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The Most Kobe Bryant

All too often, sports discourse navigates its way to the concept of legacy. Nearly every playoffs, legacies are built up or torn down at each other’s expenses: LeBron James fixed his legacy last year, but not before Dirk Nowitzki temporarily destroyed it by cementing his own legacy that was forever tarnished by Dwyane Wade (whose legacy was aided by Shaq who also aided Kobe’s legacy until Kobe legacied his own legacy for himself) and Baron Davis (whose legacy should have been a different legacy if only he cared enough about his legacy to legacify it). Much like this paragraph, the discussion means well, but can hardly stay out of its own way as it eventually crumbles into a convoluted mess of phrases and names.

Despite all this, the concept of legacy has a very important place in sports discourse. The way the phrase is used isn’t misplaced – rather, it is premature. A legacy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It is impossible to receive said transmission when the ancestor is standing next to us. Legacy is dependent on time itself before it can take shape or form.

As such, discussions of legacy always strike me as overeager and impatient. Who are we to proclaim how Player X will be remembered in 20 years? How can we so boldly state that another decade of play from him and another decade of digestion from us will do nothing to change the opinions that were formed over the span of a two week playoff series? Where do we draw the line between friendly conjuncture, curious projections, and bone-headed stubbornness that the immediate shall sustain because the immediate is where we are most comfortable?

Against my better instincts, however, Kobe Bryant’s presumed torn Achilles turned my attention from the increasingly rare phenomenon of a fantastic April basketball game to thoughts of his legacy. In defense of my own hypocrisy, I do believe it is somewhat less presumptuous to hold these discussions as a player nears the end of his career, when we have historical perspective on most of his resume. Sure, there are final kinks to be sorted out, but a player’s crowning achievements don’t usually come near retirement. Even if they do, rarely do they change our perceptions of them. I’d offer the examples of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, both hall of famers who only finally broke the title barrier at age 37, as proof.

Similarly, Kobe’s crowning achievements have, to the best of our knowledge, come and gone. Even if preseason hopes of a sixth title had borne fruit, the significance of that ring would have been more numerological, in the MJ-tying sense, than validating. We know Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, and we have seen him at his best; a final ascension of the Everest could not change that.

And yet, there has been something mythical to Bryant’s 17th season, something that, even if not directly transmitted to his ancestors, was magnified upon reception nonetheless. Because at some point in the past few years, Bryant had stopped being a basketball player and transformed into a character, the lead of a one-man autobiographic fiction.

His interviews had lost all sense of professionalism, as clichés and political correctness became profanity-laced outpour of self-confidence. In the 2011 playoffs, down 3-0 to the Mavericks, when Kobe implored us to “call me crazy, I still think we can win this,” or last week, when Kobe shrugged off a controversial no-call on a desperation Ricky Rubio heave by saying “We would have gone into overtime and won the game. It’s as simple as that.” Such quotes would have sent other players to the PR dungeons; when Kobe says them, we chuckle.

He had played through injuries in his finger, wrist, legs – a who’s who of body parts that most functioning humans would typically need to walk all the way to the bathroom, let alone play a sport for a living. In the Golden State game itself, Bryant had fallen badly twice before the Achilles tear, getting back up and staying in the game both times. Even after his injury, he still took the two ensuing free throws, leaving open the option of a return, and option that still, somehow, exists in the back of my brain, even as “6 to 9 months” decorates headers and flashes across tickers.

The twisting, contested 30 footers, the bold defiance of presumed chronological and physiological truths, the constant reminders by both him and those around him that his will is indomitable – they were at once both true and surreal. Bryant had taken human traits and stretched them to their limits. Not just in the sense that his physical accomplishments were cyborg-esque, but like a character in a skit who repeats his well-versed punchline often enough to entertain but just scarcely enough to sell us the illusion that what we’re watching is real. The effortless forays into double-digit assists when Steve Nash injured his hamstring, the 47 point game against Portland, even the two non-chalant threes to tie the game against the Warriors before he left for good – all of these toed the line between basketball genius and character actualization. This is Kobe Bryant, watch him do Kobe Bryant. Cue Laughtrack.

By the time it was decided, by either Kobe or Mike D’Antoni, that Bryant would hereby play all 48 minutes of every single game, it was no longer clear to me that Bryant’s legacy is, indeed, cemented. His truly magnificent prime was enough to decree that this would not be the best basketball Bryant we’ve seen, regardless of accomplishments, but truly magnificent primes aren’t necessarily what we remember. Kobe Bryant had become so much of a Kobe Bryant that sheer personality had become too tall to be overshadowed by such petty things as 5 titles and 30,000 points.

In the “rank your best players of all-time” game, Bryant will no longer move up. His team has objectively and subjectively failed this season, in which he has a part by default. But in the fickle game of human memory, a 34 year old pounding his way through the falling debris and the ensuing rubble can register louder than a 22 year old dominating in tandem with a behemoth, or a 28 year old scoring at will and making faces at Smush Parker, or a 31 year old raising his arms to the sky. This Kobe Bryant may not have been the best Kobe Bryant, but he was the most Kobe Bryant.

