Sunday, June 28, 2009

Victor Ortiz Shocked By Tough Marcos Rena Maidana

There are few things in sports that can hijack your undivided attention more quickly or easily than drama inside a boxing ring. It is exhilarating and captivating and causes ones blood to rush. The announcers voice heightens, the crowd rises to its feet and fills the arena with the swelled noise of excitement, and your heart begins to beat with anticipation. To me the best of these moments occur when one man possesses the momentum and has his opponent in trouble, and it appears that a fight is nearing its final stages - when it looks like the referee could step in at any second to save a fighter from further abuse (Pacquiao-De la Hoya), when it looks like someone might not survive an early round (Pacquiao-Hatton), whenever a fighter senses he has his man and goes in for the kill (Mosley-Margarito), etc. These scenarios can come in a variety of ways. Another way to get me hooked? When two guys exchange knockdowns within mere seconds of each other. That's what happened during the first round of the Victor Ortiz-Marcos Rena Maidana clash that aired on HBO from the Staples Center Saturday night.

I missed the initial broadcast and figured I would watch the second showing halfheartedly, at the same time I was resuming construction of my more than year long ongoing drawing of Anton Chigurh. The first knockdown, a hard right hand by Ortiz that dropped Maidana along the ropes, caught the majority of my attention and may have caused me to lose grip of my pencil. The ensuing knockdown, a vicious straight right by Maidana delivered directly following his taking of the mandatory eight count, left me, as a fan, no choice but to close the cover of my 18"x24" sketchbook, put it in its resting place and take in the fireworks.

There were more explosions in the second round. Ortiz knocked Maidana down twice; following the first commentator Manny Steward remarked that it seemed to give Maidana a quitters disposition. But he would fight on, however discouraged he appeared, both heavy handed men throwing defense to the wayside in your classic slugfest, as I predicted in my mind how the fight would be determined: one man either scoring a knockout or getting knocked out himself. This outcome seemed not only inevitable but just a matter of time, as there had been four knockdowns, both men were considerably hard punchers, and neither one of them seemed particularly concerned with protecting themselves.

Then, it happened. Maidana had a huge fifth round, using a big right hand to open up a dangerous cut over Ortiz's right eye in the process. Following the round Ortiz's corner threatened to stop the fight if he kept leaving his hands down. He seemed badly buzzed and was asked if he wanted the fight to be stopped, to which he was noncommittal, and it looked as though the fight could be over. When the sixth began Maidana jumped all over him, beating and chasing him into a corner and knocking him down with a barrage of punches. This seemed to seal the deal in Ortiz's mind. He was now swelling badly under his left eye, and the referee had the ringside physician take a look at the cut. The doctor decided that it was too bad to continue and the bout was called to a halt, much to Ortiz's total contentment with the outcome, as it became conclusive that he was done mentally and wanted nothing more to do with this match.

Ironically, in the pre-fight lead-up of the telecast HBO showed a piece about Ortiz's difficult youth (he lived in a trailer home and he and his siblings were abandoned by his parents) and resiliency. Max Kellerman stated that there were no questions about Ortiz's heart and Steward made a point of repeatedly touting the character of both fighters, birthed by their troubling lives. But only one man showed character on this night: the Argentinean underdog Maidana, outgunned and fighting in front of his opponents hometown crowd but making the stand anyway, while Oriz gave up in a startling display of cowardice.

"Vicious" Victor was thought to be a rising name and potential superstar, a handsome and likable young man handpicked by Oscar De la Hoya to be the fresh-faced poster boy of Golden Boy Promotions. That may all change now; as Kellerman said after the fight Ortiz may have just made the kind of mistake he will live to regret.

Although I hope I am being completely fair to Victor. He is a pup, and as Max said he made a decision in a rough moment, and of course young people make bad decisions. And in their post-fight conversation Ortiz admitted to being overwhelmed by the L.A. crowd that was so behind him, and this was the first event he had headlined. Furthermore, I wonder if he was truly troubled by something greater - he told Max that he didn't want to go out on his shield, that he was young and didn't think he should be taking that kind of beating, that he wants to be able to speak well when he's older. Excuse me but, huh? Where did that come from? What happened to the hardened young man and what kind of fighter talks like that? I understand his rationale, it's the same reasoning that keeps me from going into boxing. But I don't understand it coming from him, before this night arguably the hottest young prospect in the game and participant in 26 professional fights. Very weird.

