Psychology and the NBA are no strangers to one another.
No, not psychiatry, Metta World Peace. Not the sort that can hand out prescriptions.
Though, as Matt Moore of ProBasketballTalk recently discussed, the answers to at least some of the questions bound to plague Kobe Bryant and the newly-star-studded Los Angeles Lakers as they pursue the Larry O'Brien Trophy this season may well be found in the tenets of self-actualization.
And furthermore, in the nebulous void that so often exists between individual brilliance and cooperative excellence in basketball.
Moore notes that, as a result of GM Mitch Kupchak's brilliant wheeling-and-dealing to bring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to LA, the Black Mamba now finds himself in a position not unlike that of Dwyane Wade when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010. Like Wade, Kobe is one of the league's elite wings, a player who tends to dominate the ball, but whose skills are diminishing as Father Time and Mother Nature continue to exact their collective toll.
Both players have demonstrated singular greatness, occasionally at the expense of team success, and vice versa. Both have seen the mountaintop from Shaquille O'Neal's shoulders, and it was (mostly) good.
And now, Kobe, like D-Wade, must learn to either subvert his own autonomy, spontaneity and peak experiences, or incorporate them with the more team-oriented aspects of self-actualization—fellowship with humanity, comfortable acceptance of self and others, and profound interpersonal relationships, to name a few.
Which is a fancy way of saying that Kobe needs to ease off a bit if the Lakers are going to hoist hardware and shower each other in beer and champagne at season's end.
The first season-and-a-half or so that Wade and LeBron spent together in Miami more closely resembled the basketball equivalent of "Dueling Banjos" than a true championship partnership. There seemed to be a constant back-and-forth between Wade, to whom the Heat ostensibly "belonged" because he'd led them to a title before, and LeBron, who was clearly the better player of the two but didn't want to step on his buddy's toes.
It wasn't until Wade slid aside and allowed LeBron to take full control—or rather, until Dwyane was forced to do so by his troublesome knee—that the Heat became a team of destiny.
To be clear, this isn't to say that Wade had to stop being great for Miami to flourish. If anything, it was Wade's greatness that rescued the Heat from hopelessness against the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs. It was also Wade who helped to slam the door shut on the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals and who kept the Heat humming while LeBron battled cramps in the NBA Finals.
Rather, it was the context of Wade's greatness that changed and ultimately yielded a result superior to the disappointment of 2011. Wade had to channel his greatness into a souped-up supporting role next to (if not immediately behind) the three-time MVP. He'd still enjoy occasional opportunities to take his opponents to task one-on-one and to run the offense with the ball in his hands.
But for the most part, it became Wade's responsibility to work off the ball, to use himself as a decoy of sorts to open up the floor for his teammates and, generally speaking, to be a credit to Erik Spoelstra's unorthodox system rather than a thorn in its side.
And not to treat it as a thorn in his own.
That will be Kobe's charge this season if he's to be the sort of self-actualizer who engages in task centering and possesses a continued freshness of appreciation for the kind of winning he so often professes to be his primary goal.
Which, again, is to say that Kobe needs to get used to not being "the man" all the time in order for the Lakers to reach their full potential this season.
Granted, Kobe's adjustment will be more complicated—and more jarring—than Wade's was. While Wade only had to reconcile his position in relation to one new, immediately superior teammate (no offense to Chris Bosh), Bryant might have to do so with two, three if you count Pau Gasol.
Truth be told, Dwight Howard is probably the only one of Bryant's teammates who can reasonably be considered a player more valuable than and ultimately superior to him outright. After all, Dwight is the pre-eminent player at a more crucial (if not the most crucial) position, while Kobe, though still elite, is aging on the wing, where quality players are seemingly a dime a dozen.
But even Howard's situation comes with caveats. He's still recovering from major back surgery and may not be ready to play when the 2012-13 season starts. Even if Dwight's doctors give him the green light, he'll still have plenty of catching up to do as far as conditioning and immersing himself in the on-court culture of the team are concerned.
And of course, there are the underlying concerns about Howard's maturity, though that's another topic of discussion for another day.
Are Gasol and Nash "better" than Kobe is right now? Perhaps, though, they're both in the same boat of being past their respective primes in which Kobe is currently paddling about.
The point, though, isn't that Kobe needs to fall in line behind anyone so much as he'd do well to fall in line with the Lakers' superstar cast and to recalibrate his particular set of skills accordingly.
As with Wade, nobody's telling Kobe not to be great or to avoid attempting to be because he's too old or his teammates are too good. For all the talent the Lakers have at their disposal, there will still be occasions wherein the offense breaks down and/or the game is on the line and the team needs someone to take over. In those cases, Kobe will more than likely be the one (expected) to rise to the occasion.
Most of the time, though, it'll be up to Bryant to be a "team player," to defer to Nash as Hall-of-Famer James Worthy thinks he should, to create space for Howard and Gasol in the middle, to find shots for himself within the flow of the offense rather than force them down everyone else's throats.
Because the more Kobe "hogs" the ball, the more he focuses on self-actualization as opposed to team-actualization, the less involved and less effective Nash, Gasol, Howard, et al. become and the less likely the Lakers are to reach their full potential as a team.
The key for Kobe, as it was for Wade, and as Matt Moore concludes, lies with the first tenet of self-actualization: efficient perceptions of reality. For Kobe to fit into a less-Mamba-centric universe, he must first understand and admit to himself that he can't do it all by himself and that the Lakers' hopes for victory don't always rest as firmly in his hands as he thinks they do.
Too often in his career has Kobe taken it upon himself to do everything on his own, not because he's greedy or selfish, but because he genuinely believes that he gives the Lakers the best chance to win by doing so.
Even though, more often than not, such an approach leaves his teammates disengaged and yields underwhelming outcomes.
Convincing the Mamba to do otherwise will be no easy feat. If Wade's self-perception as Miami's pied piper was rock-solid after one title in seven-plus seasons with the Heat, then Kobe's with the Lakers must be practically indestructible. After all, he's won five championships (two "by himself") in 16 seasons and has already been described by some as the greatest Laker of all time.
It's up to Kobe, then, to take a good, long look in the mirror and come to grips with the fact that his circumstances have changed, that his pursuit of glory requires that he break those habits of his that once made him the best player in basketball, but have since rendered him equal parts savior and nuisance at times.
Few, if any, within the Lakers organization would dare challenge him to do so, lest they incur the Wrath of the Mamba.
Luckily for the Lakers, Kobe widely is considered one of the smartest and most attentive players in basketball. He seems to understand the peculiarities and expectations of his new situation and has said all the right things regarding where it all leaves him.
Now, it's up to Bryant to do what D-Wade did last season, albeit under brighter lights, on a bigger stage and amidst more daunting circumstances.
To become an actualizer of self and team again, at the expense of his own ego.