In 1996, when Kobe Bryant began his career backing up Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel in Los Angeles, he let Del Harris and Jerry West know that he believed he was starting shooting guard material.
Years later, when Phil Jackson introduced him to Michael Jordan in 1999, the first thing Bryant told Jordan was that he “would kick [Jordan’s] ass, one-on-one.”
Bryant refused to play Robin to the Batman of Shaquille O’Neal, refused to accept losing in the years following his departure and has refused to allow father time to determine when his days as a high-level, impact player in this league are over.
From day one, Bryant has been a rebel.
And today, Bryant is defiant.
He has defied father time and continues on as one of the more inspiring players this league has ever seen. Certainly not because he is the consensus greatest player ever, but more so because he has been in the conversation for so long.
Collectively, as a whole, we often discount the role that the ability to take care of one’s self and one’s body plays in the building of one’s legacy.
Anfernee Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Greg Oden—all players who were thought to have the makings of trans-generational players.
At one time we feared that Stephen Curry would not be able to fulfill that potential and today, we fear that Derrick Rose may be unable to.
At one time, we had those same fears about Bryant. But ever the fighter, the defiant Bryant has persevered.
Above all else, his rebellious spirit is his greatest gift.
Inevitably, invariably and predictably, we take things things for granted.
What once impressed us and left us in awe on a nightly basis, we eventually learn to expect. We cease to appreciate it and then, all together, go about our business, casually, as if it doesn’t exist.
Bryant is no exception.
As his Los Angeles Lakers have devolved into the epitome of appalling, Bryant, now without a single player from his 2010 team that he rode to a fifth championship ring, is the last man standing.
That he does so, and that he enters play on December 7 as the NBA’s leading scorer at 25.8 points per game, is amazing. It is especially amazing considering that over the course of the past 18 months, Bryant has had trouble with his left leg, both rupturing his achilles tendon and breaking a bone in his knee.
Despite it all, even as Bryant continues on toward his 37th birthday, he is as competitive as ever. He is noticeably slower these days and he is shooting a career-worst 39.1 percent from the field, but he works tirelessly and diligently. He does so not because he expects the 2014-15 Lakers to make the playoffs or contend for a championship.
No, instead, he does so because he fully expects the team’s leadership to find a way to rebuild, around him, yet again.
Deep down inside, Bryant wants to be around to turn this thing around, sentiments which have recently been discussed by his head coach.
And if his still-productive play is any indication of what is to come, and if his past is indicative of what his future may hold, we may not have seen Bryant hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the final time. Rest assured, Bryant is hellbent on winning a sixth championship, and he is hellbent on doing it as a Laker.
Bringing this team back to contention may seem an impossible endeavor, but it becomes all the more possible if Bryant can continue to both defy father time and return to productive play after injuries which may have stopped lesser men—something at which he has excelled to this point.
Defiance at its finest, I’d say.
Traditionally, perimeter players in the NBA begin slowing down noticeably once they have reached the 1,000 game mark. Bryant’s regular season odometer is at 1,265 games and counting. That number doesn’t include the additional 220 playoff games that he’s played en route to his seven appearances in the NBA Finals, nor does it include the summer basketball he has played in 2007, 2008 and 2012 where he competed in the FIBA Americas and Olympic tournaments in Las Vegas, Beijing and London, respectively.
Since being named an All-Star for the first time in 1998, Bryant has made each All-Star team since, totaling 16 appearances in all. He trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 19 appearances in that regard.
And no, he may not be the greatest NBA player ever, but if there is one thing he can arguably lay a claim to, is being one of the most consistent and steady forces the league has ever seen. Over the course of the past 16 years, Bryant has gone from being compared to the likes of Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller to Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady to LeBron James and James Harden.
Even as he approaches 40 years old, Bryant’s challenge is to continue to be a peer to the league’s younger generation of stars.
And yes, to defeat them, as well. Those challenges are what has been driving Bryant more than anything else and those challenges are what drove the defiant Bryant through his Achilles tendon rehabilitation.
He is not yet ready to ride off into the sunset.
The more mature, humble and mild-mannered Bryant—a shell of the spoiled and entitled child that once demanded a trade from the Lakers—is out to prove himself.
Bryant wants to prove himself to the Lakers organization, its fans and the league.
And yes, make no mistake about it, Bryant wants to prove to his future would-be teammates that he is still a championship player, capable of helping lead yet another parade through downtown Los Angeles.
So for now, he quietly and patiently goes along and does his part. Unnoticed, Bryant still wakes up freakishly early, even on long road trips, carefully monitoring his diet and being meticulous about his body preparation.