Ortiz was a quitter tonight, that's a fact, but there may be more to the story than that. I can only hope he is/was not experiencing something more pressing. If he really wants to continue with boxing I wish him success with that. If he does then I hope people are understanding, and that he is given a pass as a young person who made a mistake, and that he is allowed another opportunity to be a main attraction. Maybe one day what happened to him Saturday night will add to his narrative as a great fighter. If he doesn't want to further pursue this career then that is fine, too. All I know is that after the fight he said, "I have a lot of thinking to do," and it was the truest line spoken on the night and possibly the most concrete idea we'll take away from it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Tribute To Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

In the irony of ironies, I was just reading the short article in this week's Rolling Stone titled "Michael Jackson's Troubled Comeback," by Fred Goodman, which detailed the bumpy circumstances of the legend's upcoming batch of 50 concerts in London, a massive event which would curtail his financial and legal woes and announce his return to music prominence. Within an hour of putting down the magazine, he was pronounced dead. Surely in the wake of this much will be said about the changes in appearance, the court cases, and the general eccentricity that had come to define his life, as it should; it was all part of his legacy and made him even more famous. But it wasn't what made him an icon in the first place, and in my tribute piece I'd like to focus on the true nature of his legend, what made the man with the fancy white glove so newsworthy in the first place.

People always say "such and such was/is the Michael Jordan of their field," as a way of indicating that that individual was/is the absolute best and most transcendent in their given arena. And if that's the case, then Michael Jordan was the Michael Jackson of basketball. Jackson was the single greatest entertainer of all-time, perhaps the most influential man in pop music history, and still amongst the most famous men in the world. I'm only 21, so I wasn't even alive during his apex, but like everyone else will, I feel the need to pay my respects as Jackson's impact was so far-reaching it touched my generation, too, and will affect the ones after mines. I'm not writing this for any reason other than what he meant to his genre, what he meant to the game. He changed it. He reinvented the concept of the music video and almost single-handily helped spawn the success of MTV, turning these short clips into short cinema. The Thriller flick was simply a work of art and remains the gold standard for all that have come after it. His live performances and dance moves were revolutionary and his best songs remain the seminal work of any solo artist in pop music. He spearheaded the Jackson 5 phenomenon as a child, his career spanning four decades. But his influence will carry on forever, in every music video, dance sequence, and pop song, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, and every other similar performer in stark or subtle ways, in the dollars he generated and his overall body of work.

And even through all of the travails of his life and his increasingly infrequent activity he was still capable of delivering the goods. The video he did with Chris Tucker for "You Rocked My World" earlier this decade? He still had it, what he had - the distinct voice, the unmatched charisma, the megawatt star power - one can never lose, and he was going to prove that this summer. Now, he won't get the chance.

We all knew Farrah Fawcett was losing her battle with cancer and that Ed McMahon was an 85-year old man in the hospital, so those two deaths were saddening but not jolting. No one was prepared for this one. Michael Jackson was a young man and in seemingly fine health. I am not shocked, Jackson's life was always kind of tragic (and again I will leave those details to someone else), but obviously this is still something I was not ready for. All I had planned for tonight was to watch the NBA draft on ESPN, but that event seems trivial now. In my lifetime all I can compare this to is the death of Princess Di, which I was too young to understand the significance of at the time. This tragedy is different, but similar in its way, worldwide news of the highest order, and this time, I get it. And now I can say with regret that I know what it was like when Lennon died.

The header to that RS story read, "The singer's upcoming 50 concerts will make him rich again - if he holds up." But the writer didn't mean it in that way, and what a sad day it is.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shaq Trade Thickens LeBron-Kobe Plot

They say terms have been agreed to. The Suns will send Shaquille O'Neal to the Cavaliers for Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace in a move long speculated over and now a reality. The Suns get some cap space, dumping the Daddy's unreasonable contract ($20 million in its final year next year) in exchange for Pavlovic's partially guaranteed salary and a possible buyout of Wallace, who has expressed an interest in retirement and at the worst comes off the books in the basketball event that is next summer. They also receive the 46th pick in today's draft and $500,000 in cash. The Cavaliers get a 37-year old legend who probably played the last All-Star caliber ball of his career this past season. What do we get? Another Shaq-Kobe arc. Theirs is a story that will never die.

