Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kobe's last game

or 25 million reasons LA sucks

If you haven't been following basketball this year you might be forgiven for not knowing all the records that were set because of the media attention given Kobe Bryant.  You might call Kobe the Donald Trump of basketball, denying other players and teams their due despite their spectacular performances this season.

Steph Curry hit a staggering 400 three-pointers in leading Golden State to a record 73 wins against only 9 losses.  He also set the record for consecutive games in scoring three-pointers - 128, which he will be able to add to next year.  Russell Westbrook set the record for triple-doubles, the last against the Lakers three days ago, which Kobe even had to acknowledge.  There were many other records broken as well in what has been one of the best years in the NBA in a long long time.

Kobe could have retired last year, except that he had to sit most of it out due to a torn right rotator.  He also missed much of the previous year because of injuries.  This denied him the opportunity to catch up to Karl Malone on the all-time scoring list, having to settle for third place ahead of Michael Jordan.  There wasn't any chance he would catch Karl this year, but he could pad his advantage over Michael and get the send off he felt he deserved.  For that the Lakers paid him $25 million.

It didn't really matter, as the Lakers had to pay him that amount anyway, as the two-year deal was struck the year before with all of the $48.5 million guaranteed.   You can call it a good will gesture on the part of the Laker management for all the good years Kobe gave the team, including 5 NBA titles.  However, it cost the team dearly in terms of reloading its roster, which looked very thin this year.

This is the third year in a row the Lakers missed the playoffs.  Given you only need to crack .500 to make it, that's a pretty sad statement for a team that is accustomed to winning. Before that, the Lakers had only missed one playoff in 18 years.

The Lakers tried to reload in 2012 when they brought in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, coupling the star players with Kobe, Pau Gasol and other good players, but LA could only manage a 45-37 record and were swept by San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs.  The team went through three head coaches that year, settling on Mike D'Antoni.  The Lakers kept Mike the following year, but D'Antoni said he had no control over Kobe, who refused to come out of games when asked, resulting in a late season ankle injury that compromised his career.  D'Antoni insisted he was only looking after Kobe's health.

This is vintage Kobe -- a bull-headed player who never felt he was given his due, always in the shadow of Michael Jordan.  He had a long running feud with Shaquille O'Neal, which they only patched up in 2015.  It took Phil Jackson to bring the players together for their championship run  between 2000-2002.   However, Shaq opted out in 2004, moving to Miami.

After Shaq left, LA became Kobe's team alone and the Lakers won two more championships under Jackson.  Still, he had long-running feuds with other players.  It seemed no one could match up to the standard he set for the team.  He had a legendary work ethic that included 4 am shoot-arounds.  Not surprisingly, many of these players balked, including Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, who eventually had enough of Kobe and sought less stressful teams.

One can certainly appreciate this devotion to the game, but basketball is a team effort.  LA tried its best to put together a team around Kobe for his final year.  Some big names were sought, including LeBron James and Carmello Anthony but no one wanted to play with him.  You have to find a way to mesh with your fellow players, not confront them at every turn.  So, Kobe had to make due with what he had and the result was a miserable 17 wins, the worst ever by a Laker team.

All that was forgotten on Kobe's final night at the Staples Center.  A great number of stars were on hand for his last game, including longtime Laker fan, Jack Nicholson.  The Black Mamba, as he is dubbed, put on quite a show, pulling out a win in the closing minutes in by far his best game of the season.  He scored 60 points on 22-50 shooting.  That's right 50 shots!  The rest of the team combined for 35 shots.

Still, when we look back on this season, Kobe's farewell tour will be little more than a footnote, as the playoffs should make us forget all about him.  The big game looming on the horizon is Golden State v. San Antonio, where the young Warriors go up against a veteran team that would love nothing more than a fifth NBA ring.

In contrast to the $48.5 million deal Kobe struck last year, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili accepted much smaller two-year deals ($10.8 mil and $5.8 mil respectively) so that San Antonio could bring in young talent to assure the team a long future.  Once again, this shows that Kobe puts himself first and foremost having amassed a staggering $680 million in combined earnings over his 20 years in the NBA.

The consolation prize for the Lakers is that they will have a lottery pick this year, with a 20 per cent chance of getting the top pick.  Good luck, guys!

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