Kobe Bryant’s Legacy

Kobe Bryant was in the NBA news recently when his former big man Andrew Bynum responded to an inquiry as to how Bynum thought Bryant helped mature his game.

When Bynum was asked about his on-court relationship with Bryant, he made it sound like a double-edged sword.

Bynum noted that Bryant will draw double teams and make it easier for teammates to get open looks. On the other hand, Bryant admittedly loves to shoot and will often overlook guys in the post with excellent position.

It was an open and honest critique. I appreciated the insight from Bynum and it made me reflect on Bryant’s relationships with his big men. Often as tumultuous as they were successful, the Laker teams of the Byrant era relied on those relationships for just about everything.

The Kobe Bryant Chronicles fittingly began with a big man. Jerry West shipped highly regarded center Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to a little known, fresh out of high school guard in Kobe Bean Bryant.

That trade would be the basketball equivalent of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but the Lakers seem to get lucky in these situations. (Bryant for Divac is only one example. The Pau Gasol trade and the Dwight Howard trade made little basketball sense at the time.)

Bryant’s years with Shaquille O’Neal resulted in some amazing feats. However, the title run was limited to three years because neither wanted to share the spotlight. O’Neal’s book released about a year ago let us into some of the grievances between the two.

Following the trade of O’Neal to Miami, the Lakers were in limbo for a couple of seasons. Bryant was widely regarded as the greatest player on the planet. The Lakers were not winning many games, and were certainly not at championship level. He frustratingly demanded a trade.

During this time Bryant accomplished amazing individual achievements, but until Gasol got to Los Angeles nothing had moved forward with the team.

Bryant and Gasol’s relationship has been the smoothest of Bryant’s career, but that is because everybody knows that between those two Bryant is the alpha male. He will take over. He will get angry at you and make you pay on the court. Gasol’s nature is to acquiesce to Bryant’s personality rather than combat it, which is why, despite his criticisms for being soft, the Lakers have been so successful the past five years.

Now we come to Dwight Howard. Howard is the new-era superstar. This is much different from when Bryant was watching the game and growing up playing ball. Bryant grew up watching and idolizing Michael Jordan. So he adopted that mean streak, that “I want the ball. Get out of my way” attitude. Good or bad, that is what he is.

Howard has more of a LeBron James attitude toward what being a superstar in the NBA is. He wants people to like him. He wants to keep his sponsors. Howard’s image is that of a nice guy and he has made a lot of money with that image. However, he still thinks of himself as a superstar because that is what everybody says he is.

So when those two personalities meet and something goes wrong on the court, Bryant yells at whoever made the mistake. Howard is not used to that, and because of that he has been less aggressive than usual despite the fact that Bryant is taking less shots per game than last season.

Bryant’s relationships with his big men throughout the years dictated that team’s success. The rest of this year will be no different. It appears he has grown to pass the ball more, but will Howard be willing to go all out? I don’t know. The good thing for the Lakers is they still have enough time to figure out the answer before it’s too late to fix.

Nets Playing With A Cocky Swagger

Until very recently if you were to type “Brooklyn” into Google, the first suggestions to pop up included “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Brooklyn Pizza,” and my favorite “Brooklyn Decker”.

However, the revamped Nets franchise has changed the narrative. 

It’s hard to believe that the New Jersey Nets were once a flourishing franchise.  Under the leadership of Jason Kidd, they had two consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

Mired in mediocrity for the majority of the past decade, however, the Nets were in need of a change.  No franchise has been as immediately resurrected with such style. 

Since Mikhail Prokhorov became the principal owner, this team made it be known that what had become the status quo in New Jersey would no longer fly.  Minority owner Jay-Z helped to facilitate their move to Brooklyn and in doing so, both these men breathed new life into a previously stagnant franchise. 

Last offseason they spent money purposefully and effectively.  After the drama of Dwight Howard became too much for them to bear and perhaps amidst fears that Howard may not be fully healthy, the Nets moved decisively.  They locked up a franchise point guard in Deron Williams to break in the Brooklyn era along with the versatile Gerald Wallace who was acquired in a trade last season. 

They also bring back center Brook Lopez, who has been a quiet 17 ppg & 7.5 rpg for his career.  Joe Johnson was brought in as a sharpshooter and a guy who can put up 30 points on any given night.  Kris Humphries, Maurice Evans, Marshon Brooks and Jerry Stackhouse provide stability off the bench and it is not hard to see why this team might be the second best in the East this year.

