These last 7 1/2 weeks or so have seemed to blow by so quickly, because my favorite tournament in the world (the NCAA tournament is more exciting, but don’t kid yourself, the brand of basketball is so much worse that the NBA has this one hands down) has been playing out, and even though I don’t always like the outcomes, I love everything about the NBA Playoffs. It’s usually more fun in the first two rounds, because there is so much more basketball to watch, and you’ll get the occasional triple- or even quadruple-header on a Saturday or Sunday and just soak in all the great basketball. However, as we get into the conference finals the cream has definitely risen to the top, and the quality of basketball is unbelievably good. My only complaint about the playoffs these past few years is that my teams don’t seem to do as well as I’ve hoped. The Timberwolves have been no-shows since going to the Western Conference Finals in 2004, and the Bulls have only won one series since the Jordan era, and still haven’t been a true contender. At least the series they played with Boston last year was one of the best playoff series of all time, and showed me so much about what the future of the team looks like with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah being playoff warriors. (It also helped me realize that Derrick Rose was my favorite current NBA player by a long shot.)
Not only have my favorite teams failed to deliver come playoff time, but rather some of my least favorite teams and players have been successful. In the past 10 years, the Lakers won 4 titles, the Spurs won 3 titles, and the Pistons and Celtics each won a title. Those teams are probably all in my top 5 of most despised teams in the league. On top of that, players that I don’t like too much got to win titles, and in some cases, earned multiple rings, most notably two of my least favorite players: Shaq and Kobe. They each have won 4 rings in the past decade, and it was a big disappointment for me each time they hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Of course, the two redeeming things to come from those Laker titles in the early 00’s were this, and this, thanks to the Carlton Banks of the NBA.
So since Shaq and Kobe were so successful together, and now the Lakers are stacked again, Kobe Bryant’s career accomplishment’s are now beginning to pile up to put him up there with the greatest players of all time, and almost undoubtedly make him the greatest player of his era. I’m not a Kobe fan, and I never have been, but I did always favor him over Shaq almost infinitely. I like everything about his game and how hard of a worker he is, but I’ve always thought he was a bit overrated, was a jerk, possibly a rapist, and just the beneficiary of two really good situations (Shaq-era Lakers, and now Gasol-era Lakers). Obviously Shaq isn’t the easiest guy to work with, because he’s constantly throwing former teammates or coaches under the bus, but if Kobe was truly as motivated by winning, and not by being the best player on his own team, than he could have and should have won about 6 or 7 titles with the Shaq-era Lakers. Instead, he was a big reason why the Lakers broke up and caused them to become irrelevant until Gasol showed up. Actually, I think everyone has forgotten that Kobe was practically demanding a trade earlier in the same season that they ended up getting Gasol on the cheap and ended up going to the finals. I’ve always relished rooting against him and seeing him fail, but unfortunately, he finally broke through and won a title without Shaq last season, and that started bringing up all the silly comparisons to Michael Jordan. You’d hear things like, “he’s now been to just as many NBA Finals, and he’s only 2 rings away from Michael” and “with that team, he could pass up Jordan, and then the argument is over”. People, please settle down. We’ll get back to this “argument” in a moment.
Now these playoffs are the first time where Kobe has finally caused me to actually admire him somewhat. Don’t get me wrong, I was still rooting against the Lakers every step of the way, but the way he played in the Utah and Phoenix series’s made me, for the first time, think that he could be a top 3 guard of all time. He’s never once made me think that before. But after he hit that shot in game 6 against Phoenix and tapped Alvin Gentry on the butt, he gave me a little bit of that feeling that, “this guy can’t lose”. In the past, I always assumed Kobe would fail, even if that was an unfounded assumption, it was there. But after that shot, that notion was gone, at least temporarily.
So that’s why I was probably just as dumbfounded as the Laker fans on Sunday evening when Kobe didn’t will his team to victory. It looked like he had done what he needed to do when he made that great steal and deep three before the half, and then his team grabbed the lead not too far into the third, and the see-saw battle waged on from there. But down the stretch, Boston made all the big plays, and Kobe was just not great. Gasol and Bynum both had better games. I know Kobe was the victim of a couple questionable calls, but a great player that wants to be mentioned with Jordan should play smarter than he did. So don’t give me that. He just wasn’t good enough.
So now, back to the Jordan comparisons. Win or lose this series, people will probably start the comparisons again. If he wins, even more so. Good. Let everyone make comparisons. I hope they all take a long hard look at the facts, and if you do, you’ll find that Kobe is still no match to Jordan. I don’t care if 11 year olds in LA think that Kobe is better than Jordan ever was. Everyone who actually knows something about basketball and is capable of being objective, knows that Jordan still has him beat by a long-shot. And if you want to go the route of championships, then the number for Kobe is 1, because that’s how many rings he has where he was the best player on his team. Jordan has 6 Finals MVP awards, and he was definitely the best player on his team for all 6 titles. And if you actually look at statistics, Jordan is in another stratosphere than Kobe. If Kobe wants any shot at giving Jordan a run for his money, he HAS to win this series. If he loses his third NBA finals, he could win 8 titles and he still wouldn’t be as good as Jordan, because Jordan never lost an NBA Finals, and he left two on the table by playing baseball instead. It’s like John Elway and Joe Montana. Sure, Elway had an unreal career and eventually got his two rings, and he even went to more Super Bowls than Montana, but Joe was 4 for 4 in the big game. When it was time to get the job done, Joe did it, and that’s why he’s the greatest quarterback of all time (in my opinion) and Elway isn’t.
As for a Finals prediction, I think I’ll get it wrong no matter what I say, but I think it’s a good series, and I’ll say Lakers in 7. I’m also hoping for that, because the only team I dislike more than the Lakers is the Celtics, and I want as much good basketball as I can get.