If Robert Horry was the master of finding himself aligned with the best big men in the game (Olajuwon, O'Neal, Duncan), then Shaq is the best ever at tagging up with the deadliest wing players going. Young Penny, Kobe, Wade, and now The King; the only cat he never hooked up with in his day was MJ himself. Having laced it up with those four guys is enough to make your career a noteworthy one. The Big Twitterer's latest partner is Kobe's new foremost rival, even more so than himself at this point, and I wonder how this trade will affect the supposed truce he has with his old teammate. Shaquille has always been known to tout his guy, even when he was playing with Kobe; will he be able to pronounce the supreme virtues of his new running mate without demeaning the greatness of his longtime nemesis? They're allegedly cool now, I've heard about it; but we all know that deep down hatred defines the true nature of their relationship, especially from Shaq's end. Can he resist his natural instinct to trash him, now that the obvious LeBron-Kobe pitched battle has been placed right in front of him and made a part of his life? The math says no. It's like he's been given one good reason.

I'm wracking my brain trying to come up with a precedent for this scenario, of a situation in which a partnership is formed between two people, they become forever linked by their alliance/success, have a bitter fallout, and it culminates in one of the agents of the former union committing the ultimate act of treachery by joining forces with his onetime colleague's current chief opponent. Betrayal, a theme that has been explored countless times throughout pop culture and history, and I cannot come up with a reference, a fact which I will kill myself for once Bill Simmons beats me to it. I'd compare it to Phil Jackson forming such a bond with Jordan through their six championships together, then helping Kobe close the gap on him in Los Angeles, but there is no bitterness between Jordan and Jackson.

I can only imagine what a Lakers-Cavs Finals would look like now, even juicier than before, double the hype and drama. Kobe, with a win, would vanquish both LeBron and Shaq in one swoop, the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone. Shaq, with a victory, would be able to find great peace in knowing that he lent a helping hand as LeBron pushed Kobe down the short waterfall and became the king in more than just name. Both of them would have the opportunity to move one ahead of the other on the all-time rings list, and go up 1-0 head-to-head in a seven-game series.

Will it happen either way? There's no guarantee we will ever see it take place, as Shaq will be a year older next season and without the aid of the wizards that are the Phoenix Suns medical staff. LeBron always made sure Big Z got his touches on the block and will surely feed the Big Dog, but it's just unlikely that Shaq will be as effective in the upcoming campaign as he was in '09. ESPN's Chris Broussard, who broke the story, suggests it will help Cleveland not get eaten alive by Dwight Howard again, but if they really wanted match up better with the Magic they should have made a move for a swingman, like Stephen Jackson. And of course the Spurs have become a become a problem again with their recent acquisition, something the Lakers will have to worry about.

We were let down this year, everyone's dream match-up squashed by Orlando, but I suppose at some point LeBron and Kobe will have to meet up to decide this thing, and it might as well happen while the Diesel is still around to thicken the narrative and multiply the plot times two.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Can the Other Lakers Get Some Love?

The Lakers win the NBA championship, and all anyone can talk about is how it's Kobe's fourth and first without Shaq, and Phil's 10th overall, surpassing Red, and where it ranks them all-time. Well, can a single coach and a single player win a championship by themselves? Of course not, it's a group effort, and so if no one else is going to do it then allow me this opportunity to thank assistant coaches Brian Shaw and Kurt Rambis, who will be heading their own squadrons in the near future, as well as longtime Zenmaster bench aids Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons. Tex Winter, wherever you are, get well soon, so you can enjoy this also. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, we salute you as well, you deserve much better than a job as a tutor and a seat behind the bench.

And the front office, I mean, how can Mitch Kupchak not get more praise? He built this team, he had a vision and the patience and fortitude to see it through despite great pressure to do otherwise. This guy knew what he was doing. And Dr. a league in which few owners are willing to put winning above all else, you are one of the exceptions, okaying the Gasol trade even though you knew it would put the team over the luxury tax threshold for years to come. Finances don't matter to you as much as championships do, the tradition of great Lakers basketball, and for that we salute you, that's why Los Angeles now has a ninth banner under your keep.