So far, the Nets hold victories against the Knicks, Clippers and two against the Celtics.  In particular, they have shown a phenomenal ability to play cohesively on both ends of the floor despite the lack of a rapport playing together (during most of Williams’ and Wallace’s time in New Jersey, Lopez was injured). 

It helps that the players on this team complement each other perfectly, of course.  Williams is the best all-around point guard in the NBA with his combination of passing, size, speed, strength and shooting.  Wallace is a dynamic player who requires you to guard him on every spot on the floor. 

That combo frees up open looks for Johnson, who doesn’t mind taking 20 shots.  And all that brings the defense out to the perimeter, allowing Lopez and Humphries to get good position inside.

The Nets played Miami very tough down in their house before Miami pulled away late, and tonight’s game in Brooklyn against the Thunder will tell us plenty about their fortitude.  The swagger in Brooklyn is a dangerous environment for any team to walk into.  This team has also shown it can beat good teams on the road.  Avery Johnson provides championship-level experience.  They have a roster that should make a lot of noise in the East. 

One thing is clear, Brooklyn has brought strut back to the Nets franchise.

Green Continues To Fight Through Adversity

Most of you know the name Jeff Green. 

Some people may know him from his days at Georgetown where he regularly filled up the stat sheet for a very complete team.  Some will know him from his OKC days as he was on the ground floor with that organization.  Or you might also know Green from his astonishing highlight jam over Al Jefferson last week. 

But the most astonishing thing about Jeff Green has absolutely nothing to do with basketball.

Green and the Celtics seemed like they were meant for one another.  Green was drafted by the Celtics back in 2007 only to be abruptly traded (along with other pieces) to the Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen and Glen Davis.

However, that did not mean by any stretch that the Celtics were done with Green.  Danny Ainge proceeded to basically stalk Green for the next five years. He proposed deals many times in the hopes of pulling the versatile forward away from OKC.

On February 25, 2011, Ainge finally got his man. In a largely unpopular move, the Celtics traded Center Kendrick Perkins along with Nate Robinson to the Thunder for Green and Nenad Kristic.

Green had an up and down second half of the 2011 season, but played much better in the beginning of the following year.  In fact, he received a one-year extension on December 10, 2011.  What happened next, nobody would have predicted. Exactly one week later, Green was diagnosed with aortic aneurism, which would require open-heart surgery.

The surgery meant Green had to question his entire future.  Would he be able to play basketball again? Even Green had his doubts about that, but the most pressing matter was of life and death.  When Green woke up from his procedure on January 9, he could not move.  He compared that feeling to being an infant and having to go through all the little intermediate stages in life before even thinking about picking up a basketball again.

Green began receiving a tremendous amount of support from his teammates and peers.  Kevin Durant dedicated his season to Green.  All the Celtics rallied around Green like he was a member of their immediate family. He was on the bench for almost every Celtics game, despite technically being a free agent. The Celtics, their players and front office alike, have treated Green as a member of their family.  Ainge seems to feel a personal connection to Green, having followed him since likely far before that 2007 NBA Draft. And as soon as Green was given the green light on his health, the Celtics locked him up with a 4-year/$36 million contract.

Ainge took on an immense amount of criticism for that move.  Even when Green played for the Celtics he hadn’t shown that sort of worth.  Many questioned if he ever would.

It’s one thing to go through open-heart surgery and all that entails.  It is a completely different challenge to get back to being a professional athlete afterwards. That is exactly what Green set out to do and so far he is passing with flying colors.  He once again has the supreme bounce and athleticism that drew Ainge in to begin with, and he appears to be on the verge of busting out. 

Not even a full year after one of the most serious operations in the medical field, Jeff Green is running the floor like a champion.  His conditioning still needs work, but less than a year removed from that surgery Green is very close to being 100% of the player the Celtics coveted for so long.

Green’s determination, resolve, dedication and drive have fueled an improbable recovery. Even if he doesn’t score another NBA point, if he bricks every jump shot or blows every defensive assignment there is not one person that can tell Green he failed. Because if Jeff Green is what failure looks like, then sign me up.

The Show Goes On In Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Lakers made headlines this week when they hired Mike D’Antoni as their head coach. Now, that in a vacuum would typically be very well received. D’Antoni ran an offense in Phoenix that produced points at a rate nobody had ever seen before. Steve Nash took two MVP Awards in the prime of Kobe Bryant’s career in D’Antoni’s system. So, of course this should be seen as the perfect antidote for the Lakers’.

Had the narrative been, “Lakers fire Mike Brown then hire D’Antoni,” then Laker fans would be absolutely thrilled to have D’Antoni. However, the Lakers went back to the well. They called the great Phil Jackson and he was interested. But the Lakers turned Jackson down! That shocking turn of events triggered an overreaction by fans and media.

