Bites Eat Everything
The more I watch LeBron this season, the more perplexed I am by Kobe Bryant. Last month, I said that LeBron + Kobe = MJ, which of course assumes that Jordan is monolithic, or that the various phases of his career (worth talking about) don't in some ways embody opposites, or at least contradictions, when placed side-by-side. In February, one of the great forgotten FD diagram orgies posited Bron and Bryant as opposites themselves, though complementary in the NBA universe. Now, as LeBron's dominance becomes at once more fluid and rational, I keep thinking of the autism scale, a metaphor that inevitably posits Tim Duncan. A performance like LeBron's thrashing of the Celtics last night was, at both ends of the floor, consummate. You couldn't hope for a better synthesis of form and function, style and substance, physical gifts and basketball acumen. It's that stretching of possibility we've always marvelled at in LeBron, except this year, this night, he not only reached those limits—he kept on extending them.
Diagram by Tom Ziller, 2009
Incidentally, Kobe himself happened to be putting up similar numbers against the unknown Pacers, except with a higher assists total. But as LeBron consolidates two worlds, Kobe seems, almost by contrast, cleaved in two. No doubt he's still the more fiery player, almost to a fault. And at the same time, his game has also grown more and more cooly technical, through hours of study, gym work, and a strangely competitive approach to the concept of the encyclopedic knowledge. He's one of those particles, nameless so as to avoid unnecessary pretension, who now stands on either side of James. Still not sure if he's growing apart from himself, James is cleaving him in two, or, building on the MVP and further toning down his play, Kobe himself is moving toward the same center as LeBron. One thing's for certain: As of right now, LeBron's play casts Kobe in an entirely new light. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Kobe is mortal. He pushes himself, not the laws of what's possible. His vocabulary is all that basketball has to offer, not the possibility of total transcendence and reinvention of those parameters. Don't get me wrong, the Lakers' finest remains larger-than-life, but it's not the same as LeBron's ability to make us rethink what might happen on the court.
And here's where we return to Jordan. Was he mortal? If you look at his career arc, it seems to be that of a man who got more mortal as he matured into a champion. There's a possibly depressing parable for you, and one that bodes well for Kobe's continued relevence. However, I also wonder if James's genius might be that he's managed to buck that narrative. His ascent will require no such humility, or reining in of his messianic instinct (see also Dr. J, Black Jesus, for other examples of the usual trajectory). If anything, for LeBron James actualization only engenders more potential. At this point, as each game unfolds, they occur simultaneously. That's truly frightening, but it's also a message of hope. If just this once, a player can make changing the game and winning it absolutely inseparable pursuits. From a strategic standpoint, it's all too brilliant, and so seamless you might not even notice what a radical notion it is.
(Obvious, I know, but I'm willing to stake that cred on this occasion.)