Kobe Bryant is having an MVP season on a middle-of-the-pack team.
Kobe Bryant is having one of the best regular seasons of his career. He's even playing better than in 2008, when he won his only Most Valuable Player award.
But if the award was given today, the Lakers' all-time leading scorer would probably finish behind Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and maybe LeBron James in the voting. A 15-15 record will have that effect.
In his defense, Bryant has played most of this season without Steve Nash at point guard, and that has had an adverse impact on the entire team. Prior to Nash's return, the Lakers had slipped all the way to 9-14 and were in serious danger of leaving the playoff hunt before it ever really began.
The Lakers are 6-4 in their last 10 games, but more importantly 6-1 in their last seven. The one bump in the road was a lackadaisical loss at Denver following a big Christmas-Day victory at home over the Knicks.
With Steve Nash back orchestrating the Lakers' offense, Kobe Bryant has been able to concentrate on what he does best: score.
After setting a record for most consecutive games of 30 or more points for a player 34 or older (10), Kobe Bryant looked like an MVP in the Lakers' blowout last Friday against Portland. In just 31 minutes, he went for 27 points on 50 percent shooting. He also added five rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Kobe Bryant is the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game so far and is having perhaps the best season of his career, which bodes well for his MVP chances.
For Bryant to actually win the award, the Lakers must continue to get better and run off some impressive streaks.
With an ever-improving lineup that finally includes Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Bryant simultaneously, his chances increase with every victory.
Kobe Bryant is having the most efficient season of his 17-year career.
Aside from a few clunkers where Bryant put up way too many shots (16-of-41 in the three-point win over Golden State), he has been a model of consistency and kept the Lakers from being blown out of a number of games.
More than a third of the way through the season, Kobe is averaging 21.5 field-goal attempts and connecting on 10.3 (48 percent) per game. That compares to his MVP season (2008) when he made 46 percent of his attempts. He averaged 20.6 shots and made good on 9.5 of them that year.
Kobe Bryant is also at his best from three-point range. Aside from his rookie year, in which he only averaged 1.9 attempts from long distance (and made 37.5 percent), Bryant has never been better from beyond the arc, connecting on 37 percent of his shots.
Bryant boasts a career 45 percent shooting percentage. The Black Mamba always has and always will be a scorer, so averaging 20 shots is nothing new for him.
The rejuvenated Bryant is playing 38.7 minutes this year, compared with 38.9 the year he won the MVP.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Kobe's MVP-like season is his age. Karl Malone won the award at age 36 and Michael Jordan was 35 when he captured his last MVP. But no one has more mileage than Kobe Bryant, now in his 17th season.
Bryant has five world championship rings and 14 All-Star appearances. He is currently the leading vote-getter for this year's contest.
Efficiency aside, it all comes down to victories and finishing strong as a team. With 52 games left, the Lakers need to go 33-19 or better to make the playoffs and give Bryant a chance for a second MVP Award.
When his career finally comes to a close, Kobe Bryant will rank as one of the premier defensive shooting guards in the NBA.
He's been selected First Team All NBA defensively nine times, most recently in 2010-11.
If there is one aspect of Bryant's game that's been lacking this year, it's been his defense. Like many of his teammates, Kobe's play has been rather spotty. It's even prompted call outs from teammate Dwight Howard.
Kobe seems to take possessions off at times, failing to help out a mismatch or simply forgetting about his cover.
Bryant has handled the tough assignments for much of his career and performed admirably. He can still bring it, but he hasn't shown he can bring it every night so far this year.
Kobe Bryant is averaging 5.3 rebounds and 1.47 steals. Those numbers compare with 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in his 2008 MVP season.
Fellow competitors for MVP, such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, are averaging 1.56 and 1.46 steals per game, respectively.
At this point, both James and Durant must be considered the better defenders, but there is still time for Kobe to pick it up a notch or two.
Bryant should get high marks for his relatively calm, zen-like leadership this season.
As the team struggled to find its way early, it was Bryant who tried to get teammates involved and it was Bryant who continued to work hard and stay positive.
There were a couple of instances when Bryant's frustration over losing got the better of him. In one such instance, after the team started 0-2 and former Coach Mike Brown was being heavily criticized, Kobe told reporters via USA Today: "I'll say it for (Brown): Everybody, shut up. Let us work, and at the end of the day, you'll be happy with the result."