But now we must get to the men on the court, afterall that is where the games are won and lost. Kobe will get most of the credit for this, and indeed he dererves the lions share, but he couldn't have done it without these guys, most notably...

...Pau Gasol, whom, as Jeff Van Gundy likes to put it, is the NBA's best second best player. This season, and especially in the postseason, he went from a very good player to a great one. Not only does he score on anyone and possess a sky-high basketball IQ, but his defense has become much improved. Last season it was mock-worthy, then it became adequate, to above-average, to damned good in the Finals, as evidenced by the job he did on Dwight Howard, holding him to 15 points a game on a mere 49 percent shooting, eleven percent south of his overall postseason effort. Of course he couldn't have done it without a little help from...

...Lamar Odom, much maligned and asked of for more, but finally arrived. This was his finest season: Before the season began he accepted a demotion to the bench in a contract year, and after some brief discontent he embraced his new role. Then, when Andrew Bynum went down to a knee injury in January he quietly and seamlessly filled in until Bynum's return in April, at which point he quietly and seamlessly transitioned back to his position as sixth man. With Drew failing to recover his previous form and constantly plagued by foul trouble, he picked up the slack once again, averaging a 13-8 in the finals and a 12-9 overall in 32 minutes a game in the postseason. Redemption and vindication at last. I'm happy for Lamar, he's been here for a while now, through all of the post-Shaq angst, tons of scrutiny, and enough trade rumors that I'm almost shocked he lasted this long. He's a great guy, adored by his teammates and well-liked by reporters, and there's not a lot of guys unselfish enough to make the sacrifice he made, get jerked around and treated like an object all season, and remain such a positive team guy. Lesser men would have become the kind of cancer that can sabotage a championship dream. If Odom leaves this summer, he will leave a champion, and he didn't need a ring to prove it.

Derek Fisher - we already covered him, so let's move on to...

...Trevor Ariza. I think Odom is more valuable to this team. With Bynum's injury history and general flightiness, you can't underestimate the importance of having a guy on the bench who fits into the puzzle so easily and brings just as much to the table in his own way. But Ariza's defense, athleticism, outside shooting, and knack for getting his hand on the ball were huge to this championship run. If he ever learns some moves off the dribble he'll be Eddie Jones 2.0. Every title team has a Trevor Ariza on it; I hope the Lakers still have him next year.

Andrew Bynum - Didn't do much in the postseason, aside from a moment here and there, but if he hadn't gotten hurt last season, L.A. might not have felt the same urgency to cash in on the Gasol insurance policy. He's shown flashes of dominance, and when he gets right again, it'll be even more hell for the rest of the league.

Luke Walton - Other than Odom, he made the biggest impact of any Lakers bench player this postseason. Just solid.

Sasha Vujacic - Wasn't much of a Machine this time around. Sasha kind of went in the tank this season after a breakout performance last year. He saw a decrease in playing time as Ariza stole the minutes he got playing alongside Kobe to finish games last year, but he also didn't shoot as well as he did last year, from 45 percent overall and 44 percent from deep to 39/36. It was almost as if he played over his head last year and fell back to earth this season. He went scoreless in the Finals, which is kind of incredible - when he signed that new contract last summer no one envisioned him struggling so mightily. But he's still Sasha, he's still our Sasha, and we love him regardless. Regardless of his poor play he was a key rotation player this year, so he can wear his ring with pride. The same can be said of his backcourt buddy...

...Jordan Farmar, another good character guy on a team stacked with them. Jordan hit a sort of junior wall this season, if that exists (I know it doesn't). He missed time with a knee injury and just flat struggled all season, somehow regressing from a strong sophomore campaign. He lost his job at the end of the season and beginning of the playoffs, shared it, and finally retrieved it in the Finals - a lot of this fluctuation dictated by the matchups that were presented in each series. He just has to get his confidence back and he'll be fine, I still see him as the point guard of the future. However, I hope...

...Shannon Brown is still around to push him. He's a free agent also, and hopefully the Lakers can afford to keep him. A perceived throw-in in the Radmanovic trade, Brown surprisingly proved a natural fit for the triangle offense: he has good size, he can shoot, he defends, and it doesn't matter that he's not a pure point guard because the triple post doesn't require one. He's also an insane athlete (the best on the team and one of the best raw athletes in the league), allowing him to play the two on occasion, and he plays hard as hell every second he's out there. He could probably make more money elsewhere, but I think he fits in best here.

