
Despite the ebbed novelty, my ears show minimal fatigue from its looping replay, and because of that, “Gurls,” followed by Drake’s “Find Your Love,” is a strong candidate for Song of the Summer.
Third in line? I’m surprised—almost ashamed—to say I like the Black Eyed Peas’ “Rock Your Body.” Their electro-infused brand of hip-pop—a sound once reserved for trashy, Euro discothèques—has finally kept my attention, and not my disdain. And just in time for the biggest sporting event in the world. It’s not the official song of the ’10 World Cup (this is), but Black Eyed Peas, musically, are made for the Cup. Their brew is simple: energetic beats with lyrics of cheesy bonhomie that don’t clog the brain. A mix that aligns perfectly with international sensibility and is gobbled on the world’s stage. (See: Ricky Martin’s “Cup of Life” for the ’98 World Cup in France, which, I think, should be the official song for every World Cup, now and forever. It’s perfect.) It explains their overseas success, but not the inexplicable domestic obsession. Will.i.am is, otherwise, the worst emcee in the business.
What does this have to do with basketball? Absolutely nothing. I’m just riffing on my previous blog.
Back to basketball …
Before the Playoffs: LeBron is the best player in the league.
After: Kobe. Hate the guy, hate the team, and I hate to say it. But it’s the truth.
I’ve always argued that, while Kobe is more skilled, LeBron’s overall impact on the game and teammates makes him more valuable, in the sense of being indispensable. That may still be true, but I can no longer dismiss Kobe’s closing ability—a skill in which LeBron is proficient but has yet to master—and his insatiable will to be great.
That last part is important. When Kobe lost to the Celtics in 2008, I could picture him at home replaying over and over in his mind Kevin Garnett’s “ANYTHING IS POSSIBBLLLLLEEEE!!!” war cry (which trails off into a high-pitched, incoherent ramble). I could picture Kobe seething in his seat, eager to be better, thirsting for another ring, hungry to prove that he’s as good as he thinks he is—and believe me, no matter what Kobe says, he thinks he’s the best ever.
I don’t get this feeling from LeBron. He’s probably at home right now watching SportsCenter, more worried than angry. Worried that he has that much more to prove. Worried that he might disappoint. Worried, most of all, that he might fail.
And that’s the difference between him and Kobe. Kobe is motivated only by his own hunger to be great; and LeBron, it seems, is motivated by the fear of losing.
Looking back, I was blinded by LeBron’s numbers. Could you blame me? They’re historic. Never have we seen such an exemplar of physical evolution, or such production, which is comparable only to the luminaries; LeBron is amazing on both television and paper. Which made me forget that, while stars are made in the regular season, legends are made in the playoffs. And the playoffs are one territory King James has yet to conquer.
But the gap is slim—slimmer than the media makes it out to be—and I’ll stop short of saying the pecking order is solidified for the next few years because age creeps furtively and suddenly. Kobe turns 32 this summer, with battle-worn knees from some 1,200 games and 45,000 minutes. Youthful legs are a finite gift, as Tim Duncan and KG can attest, and the end is always sooner than expected.
But otherwise, no more premature anointment. Even if next year LeBron drops 30-10-10 a game during the regular season.
Kobe is in the lead until LeBron goes further in the playoffs. It’s the only way to decide this debate.
Before the Playoffs: Kobe is the third best guard of all-time behind Jordan and Magic, and sits outside the 10 greatest players ever.
After: The first statement remains true … but not the second.
Kobe now has five rings, two of which he can claim to have earned “on his own” (whatever that means), and once again, displayed a brilliance reminiscent of Jordan. With that, Kobe cements himself as the sixth greatest player ever. Yes, the sixth greatest player ever. Ahead of West, Robertson, Olajuwon, Shaq, Wilt and (sigh) Tim Duncan. Those are some big-swinging dicks who are not easily unseated. But on pure skill, years as Best Player on the Planet, sheer numbers and total times he makes you say “Fuck, this guy is just too damn good,” it’s hard to argue against Kobe. Dude has earned it.
However, he remains looking up at Magic, Bird, Kareem, and of course, Russell and Jordan, both of whom likely will never be supplanted.
So, why do those five rank ahead of Kobe?
First of all, it’s not like Kobe had an all-time great series against Boston. Aside from a brilliantly balanced Game 1 and a few jaw-drop moments here and thereafter, Kobe didn’t impress me—not by his own lofty standards. He routinely disappeared in the 4th, was saved by Derek Fisher in Game 3, looked lost at times against the Celtics defense and had his worst offensive performance in the deciding Game 7. You think Jordan would’ve gone 6 for 24 in a Game 7? (Oh yeah, Jordan never needed a Game 7 to win a title.)
But what it boils down to is, I don’t think Kobe is as good a teammate.
I know, I know: blah, blah, blah—this rant again? Didn’t Kobe prove last year that he’s unselfish?
He’s made improvements, sure. But not a quantum leap.
Leadership-wise, Kobe has the look of young Jordan—the Jordan before he fully accepted “team ball” and won a title. Which, obviously, is still enough for Kobe to win a championship. But this is the Greatest of All-Time debate; it’s all about picking nits. The inability of Kobe’s team still visibly weighs on him (kinda like LeBron), with frustration setting in and affecting his play. After a brainfart three by Artest, for example, or a Vujacic missed rotation, Kobe will glower, showing disgust and disappointment—a look that screams, “Idiot! Do I have to do everything?!” Then he’ll turn into me-first Kobe and force the situation, though, to his credit, this tendency has waned of late.
When things are good, Kobe is the greatest teammate in the world: high-fives all-around, butt pats for everyone, even poor Adam Morrison, he’ll even bust out the “heartfelt” forehead-to-forehead motivational speech.
When times are bad? Not so much.
Russell, Magic and Bird were always their teammates’ biggest fans, or, when upset, vocal in a constructive manner. Latter-day Jordan was always cool and even deferred to 7th man Steve Kerr in the pivotal moment of the 1997 NBA Finals. Call me when Kobe heads into a game-deciding situation with the intention of finding Jordan Farmar or Lamar Odom to take the last shot. Yeah, I thought so.
It’s been a while since I last sat down, studied the résumés and made a list, but this is how my All-Time list currently looks:
- Michael Jordan
- Bill Russell
- Magic Johnson
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Larry Bird
- Kobe Bryant
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Tim Duncan
- Jerry West
- Oscar Robertson
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Shaquille O’Neal
Kobe jumped from outside the top 10 to number 6, leapfrogging six demigods in the process. Overreaction? Am I, once again, just a prisoner of the moment?
We’ll see. But that’s the great thing about basketball: Kobe has next season to prove me right or prove me wrong. And that’s why I love the NBA—you just never know.