What are legends made of? Is it statistics? No, because if so, Kobe Bryant would've been a legend for many years now as the 12—year veteran has put up All-Star caliber numbers for the majority of his career. But when you talk about legends of the game, no matter which sport it is, it always comes down to one thing: winning. Yeah, Kobe has three championship rings to show off, but there was a big factor in those three titles that goes by the name of Shaquille O'Neal.
Together, Kobe and Shaq will go down as one of the most dominant duos of all time, after running off three straight championships from 2001-2003. But since Shaq's departure to Miami (he has since been traded to Phoenix), where the Heat won the 2006 NBA title, the Lakers hadn't been able to make it past the second round of the playoffs up until last season (where they lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals).
In these past few seasons after the O'Neal trade, Kobe has tried to put the whole load on his shoulders so to speak, by believing that without Shaq anymore, he had to go out and score 30 to 40 points every night in order for Los Angeles to win. He lost faith in his teammates that he once had when he was throwing alley-oops to "The Diesel," and began to think that there wasn't much of a future in L.A. for him as well.
The frustration seemed to be too much entering a 2007-2008 NBA season that started off with the face of the Laker franchise asking for a trade out of L.A., and making it clear that he didn't want to play with second year center Andrew Bynum. But, when trade talks and proposed deals started to fall through, it began to become more and more apparent that a possible shift in scenery out of L.A. wasn't going to happen.
How did Kobe respond to this? Not by moping around and continuing to complain about his situation, but by deciding to make the best out of what he had, playing at higher level than at any other point of his career, and for the first time since the "glory days" with Shaquille, started focusing more on the team concept of basketball rather than the individual statistics. Oh, and that under-achieving center, Andrew Bynum, came out last season playing at the level of a seasoned vet, and seemed like a front runner for most improved player until he got injured.
So Kobe was passing, involving his teammates, and creating good shots for the offense. The Lakers has a record that could put them in talks with perennial championship contenders in Dallas, Phoenix, and San Antonio, atop the Western Conference. And for the first time since the Lakers last NBA title in 2003, Bryant is happy again with the situation in Los Angeles.
But, the Lakers were still missing something. Kobe wanted a trade at the beginning of the season because he wasn't happy with the structure of the team, and he still had the same team that he believed could make the playoffs, but couldn't win an NBA title. Then, the final piece of the puzzle was finally put into place when the Lakers traded for forward/center Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies.
This gave the Lakers the strong scoring option in the post that they had been missing for the past few seasons. Word of the trade only brought excitement to Kobe, who text messaged the Spaniard Gasol, in Spanish, "Welcome to Los Angeles, let's win an NBA Championship." With the addition of Gasol, the Lakers ended the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference, and made it all the way to the NBA Finals, where they came up just short of the Boston Celtics in six games.
Now, after an exciting offseason in which Kobe won his first gold medal as a member of the United States National Team in the Olympics, he is back and ready for another NBA season. With Gasol, a healthy Bynum, and the versatile Lamar Odom, the Lakers have a very tall and athletic frontcourt with impressive rebounding and scoring skills. They are ready to compete with the best that the league has to offer. So, with an excited, rejuvenated Kobe playing a more team-oriented style of basketball and looking to pass first rather than create his own shot, the Lakers seem to finally have given Kobe the supporting cast that he deserves.
So, while Shaq sits on a Phoenix Sun team that seemingly becomes more and more depressing with each passing year, an ecstatic and determined Kobe Bryant appears to be poised for a run at his fourth NBA Championship, and prove that winning, is what legends are made of.