Bryant has been vocal a few other times, including a blow-up during one practice session earlier in the year. His intensity, sense of purpose and focus have never been questioned, and he demands the same from his teammates.
Kobe Bryant leads more with his game than words, but he has improved in that respect. He remained positive when Mike Brown was fired five games into the season and immediately threw his support behind Mike D'Antoni after he learned the Lakers hired him over Phil Jackson.
Contrary to what some may think, Bryant does get his teammates involved in the flow of the game. He does so especially early on as the Lakers try to establish a rhythm. If other players are making shots and playing with passion, Bryant will continue to get them the ball and encourage them.
If it is late in a game and the Lakers are trailing, expect the Black Mamba to take over. That dual personality has caused friction at times, but Bryant is a proven winner and that counts for something.
Most MVP recipients come from a team that makes the playoffs. If the season ended today, the Lakers would not be invited to the party. That alone could prevent Kobe Bryant from taking home the trophy.
On the positive side, the Lakers have won six of their last seven games, and Bryant has been an integral factor in all of the victories. Contrary to what some critics may suggest, No. 24 makes everyone around him better, and there's a very long track record to prove that.
Bryant likes what he is seeing from the current Lakers. Now that Steve Nash is back, Dwight Howard is getting closer to being 100 percent and Pau Gasol is adapting to his role as more of a facilitator. Yet, he is cautiously optimistic on the team's immediate future.
"It's so early in the season to have turned a corner," Bryant told AP (via ESPN.com) following their win against New York. "We have everybody in the lineup and we're starting to see how we want to play."
Of course, basketball is a team sport, and it takes more than one MVP to win playoff games and a world championship.
Bryant is finally getting to play with Steve Nash, who provides the Lakers with the exceptional point guard they need to challenge for a championship.
Kobe is still Kobe and he continues to play at an extremely high level. Having Nash as the go-to scorer not only benefits Bryant, but will lead to easier baskets and more wins.
January is a critical month for the Lakers. They'll play Oklahoma City twice, the Spurs, Grizzlies and the red-hot Clippers. It's an opportunity for success—let's see if Kobe and the Lakers are up to the task.
Kobe Bryant loves a big stage and a big challenge. It's where he shines.
How he fares in showdowns with some of the game's other MVP candidates will go a long way toward determining his place in the pecking order this season.
Bryant performs well in "showdowns" with other MVP candidates, such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. The Lakers will face the Heat for the first time in January, but have played New York twice and the Thunder once. They split with the Knicks and lost at Oklahoma City.
Against New York, Kobe combined for 65 points on 50 percent shooting in those two games. He more than held his own against Anthony, who is having a monster season and led the surprising Knicks to a 21-9 record.
To his credit, Carmelo scored 64 points on 23-of-38 shooting in those two games as well. At this point, Anthony would get more votes than Bryant for an MVP Award simply because his team is winning.
Heading into New Year's Day, Bryant leads all scorers at 30.1 ppg to 28.5 for Anthony and 28.4 for Durant. James is averaging 25.9 points. James, Anthony and Durant all convert about 43 percent of their shots from three-point range, while Kobe is at 37 percent.
Prior to their second meeting in L.A., Bryant talked about facing Anthony (via Yahoo! Sports). His comments were enlightening, because they reveal as much about Kobe as they do about Carmelo Anthony:
"He's (Anthony) playing like he has always played. He's just surrounded by pieces that allow him to do what he does best. And finally people are recognizing what a great player he is.
"He's been criticized, but that comes with the job, though. That comes with all scorers. Scorers are very easily criticized. But that's something we all take in stride. You have to. That's part of being a scorer."
In their one meeting against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant scored 35 points in 44 minutes and the Lakers lost by six. Bryant shot 46 percent for the game and added seven assists, two blocks and three steals.
Durant, meanwhile, had 36 points on 11-of-19 shooting with nine rebounds and four assists. He is arguably the most versatile player in the league right now, though he still lacks the hardware to validate it.
The Thunder are 23-6 overall while the Heat are 20-8. For Bryant to win the award, he and the Lakers will need to continue their winning ways and finish the regular season on a roll.
Bryant will have plenty of opportunities to outshine his competitors and lead L.A. as an MVP should do. As of today, he's right there in the conversation and, for a .500 team and a 34-year old veteran, that itself is a remarkable achievement.