People love to ask impossible-to-answer questions of era comparison when it comes to the all-time greats, but these futile attempts to create an all-encompassing list of who ranks where among the superstars of the game can often diminish the contributions of those same superstars. Instead, stardom is meant to be measured within the context of a single generation to highlight the greatness of one player against his peers.
I say that because, as a Boston-L.A. Finals rematch looms, reporters are tripping over themselves to tab Kobe Bryant as the greatest Laker ever and even be so bold as to ask whether he was as good as or better than Michael Jordan. Tempting as it is to make such comparisons, they ignore core differences in today’s game from that of yesteryear. They also serve to put down a player (be it Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West or Bryant, himself) through inexact, unquantifiable and faulty analysis.
So what can be said about Bryant as he embarks upon his fifth ring, second as the Lakers’ unquestioned alpha dog? Well, for one thing, he enters this series with nothing more to prove as a player. Sure, he will continue to work his way up the all-time scoring list (he currently sits 13th) and, more pertinently, will face questions about beating the Celtics if his Lakers fall again. But it’s hard to nitpick when you’re talking about a guy with four rings, including one as “The Man”, who has shown he can win as a dominant scorer and as a play-making teammate.
It’s strange to read that previous line when you consider how different things looked just two years ago, when the Celtics forced Bryant into bad shots and managed to get him untracked (particularly in the Celtics’ 131-92 Game Six shellacking). Here, Bryant was exposed as a talented scorer who didn’t trust his teammates and, as a result, couldn’t be fully considered a winner.
Call it the Beijing Effect or whatever, but something changed the following summer and suddenly Phil Jackson found himself with a superstar ready to buy into the team concept. It could be argued that the Lakers benefited from facing a happy-to-be-there Orlando Magic squad in the 2009 Finals as opposed to the Cavaliers or a healthy Celtics team, but it certainly didn’t hurt to see chemistry growing in the L.A. ranks, starting with a more affable Bryant.
It still wasn’t a group who likely hung out together after games, but there was a professional, positive energy in the air that hadn’t been there previously. Bryant was suddenly supporting Andrew Bynum, relying upon Pau Gasol in the paint and not staring daggers through Sasha Vujacic.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Lakers won that 2009 title and have been rolling on all cylinders since.
Since it isn’t good enough to simply be an exceptional superstar in an era of hyperbole and seeking finite answers to unanswerable questions, I will say that Bryant is presently announcing himself as the league’s best player. While NBA observers constantly look for the next big thing (LeBron James, then Kevin Durant, now John Wall), Bryant has excelled right through his transition from an ‘it’s all about me’ superstar to a veteran, team-oriented star and hasn’t slowed down even as his athleticism begins to abandon him.
Yet, even as he has a Hall of Fame plaque all but etched and has carved out his place in Lakers’ lore with little else to prove, Bryant continues to train feverishly and seek improvement at every turn. He seems to want his fifth ring every bit as much, if not more, than he wanted his first.
Perhaps that’s what makes him the complete superstar that he is.