Last season I said that Kobe Bryant had a problem. Despite a reinvigorated team and a shiny MVP trophy, 2007-2008 was essentially the season that Kobe failed. Failed to win a championship and take advantage of perhaps the best chance he’ll ever get to win one. People look back now and remember the Celtics dominance and Pierce’s heroics and KG’s ferocity and downplay any notion that Kobe and the Lakers “blew their chance”. But you rewind the clock back to early June 2008 and you ask the basketball world who they thought would be the Champions. The answer was unanimous – the Los Angeles Lakers. Even Boston’s own favorite son Bill Simmons admitted the Lakers would win the series before it began. Turns out they were all wrong. Ruining the credibility of a few NBA journalists is harmless, but the damage done to Kobe’s legacy after that series was far more permanent.
2008 marked the ten-year anniversary of Kobe-MJ comparisons. It was the year the debate reached fever pitch. It was also the year the debate died. Losing to the Celtics ruined any chance Kobe had of equaling (or *gasp* surpassing) MJ’s legacy, and just as importantly, ruined the fun that Kobe-MJ debates had provided for so many years. Don’t get me wrong, the last chapters of the Kobe Bryant Story are yet to be written, but that story won’t be anywhere near as impressive as it could have been, had Kobe and the Lakers triumphed in 2008. An MVP, a Championship ring, and an Olympic Gold medal. Remember the last guy that won all those the same year?
Relegated to reinforcing his legacy as the second greatest shooting guard in NBA history, Kobe now has a new problem. Not only has he gone from ‘MJ-like’ to ‘Finals-loser’ in the space of one year, but now he’s not even being called “the best player in the game”. Now people are talking about another player as Jordan’s rightful heir. And even worse, people are saying this guy could be better than Jordan. This guy is Lebron James.
If you haven’t taken a minute to contemplate the epic weightiness of this than you really should. Kobe Bryant’s world is about to be turned upside down.
Just imagine, if after years of carving out his legacy as the game’s best player and finally being surrounded by a team worthy of winning him a fourth ring, if Kobe Bryant gets to the Finals and loses to Lebron James. In fact, don’t just imagine it. Go look at the standings now, look at Cleveland sitting a game ahead of the Lakers, look at the fact they’ll play 11 more Eastern Conference games as opposed to the Lakers who will play only 6. Then look at Cleveland’s ridiculous 30-1 home record, and you tell me, what happens when the Cavs finish with the #1 record in the league? What happens to the Lakers when after another 82-game slog focused mainly on beating Boston to the league’s best record and thus securing home-court in an inevitable Finals rematch – what happens when that turns out to be but a sideshow to the harsh reality that the Lakers, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the West, will still only play three games at home in June?
I asked a lot of questions in that paragraph, and for good reason. No one has considered the answers to them yet. Up until very recently it looked like a certainty the Lakers would finish with the league’s best record. Sure there have been a few stumbling blocks along the way (Bynum, back-to-back losses against Denver and Phoenix) but the consensus was that Phil and the Lakers would eventually get their shit together and get it done.
But now those questions need to be answered, because as Lebron continues his one-man wrecking ball assault on the league it is becoming increasingly clear that the Cavs – not Boston – are the Lakers main threat. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Lakers obsession with getting tougher and meaner to out-muscle the Boston Celtics is now trumped by a much more serious dilemma; the need to stop Lebron James.
Sounds kind of impossible.
But wait… isn’t that what we said last year about Kobe? Going into the Finals, wasn’t it the Lakers enjoying the veil of invincibility because they had the most unstoppable player on the planet to drag them to victory through every nail-biting heart-pounding Finals finish? At least that’s what I thought the situation was, until I witnessed first-hand Kobe’s scorching playoff run come to a screaming halt at the hands of the far hungrier Boston Celtics. I didn’t think there was anyone or anything hungrier than Kobe Bryant, and there isn’t. But there was a hungrier team than the Lakers.
Which is why despite last year’s Finals defeat, Kobe’s legacy was only dealt a softening blow. A glancing blow. Losing to the Celtics who had three future Hall of Famers on their team is one thing; an admission that not even the all-conquering Kobe Bryant can beat a team stacked with depth and hunger. An admission Kobe made himself.
But losing to Lebron James and the Cavaliers would be completely different; that would be an admission that Kobe has been singularly out-dueled by another, greater player. Kobe admitting he was out-Kobe’d. Kobe transforming before our eyes into a 1992 Clyde Drexler while Lebron is left huddled over the championship trophy, cradling it like his only child, tears mixing with the champagne pouring down his face.
Kobe’s world being turned upside down.