It pains me to write this article.
As a die hard Portland Trailblazer fan, this is almost as hard as writing an article declaring Greg Oden a bust. (Luckily, I don’t think that article needs to be written. Yet.)
But the truth must come out, so here I go.
During the upcoming NBA All-Star game, TNT is announcing their "All-Decade" selections, including their pick for "Player of the Decade."
There is no question that this distinction belongs to Kobe Bryant.
It’s something I never thought I would write. I’ve spent years arguing that Kobe fans are among the most obnoxious and delusional of sports worshippers. When they proclaim that No. 24 is already a greater player than No. 23, or when they dismiss all of Kobe’s flaws as irrelevant heresy, I still think they come across as brainwashed cult members.
That being said, Kobe Bryant is still the Player of the Decade in the NBA.
The only other realistic candidates are Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. LeBron James, as great as he is, will have to wait another decade.
All three candidates have won regular season and NBA Finals MVPs. If we consider the 21st Century to have started in the year 2000 (as most people do), then Duncan has three rings and Shaq and Kobe have four each.
Now, Shaq and Duncan have been dominant at times. O’Neal probably had the greatest single season of the decade in 2000. That year, he was arguably the most dominant player I’ve ever seen. Not the greatest, but the most dominant.
And you can make the argument that Tim Duncan has been consistently great for his entire career. His impact on the outcome of any given game is immeasurable. Perhaps only Bill Russell has ever been more quietly effective at controlling a basketball game.
However, Kobe has to be the winner for a number of reasons. Mind you, my reasons aren’t going to be the same as those of Kobe’s die-hard fans. I’m not going to say he was secretly the best player on those Laker title teams. (That was still Shaq.) I’m not going to say it’s because Kobe scored 81 points in a game, or had 62 points in three quarters. (That’s largely irrelevant in my book.)
No, Kobe Bryant is the Player of the Decade quite simply because he has been the best player of the decade.
If you poll current or former NBA players, they will almost unanimously select Kobe as the best player in the league. He may not quite be Michael Jordan good, but he’s Kobe Bryant good and that’s really, really good.
Seriously. If the only real criticism you can throw at Kobe is that he’s not quite Michael Jordan, that’s pretty much a compliment.
Second of all, Kobe has managed to add the requisite hardware. It’s one thing for everyone to consider you the best player in the NBA when your team is mediocre. Think of Michael Jordan in 1987. Everyone knew he was better than everyone else, but Magic and Larry were still the unchallenged Kings of the NBA because they were in the NBA Finals every year.
Two seasons ago, I would have said Shaq or Duncan were the players of the decade. Shaq had added a fourth ring in 2006; Duncan did the same in 2007. In the meantime, Kobe's Lakers were struggling to make the playoffs.
Since then, to both his and the Lakers’ credit, Kobe went on to win a regular season MVP, a Finals MVP and another championship. In the professional sports, this kind of thing matters. There’s a reason why Joe Montana was the player of the 1980s in the NFL rather than Dan Marino. He won the rings.
Even though Kobe won three titles earlier in the decade, those were Shaq’s teams. Kobe fans will argue with this, but as a Blazer fan who watched every minute of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, I can tell you that Shaq was the player Blazer fans feared. There was just no answer for him.
To be fully appreciated, Kobe needed to add that hardware. He needed to win a title as "The Man." Once he did that, he jumped ahead of Duncan and Shaq, because now he was not just the best player, he was a true MVP.
Now, you could be cynical and credit Kobe's ability to achieve all this to the addition of Pau Gasol and the improvement of Andrew Bynum. Those things are true, but that's how things work in the NBA. It's a team sport.
The thing that impressed me most about Kobe is that his MVP wasn’t simply a make-up call after he should have won it earlier, nor was it a life-time achievement award. On the contrary, Kobe actually improved as a player and a teammate during the past two seasons.
This brings me to the most amazing thing about Bryant and the one thing that might give him an edge over even Michael Jordan: his ability to add more facets to his game each year.
Now, obviously, Magic, Michael, Larry and other great players have all done the same thing before. Jordan famously added a post-up game and three point range as his career progressed. He worked on his strength and conditioning. He continually improved. We all know these stories.
But Kobe has carried this further than any player I’ve seen. He’s not only perfected Jordan’s cobra-like "drive and strike" dribbling style and turnaround fadeaway, he’s added Magic’s junior sky-hook, McHale and Hakeem’s up-and-under move, George Gervin’s finger-roll, Tim Hardaway’s cross-over, Tim Duncan’s bank shot, Reggie Miller’s flailing-leg three point form, and Clyde Drexler’s hand-switching spin move. And he seems to be able to do all of these with either hand.
Kobe is not afraid to steal moves from anybody and this is a good thing. When he decided he needed a better post-up game, he asked Hakeem Olajuwon to work with him. Problem solved.
Of course, this leads to my biggest criticism of Kobe: He’s not an original. When he came into the league, he was like a Michael Jordan tribute band. Over time, he branched out and is now one of those bands who can play everything from Abba to Zeppelin, but he’s still a cover band.
However, in practical terms it means that guarding Kobe is like trying to stump Paul Schaffer on David Letterman’s show. You’ve seen those bits when people throw out random songs and Schaffer plays them by ear, complete with chords, the first time.
That’s what guarding Kobe is like. No matter how you try to defend him, he has a move for it.
Beyond Kobe’s improvement as a player, there are other reasons he deserves to be considered the player of the decade. He’s the league’s marquee player on the league’s marquee team. His jerseys outsell everyone else’s around the world. He’s been consistently excellent all decade. He’s been extremely tough and durable.
Oh, there have been problems, of course. You’ve read them all. But from a basketball standpoint, you can’t argue with Kobe Bryant as the Player of the Decade.
That being said, as a Blazer fan, I have to be contrarian and pick the Spurs as the team of the decade. I can’t help myself.