The Air Up There
It’s hard to believe that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant has just eight games remaining in his storied NBA career. His 20-year run has been historic in many ways and unless you look at his career next to others, it’s sometimes easy to forget how terrific his career has been compared to some of the greatest to have ever played.
Among pundits, it’s universally believed that Michael Jordan is the greatest player to have played the NBA game, and while there is a whole lot of evidence to support that claim, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird also creep into any greatest ever discussion because of their respective careers and their historical NBA Finals battles in the ’80s.
Sadly, and unfortunately, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never gets enough credit for what he accomplished in his career and neither does Bill Russell.
However, as Kobe’s career comes to end, it has become clear that his place in NBA history might be substantially better than some want to give him credit for and it becomes glaring when you compare his career accomplishments next to the so-called Mount Rushmore of basketball.
So here is the top of the heap:
|Michael Jordan||Magic Johnson||Larry Bird|
|6× NBA champion||5× NBA champion||3× NBA champion|
|6× NBA Finals MVP||3× NBA Finals MVP||2× NBA Finals MVP|
|5× NBA Most Valuable Player||3× NBA Most Valuable Player||3× NBA Most Valuable Player|
|14× NBA All-Star||12× NBA All-Star||12× NBA All-Star|
|3× NBA All-Star Game MVP||2× NBA All-Star Game MVP||NBA All-Star Game MVP|
|10× All-NBA First Team||9× All-NBA First Team||9× All-NBA First Team|
|NBA Defensive Player of the Year||4× NBA assists leader||2× 50–40–90 club|
|9× NBA All-Defensive First Team||2× NBA steals leader|
|NBA Rookie of the Year||NCAA champion|
|10× NBA scoring champion||NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player|
|3× NBA steals champion|
|2× NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion|
|NBA playoffs all-time leading scorer|
|Chicago Bulls all-time leading scorer|
The Often Overlooked
|Bill Russell||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|11× NBA champion||6× NBA champion|
|5× NBA Most Valuable Player||2× NBA Finals MVP|
|12× NBA All-Star||6× NBA Most Valuable Player|
|NBA All-Star Game MVP||19× NBA All-Star|
|3× All-NBA First Team||10× All-NBA First Team|
|NBA All-Defensive First Team||5× NBA All-Defensive First Team|
|4× NBA rebounding champion||2× NBA scoring champion|
|2× NCAA champion||4× NBA blocks leader|
|NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player||3× NCAA champion|
|3× NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player|
The Case For Kobe and Duncan
|Kobe Bryant||Tim Duncan|
|5× NBA champion||5× NBA champion|
|2× NBA Finals MVP||3× NBA Finals MVP|
|NBA Most Valuable Player||2× NBA Most Valuable Player|
|18× NBA All-Star||15× NBA All-Star|
|4× NBA All-Star Game MVP||NBA All-Star Game MVP|
|11× All-NBA First Team||10× All-NBA First Team|
|9× NBA All-Defensive First Team||8× NBA All-Defensive First Team|
|2× NBA scoring champion||NBA Rookie of the Year|
|NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion||San Antonio Spurs all-time leading scorer|
|Los Angeles Lakers all-time leading scorer|
One can make a case that Kareem’s career accomplishments outweigh Larry Bird’s, and he should be talked about more in the top three discussion. There is also a case that Kobe should be in that same tier of players, as one of the top five best to have ever played.
Bill Russell is the standard bearer for NBA success with his 11 championships, but he played in a very different era, which makes it easy to discount some of his career (although 11 championships are 11 championships, even in a time when the Celtics ruled the landscape and had virtually no peer).
Kobe’s career is impressive by itself, but when measured next to the greats, there is no doubting he too belongs in that discussion.
In Kobe’s documentary The Muse, he said one of his goals as a player was to gain the accolades to sit at the proverbial table with his idols and deserve to be there. It’s safe to say Kobe has achieved that and maybe a little more.
Spurs big man Tim Duncan is right there too.
With just eight games left in Kobe’s career, maybe it’s time to put Kobe in his proper place. He is one of the very best to have ever done it, and while there are many bright futures blossoming in the NBA, Kobe’s career may have been one of the best we’ve ever seen.
The Hard Part About LeBron
If you have not seen it yet, Brian Windhorst of ESPN penned an excellent look at the current situation with Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.
James remains one of the more polarizing players in basketball. Some people absolutely love him, and some want to absolutely tear him apart.
That’s life as a top player in any sport, and more so in the NBA where players are routinely the hero or the villain.
Regardless of your personal agenda, it’s impossible to look at James’ season and his career and not recognize how great of a player he has been. What gets most people upset about James is the manner in which he carries himself and more importantly how he has chosen to lead his team.
It is not uncommon for James to be outwardly demonstrative in games, especially toward his own teammates that do not execute as he expected them to. He has a long history of passive aggressiveness. Moody is an understatement. Unpredictable doesn’t come close to describing James on a day to day. Double standard, absolutely the case.
That’s who LeBron has been his entire career. None of this is really new. It’s simply relevant again because the Cavaliers are not where some on the outside want them to be.
A Cavs source joked recently that no matter what the Cavs do as a team, they cannot win. If they win the Eastern Conference (which they likely will do) then they did what they were supposed to do. If they drop to second, the season is going to be labeled a failure.
It’s hard to have much sympathy for James’ situation. He is among the most recognized figures in sports. He’s earned ungodly amounts of money both on and off the floor. He has chosen to manage his brand in his own way, and that’s created its own set of problems.
But imagine for a moment the pressure James has endured since coming back to Cleveland. He cautioned fans not to believe the Cavaliers could win a championship in his first season back, saying that there was too much to learn and become as a team, especially with so many young players. However, a trip to the NBA Finals in that first season set the bar for this season incredibly high.
James has felt Father Time. He is not the same athletically dominating player he was. His back has been bothersome for a couple of years. He has managed his body better this year than in previous seasons, but you see it on the floor. James walks up the floor in a lot of sequences. He’s not the race horse he once was. He has refined his game to be more about skill and execution than athleticism.
James’ patience with the learning curve some of his younger teammates have been fighting through wears on him.
If you talk to his teammates, they love James. He has always been known as a great teammate and includer. He brings players into his world. He showers them with gifts from his numerous endorsement deals. He has thrown huge holiday dinners for everyone in his organization.
As a leader on the court, James leaves a lot to be desired. But if you have watched his career, is that really surprising? James was never a great leader in his first trip through Cleveland. In Miami, he played a leading role, but the true leadership on that team came from guys like Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, James Jones, Ray Allen and Shane Battier. LeBron could lead when he wanted to, but he was never tasked with shouldering all the leadership of a team.
Knowing that, is it surprising that LeBron is struggling to be that guy in Cleveland? He’s never been that guy anywhere he’s played.
There is little doubt James is one of the best players in basketball. Unless you have a major agenda, there just is no evidence to support that he is not. In fact, since the All-Star break, James has played some of the best basketball of the season.
What is real is James is not the leader most want him to be or need him to be. Unfortunately, some of those people wear a Cavs jersey on a nightly basis. If there is anything you can say honestly about James, it is that he has struggled to be a leader.
Maybe that why the idea of playing with his good friends remains so appealing to him, because the onus to lead wouldn’t be entirely on him.
It is easy to say James should know how to be a leader, but wanting to lead, knowing you need to lead and having the mindset and ability to lead are very different things.
There is no doubting James is a dominant player. The hurdle he still has to climb is being a leader and that may not ever happen for him.
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