Josh Powell - Another shrewd pickup by Mitch, Powell made only spot appearances in the playoffs, but when Bynum went down his number was dialed and he answered the call. A money 18-foot jump shooter, Powell always made a positive impact when he was on the floor.

Adam Morrison, Sun Yue, DJ Mbenga - Thanks for coming guys (and Vladi and Ronny, wish you were here).

Everyone deserves a curtain call, too often people forget that while the NBA is a star driven league, and certainly the sport in which individual players can have the greatest impact on the outcome of a contest, ultimately basketball is a team game, and it takes a group effort to win. Like all other champions, that level of teamwork is what the Lakers have achieved.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kobe Wins Fourth Title, And Now He Can Sleep Soundly

Well, after all of that, now that he's done it, I think the most apt question is, Is anyone surprised? Of course Kobe Bryant led a team to an NBA championship. For the most part, all the truest of true legends have done it, and who has ever watched Kobe during his career and not realized that they were watching the kind of pure genius you tell your grandkids about? He has over the past 13 seasons ascended to levels of play that arguably no other player has achieved. As its peak, his scoring prowess was such that he was capable of scoring 50 to 60 points in literally arbitrary fashion. Like boxing writers say about Roy Jones or Floyd Mayweather, there have been times when Bryant has operated at a level so superior to the opposition it was just mesmerizing. Defenses ceased to matter. No contemporary basketball player has outclassed more challengers (team and individual) with his skill and talent. On top of that, he's a defender, rebounder, passer, and ballhandler - and a triangle offense initiator for the first three championships of his career, Scottie Pippen only if Pippen had to score 25 a night instead of 20 and carry the crunch-time burden as well.

In other words, we have spent all of this time obsessing over something that was inevitable. We know who the best players of all-time are, they're the ones with the rings: Magic, Larry, Mike, Shaq, and Duncan have been the NBA kings of the past 30 years because they acquired the hardware. Shaquille's presence and impact was so large it cast even a megastar like Kobe into a shadow, and ensured that if Kobe retired without a title as the best player on a team his legacy would have been that of a man who couldn't win a title without the Big Guy. He would have ranked ahead of the sidekicks - the Pippens and McHales - and he would have placed before the guys who never won rings - the Barkleys and Malones. But he would have fallen short of that most exclusive of clubs, the Elite Company, with Johnson, Bird, and Jordan, etc., that we know he aspires for membership in.

But we knew those guys, and we knew Kobe, so we had to have known this day would come eventually. Of course, I say this with the knowledge that he has won the fourth championship. If ten years from now he had hung it up with only three, I'd see him in an entirely different light. Instead, I see this as the accomplishment that verifies how great I already knew he was. I also see the fourth ring as providing certification to the other three and solidifying with them, proving that he was capable of winning titles as top dawg all along: He doesn't have three rings with Shaq and one ring without, he just has four rings, period. And all he needed was sufficient enough help.

I like to compare the Kobe and Shaq duo to that of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. I once started a discussion on an HBO message board that pondered who was the better no. 2 between Stringer and Chris Partlow, and a smart commenter somewhat deflated my topic by arguing that Avon and Stringer were more or less partners, as they shared profits. Still, though, Avon's job description read drug kingpin, while Stringer's read drug lord, and as such while Stringer had an extremely crucial voice and very much his friend's ear, Avon's word was the gavel.

Similarly, while Kobe did more heavy lifting for those teams than any other "sidekick" ever did, in all honesty sharing equal responsibility with Shaq - even serving as the end-of-game go-to-guy and sometimes flat-out carrying the team - in the end he deferred. Shaq was the focal point of the offense and the most important reason for L.A.'s dominance, and thus 1A, and this was proved each June, when Kobe would fall back and let Shaq go to work in the Finals, content to do the Pippen routine while Shaq put up the monster numbers and collected that little trophy that is now named after Bill Russell.

