It’s difficult to pinpoint just exactly when Kobe Bryant became anointed as The Best Player In The Game. It was sometime after Michael Jordan retired as a Chicago Bull in 1998 and now — a span of 10 years. But the tribute has been flying off the lips of hoops buffs with ever increasing frequency, reaching a crescendo this season.
But it’s not hard to identify when he became the obvious choice for MVP: Now.
The NBA finally confirmed it on Tuesday: Bryant has indeed won his first Most Valuable Player Award for his exploits during the 2007-08 campaign. He averaged 28.3 points per game, his lowest since 2004-05. He averaged 5.4 assists, the same as last year. His shooting percentage is down. His free throw percentage is down. Only his rebounds are up — 6.3 per contest, his best in six years.
All of that means squat.
What Bryant did this year to deserve the MVP is play well with others. In the first grade, he might have gotten a gold star for that accomplishment. In the NBA, he’ll get the highest individual honor available.
The knock on Bryant is tired but somewhat accurate. He was said to disdain team play. He wanted to hog the ball. He didn’t make his teammates better.
All of that is true. All of that isn’t. It just depends on how you look at it.
Kobe has always believed supremely in Kobe. The only basketball player in the past 20 years to match his confidence level was Jordan. The last Laker to do so was Magic Johnson.
But with Kobe, his unflappable nature sometimes translated into 25-foot fall-away jumpers with two men in his face, or a mad dash through a triple team to get to the basket. He didn’t always pass the ball when he should have. He didn’t always show the best judgment.
Yet in his defense, there is another way of looking at it: Since the Lakers’ last championship group — consisting in part of Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, et al. — broke up, he didn’t have reliable teammates.
Now he does. And irony of ironies, Bryant is getting the most coveted individual award in basketball because the Lakers did a masterful job of improving the roster and putting him in a position to be more of a team player.
Now when he dribbles up the court, he notices that his myopia has been cured. No longer does he see just the basket. Now he spots Pau Gasol in the paint, Lamar Odom running along the baseline, Fisher alongside him, Sasha Vujacic on the wing, Luke Walton waving for the ball, and any number of other options depending on the combinations chosen by Phil Jackson.
He has help. He has competent help.
Bryant now looks for teammates partly because he’s matured and partly because he trusts them to do the right thing with the basketball. Some nights he still might go off for 40 or 50, but most of the time he doesn’t have to do that because the scoring can be divvied up among other Lakers. The fact that he’s fine with that shows how far he has come.
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Video: NBA from NBC Sports
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