The Clarity in the Cataracts
This really is a new and exciting time to be arguing about the game's best player. Ever since Jordan retired, MVPs have come and gone, but in the back of everybody's mind, there was never really a debate over who the game's best player was-Iversons and Nowitzkis and KGs and Nashes have streaked through the basketball world and claimed their moments in the sun, but in the back of the mind the league had returned to being in the shadow of giants-Shaq laid in the back of everybody's mind as the true best player in the league, and when he passed over the hill, it was Duncan. It's no coincidence that every finals since Jordan retired has featured either Shaq or Duncan, and they captured the title all but one time in the last nine years.
But now, with the Suns setting around Shaq and Duncan finally aging and falling below 20 points per game, and Dwight Howard not yet able to claim the throne of The Dominant Big, the NBA's brightest stars are also deserving of the distinction as the league's true best player. Currently, the man occupying that throne is Kobe Bryant, the current gold standard of true and lasting NBA greatness.
Deserving or no, Kobe is a unique heir to the throne-while previous standard-holders made their claim based on games and achievements impervious to doubt or question, Kobe's greatness is shrouded in mystery; his closest historical comparison would be pre-championship Chamberlain or Jordan, who consensus dictated were inferior to Russell and Bird/Magic before they won their rings, but Kobe is different even from them. He has the necessary rings to make his claim, but won them as his team's second-best player, and is probably even better as an individual player now than he was when he achieved his rings. There is precedent for great players winning championships after their individual primes, but almost none who achieved their individual primes after their championship years.
I was talking to my boss, who runs the LA Times' Laker Blog and watches Kobe as much as any human being on the planet, and he simply said, "If you watch Kobe Bryant every day, there is no way you don't think he's the best player in this league." It's easy to see what he means-Kobe is at the same time the league's most well rounded player and the one most capable of singular domination. He can shoot beautifully, he can explode to the hole and put jaws on the carpet, he combines power with grace, he's a great passer with surpassing court vision, he plays defense, and he has a dizzying array of moves to compliment and harness his skills.
But to call him a jack-of-all trades is to discount his ability to focus all his energies and envelop a team in a flurry of baskets; although he no longer holds the league's scoring title, he is still the one most capable of an outburst of scoring that can cripple a team all by itself-witness 81, or the 30 points he scored after the third quarter had ended against the Mavericks on Sunday. He plays every game with legendary resolve and competitiveness. (My favorite documented video evidence of this-the 1997 dunk contest. (Music NSFW.) First of all, Bob Sura was in the dunk contest. Second, look right after Michael Finley misses the two-ball dunk with Kobe sitting on a 49-He fist-pumps. A 19-year old kid rooting for a fellow dunker to fail. Cold-Blooded.) Quite simply, he is a humanly perfect basketball player, which, when coupled with the championships on his resume, makes him a logical choice as the game's true great, and allows us to forgive him the trespasses of failing to win a playoff series in the absence of Shaq.
The thing about Kobe being the league's best player because of his perfection is the exception, rather than the norm, to the league's greatest players. The league's greatest players have always been Gods, capable of impacting the game through their sheer force of being rather than their individual ability-Wilt impacted games without needing to do the impossible because of his crushing impact on the boards, on defense, and the way he changed everything on offense before he even shot the ball-likewise with Russell, Shaq, Walton, Moses, and Kareem. Likewise, Bird, Magic, Robertson, and now Nash change the game through their ability to change the game through their passing and divine sense of the game.
God does not need to be perfect in our eyes because we acknowledge that we are unable to understand his ways. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, than he must have known Satan would rebel, and that his rebellion would lead to the fall of Man from Paradise, and would have no need to create an heir if he is indeed immortal, but we concede what would be human flaws because we understand that God is beyond human notions of flaws or mistakes, and trust that he knows what we cannot understand. Likewise, we do not question Shaq, Duncan, or Wilt's footwork and free throw touch, Russell, Moses, and Kareem's ability to shoot from outside or operate outside the free-throw line, Magic's jump shot, or Bird's lack of athletic ability-they are beyond normal faults because the divine force of their games makes any questioning of their human shortcomings mere insolence and narrow-mindedness on our parts.
If great point guards and centers are the Gods of the game, than great perimeter players are the humans—capable of great things, able to change the world, but limited by their relative lack of power to the Gods to change at their will, and not able to have their flaws forgiven. Pistol Pete was created to be the perfect basketball player, and was as quick and as fluid a ball-handler and shooter as ever played the game, but lacked the blessing of the gods, and, like Cesar or Alexander, fell humbled without achieving the holy grail or even an MVP award. Then the Messiah came.
Like Jesus, Jordan was all the more powerful because he contained the force of the divine wrapped in the trappings of humanity. Jordan was not gifted with Wilt or Shaq's dominating physical force, or Magic and Larry's ability to affect what was happening on the entire court when they had the ball in their hands; he needed to be humanly perfect to be great, and like Jesus, he was humanly flawless-the quickness, the leaping ability, the coordination, the ball-handling, the mid-range shot, the defense, the relentless determination, everything. He even lives in parables; of being cut from his high school team, of perfecting his defense and his jump shot, of playing through the flu, of treating every scrimmage like a game 7. But as with Jesus, Michael only appeared to be mortal-he held inside his human trapping the ability of the divine, the ability to produce miracles when needed, to walk across water and over Craig Ehlo and Byron Russell and come out with six championships.
(Quick aside: LeBron is something new and scary and different altogether, the power of a dominant big with the vision of a dominant point who plays on the perimeter. Look at his game-winning layup in game 5 up against Jordan's "final shot." Jordan is played more or less straight up, while all 5 Pistons were watching LeBron-Jordan's shot was the pinnacle of human basketball skill, while LeBron was something altogether different. Look at LeBron's game today: down the stretch, he tilted the entire floor left, then went right for the slam. On his next possession, he went to the one-on-one step-back jumper. Next time down, he drew the defense and hit a wide-open Wally Sczerbiak for the dagger. Not to pull out superlatives, but that's legendary big power, legendary point game-changing, and a human feat of skill, all in one stretch. This is a special, special player, as his Shoals' boy Chris Paul, combining divine court vision with a new-era type of speed and athleticism. But this is Kobe's show.)
In the meantime, Kobe dominated the Mavericks down the stretch with a flurry of jumpers and drives for contact, burying them with 22 fourth-quarter points and 8 more in overtime. We know Kobe is human basketball perfection. Now, armed with the weapons necessary to obtain a ring to call his own, we may get an answer to the question we've been asking ever since Shaq left Kobe in purgatory; is Kobe blessed with divine providence, or is he simply a mortal king? Is he Napoleon, or is he the Second Coming? Kobe is the best mortal basketball player on the planet, probably the best since Jordan. It is because he is human that he is yet to make it back to the finals, but it is because he is perfect that he retains a tenuous grasp on the coveted title of the game's best.
With Duncan finally sliding away from the picture, Kobe's playoff run in the loaded West will be a test of the power of human perfection against all those who dare oppose it. In the playoffs, he will either become a deus ex machina and bury all that dare challenge him with a series of timely jumpers and left-handed floaters or reveal himself as only mortal and watch as his jumpers fall short of Nirvana. What I'm trying to say here is that I am really fucking stoked for this year's playoffs.