Once again, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers have reached the NBA Finals. This accomplishment somewhat slams the door on any argument that Kobe "needed" Shaq. This is now the third straight trip to the Finals, and a chance to repeat, with just what may be the polar opposite of Shaq in a big man - Pau Gasol. Three titles in a row with Shaq, and nearly the same with Pau? This achievement needs to be realized and appreciated properly. The perception of those 3-peat years will change dramatically if Kobe and the Lakers win the Finals. For some people though, the first three rings (and last year's) won't matter if the Lakers don't win this year's Finals. Not for Kobe. Not when he has had to battle the shadow of Shaq. For Kobe Bryant, "perception is reality." His legacy and how some view his Championship pedigree changes dramatically depending on winning or losing these Finals. For the third straight year, Kobe's legacy and perceived greatness is on the line.
In the NBA, we measure a player's greatness by the rings they win. It's different for some players. No one is going to consider Robert Horry's 7 rings greater than (or equal) to Kobe's 4 (and maybe 5) or Shaq's 4. Horry wans't a main guy. Sure, he helped in winning, but no one rode his back. We measure our superstars. The NBA isn't like other sports. Basketball players are directly involved with all aspects of the game. They play both offense and defense. Unlike football, baseball, or even hockey (which a hot goaltender can determine a team's success), we can praise a player like Steve Nash's offensive talents, but also point to his lack of defense being a key reason why his teams have never made the Finals. We hold our NBA stars responsible for the successes or failures of their teams.
How we view Kobe Bryant is directly tied to how much we value his past and recent accomplishments. Also, as a player wishing to challenge Michael Jordan's accomplishments, his merits need to stand apart. He needs to set himself apart from his peers, but most importantly, the rest of the world has to know it. Feel it. With no doubt, or else it's all for naught. His past achievements haven't changed, but how we see them can change.
Perception is Reality. That saying sums up the dilemma Kobe Bryant has faced his whole career. The biggest question being "could Kobe really do it with out Shaquille O'Neal?" No one can dispute the fact that Kobe has won four rings, but what will be disputed is the "value" of those Championships. The view of his first three Rings are still clouded by the presence of Shaq. It cleared up quite a bit when Kobe finally won one without the "Diesel." Now things just got foggier. With the Celtics making it back to the Finals, after missing Kevin Garnett last season, the dynamics of Kobe's legacy have changed. What if KG didn't get hurt? That's the next question being asked. Would the Lakers have won it all if the Celtics were really able to defend 100%? Just like that, the
unfair Shaq questions are raised and the value of last year's title is re-examined. Did he really do it without Shaq?
Kobe Bryant has to win this year. Or else his whole legacy, as he wants us to view it (apart from Shaq, and close to Jordan), comes crashing down. The Lakers already lost to Boston in 2008. Then, Kevin Garnett misses the Playoffs in 2009. Now the Celtics have turned it on and made it back to the Finals. It's only natural to wonder what if. A loss puts the Lakers 2009 title in the 94-95 Rockets category, which felt somewhat incomplete due to Michael Jordan's two year lay-off. We Lakers fans know we had the best team in the NBA last season, but will the rest of the NBA world view it our way? Honestly, wanting other fans bases to know our team is the best is a large part of our fandom. It's what we root for. Hell, it's what we blog for.
If Kobe wins Ring #5? He is hands down the Greatest Player of his generation. The Shaq debate is absolutely dead. Kobe has had more success sans Shaq than vice versa. What will people say then? "Yeah, but he had Pau?" Plus, by winning this year, Kobe goes back to back again and does so by revenging an embarrassing loss to a Celtics team that will go down as one of the All-Time great defensive teams. Repeating with a completely different (except Derek Fisher) set of teammates than the Kobe/Shaq teams. Who else has done this? No one. This Finals means everything to Kobe, and winning removes any doubt.
Author's note: The point of this post was to point out some questions about Kobe that will be raised if the Lakers lost. Not whether they are right or wrong, or if I agree. I just wanted to bring up the discussion of how the perception of Kobe's legacy is dramatically changed by winning or losing. Perceptions by others (non-Lakers fans). Keep it mind, it is about the appearance of Kobe's legacy, not the reality of it. Unfortunately, perception is too often considered reality.