He continues on, defiantly, motivated, quietly, perhaps counting down the days until July 1, 2015.
Eerily similar to Carmelo Anthony and his New York Knicks, Bryant finds himself with a talent deficit in Los Angeles.
While one could argue that it is too early to give up on a season after just 20 games, it is also impossible to argue that 20 games is not a big enough sample size to know what a team’s ceiling is.
For the Lakers, this season, it’s low.
The team is on pace to finish the season 21-61, a full six games worse than the 27-55 record the team compiled last season, but it is the light at the end of the tunnel that will keep Bryant going, though right now, it’s merely a flicker.
Still, there may be reason for optimism.
With the sidelined Julius Randle, Nick Young and the lottery pick that the Lakers will likely reap this May as long as it is in the top five, there are at least a few pieces that general manager Mitch Kupchak could finagle. More importantly, though, are the team’s upcoming salary commitments.
With just $35 million on the ledger for the 2015-16 season, the Lakers will have ample cap space to attempt to add pieces to their core via free agency. The 2015 crop may include the likes of Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Greg Monroe, Marc Gasol, Luol Deng, Omer Asik, Reggie Jackson and Goran Dragic—to name a few.
In 2016, some of the notable names that may be available include Al Horford, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings, Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Mike Conley, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.
Presently, the Lakers have just $5.4 million committed for the 2016-17 season. Between now and July 1, 2016, moves will be made and money added to the ledger, certainly. But the overall lack of long money contracts gives the Lakers a blank slate upon which they can build their future with. If Bryant likes what transpires between now and then, and if he can continue to play at a very high level, the idea of his re-signing with the club once his current two-year, $48.5 million extension expires is not merely as far-fetched as it once seemed.
And yes, it certainly would become all the more probable if the Lakers were able to acquire Rajon Rondo—a player Bryant was once quoted as calling “one of my favorites.”
Having met in two NBA Finals in 2008 and 2010, Rondo and Bryant have shared a mutual respect and a quiet friendship for the past few years. As Rondo finds himself in the midst of a rebuilding project in Boston, he has emerged as the most discussed All-Star caliber player that could potentially be on the move.
In all likelihood, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge would trade Rondo before February’s trade deadline unless he received assurances from Rondo’s representatives that he would re-sign with the club. For Ainge, the simple fact is this: with his team in an all-out rebuild, he simply cannot afford to allow Rondo to leave his team via free agency and receive nothing in return. The mere prospect of that is frightening.
Although he is yet to return to 100 percent after tearing his ACL in January 2013, Rondo has shown some of the flashes that have made him emerge as one of the NBA’s top floor generals over the past few years.
Entering play on December 7, Rondo, despite a dearth of talent surrounding him in Boston, leads the league with 11.3 assists per game. He has a sizable lead over second-placed Ty Lawson, who averages 10.3 assists per game.
A union makes sense on many levels, and their recent breakfast meeting has only put fuel on the fire.
Moving forward, if Bryant is to somehow extend his career and his high-level play—a feat that seems daunting—it will begin and end with the Lakers acquiring a player of Rondo’s caliber. At this point, what Bryant needs more than anything else is what Steve Nash was supposed to provide: a floor general who can simultaneously take Bryant off of the ball while creating easier looks for both him and his other teammates.
As it stands, the Lakers are light years away from competing against the teams in their own division, much less the rest of the NBA’s Western Conference. The Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers each have cores that are younger, more experienced and much more talented than the collective cast that the Lakers are trotting out.
However, with the flexibility that the Lakers have maintained, the player and draft pick assets they have amassed and the ever-productive Bryant still playing at a high level, it is not far-fetched to believe that the team may find itself much more competitive, and in very short order.
And if that does happen, the hunger for the sixth, the will to compete and the ability to continue on at a high-level—it may be too much for Bryant to walk away from.
There is no question that Bryant is in the twilight of his career. There are doubts as to whether he will ever play in the playoffs again, much less help the Lakers win another championship. But if there is one thing that the world needs to know and understand about Bryant is that every fiber in his being has long been dedicated to defiance.
So as the season progresses and the Lakers and Bryant attempt to rebuild, don’t be surprised if the rebellious and defiant Bryant begins to wonder whether he has more left in the tank than he once thought.
And certainly, don’t be surprised if his Lakers soon find themselves making headlines with a flashy acquisition or two and soon find themselves mentioned among the conference’s contenders.
And don’t be surprised if that happens with Bryant still fully in the picture, even at 37 years old.
Yes, that would be defiant, but it also wouldn’t be anything new.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.