This is the final installment of our series of Player Report Cards, in which we evaluate and assign a grade to the performance of each member of the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers. Up last is Kobe Bryant a.k.a. The Black Mamba a.k.a. The M.V.P. a.k.a. Daddy.
After 14 seasons as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant is finally the undisputed King of the NBA mountain. With championships (and Finals MVP trophies) in back to back seasons to add to the first three he won in the early 2000's, his career resume stacks up favorably with any other player in the game. Add to that the fact that his chief rival for "best player in the game" has done everything he can this summer to throw his own reputation, both as a basketball player and as a person, under the bus, and you are left with the obvious fact that we have finally arrived at the point where the NBA is Kobe's world. There are still a few holdouts who refuse to think of him as the best player in the game, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone reasonable who won't admit he's the greatest player in the game today.
He's reached that status because he works harder than anybody else to get there. Kobe Bryant is what results when once-in-a-lifetime talent meets once-in-a-lifetime drive. It's what causes him to take lessons with Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game, despite the fact that he's a guard. It's what causes him to want to play for Team USA despite having played more basketball over the past few years than anybody. It's what causes him to take it as a personal challenge to play in every single game of every single season.
99 times out of 100, Kobe's drive is his best quality. It is certainly the quality which has allowed him to rise to the top of this game, despite the setbacks he's had along the way. But this season almost represented that 100th time, when his super-human drive to win actually endangered his chances to do so.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start this season review with the beginning of the season. In November, Kobe Bryant started the season as good or better than I've ever seen him. Fresh off his off-season lessons with The Dream, and with Pau Gasol missing the first 13 games of the season, Kobe took the ball down to the high post and went to work. As it turns out, he's pretty damn unstoppable down there. For the month, Kobe averaged 29.9 points per game, but he did it on 51% shooting, well above his career average. Bryant's never been the most efficient player in the NBA, but at the start of this season, he looked like he'd make a run at it. The return of Pau Gasol in late November forced Kobe out of the paint, and his shooting suffered slightly, dropping to 48% for the month, but he was still playing spectacularly. 31 points on 24 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists on a winning team ... I can honestly say I don't remember Kobe playing any better than this his entire career.
And then there were the game winners. There were 6 in total, unscientifically decided to be more than any of us had ever seen in one season before. Kobe was already considered the most clutch player in the game by anyone who didn't want to define the term clutch with asinine statistical definitions, but his crunch time performance was at an altoghther different level this year.
Sadly, it was never meant to last. In mid-December, Kobe reached for an errant Jordan Farmar pass and it broke his finger (the exact injury is called an avulsion fracture). An injury like that would put most NBA players on the shelf for six weeks. Kobe didn't miss a game. He actually played pretty well with huge cast now residing on the index finger of his shooting hand, literally changing his shooting motion mid-season to take nearly all the pressure off the broken finger and place it on the middle finger. If Kobe's injury list had been limited to just that finger, he might have been just fine.
Instead, he was treated to a never ending list of maladies. Back Spasms. Tendonitis in the knee. A sprained ankle. He was able to deal with one injury, but when everything started stacking up, Kobe's performance finally suffered. By January, he was shooting 41%, his scoring dipped to 24 points on 22 shots. February wasn't much better, with a split of 24 points on 20 shots. February was also when Kobe finally gave up on his goal of not missing a game, no matter the cost. He rested 5 games, with the All-Star break in between. While he was out, the Lakers went 4-1.
Come April, we Laker fans were in a bit of a panic regarding our superstar. He only played 3 games in April's regular season, and the results were not pretty. There was genuine concern as to whether he'd be able to shake things off for the playoffs. The start of the playoffs did little to allay our concerns. Despite carrying the Lakers to victory in Game 2 of the 1st round series vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kobe shot only 38% in the first 4 games, looking unathletic, and hurt, and ... well ... old along the way. We were treated to editorials about how Kobe was losing out to Father Time. Charles Barkley said Kobe wasn't going to be the guy who can go out and score 30 every single night.
In between Games 4 and 5 of that 1st round playoff series, Kobe underwent a magical procedure known as a knee drain. Whatever it did worked tremendously, as Kobe went on a tear of fine playoff performances which lasted all the way to the NBA Finals. He didn't exactly thrive in the Finals, but then again, no one did, and his Finals MVP was well-deserved, despite what the anti-Kobe guys will tell you about his Game 7 performance. After Game 7, an ebullient Kobe talked about the idea that he was getting old, and saying that the only reason his performance throughout the season wasn't up to his usual standards was because he was hurt. People could talk about him getting old all they wanted, he was just hurt.
Therein lies my problem with Kobe Bryant's season. I've already talked about the admirable nature of playing through injury to help your team (a large reason why I graded Andrew Bynum as high as I did), but Kobe's desire to play through the pain this season went well past stupid and bordered on insane. Sacrificing the ability to heal in order to provide a shell of what you are capable of is noble in June, but to do so in January and February just doesn't make any sense. This off-season, we've heard rumors that Kobe's finger may never heal properly, and the reason for that isn't because of him playing in May and June.
Before we actually get to a grade, it's important to note that Kobe doesn't measure his own success in shades of gray. For Kobe, a letter almost seems inappropriate, because his own grading system is a simple pass/fail, with a very demanding passing criteria. Since this season did result in another ring, Kobe passed this year. But at what cost? What if his playing through all these injuries this year shortens his window of being one of the best players in the game? What if his idea that the team needs him at all costs actually prevents him from being there for the team as much in the long haul? Kobe's decision to forego rest didn't cause the Lakers to lose this year's championship, but can you honestly say it might not affect the Lakers' ability to win it 2-3 years from now?
The best thing about Kobe Bryant as a player is that he's always learning. He's one of the biggest students of the game there is. We've seen that learning process throughout his entire career. We've seen him learn how to become a better teammate, learn how to become a great leader. We've seen him pick up moves from across the NBA landscape, to always be working on a part of his game in the offseason. My hope is that he learned a little bit about his own mortality this season. That he looks at the way his teammates responded when he was out and says to himself "These guys will be OK without me if I need to take a break". Because, if he doesn't learn that lesson, I have a feeling we will be deprived of Kobe Bryant's greatness far sooner than necessary.
Final Player Grade: A