Kobe Bryant's All-Star Going-Away Party Comes at Fitting Time in NBA's Evolution

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference smiles in the first half against the Eastern Conference during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game capped a weekend devoted to celebrating Kobe Bryant, just as it signaled that the league he iconically defined for two decades no longer needs him.

That's different than saying it doesn't want him anymore.

During the West's 196-173 win, Bryant was mostly an afterthought—given a handful of early chances to score before ceding the spotlight to the assembled present-day superstars. And that felt appropriate. As much as the lead-up festivities in Toronto focused on Bryant's career impact, the actual game was all about the generation of stars he influenced.

(And not playing defense. It was also about not playing defense.)

That group of players, the ones Bryant helped create, showed appreciation for the 18-time All-Star in one of two (yes, two) pregame tribute videos:

All the deference (both before and during the game) was ironic when you consider the uncompromising, decidedly non-deferential spirit that defined Bryant's career, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:


This would be more fun if every player honored the younger Kobe and went for All-Star MVP.

Russell Westbrook's competitive wiring is similar to Bryant's, and he did his best to honor his predecessor's true spirit, streaking through traffic to cram home the game's first bucket—with no inclination to let the old man take the game's first shot.

Westbrook won his second straight All-Star MVP award, putting up 31 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five steals while joining Bryant as the only players to walk disinterestedly past Drake during the introductions.

And to his credit, Paul George, who spoke first in the players' recorded fete of Bryant, didn't turn down many opportunities to fire away from deep. He finished with a record-setting nine made threes and 41 points on 16-of-26 shooting to lead the East. That scoring total tied Westbrook's output last season as the second highest in All-Star Game history, just one behind Wilt Chamberlain.

If not for some hilariously conspicuous defense from the West during the game's waning moments, George would have easily broken the mark.

Bryant finished with 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds on 4-of-11 shooting, getting help from the basketball gods (or at the very least, loose rims) on his first bucket of the night.

Though he probably could have shot more and made a push for what would have been a record fifth All-Star MVP award, it's not all that surprising Bryant approached the exhibition casually. He has softened since announcing his retirement. Now content to take in the praise and have a little fun, this version of Bryant seems to understand his work here is over. A younger Kobe would have treated this All-Star Game like Westbrook, George and a handful of hungrier competitors did.

He would have tried to dominate it by himself.

He can't do that now, and he knows it. What's more, it's becoming increasingly clear the league he'll leave at the end of this season doesn't really have much of a place for that approach anyway.

Think about it.

Saturday's Three-Point Contest was thrilling, captured by Klay Thompson but probably most notable for its depth. As the long ball has increasingly defined the NBA game in recent years, individual shooting accuracy seems to have become more widespread...and more celebrated. But so are the movement-heavy, unselfish offenses necessary to free up players with those skills.

Look also to the teams doing most of the winning these days. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs operate as connected units. They fling the ball side to side, hoping to free up shots for their best scorers but perfectly happy to settle for whatever the egalitarian system yields. They're also arguably the two best defenses in the league—another trait dependent on collective spirit, communication and trust in teammates.

The lone wolf, no matter how relentlessly carnivorous, doesn't really have a place in the league's best packs today. And though we've all read countless spins on the Bryant-as-dying-breed idea, the truth is he's not so much going extinct as being bred out of existence.

Natural selection is at work in the NBA.

There's a new norm among singular superstars. They either already exist in ecosystems that maximize their skills (Stephen Curry with the Warriors) or they seek them out. The most interesting thing about Kevin Durant these days is the speculation he'll leave his current team to join one with a system that'll give him a better chance to win.

The league is ready to say goodbye to Bryant, but if the season-long love fest is any indication, countless fans aren't. And that underscores a strange disconnect between what viewers want and what actually leads to wins. So much of Bryant's appeal was tied up in his force of personality, in the way he imposed his will on the game, his teammates and his opponents. He superseded systems, and that made him seem somehow fictional—even heroic.

It's why everyone loves him, and it's why he gets send-offs like this:

The league is just smarter now, though, and heroes of Bryant's ilk don't win battles by themselves anymore.

Defenses are too sophisticated, and the logic that five players working together can overwhelm an individual going at it alone is increasingly informing how teams operate. San Antonio played the Beautiful Game and beat LeBron James. Then the Warriors did it the very next year.

Hero ball is now a pejorative term.

Curry's universal appeal is based as much on his individual game as his team success. He's uniquely gifted, but his gifts are amplified because he agrees to play within a collective. And Kawhi Leonard was voted an All-Star starter despite a fit-in-at-all-costs, no-frills style that could hardly be more different from Bryant's.

Paul Garcia @PaulGarciaNBA

Kawhi can't help himself, that's like the third time he's called out defensive rotations in the first half.

They're part of the new superstar model—one that emphasizes all the best collaborative, inclusive parts of the game.

"There will never be another Kobe Bryant," Magic Johnson said on the TNT All-Star broadcast. That's true.

Great and beloved as he was, the NBA doesn't need Bryant anymore.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.


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