The lack of respect shown to a man with the pedigree of Jackson’s is remarkable. If this was truly a basketball decision, it could have been made without bothering Jackson. They knew exactly what they were going to get with Jackson as the coach so there could not have been any new information gained by going to talk to him. I will never understand why they bothered Jackson, and few will, but that should not detract from the fact that D’Antoni is a great hire.

D’Antoni’s offenses in Phoenix produced these incredible points per game numbers: 114 (’04-’05), 111 (’05-’06), 114 (’06-’07), 113 (’07-’08). He had over 50 wins in each season. The Suns won 26 Playoff Games and haven’t won a series since he was their coach.

Most importantly, he has a similar collection of talent with Nash at the point and an athletic big in Dwight Howard. Kobe Bryant will see plenty of open looks in transition as will Antawn Jamison and Steve Blake.

The Lakers will score plenty and will win enough to satisfy the “Showtime” moniker in Los Angeles. The question will come in the postseason, of course. This team can’t just win 55 games. They expect a ring this season. Howard is headed to free agency unless the Lakers can give him a very good reason to stick around. Can D’Antoni live up to those expectations? He wasn’t able to in New York, but they did have one winning season under him.

The talent on this team exceeds any he has ever had, particularly on the defensive side of the basketball. Howard, as everyone knows, is a monster on defense. Metta World Peace is always tenacious as well. That may make a difference for D’Antoni this time around.

One thing is for sure, the next few months are sure to be a show in Los Angeles.

Knicks Winning With Old School Roster

As we enter the second week of November, the NBA has already given us plenty to talk about.

Starting with the James Harden trade this season has been a slew of unpredictability. The Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett spat and the Lakers struggles also highlighted what we both love and hate about sports.

The biggest surprise so far, though, has to be the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA: the New York Knickerbockers.

This is a team that has struggled to find its identity ever since trading for Carmelo Anthony in February of last year.  Before that trade, the Knicks had a good, young core of players that covered a variety of skill sets. Raymond Felton was having his best year as a pro running Mike D’antoni’s up-tempo offense. Danilo Galinari shot the lights out and established himself as a legit scoring threat in the game.  Timofey Mozgov showed promise as an interior defender despite being turned into an adjective by Blake Griffin.  Also, Wilson Chandler showed promise as a young Gerald Wallace or even a Rudy Gay.

Fast forward to today after the Knicks have been an exercise in futility for the past two seasons despite having two of the most prolific offensive talents in the game, but it seems that GM Glen Grunwald has finally put a roster together that has the fortitude to sustain a championship run.

The Knicks biggest problem has been their lack of a leader on the court. Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are alpha-male personalities but neither of them are natural leaders.  This much can be seen in the many faces of the Knicks last season. They started out with promise then got shaken up by injuries. Jeremy Lin emerged as a potential savior for about a month until he went down. Then Anthony came back and took over before the team was ousted by the Heat in round one.

So, it was clear to the Knicks brass that they needed some big time changes in the personality of this team. They definitely had the talent on both ends of the floor to be a dynamic team, but they lacked leadership, which ultimately let them down in tight games. Glen Grunwald went out and replenished his roster with veterans and “system fitters.” Felton flourished with Stoudemire in New York a couple years back so there was already a familiarity with that move. Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler give the Knicks the most depth at the Center position of any team, by far. However, the two biggest acquisitions for this team are a combined 77 years old.

Rasheed Wallace has had time to nurse all his nagging injuries and comes out of retirement to join New York. Say what you want about him being a volatile personality, Wallace has always been regarded as one of the smartest players in the game. His innate understanding of offensive and defensive spacing along with his experience in Playoff situations make him a key component in the Knicks success.

The second acquisition, which may turn out to be one of the most significant of the offseason, was Jason Kidd. They say goodbye to Jeremy Lin and his pick-and-roll, high turnover, high assist offensive set and they say hello to one of the best leaders from the point guard position that the game has ever seen. In my opinion, the Lakers would have been much better suited going after Kidd than Nash because of his championship experience and his reliability in staying healthy.

Kidd brings composure and leadership to a team devoid of both the last two years.  Wallace brings intelligence and swagger. Anthony and Stoudemire will obviously bring the scoring. What has it gotten New York so far? They are 3-0, all double digit victories. They lead the NBA in scoring defense, are third in scoring offense and as long as they stay healthy it is clear they have assembled a collection of talent that complements each other very well. Miami and Boston may have some competition in the East after all.