Mike D’Antoni joking pregame, well, heck, maybe he won’t play tonight, after all. The Black Mamba walking through the Lakers locker room, locked in, ready to go, saying nothing to the gathered media. And then Kobe Bryant, at long last and after nearly eight months, stepping back onto the floor as the crowd roars his name: “Kobe … Kobe! … Kobe!”
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He looked tired Sunday night, yes, but with bursts of that competitive fire we know so well, all en route to a disappointing 2-of-9 shooting night in which he scored only nine points in his first game since tearing his Achilles tendon last April. He added eight turnovers, eight rebounds and four assists. The Lakers also lost at home, 106-94 to a Toronto Raptors team missing Rudy Gay and two other players they’re shipping to Sacramento.
Still, the crowd bathed Kobe in adulation, and the Lakers, even though they lost, seemed to shine with a little more of that Hollywood sheen that had been missing.
Don’t let any of it fool you. Not the good or the bad, not Kobe’s fine passes or very slow first steps, not the rust or the relief that he’d returned.The monumental meaning in the return of Kobe Bryant was not the pomp or circumstance. It was the masterstroke with which he has turned the Los Angeles Lakers into a team beholden to the pursuit of his own personal interests.
Call it The Kobe Conspiracy: The fact that, in signing a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension, Kobe has ensured the Lakers will be tied to — and in time perhaps limited by — his pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. Kobe’s remarkable drive to etch in basketball lore his name higher than that of any other man is now the dominant theme of the Lakers, and it will remain so for several years.
The tactical brilliance of the move is simple. With a CBA that features a punitive luxury tax and vicious repeater-offender penalties, cap space will dictate large swathes of the NBA landscape. By ensuring he is the highest-paid player in the NBA for the following two seasons — and that a large chunk of the Lakers’ cap space goes to him — Kobe has also ensured that it will be very difficult for the Lakers to bring in another great player. Let alone two. Which means he has gone a long way toward keeping the ball in his hands.
A LeBron James, say, or Carmelo Anthony, would mean fewer field-goal attempts – the very thing Kobe needs to turns his 31,626 points after Sunday’s game to the 38,388 he needs to pass Kareem.
Kobe’s new contract is a giant sign to LeBron James, who, without a doubt, is not going to be a Los Angeles Laker next season. It reads: My team. It’s a safe bet LeBron wants no part of that, of playing with Kobe, of trying to compete with an aging Kobe Bryant and the motley crew they’d put around the two of them if they shared a team.
Ditto other potential free agents available this summer or the summer of 2015. Even those that come must know, from the facts and dollars signs in that extension to the lessons of the Dwight Howard experiment, that all things in Lakerland run through Kobe. And while two general managers told me this week they think ‘Melo still ends up in Los Angeles, the same concerns should give him pause.
To pass Abdul-Jabbar — to average enough points, depending on the number of games he plays this season, the life of his remaining contract plus one more season — Kobe would need to score between 24 and 28 points per game. And that, as his body ages and his skills blunt, will require as many field-goal attempts as possible.
The recipe for a 37-, then 38-, then 39-year-old to shoot 20, or 25, or 30 times a game? To hold onto the rock night after night without interference from other players or organizational plans or the whims of the public? The recipe to perhaps challenge Jordan for greatest of all time?
1. Dominate the ball going forward. That means no LeBron, no ‘Melo, no internal threats.
2. Be on a team that is not so relevant as to force a coach or general manager or a once-devoted fan base to insist Kobe let up on letting the ball fly.
3. Get so close to Kareem — so tantalizingly close — that a Lakers team and fan base and organization hungry for relevance crave that record for themselves. The glory of it, the history of it, the infectious feel of greatness about such a thing — all of that becomes a substitute for the very championships the team used to win.
The kind of ball dominance necessary to accomplish these things would not be new to Kobe Bryant. Throughout his career he has been the very definition of a ballhog: He ranked second in field-goal attempts per game last season, first in 2011-12, second in 2010-11, 3rd in 2009-10 (thank you, Monta Ellis and Melo!), second in 2008-09, second in 2007-08, first in 2006-07, first in 2005-06 … everything about Kobe says shoot the ball. It is how he is wired. It is why he is one of the greatest players we have ever seen play the game. It is and will remain who he is.
Kobe need only look east to see what can happen when a star shares the stage. Dwyane Wade averaged 18.2 field-goal attempts per game the year before LeBron arrived. Now sharing his turf with LeBron, Wade’s field-goal attempts per game have dropped every season: 17.1 the first year, 15.8 last year and 13.7 so far this season.
This contract is Kobe’s safeguard against a similar fate.
Was it on purpose, then, taking that deal? A mamba-like strike of planned calculation at threats to his own long-term interests? Or just the kind of subconscious benefit that comes to any fierce competitor who prefers the ball in his hand, the team on his back and the masses in his thrall?
It doesn’t matter. The Lakers offered Kobe that money, and Kobe, as he told my FOX Sports 1 colleague Gary Payton last week, had every right to sign a contract that’s in his own best interests.
There’s no blaming the Lakers, either. They paid Kobe for his past. That is loyal and sends a message to their future stars, and it honors the brand of the Lakers, a factor few franchises are lucky enough to have to factor into such decisions. To have Kobe chase down Kareem — even if an older version of Kobe must shoot too much, and the team perhaps does not win as often — would be something special indeed.
There’s no blaming Kobe Bryant. He has always seen the world on and off the court as a chess game and he plays as many moves ahead as possible. That, too, is part of his greatness.
Indeed, I salute Kobe Bryant. I really do. What he’s accomplished in his career is the stuff of legends. And with his new contract — the one the Lakers need not have given to keep him — he’s pulled off one of his greatest feats yet: He’s placed himself in a situation that helps bind his team to the service of his own personal pursuits.