Kobe Bryant loves the big stage. He's a leading MVP candidate, but what he really cares about is winning another ring.
He may not win the award, and there will always be detractors, but for Kobe Bean Bryant, this season has been as sweet, productive and positive as any in his extraordinary 17-year career.
As much as any player in the league, Bryant deserves major consideration for the MVP Award.
Despite their average 14-15 record, the Lakers would not be close to where they are without the play of Bryant.
Kobe has literally held the team together through a stretch where the team employed three head coaches and dealt with injuries to All-Star point guard leader Steve Nash, backup Steve Blake and two-time world champion power forward Pau Gasol.
Bryant's MVP credentials were on display Christmas Day in L.A. as the Lakers came back from a nine-point deficit to defeat the Knicks, 100-94. Consider: 44 minutes, 34 points on 58 percent shooting, five rebounds and a plus-11 on-court rating. It was Kobe's ninth straight game of 30 or more points.
Following the win, Bryant sounded more like a guy who desperately wants to win another title than someone longing to win an MVP award.
Wednesday night, in a uninspiring loss to the Denver Nuggets, Bryant once again played with efficiency and grit. He hit on 13 of 24 shots, including five of nine from three-point territory, accounting for 40 points in 44 minutes. That's 10 straight games of 30 or more points.
Bryant finished fourth in MVP voting last year behind Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and the winner, LeBron James. Kobe averaged 27.9 points (second to Durant) on 43 percent shooting, including just 30 percent from beyond the arc.
This year has been a totally different story. Despite all the changes to the lineup, including new faces and injuries to key starters, Kobe has remained the model of consistency.
He's the league leader at 30.2 points on a career-best 48 percent shooting (38 percent from three-point range). Bryant averages 5.3 rebounds, five assists and close to two steals a game while playing almost 39 minutes.
Yes, Bryant shot the ball 41 times last Saturday night against Golden State, but for the year he is averaging 21.5. His career mark is 19.6.
If voting were held today, Bryant wouldn't stand a chance because his team's overall record is still weak. Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, Kevin Durant of the Thunder and LeBron James of the Heat might all finish ahead of Kobe, mainly because their teams are 20-8, 21-5 and 18-6, respectively.
With Steve Nash back in the lineup, the prospects for a strong finish to the regular season are now looking much better for the Lakers. And if Kobe continues to perform with the efficiency he has to this point, he should be considered for the top award.
Nash is a two-time MVP winner and, had he not missed one quarter of the season, might be part of the conversation himself given his overall importance to his team.
If Lakers continue to win and finish strong, who would you vote for league MVP?
Ironically Bryant, a five-time world champion, has won the MVP Award only once (2008) in his illustrious 16-year career. In that season, Bryant averaged 28.3 points on 46 percent shooting and the Lakers were the top seed with a 57-25 record. They won't reach that mark this year, but a strong second half for the team would keep Bryant in the conversation.
Critics like to say that Bryant doesn't help his team so much as himself with individual statistics. But what those same people fail to see is that Kobe Bryant is first and foremost a scorer. He wants the ball in his hands in key situations and has helped win countless close games for the Lakers with incredible last-second shots.
In the final seconds of the Lakers' come-from-behind win over the Knicks, Bryant had an opportunity to take a shot with his team leading by four. Instead, Bryant passed to Nash, who knocked down a big shot.
That one play signifies why he should be part of the MVP conversation: Sure, his individual stats are brilliant this year, maybe the best of his career. However, he's also trusting his teammates enough to give up the ball and let someone like Nash make a play and seal the victory.
As Bryant told ABC following the Knicks game: "This (win) gives us a lot of confidence as a group."
And last night, after the team lost in Denver and Howard was ejected in the third quarter for a flagrant foul, Kobe again sounded like someone who wants to win a championship and not an individual award.
He told ESPN.com: "Tonight it just seemed like we were a step slow. It seemed like we were a little stuck in the mud. We played old and they played with a lot of energy, a lot of youth, got up and down and it just seemed like we were in a lower gear all night."
Except for Kobe Bryant. Truly spoken like a most valuable player.