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Bernard: Black Mamba still deadly (Jan. 25)

Cory Bernard | Friday, January 25, 2013


The NBA season has thus far provided fans with a multitude of interesting storylines. The Knicks have developed into a legitimate contender while the new-look Nets have moved into their new digs and immediately established an intra-city, divisional rivalry. Meanwhile, the Thunder and Heat have picked up where they left off last year, with superstars Kevin Durant and LeBron James outclassing the league with superior talent. 

And of course, who could forget the saga in Los Angeles?

Juxtaposed against the flashy success of the Clippers’ “Lob City,” the Lakers and their all-star cast have failed mightily. Executive vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak produced the biggest off-season headlines. First, they signed veteran all-world point guard Steve Nash and two-time all-star forward Antawn Jamison before luring the Association’s best center – Dwight Howard – to Los Angeles. With guard Kobe Bryant and forward Pau Gasol already in the fold, the Lakers suddenly looked like the team to beat. Everyone knows how that has worked out so far.

Despite all of this early-season drama, the most intriguing story at the mid-point of the NBA season is the tragedy of one player in particular: Kobe Bryant.

Buried beneath the rubble of the Lakers’ sub-.500 season is the fact that the 34-year-old Bryant is having a monster season. His scoring over the past few seasons has hovered just above his career average of 25.5 points per game, but his field-goal and 3-point shooting percentage has dropped ever season since 2008-2009. Except this year. Despite a coaching change just five games into the season and an ever-changing rotation of players around him, Bryant is second in the league in scoring, averaging just under 30 points per game. He is shooting a hair less than 47 percent from the floor, his highest mark since the 2008-2009 season. He is making more than 35 percent of his shots from behind the 3-point arc, his highest total since the 2007-2008 season. 

Still, his team stinks and he can’t seem to do much about it. The most prolific scorer since Michael Jordan is producing at an all-time high despite playing on a surgically reconstructed knee and mangled shooting hand that have seen more miles than anyone in the NBA. Yet he is being overshadowed by a host of younger stars on better teams. The best teams in the league rely upon superior athleticism on the perimeter, and quick guards dominate the NBA. Bryant’s Lakers do not possess the right pieces to compete with these teams.

At the tail-ends of their respective careers, iconic superstars Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan competed in front of NBA fans at high levels on championship-caliber teams. All won titles within a few years of retirement (please disregard Jordan’s two seasons with the Wizards from 2001-2003, that was not the real MJ). These icons remained, in basketball terms, relevant. However, fans will not be afforded the same luxury with Kobe Bryant. This tragedy is the NBA season’s most overlooked story.

Since he set foot in the league, Bryant has been a once-in-a-generation figure on par with Bird, Magic and Jordan. He was a high school phenom who became the youngest person to play in an NBA game in his rookie season. He won the slam-dunk contest at 18 and never looked back, dazzling the NBA with high-flying acrobatics, impossible fade-away jumpers and a bevy of clutch shots in the regular season and playoffs. He will leave the league as a legend, but with the glory days of his championship teams as a distant memory.

His retirement is several years down the road, and many things may happen between then. Dwight Howard may decide to re-sign with the Lakers despite the debacle of this season, and Bryant may learn to treat him a little more like Shaquille O’Neal and a little less like every other center he has ever played with. Also, the Lakers may acquire a perimeter player who can actually stay in front of today’s superstars.  But until these events become reality, I, and countless other basketball fans, will continue to mourn the sudden and tragic disappearance of Kobe Bryant from NBA relevancy.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu                          

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.