Someday in the distant future, our children’s children will argue over who will be The Next Kobe. They’ll throw around various requirements. For instance, it would have to be somebody who shared center stage for a time with another superstar, but used his free agency leverage to run him out of town. Also, he will have had to remove a head coach, preferably one with Hall of Fame credentials. And, of course, a once-proud franchise will have had to be left in tatters.
Tough shoes to fill indeed.
But perhaps the No. 1 requirement will be this: He will have to inspire talk at the beginning of being The Greatest Player Ever, only to watch it evaporate in the wake of an ego run amok.
Yes, just as Shaquille O’Neal refers to himself as “MDE” (Most Dominant Ever), Bryant watchers have often cited his potential to become “GPE” (Greatest Player Ever).
Currently, Michael Jordan enjoys that status. He was a phenomenon on the court and off. He was a spectacular player, athletic, competitive and tough-minded. He won six championships in the ’90s with the Chicago Bulls.
Alas, the sticking point is a huge one:
Bryant will not win another championship. He’ll be stuck on three.
Because of that, his chances to someday be recognized as GPE are kaput. After all, in recent years Magic Johnson won five. Larry Bird grabbed three. And that’s not even counting centers Bill Russell (11 rings), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6) and Wilt Chamberlain (2), each of whom have their GPE supporters even though big men, perhaps because of their size advantage, rarely get the props that more dynamic and acrobatic guards and forwards receive.
Kobe Bryant got everything he wanted. The Lakers retooled the team for him in an effort to lure him back for another seven years. They fired Phil Jackson. They traded Shaquille O’Neal. Owner Jerry Buss did everything to accommodate Bryant save for moving the entire franchise to Newport Beach.
And because of that, he is officially disqualified from GPE consideration. Instead of being lauded for his prowess, he will be blamed for breaking up a dynasty.
Right now, the nucleus of the Los Angeles Lakers consists of Bryant and the players received from Miami in the Shaq deal — Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler. Gary Payton and Karl Malone all may take a powder. Derek Fisher is gone to the Warriors.
This is a team destined to go 41-41 or thereabouts. It is also capped out until 2007, which means no relief in site. Minnesota, San Antonio and Houston will dominate the West for the duration of Bryant’s seven-year deal, with Dallas, Sacramento, Memphis, Denver, Utah and Portland also in the hunt.
That means no more championships for the Lakers. That means no GPE for Kobe, because he is Vince Carter, or Allen Iverson, or Paul Pierce, or any number of other players now and in the past whose teams pinned their hopes on one scorer and got mediocrity in return.
To be considered GPE, you have to have help. Trust me, nobody is going to want to come to the Lakers for less money — which they would have to do, since the club will be over the salary cap for some time — for the privilege of playing alongside Kobe Bryant. They might have been willing to take pay cuts to play in L.A. with the triumvirate of Phil, Shaq and Kobe. But Kobe is aloof, egocentric, stubborn and a loner, not exactly the qualities inherent in a free-agent magnet.
Kobe has a set of skills that certainly qualify him for the GPE derby. He is one of the best at creating his own shot. He’s an excellent outside shooter, especially in clutch situations. He’s a fine defensive player. He might even discover that he can pass the ball, if he decides to give that a try sometime.
But his hubris trumps all that. He feels he can beat double- and triple-teams, which occasionally he can, yet his insistence on doing so with regularity will cause his team to falter and make him continue to look like the most selfish player in basketball. Just look at how the Detroit Pistons shut him down in the NBA Finals by luring him into situations where his own eagerness to single-handedly win the ballgame resulted in poor shot selections and losses for his team.
If you want to be known as the Greatest Player Ever, you have to produce. You have to win.
NBA history is rife with examples of men who integrated themselves into a team concept, and those who didn’t. James Worthy did and won three titles. His contemporary, Dominique Wilkins, did not and has none. Suddenly, Kobe has everything he ever wanted, yet he’s among the have-nots when it comes to being on a contender.
For all of Michael Jordan’s wondrous individual achievements, he was a great leader and a good teammate. Bryant is neither.
Don’t forget, too, that the final word on the issue of who is the Greatest Player Ever comes from the public. Kobe is said to be popular, especially in Laker Nation. But how long will that last? How adored will he be when he’s chucking 35 shots a game and the Lakers are no longer perceived as a basketball team but as a vanity project?
And what of his upcoming criminal trial? What if he turns out not to be popular with jurors? Then GPE could give way to GIE (Greatest Inmate Ever).
For now, he’s in a prison of his own making. He’s trapped within the confines of a team constructed to his specifications, and as a result, his place in history will never be what it could have been.
PBT: Pacers coach Frank Vogel said that the Heat have a more effective plan of attack against Roy Hibbert than the Knicks.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
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