So I think Kobe needed this one, to show that he could do it guiding the sleigh, and now that he has one of his own he must be considered one of the top-10 players to ever lace 'em up. He can just go chill out on some farm somewhere if he wants to, and give up basketball, he has nothing left to prove. Of course he'll keep pushing, he wants five and six rings, he wants as many as he can get, he wants to keep rising up the all-time ladder. But even if he doesn't win another one he can sleep soundly, his legacy is secure. I think the best athletes reach a level of greatness at which everyone's excellence becomes virtually the same. You may not be the best guy at the table, but it doesn't matter, all that counts is that you get to sit down in the first place. I think Kobe has reached that point. His persecutors will continue to throw rocks, as they say hatred lasts forever, but in truth he has silenced them, and it was really only a matter of time before he did.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Derek Fisher Comes Through For Lakers Again

Derek Fisher has, here in the latter stages of his career, come to be admired as a sort of basketball warhorse. But he was not always so esteemed. Near the end of his first stint with the Lakers, Fisher earned a reputation as a liability for his lack of success defending quick point guards. He had a scorching run during the 2001 playoffs, but by the time the Lakers completed their three-peat the following season, the feeling was that the Lakers were winning in spite of their point guard. When the Lakers failed to win a fourth consecutive title the following season, management looked to improve their resistance at the position. That summer, they added future Hall-of-Famer and defensive genius Gary Payton in an attempt to solve the issue. Fisher was moved to the bench, a sort of cold demotion for a man who had been a starter on two championship teams. And yet, it was Fisher who made the most notable play of that season, authoring one of the most famous shots in NBA history (I believe you know which one I am referring to).

The L.A. dynasty would be dismantled following a shocking upset at the hands of the Pistons in the Finals that June, and Fish would join in on the great exodus, fleeing via free agency. But after three seasons away from the nest he would return, this time not as a handicap but as a plus: a cool-headed, steady handed veteran leader who would help bridge the gap between long-time back-court mate Kobe Bryant and his young, embattled supporting cast.

Indeed, Fisher's stable play and maturity was a major upgrade over the flighty Smush Parker, and the Lakers made the Finals last season thanks in part to Fish's positive calming influence both on and off the court. He could've retired last summer, with everyone's respect and his impact appreciated by Lakers Nation. He had earned it. Of course with that being said, when he struggled down the stretch this year his head was once again called for. His poor play wasn't going to negatively affect his reputation but it was hurting his team. Loyalty is a great notion but it doesn't help win ballgames. It seemed to be the only thing that was allowing him to keep his job, though. Fisher had always done two things well: make threes and take charges. Now he wasn't doing much of either, only he was still playing 30 minutes a night. He was playing basketball whilst sporting dentures and needing the aid of a cane and it was time to hand the reigns to the young guys, Farmar and Brown.

Then it happened. The real reason Phil Jackson stuck with him, I suppose. Game 4, NBA Finals, Orlando leads L.A. by three with eleven seconds left. Out of the timeout Ariza inbounds to Kobe, who's doubled and forced to give it back to Ariza, who then throws it to Fisher. Fish dribbles the ball calmly into the frontcourt. Will the Magic foul? They never do. Jameer Nelson gives Fish way too much room to breathe, so he casually stops behind the three-point line, squares up, and tickles the net for the last basket of regulation. In overtime, Kobe has been monopolizing the ball to an extreme fault, but now there's 30-some seconds left and he's doubled in the post by Pietrus and Nelson and has no choice but to pass. And Fisher is wide open behind the arc, straight away. In the very first game of the regular season last year, Bryant found him for a game-tying jumper in the fourth quarter to cap off a rally versus the Rockets. The Lakers would lose the game but the outcome was besides the point: Kobe may not have trusted the rest of his teammates, but he did trust Fisher, and he trusted him in big moments, and that was evident immediately upon his return.

Thursday night, Kobe gave it up to Fisher again, and the rest is history. The Lakers won, despite being on the bad end of one of the most lopsided officiated games in Finals history. Not just the 37-20 disparity overall, but the fact that Orlando shot 17 free throws to the Lakers ZERO in the fourth quarter. 17 to ZERO? Really? How can that be? I don't know how the Lakers pulled it out but they did, and Fisher was the hero (along with Ariza), as he cemented his status as one of the best clutch shooting role players of his generation. It speaks volumes of the old guy, and for the experience and mental fortitude that is so valued in him, and it seems only right that the Lakers are now only a game away from a fourth title this decade and Derek Fisher is right in the middle of it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Where Will Kobe Rank All-Time If He Can Win This Title?

