A Candid Look at Greatness
One's ability to adapt to new surroundings and challenges speaks volumes about one's degree of competence. Spectators across the globe are now presented with the opportunity to observe the NBA's greatest players facing new surroundings (team USA) and new challenges (the basketball world and the international game). As Lakers fans tune in to watch Kobe Bryant in the white number ten jersey, they should expect to see something very different from what they see in the purple and gold eight. The question is whether Kobe is modifying his game as he should.
Entering Thursday's game against the Hellenes, while Kobe had been touted for his defense, he had been maligned for his shooting from "long" range. That is, despite the international three point line being a bit closer than the NBA line, Kobe had shot just 1 for 15 on threes. So facing what was considered the first "true" competition in the Greek squad (featuring, among others, almost Laker Theodorus Papaloukas), what should spectators have seen? In short, an honest read of Kobe Bryant as a player.
The setting has changed, but Kobe's raw attributes have shone through. The virtues and vices he possesses are merely looking a bit different because of the change in scenario. Kobe is still fantastically athletic. Witness at least two fastbreak dunks Kobe thundered home and two attempted alley oops. One Kobe threw down; another he missed, cramming it hard off the back iron. Still his level of athleticism is elite even on a team of athletic freaks and facing superior competition.
The most significant changes we should see in Bryant on the Olympic team are two in number. First, Kobe should play more consistent defense. Second, his shot selection should improve. In the NBA, Bryant invests himself on the defensive end when the challenge presents itself. This is a merit that gets lost in the shuffle at times. He wins All-Defensive First Team awards regularly. Some have challenged the legitimacy of these awards. Setting aside actual judging criteria, there is little doubt that Bryant is a top flight defender even against the best in the game--that is, when he is free to invest the energy on defense. In the Olympics, he has been able and he has responded. No one on team USA except Bryant consistently faces his opponent and goes one on one defensively. While other players pick up blocks and steals from taking at times questionable risks defensively, Kobe quietly does his job on every possession.
Kobe's shot selection reveals his Achilles's heel. The 1 for 15 mark might suggest that Kobe is "gunning" or "chucking," but he's not really. He has been asked to play a role on team USA that differs markedly from that which he plays on the Lakers. How many catch and shoot opportunities does Kobe see for LA? Few. He sees more of them in the Olympics and it is his job to take them. Stepping back a bit (to the more comfortable NBA three-range) allowed Kobe to hit a couple of threes against Greece and improve that dreadful percentage. But it would be unfair to say that Kobe has been a good boy when it comes to shot selection. One of his threes was deep and contested. He hit that shot. He took a turnaround jumper with a defender on him tightly. He missed that shot. This is the competitor that Kobe is, however. He wants to win the one on one match up and the game. Sometimes those two coincide, but not always. And this is how Kobe will forever be known, it seems: fighting hard to win both the individual and the team battle, trying to find the balance, being celebrated for his successes, and being censured when he falls short. And that sounds fair.
One final observation from the Olympic team. Notice Dwyane Wade doing post game interviews. Notice LeBron James leading vocally on the court. Notice Kobe leading by example. The unofficial scout against other teams, Kobe has been a tactician behind the scenes and a paradigm of conduct on the court. It may be that this Olympic experience helps Bryant move to the next level as a player. His understanding of the game is perhaps unparalleled. His physical abilities and skill for the game are also perhaps unparalleled. After taking huge strides toward gaining respect as a team leader, the main man on a team that plays as a squad, the one who can tell everyone else exactly where they need to be, can Kobe finally get himself precisely where he needs to be? This question will be answered soon enough.