No Peers, No Heirs: Kobe At The End Of The Road
Kobe Bryant played with the belief that he could win games all by himself. For a while, he was right. There will never be another player like him, for a reason.
Photo by Sports Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
"You don't look for excuses," Kobe Bryant says, describing in 2013 how he was able to will his Lakers to victory, playing all 48 minutes in a crucial road game. "You don't wait for anybody else to try to make rotations. You do it yourself."
If that quote, reprised yesterday over at ESPN, sounds fatalist, there's a good reason; it's all part of the brand. Operating under this mantra for two decades made Kobe an international icon and one of the most widely beloved basketball players ever, at least among the people that didn't detest him. There is no doubt that long after Wednesday night, when Kobe plays his final NBA game, we will still be hearing about the 4 a.m. shooting sessions, the secretly broken metacarpals, the work ethic and competitiveness and sangfroid that allowed him to slay his rivals and win five rings.
But what makes that comment so quintessentially Kobe is not that he scored 47 that night, or that the Lakers won, or even that he had at this point wrenched full control of the offense and his own substitution pattern from his coach. No, what really makes it particularly Kobesque is that, in Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, he had the best frontcourt in the NBA at the time, and that their opponent that night was one of the NBA's worst defensive teams. Kobe didn't need to do it himself, but insisted on it anyway, to his extreme physical detriment. That was just how he played.
For twenty years, Kobe sought individual transcendence in a team sport, and Kobe tends to get what he's after. Kobe packaged a breathtaking panoply of fakes, footwork, and fadeaways, then deployed them with craft and fearless physicality. All that work, and all that talent, yielded an offensive repertoire of unknowable breadth and incredible polish; in his prime, he really was nearly unguardable. That he was the greatest one-on-one player in the game was a given, but Kobe devoted entire seasons to taking on opponents one-on-five. He's not the first basketball player to do that, nor will he be the last to try. But Kobe is the only one to achieve enduring success at it, so spectacularly and with such astonishing regularity that he actually made it seem possible that basketball could be waged—and won—by one man alone.
His lack of interest in sharing the ball was usually cited as the necessary means to victory, but more often it boiled down to meritocratic justification—nobody worked harder than Kobe, so why shouldn't he take all the shots? In pursuing his notion of greatness, Kobe took the concept of isolation basketball to its literal extreme. He scowled at teammates on the court and reamed them in the media when games were over. His idea of leadership was to set an example that nobody else could follow; that, too, seemed more about distancing himself from his colleagues than engendering their development or creating a functional and cohesive team.
While the current generation of NBA superstars have made a trend of teaming up to pursue championships, Kobe saw his most talented teammates as impeding or confusing the singularity of his achievement. When his teams won championships, it was only because they had adopted The Kobe Mentality; when they lost, personnel change was in order. That made him incompatible with the few great players who presumed to stand on their own merits rather than slave for his approval, which in turn solidified the psycho-competitor narrative Nike will unfold into an ad campaign. Some of his last few comments as an NBA player openly questioned the work ethic of his young teammates. This is not ungraciousness, at this point. It's reflex.
It makes sense that the best stretch of Kobe's career came when he had the ball to himself. Some call it a tragedy that Kobe reached his apex playing alongside Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, but the utter uselessness of those teammates was precisely what drove Kobe to his greatest heights. With free reign to run isos for 40 minutes every night, Kobe didn't need real NBA players to fill out the lineup—he just needed someone to take the ball out. Nobody could guard Kobe—he learned your tendencies and your moves as fast as you could invent them—and so a lot of teams those years couldn't beat the Lakers. This period contained his 81-point magnum opus, as well as his career-defining apotheosis: when, singlehandedly, he nearly toppled the free-flowing and futuristic Suns in an unforgettable last stand for isolation basketball.
We will never see anything again like it; this is praise, but it's also an assessment of where the NBA is, and is going. Today's NBA stars, without exception, credit Kobe with profoundly influencing their careers, but it's difficult to see what long-term impact he's made on basketball as it is played at the highest level. There's little room in the modern game for contested midrange shots, and the rise of pace-and-space offense has somewhat displaced the iso.
In Kobe's last few years, the rush to point out the inefficiency of his work crowded out any discourse that tried to appreciate its aesthetic (and statistical) audacity. In a sense, it didn't matter that Kobe was missing all those shots; he was the only one left with the will to take them. That in itself was remarkable, and after tonight, it will be gone. Kobe Bryant had no peer, and he leaves no heir. It's exactly what he wanted.