Another Kobe Bryant milestone was reached on Sunday night, and a couple of things can be concluded: The Los Angeles Lakers have very few qualms defining and paying the price tag for history, and Bryant’s inefficiencies will be a topic of discussion for the remainder of his career. It’s hard to pinpoint where the love for Bryant’s individual prowess ends and the loathing of his calculus begins, because there is a tremendous amount of overlap there. But how Bryant is discussed today likely can find its origins somewhere in the area created by his style of play and the era in which he’s playing.
It isn’t necessarily Bryant’s career that shaped what is thought about his style of play now, but the ever-evolving philosophies on how the game is to be played today versus the ideologies from two decades ago. More than any other player of his generation, Bryant was known for his ability to turn his offseason into an ostensible cocoon and undergo a metamorphosis of his individual game. There was, and still is, a willingness to change how he approached one-on-one situations, adopt new moves from past and present legends, and adapt to variances of style from different or smarter or unorthodox defenders. This is where much of his legacy lies.
On the flip side, the dissonance between the new league ethos and Bryant’s sense of reality has history at odds with his career arc. The expansion of analytics and the blogging community’s overwhelming acceptance of these relatively new numbers have more than altered the conversation about Bryant. Should he continue to chuck shots and shoot at the same clip for the remainder of this season, every offensive statistical category seems to suggest not only that Bryant may have the worst offensive season of any single-season leading scorer in NBA history, but that his team is better offensively when he is not on the floor.
It’s madness, thinking about this Kobe guy. Here is one of the most gifted offensive players in the history of the league who also doubles as the poster boy for statistical pariahs in the analytical age of basketball coverage. Only Bryant can be this equally great and grim, this equally loved and loathed, this equally praised and pilloried. There is not a more polarizing basketball player, and this polarization is simply a product of the times that Bryant grew up in, multiplied by the disposition of today’s NBA.
On Sunday night, Kobe Bryant recorded a triple-double and became the first player in NBA history to record more than 30,000 points and 6,000 assists — a testament to his brilliance as a scorer and longevity — both of which cannot be accomplished without attaining a certain level of greatness. Even after playing as one of — and some would argue the — best ball players in the league for several years, some of his staunchest supporters hold a measured ambivalence about the start of this season. There will be games like Sunday night’s performance against the Toronto Raptors, but there will be more games closer to his season averages. Not as prolific. Not as efficient.
The game, if it hasn’t already, has passed the man, but the man isn’t ready to pass the game. Not quite yet. There is more to accomplish, and those accomplishments won’t come without the Internet pointing out that it took many years and many shot attempts to reach them. Up next for Bryant will be the passing of Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. He currently stands fewer than 200 points away and, barring injury, will likely pass Jordan in mid-December. It’s a bit unfortunate that a lot of the words written about such an accomplishment will be negative, especially considering the number of beautiful moments Bryant has given this sport in his career’s oeuvre.
While the historical implications of Bryant’s final two seasons may fall on blind eyes for the basketball community’s elite (and often elitist) sportswriters, these ramifications have not been missed by the Lakers front office. The Lakers understand what they have with a legion of Kobe myrmidons, who hold on to every made basket like precious jewels. They understand the paroxysm of profit they’ll create with merchandise commemorating each of his individual accomplishments. They understand that Bryant also understands these things.
Forty-eight million dollars over two years feels very much like a mortgage of the future, especially considering the upshot of the new CBA and deals of this nature. But maybe that was the plan all along. A short hit in future success all but guaranteed more history would be made in Los Angeles.
The price for history isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.
Phillip Barnett featuring Phillip Barnett.