There are perhaps numerous words to describe what happened in Wells Fargo Center last night. Picture perfect, bittersweet, gratifying and the list can go on and on.
Where to begin?
He did so by scoring 28 points and passing Shaquille O’Neal (of all people) on the list. He did so in front of a Philadelphia crowd that spent the entire game booing the man who led Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Penn. to a state championship in 1996, the same year he became a Los Angeles Laker.
Kobe has gained a reputation as a notorious trash talker. Some will also say he is arrogant and way too cocky. Still, love or hate him, Kobe is a pretty darn great basketball player, and a proven winner.
Saying he will conclude his career as the greatest NBA player of all-time, however, is debatable. Even saying Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T often leads to long debates.
Saying Bryant is the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all-time, as Shaq proclaimed after last night’s game, seems more realistic at this point.
Sure, he does not possess numerous Most Valuable Player awards like Laker greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
He does possess numerous championship rings like them. The teams he played on even won three consecutive NBA championships in the same way the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers teams did.
Bryant is the all-time leading scorer in Lakers franchise history. In addition to his recent achievement, he is ranked third all-time in NBA postseason scoring.
Since 1997 (his sophomore season in the NBA), he has been voted to 14 NBA All-Star games and was a starter in each of them. He has won the All-Star game’s MVP Award four times, which is a tie with former Milwaukee Hawks (present day Atlanta Hawks) star Bob Pettit.
Bryant’s accolades are endless.
When Shaq was traded after the 2003-04 season, it took Bryant and Phil Jackson only two seasons to get the Lakers back to the NBA finals.
For years, the Lakers were Shaq AND Kobe’s team. Shaq gets traded. It becomes Kobe team.
The Lakers made it to three consecutive NBA finals (2008-10), two of which were with a supporting cast featuring Trevor Ariza, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic. Granted, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were on all three of the teams too.
If Bryant leaves as a free agent in 2004 and joins the Los Angeles Clippers (which almost became reality), none of that happens. Phil Jackson, despite his claims Kobe was uncoachable, probably does not return either in 2005.
If the Spencer Haywood v. National Basketball Association court case never happens, thus keeping NBA draft eligibility rules at having to play all four years in college, Bryant likely does not become a Laker at all.
Then again, if the Lakers can make a trade for Bryant in 1996, they can do it again during the 2000 NBA draft.
Since Bryant has stated he would have went to Duke, what if he stayed three years, entered the 1999 NBA draft, received that same trade to the Lakers and, by a miracle, convinced Mike Krzyzewski to join him in LA as head coach? (Phil Jackson turned out to be the team's choice for head coach, so that worked out good either way.)
Bryant obviously wanted to be a Laker, and the Lakers wanted him as well. He has given the team his all since the first day he put on the purple and gold.
Labeling him the greatest Laker of all-time is tough, however. If the Lakers win the 2004 and 2008 championships, then yes, let’s go ahead and crown Bryant as such. Seven rings would be an amazing feat.
As for right now, there is a three-way tie between Bryant, Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson.
Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leader in points in scored, games played, minutes played, field goals made, field-goal attempts, blocked shots and defensive rebounds. He also has a record six Most Valuable Player awards.
Johnson, unlike Abdul-Jabbar, was drafted by the Lakers. He played in 12 NBA All-Star games and was nominated for 10 All-NBA First and Second Team nominations. He is also the NBA’s all-time leader in assists per game.
Most deem Johnson as the greatest NBA point guard of all-time. Whether he truly is or is not falls under the category of another great sports debate.
If the previously mentioned Haywood v. NBA court case never happens, perhaps Johnson never becomes a Laker either.
Bye-bye, Los Angeles Lakers dominance in the 1980s.
Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and Worthy together, along with a great supporting cast, made the Lakers what they were throughout the 1980s.
Yet, from 1975-79, no matter how hard Abdul-Jabbar played, he could never lead the Lakers deep within the playoffs. When the Lakers drafted Johnson in 1979, they finally had that missing piece to add more championships to their collection. So in a sense, it would appear Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson needed each other.
Shaq and Bryant together, along with a great supporting cast, made the Lakers a highly dominant team throughout the early 2000s.
Bryant later proved he did not necessarily need Shaq or any big-name talent to make the NBA playoffs and finals, and even win for that matter. He just simply needed guys who had the same desire to win as Bryant does.
Look at the 2006 playoffs as an example. The Lakers nearly defeated the Phoenix Suns as a seventh seed. The 2008 playoffs are another example. Andrew Bynum was injured for half of the season. Pau Gasol was not acquired until midway through the season. Yet, the Lakers made it to the NBA finals.
Bryant is so good he makes you hate the Lakers (if you did not already have a strong dislike for them). Until last year's playoffs, the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs made the NBA Western Conference look one-sided.
That is why we root heavily for the emergence of young teams like Oklahoma City and Los Angeles Clippers. Bryant needs some competition. Otherwise, he and the Lakers will remain a championship favorite for several more years. God forbid they sign Dwight Howard later this year.
Bryant will turn 34 years old later this year, and does not seem to plan on retiring unless a severe injury forces him to. Therefore, at the rate he is going Bryant will not stop until he feels satisfied.
Upon evaluating this topic a few years down the road, maybe there will be no debate. Kobe Bryant will officially hold claim to being the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all-time.
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