Danny Granger’s Lost Season Breeds An Uncertain Future

In the summer of 2008, three young small forwards signed hefty long-term contracts with their incumbent teams.

Restricted free agent Luol Deng got 6 years and $72 million from the Bulls, overcoming both contentious negotiations and an injury plagued 2007-08 campaign in which the team inexplicably slipped from an up-and-coming juggernaut to a 33-49 mess.

Fellow 2004 draft mate and RFA Andre Iguodala got 6 years and $80 million from the Philadelphia 76ers, who had just completed the free agent snatching of Elton Brand and were hoping to unleash a monster two-man tandem on an unsuspecting conference.

Meanwhile, Danny Granger, drafted a year later than those two, got a 5 year, $60 million extension from the Indiana Pacers right before the October 31st deadline, spared the need to muck through the waters of restricted free agency and cemented as the team’s post-Jermaine O’Neal cornerstone.

Over the following seasons, these three players (and some might add Josh Smith, another 2008 RFA) became something of a symbol of the perils of paying the supporting actor like the lead. Deng played just 49 games in 2008-09, as the Bulls turned their attention to Derrick Rose; Brand broke down instantly, leaving Iguodala to shoulder too heavy a load and take too large a portion of the blame; and Granger’s Pacers wallowed in mediocrity, firmly entrenched as the best Eastern team outside the playoff picture, even as Granger made his only all-star team in 2008-09.

A few years later, the narrative has flipped for two of the three. Deng, health re-discovered, had the burden of a cornerstone lifted, fitting in perfectly as an indestructible workhorse that does everything Tom Thibodeau asks him to. Iguodala lead the Sixers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since that other AI, and was then shipped out to Denver, where an ensemble cast magnifies his strengths and covers for his weaknesses. If you were to press enough, you would still hear admissions that they are overpaid, but it no longer defined them.

Granger, done for the season all of 5 games in, is a trickier story. Even last season, when he was still leading his team in scoring, he was easy to criticize for his declining percentages and all-around contributions. He did not have the luxury Deng had, of a well-defined role in the shadow of a superstar, and he is not nearly the defender Iguodala is, which often helps us excuse players on account of showing effort. Both Deng and Iguodala made the all-star team last year, for the first time in their careers; Granger was left on the outside looking in despite posting the best offensive numbers of the three and his team performing well, as Roy Hibbert took the token Pacer spot.

Now, as the Pacers battle for second place in the conference without him, Granger has become downright dismissed. In reality, the Pacers improving without Granger is a congruence of many orthogonal factors. In no particular order, Paul George’s emergence as an all-star caliber player, Lance Stephenson’s emergence as an NBA caliber player, David West being another year removed from surgery, George Hill being given the keys to the point guard position full-time, Roy Hibbert’s defensive improvement, and the overall ineptitude of the East have all played tremendous roles in the Pacers flying high.

Additionally, it should be noted that while the Pacers may be winning more than they did last season, they are doing so by jumping from the league’s 10th best defense to its best, bar none. Offensively, Indiana has slipped from the league’s 9th best offense at 103.5 points per 100 possessions last season, to rank 19th at 101.7 this season. While the offense has improved as the season has progressed and Hibbert’s post game has come back from the dead, there’s a whole lot of no-Danny-Granger in those offensive numbers.

Granger was the team’s primary offensive creator last year, and those 19 points on 15 shots went a long way for a team that struggled to score without him. But even if his shot attempts can be given to other players, the spacing he creates is sorely missing without him. Those 08-09 percentages can be long gone, but opposing defenses note Granger is a constant scoring threat, and tilt accordingly. No matter how good Lance Stephenson has been this season, he doesn’t get that same attention. It’s no coincidence that Indiana scored 8.3 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court last season, or that the team’s offensive rating gradually improved throughout last season in accordance with Granger’s own scoring numbers.

But the main point here isn’t the Pacers – they’ll be fine, with an exciting young quasi-star in George, good pieces around him, and a lot of flexibility going forward. The main point here is Granger, and a career that is suddenly careening towards the unknown. While constantly reminding that we know nothing of anything, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future. Knees are fickle beings, and Granger, at 29, is somehow already 4 years removed from his best year, on a roster that could use him but is also doing well without him.

It’s unfair, to say the least. Granger arrived just as the O’Neal-Artest dynasty that never was fizzled away. He persevered as the franchise bid its sweet time, providing as convincing a facsimile of a franchise player as he could as trade rumors danced around him. In a perfect world, he too would complete the transformation Iguodala and Deng have gone through, hitting his prime just as this new core rises, settling in as a player who, depending on the given night, ranges from first to fourth option on a semi-contender. Instead, with one more season on that contract extension, there are only questions.

Statistical support for this piece from NBA.com.