Kobe is still king of the NBA
The ascension is officially behind schedule.
LeBron James may have been wearing the name affiliated with royalty since he arrived in NBA territory back in 2003. But any legitimate kingship in professional sports seems to require the annexation of hardware that means much more than a crown bestowed upon an employee by his sneaker company.
So, the Cleveland Cavaliers' superstar has a head that's weighed down by the crown of expectation.
And a great deal of LBJ's failure to properly seize the throne should be credited to the guy sitting on it right now. With that, we introduce Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who will put this perception title on the line against LeBron when their teams meet in a made-for-Christmas-TV special.
Although reasonable king-related debates can be made on behalf of both players, Kobe's Shaq-free NBA championship gives him rightful claim to the rank of monarch in the league's current landscape. What we're here to determine is how much of that status is due to individual achievement and how much of his relative greatness should be attributed to contributions from his loyal subjects.
Bryant's title tale begins with time spent as the personal escort of the previously referenced Shaquille O'Neal. As an inside-outside powerhouse, Kobe and Shaq teamed with coach Phil Jackson to administer a three-year plague upon the NBA landscape that attached much acclaim to the Lakers' 7-foot-2, 320-pound (estimates may vary) center. Once the kingdom was thrown into disarray by rampaging egos, Bryant was left to slay dragons with what seemed like little more than the village peasants remaining in his service.
He attempted to drag the Lakers back to the top of the NBA hill by simply outscoring the opposition. When he failed, his cuckoo radio proclamations certainly suggested that Kobe would seek his fortune in some foreign land.
Recent media-generated revelations have credited Bryant with eventually figuring out the keys to championship success. Trusting teammates was identified as a main ingredient, which translates to passing the ball when a double team was attracted. Another adjustment was offering encouragement — rather than blood-chilling scowls — when a teammate failed. But trust doesn't just happen when a superstar decides to open the vault where his on-court largesse is stored. The transformation required co-workers the would-be king could trust without piercing the trial balloon of reality.
To that end, previously embattled Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak took advantage of Kobe's inability to lead the Lakers to greatness and made a prudent move with a rare franchise lottery pick. That 10th overall selection in the 2005 draft yielded Andrew Bynum, a 7-foot high school kid with a boatload of potential and a bait bucket half empty of motivation. But despite a big-man-typical slow start to Bynum's career and much screeching for the big kid to be bargained as a trade chip in a deal for aging point guard Jason Kidd, Kupchak stuck with Andrew.
And Andrew began to emerge.
Unfortunately, Bynum's rise toward monster-hood was delayed by a knee injury. Fortunately, Kupchak had the dying contract of Kwame Brown and the Memphis Grizzlies had an overwhelming urge to ditch the big deal affixed to star-caliber big man Pau Gasol.
Two NBA Finals appearances and one O'Brien trophy later, Kobe is regarded as the seasoned sage and king of the NBA hill.
We also should note that Bryant's rule has been achieved through an insatiable quest to leave the sport as the greatest individual participant in its history. This fire to embrace the process of preparing for greatness can be attributed to some of those previous, head-scratching moments of on-court selfishness. But it can't be overlooked when team-oriented schemes break down in a long playoff series and big plays are needed to be made at big moments.
LeBron, who — like Bryant — arrived in the league straight out of high school, can do pretty much all of those things. Well, his perimeter stroke continues to be less trustworthy than Kobe's, but LBJ (in my estimation) is the greatest combination of size, strength, speed, quickness, bounce, agility and stamina in athletic history.
He also is a darned good passer.
His level of performance from the moment he stepped onto an NBA court has been extraordinary. He dragged the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007 and was named league MVP after steering Cleveland to the NBA's top regular-season record last season. The work ethic hasn't received the public acclaim given Bryant's, but nobody associated with the Cavs has suggested that LeBron is anything less than 100 percent committed.
However, while Kobe has ditched his image of petulant gunner and behaved in a kingly manner, James has been alienating the witnesses. For example, we have the handshake that didn't happen after Orlando conquered the Cavs last season. Toss in the confiscation of video depicting a decent college player dunking in a pick-up game with LeBron in the vicinity, possible free-agent abandonment of Cleveland or sideline dancing while the Chicago Bulls were being pummeled, and LeBron's image has lost some momentum.
Any true Kobe-LeBron separation probably can be linked to his team's inability to surround James with enough well-above-average players. Well, Cleveland did add a formerly great player in Shaq and a fringe All-Star guard in Mo Williams, but the cast is no match for the likes of Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom.
Another look back at draft history reminds us that the Cavaliers also have had little opportunity to score high in the draft. Credit LeBron, who's been good enough to keep Cleveland out of Secaucus in all but one season since his pro debut. We now go to the 2004 NBA Draft and its 10th overall pick, which the Cavaliers used to choose Oregon small forward Luke Jackson. Tell us where he is now and win a prize.
Anyway, the selection of Jackson was followed by the Boston Celtics taking high schooler Al Jefferson at 15 and Atlanta's pick of prep leaper Josh Smith at 17. Add either to the Cavaliers' lineup last season (assuming Jefferson hadn't been injured) and LBJ might have been starring down Kobe Bryant in the 2009 NBA Finals.
Sometimes the distance between being a king and a prince-in-waiting can be that narrow.