Jerry West, widely recognized as the greatest basketball GM of all time, recently said LeBron James has “surpassed” Kobe Bryant as a player. Bill Simmons, the famous sportswriter who is currently campaigning to be the new T-Wolves GM, says Kobe is past his prime.
Maybe West is retired for a reason. Maybe Simmons should stick to his day job. And maybe I’m the one who should be a GM, because I’ve been saying that not only is Kobe not past his prime, but that he’s also still the best hooper in the world all season long.
Last night, Kobe gave us the finest performance of his career. Screw 81. Screw 61. Screw coming back hurt in the 2000 NBA Finals to help the Lakers regain their past glory. Last night was the one.
He scored 40 points in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career, but also had 8 assists and 8 rebounds. Only Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Shaq had previously accomplished that feat in the Finals. In fact, if the Magic would’ve kept the game within reach, it looked like Kobe’s second-half outburst would’ve surpassed M.J.’s “don’t ask me, Cliff” shrug game. You know, the one where he had 35 points in a half. Kobe was on his way to around 35 second-half points and a total of 50 for the game. The Magic just got too far out of it.
There was a lot of Jordan in this performance. Kobe wasn’t just more athletic and more talented than everybody else on the court, he was hungrier and smarter as well. I honestly think Kobe is just now entering his prime, and here’s why. Jordan was 33 when he won his fourth NBA Championship. Kobe is 30. Like Mike, Kobe is a basketball intellectual. In fact, I’d guess that he has the highest basketball I.Q. in the NBA.
Now, I know what Simmons is saying in a way, because Kobe isn’t quite as explosive as he was when he was 25. But he’s better in every other area. He’s a much better shooter. Ballhandler. Passer. Defender. Leader. Rebounder. Clutch performer. Student of the game. He’s stronger. He’s got better patience. Better vision. Better court awareness. Better communication skills (very important). Takes better care of his body. Most importantly, he knows how to score on anyone in the league any time he wants, and if he can’t he will get his teammates the best opportunity possible. You can’t say that about ’03 Kobe or even the ’06 Black Mamba model. Plus, he’s still more athletic than 95% of the NBA.
Add that to him being hungrier than he’s ever been (you saw the teeth-gnashing snarl), and I believe he just now is entering his prime (or maybe his second prime, a la Jordan). Other than Jordan and probably Bird, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any NBA players out will their Finals opponents until they break their spirit (OK, the Big Tweeter, too). Not at this level. Kobe is now in that club.
Kobe is no longer a 40-point Finals virgin. That doesn’t surprise me one bit. What also won’t surprise me but might surprise you is the future. This is the beginning of a trend. Kobe is the best player in basketball. He has the best team in basketball around him. He also has the league’s best coach calling the shots. Expect to see him in two or three more Finals minimum after this year, and expect him to try to mentally cripple his opponents in Game One each time.
His body may be getting older, but he’s still got it. Meanwhile, young Kobe Skywalker has become Mamba Bryant, a Yodaesque Jedi Master. Tonight was just the first of him using his supreme confidence and “mind tricks” to flat out obliterate the competition. Even if you see him as more of a Darth Bryant, there’s no denying that the force is now stronger than ever in this one. Again, did you see his teeth grinding? He looked like Palpatine shooting lightening out of his fingertips. Orlando, you’ve now met your Death Star and he’s fully operational alright. And he will be for a long time to come.