LOS ANGELES — Whether he lives up to it, Kobe Bryant’s much-discussed two-year contract extension is set to accomplish one very simple thing.
Upcoming are Bryant’s 19th and 20th years with the Los Angeles Lakers. Those will move him one year ahead of Utah Jazz guard John Stockton for the most seasons by any player in NBA history with the same team.
That’s a remarkable tenure, now approaching two decades.
Except Tim Duncan is right behind him.
Duncan doesn’t know how long he’ll play—next season, his 18th with the San Antonio Spurs, might well be it—but Bryant’s lost 2013-14 campaign has brought these two contemporaries even further in line with each other.
Duncan played and won Wednesday night at Staples Center against the Lakers while Bryant sat with his knee injury. On the NBA’s all-time list of games played, Duncan ticked up to 1,242 while Bryant again held steady at 1,245.
With the Spurs owning the NBA’s best record at 51-16, it’s more than likely Duncan (211) will pass Bryant (220) in career playoff games during the coming months, too.
We could turn this into a debate over which player has had the better career. Duncan probably has a slight edge in this big-man’s game with more NBA MVPs (2-1) and more NBA Finals MVPs (3-2), though Bryant has 7,000 more points and more titles (5-4).
The first point here, however, is the commonality that needs to be recognized.
Each player has actually brought his franchise tremendous consistency. Of course, the stoic Duncan is in so many ways graphically different from the impassioned Bryant, and the steady Spurs have been pretty much the anti-Lakers given all of the drama and scandal in Los Angeles. What lies beneath all of that extra stuff is the same foundation for the landmark building.
Bryant and Duncan are both workers who have infused their franchises with that fundamental mentality. One has put on the silver and black, while the other has put on the purple and gold time after time, yet they maintain immense pride in their workmanship.
If you want to know the secret to longevity, there it is. Don’t mail it in, don’t cheat your fans or your organization, and don’t worry what others think of you as long as you like the way you do things.
Look at the other names on that list of long NBA lives in one locale: Reggie Miller (Indiana Pacers, 18 seasons), Karl Malone (Utah Jazz, 18) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston Rockets, 17). Those guys were dedicated to the job and doing it their way, too.
Next season, Bryant will start to crank it back up toward 20 years, with Lakers president Jeanie Buss noting on Time Warner Cable SportsNet on Tuesday how players no longer get drafted at 17 and declaring about Bryant’s 20-year tenure: "I guarantee that won’t happen again."
For a little reference, Jerry West played 14 seasons as a Laker, and Magic Johnson had 13. For the Spurs, David Robinson played 14.
Duncan had to share the spotlight with Robinson early on, but did we ever hear even a hint of Duncan wanting to win one without Robinson? Does anyone think that Duncan’s going to create salacious personal distraction on the eve of this postseason, perhaps declaring, "I’m motivated to win this one without Amy!" (Duncan’s divorce finalized before this season.)
The Spurs have taken on Duncan’s solidity while the Lakers have mostly risen and occasionally fallen with Bryant’s intensity as their hallmark.
As these guys get older, though, the stylistic difference has become far more than a footnote: One guy is, bottom line, a lot easier to play with, which means it’s a lot easier for Spurs management to put winning pieces around him.
Duncan surely went unnoticed by many fans Wednesday night when he had the assist on Marco Belinelli’s jumper and then poked the ball free for a steal at the other end to trigger the fast-break basket that put the Lakers away. So many beautiful things get done without Duncan requiring extraordinary spotlight or domination of the ball.
There is no question that community style of play has set a tone in San Antonio.
It’s why rising star Kawhi Leonard was still respectfully referring to Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as the "Big Three" Wednesday night when this team actually has nine different players averaging at least eight points.
It was wholly appropriate that in the Spurs’ Friday rout of the Lakers they became the first team in NBA history to have all 13 players record at least one point, one rebound and one assist.
"We like players who have gotten over themselves," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, the only coach Duncan has ever had in the longest such partnership the NBA (or NFL or NHL) has ever seen.
About the Spurs winning at least 50 games for the past 15 seasons, Popovich said, "It has to start with people who are comfortable in their own skin and people who are confident in what they do—but understand it’s about a group. It’s not about any one person."
Is Jim Buss comfortable in his own skin? Is Mike D’Antoni confident in what he does? Does Bryant understand it’s about a group?
Meanwhile, the Duncan group marches on, having been perhaps one rebound or foul away from the NBA championship last season, having valid reason to believe that this season could be even better.
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