I've heard that he's top-15 with a chance to crack the top-8. I've heard that he's top-10 with a chance to break the top-5. Many have their opinion about where Kobe Bryant ranks historically right now, and where Kobe Bryant will rank if he can secure a fourth championship ring this month.

In the modest estimation of this writer, as we speak only eight players sit ahead of Bryant all-time: Michael Jordan (man among men); Wilt Chamberlain (man among boys); Bill Russell (11 rings); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (most underrated); Magic Johnson (transcended a position, could do anything on a basketball court); Larry Bird (raw, master basketball player).

Bryant was a better end-to-end player than the latter two legends, but they were the best two players on five and three championship teams, respectively.

I'd put Shaq O'neal and Timmothy Duncan before him, too, for they also were the best players on multiple title winning squadrons. I wouldn't put Jerry West ahead of him: he only won one championship, near the tail-end of his career, on the legendary 1971-72 Lakers, when he was pretty much equals with fellow Hall-of-Famers Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich (sort of a precursor to the KG-P2-Ray thing that happened 36 years later), and, in admittedly one of the great injustices in the history of the sport, never won a (regular season) MVP. Oscar Robertson was a statistical marvel, but fact is he never won a title on his own - he had to wait until the latter portion of his run, when he was second fiddle to a young Lew Alcindor on the 1970-71 Bucks.

Consider this: This season, Bryant became only the third member of what I consider to be a pretty exclusive club: the "first team All-NBA and all-defense team seven times each" club, joining Jordan and Duncan. I fairness, the all-defense team did not come into existence until the 1968-69 season. This was Russell's final campaign, and obviously many of the stars of the '60s were greatly precluded from inclusion, so its not the fairest list. Still though, that's 40 years of hoop right there, and for Bryant to be in such rare company, with the greatest player of all-time and, in my opinion, the best all-around big man of all-time, is a testament to the sweat of his career and the completeness of his game.

Bryant scores more purely than anyone ever, rebounds and passes as well as any two-guard could be asked, handles better than any non-point guard in history, and to top it off, competes with a nightly zeal on defense not often seen from such great offensive players. And he has the accolades to back it up.

I was tempted to move Bryant to the very top of the list while watching him carve up the Magic Thursday night in Game 1 of the Finals, specifically his 17-point third quarter performance. It didn't surpass MJ's best work in that round, but it was a show to be remembered, for the level of superiority and sheer intensity on display. We already knew Kobe was a magician on the court, and we knew he was dead serious, but Thursday night he appeared to be on the verge of madness. I mean, not even MJ ever wanted a championship so badly he was turning visibly feral in its pursuit.

But I don't think he'll have to wait much longer, it really looks like in the next week he is going to get the prize he pines for. Orlando just didn't look like they belonged in Game 1; I'd almost say they looked scared. They'll play better - Howard won't have another game where he makes only one field goal, for one, and Orlando's 30 percent shooting from the floor indicates that more than giving credit to the Lakers defense (which was excellent), we must recognize that the Magic simply had one of those games.

But I have come up with this rule of thumb: In a match-up between the Lakers and another relatively equally talented team, if Kobe shoots about 40 percent, La La will very likely taste defeat. If he hovers around 45 percent, they will probably win. If he shoots 50 percent? The opponent has no chance. In L.A.'s two previous trips to the Finals, Bryant shot a respective 39 and 40 percent, and the Lakers lost both times.

But those failures came against the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics, two historically stout defensive clubs that made thwarting him their predicate to success. Not only do the Magic have no such defense or, apparently, game-plan, but Bryant is simply unstoppable now. He became a better shooter over the summer, adding more arc to his release in an effort to make himself more effective against the Boston-type defense that builds a fortress around the paint and forces him to get his points on long jumpers. He also sets up and plays more in the post now than ever before. He officially has an answer for everything. So, I see him shooting at least 47-48 percent in this series. Which means it's highly probable that the only remaining question is who is he about to leap-frog in the all-time rankings.

I don't know if one championship will shift him above anyone on my imaginary list, but something tells me he's got more than a single ring left in him. This dude is not nearly done playing basketball at a transcendent level. So we'll have this discussion now, and then we'll do the same a in a year or so, when he may be ready to make a real move up the ladder.