It is going to be a sad day when you turn on your TV to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and you can't find Kobe Bryant on the court.
It won't be because he took his talents to another luxurious locale or because he just decided to take a game off. Kobe's looming retirement will signify the end to one of the most illustrious and special careers in NBA history.
In an interview with CBSSports.com NBA Insider Ken Berger, Kobe alluded to the fact that he may be hanging up his laces in two or three years.
When that time comes, it will be a sad day in the NBA. But it will also be another player's chance to carry on where Kobe Bryant will have left off.
There are a number of players who could take the torch from Kobe and become a polarizing figure in the NBA world. But the player best suited to do that is none other than James Harden.
There are a few interesting similarities between Kobe and Harden, the first of which is that they've been on teams on which their own stardom has been overshadowed by other elite players.
For Kobe, it started the moment he stepped on the court for the Lakers. For the first eight years of his career, he lived in the shadow of Shaquille O'Neal. While Bryant was a star in his own right, he never really became the Kobe we know now because O'Neal's presence held him back.
Harden's early career isn't dissimilar from that of Kobe's in that he too was overshadowed by higher-profile teammates.
The main difference is that Harden appeared to get along well with the guys holding him back. Harden also accepted the role he was given—that of a sixth man. With that being said, Harden's stature in the first part of his career wasn't helped by the fact that he was coming off the bench.
Now that Harden is starting in Houston, he's putting up Kobe-like numbers, and he's leading with his on-court production—in much the same way that Kobe has throughout his career.
While his sample size is currently just three games, Harden is now averaging 35.3 points, 6.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 54.3 percent from the field.
Yes, as the season goes on, his production will decrease as the sample size increases. But Harden has given the NBA a glimpse of the kind of player he truly is when his team lets him play his game.
One of the reasons why Harden can be the next Kobe is that his approach to the game is similar to Bryant's.
On offense, they both thrive in the isolation game. Once the ball is in their hands, the best thing to do is either have a big man come up high and set a screen or just simply get out of their way. Kobe is a purer shooter, and both players are unbelievably lethal off the dribble, but Harden attacks the rim with more intensity than Kobe.
It also goes without saying that Kobe and Harden are both elite defenders in the NBA. There are few players who can put Kobe on lockdown, and Harden just happens to be one of them. Their discipline on defense also sets them apart from other players, but it's a feature that makes the two of them so similar.
While this may seem insignificant, a per-game statistical comparison for Kobe and Harden through the first three years of their careers bears out this resemblance.
Kobe Bryant (1997-1999): 13.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.0 STLPG, 43.9 FG%, 25.3 MPG
James Harden (2010-2012): 11.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.1 STLPG, 42.1 FG%, 42.9 MPG
There are certainly different factors impacting those statistics, but the fact that they are so similar has to pique some level of interest.
The one glaring difference between Harden and Kobe, however, is that Harden has a much more likable and amicable personality.
Sure, Kobe can be charming at times. But his smug looks at teammates and his arrogant way of calling out everyone but himself make him such a divisive personality and player.
Harden has some attitude, as evidenced by his jawing with Kobe. But Harden's attitude isn't defined by arrogance, but rather by confidence.
There isn't much room right now for guys looking to become top-tier players in terms of marketability and fan appeal. But once Kobe retires, Harden will be the man for the job. He's the player who is going to take over Kobe's spot and slowly but surely take over the entire NBA.
The fact that Harden now has his "own team"—even with Jeremy Lin on the roster—is the opportunity he needed to solidify himself as a top-five player in the NBA, and we are all seeing that transformation happen right before our eyes.
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