NBA

Maybe Kobe is kinda like Mike

Kobe Bryant (Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for a dunk during a game against the Minnes...
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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 
For the millions of transplants who arrive in Los Angeles from points sane, the nutty City of Angels has lots of surprises in store for them.

Motorists are regularly cited for not yielding to pedestrians. I mean, really yielding, like, until they are safely up on the curb. And pedestrians get ticketed for not crossing at crosswalks. It’s a far cry from the East Coast free-for-all, where drivers and hoofers manage to co-exist without the city dipping its beak every 45 feet.

Though the sun shines roughly 330 days a year, there is a tanning salon in every strip mall and a strip mall on every corner.

A new arrival in L.A. will be asked questions he’s never pondered before, like, “What year gas do you use?” Huh? “You know, 87, 89 or 91?”

If you see lilacs somewhere in a house, it means the occupant believes that is her “prosperity corner.”

There’s a reason they call it La La Land.

But of all the head-snapping, whiplash-inducing revelations that have greeted me since I made the Southland my home, none made me yell at my car radio as loudly as Laker fans’ insistence on comparing Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan.

It started in earnest a couple of years ago. I found the comparison preposterous, downright embarrassing.

It was NBA blasphemy, a violation of hoop’s first commandment: You shall have no other basketball gods before M.J.

Then Kobe won his first MVP. Then he won a Gold Medal. Then he won a title as The Man.

Now, with each absurd buzzer-beater, Kobe’s legend grows and the gap between him and Jordan — once so vast — narrows.

Is Kobe Bryant as good as Michael Jordan?

I’m not ready to say that, but I am willing to stop yelling at my radio when somebody else does.

Jordan won five MVPs (and was robbed on at least two other occasions) and six titles as the best player on his team. When the 2005-06 season began, Kobe had not accomplished either feat so much as once. He was the sidekick during Shaquille O’Neal’s three-year title run in L.A. and had never finished higher than third in the MVP voting.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Lakers’ pedestrian 45-37 record that season. Kobe Bryant went off. Unleashing the full package — an assortment of unstoppable turnarounds, lefty finishes in traffic, 131more three-point attempts than he had put up in any other season, etc. — Bryant won his first scoring title with a 35.4 points per game average.

It was the highest average for an NBA scoring champion since, yup, Michael Jordan rang up his 37.1 ppg in 1986-87.

On Dec. 20, 2005 Kobe did something that had never been done in the shot clock era: he outscored the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 through three quarters. A month later he dropped 81 on the Toronto Raptors, a total achieved by only one other player, the prodigious Wilt Chamberlain.

Anyone watching these performances would understandably find it hard to believe that there had ever been a better perimeter offensive player in NBA history.

And so the conversation began. The following year Kobe won his second scoring title and joined Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to score 50 points in four straight games. It’s one thing to post Jordanesque numbers, but nobody is supposed to approach Wilt.

Still, as the 2007-08 season began, Kobe still hadn’t been an MVP or the undisputed leader of a champ.

Done and done. He won the MVP trophy with a 28.3 ppg/6.3 rpg/5.4 apg monster of a season in 2008, then led the Lakers to the title as the Finals MVP in 2009, squeezing a Gold Medal run in Beijing in between.

A week ago I asked John Salley, who had played with both, to weigh in on the comparison, fully expecting him to say, “There never has been and there never will be another Michael.”

But Salley viewed it as a legitimate debate, pointing out Kobe’s relative youth (31) and the fact that he probably has multiple championships ahead of him.

Indeed.

No impartial observer watching the NBA this season could honestly think any team other than the Lakers will be lifting that trophy in June.

The Lakers beat the Magic in five games in the Finals last season without Andrew Bynum. The 22-year-old 7-footer is averaging 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds a game this season and is fifth in the NBA in field-goal percentage (.574). When Pau Gasol missed the first three weeks of the season, Bynum averaged 20 and 12.

Since Gasol (17.7 ppg and 12.7 rpg) came back, the Lakers are 12-1.

Of course, they could easily be 10-3 in those 13 games save for the heroics of the Kobester. Two weeks ago he beat the Heat with a 3-pointer at the buzzer (OK, he banked it), and on Wednesday he single-handedly overcame a six-point deficit with 1:20 left in OT to beat the Bucks on yet another contested buzzer-beater.

Kobe’s ability to make impossible shots at the buzzer is positively freakish. If he gets the ball airborne with the game on the line, everyone in the building thinks it’s going in. In that one Nike commercial Jordan admitted to missing 26 game-winning shots. Kobe may have missed as many, but it sure seems like he buries every one.

If — let’s face it, when — the Lakers go back-to-back this season, that will give Kobe five titles, one shy of Jordan. If he adds another selection to the All-NBA Defensive First Team, it will be his eighth, again one shy of Jordan. With LeBron James and Dwight Howard in their primes, Kobe won’t match Jordan’s five MVPs, but he was the best player in the league as we passed the quarter pole this season.

Kobe is 31. He has a whole lot of basketball ahead of him. Michael won three titles after he turned 33.

Those sun-baked Los Angeles sports fans may have begun this debate prematurely, but — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — Kobe Bryant looks unstoppable in his quest to vindicate them.

Maybe I need to revisit that whole feng shui thing too.

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