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Is Kobe Bryant Being Rewarded For Reputation Moreso Than Performance?

Although Kobe Bryant won't be earning any Bill Russel, Larry O'Brien or Maurice Podoloff trophies this year, he has still added a few individual trophies to his doubtless-overflowing cabinet of awards and trophies. Whilst Kobe did not win either the most important MVP award in the Russel trophy or the Regular Season MVP, he did take home the most frivolous most valuable player award, the All-Star Game MVP. With his dominant performance and acrobatic exhibitionism living up to the very nature of the All-Star Game, it's doubtless that that award, at least, was deserved.

However, his other recognitions, to the All-Defensive and All-NBA teams, have undergone more scrutiny. Is it justified to doubt the deservedness of these awards? Perhaps. Kobe is, after all, getting older, having already played over 40,000 minutes; and his minutes have gone down. It can be argued that his contribution and importance to his team is reducing over time, and will continue to do so. However, the merit of this argument is certainly up for debate.

To start, one must look at the two nominations seperately, and assess Kobe's merits and faults for the season in regards to each respective award. Let's start with his nomination to the NBA All-Defensive first team, the nomination which likely holds the least deservedness.

Kobe over his career has established a reputation as arguably the best single-possession defender in the game, and one of the best of all time. Obviously, the nature of this title is wholly subjective, with no statistical backing or award being received for it, but the 'DoberMamba' is certainly a formidable defender when motivated. With superlative footwork, excellent basketball IQ, superior positioning, length and (in his younger days) quickness; coupled with unbridled ferocity and calculated physicality, Kobe Bryant can indeed be one of the best defenders in the game when he wishes to be.

But one cannot simply make the All-Defensive team simply based on potential to defend. By that logic, the Lakers should have won the Championship because they had the most potent combination of talent and experience of any team. Kobe Bryant, like the Lakers, and indeed any human being,needs to exercise focus, effort and motivation in order to succeed. In most aspects of his game, that's not an issue. However, with his defense, this effort and focus can often be sorely lacking.

The addition of Ron Artest was made in order to take some of the burden off of Kobe. With Ron able to guard the opponent's most dangerous wing scorer, it freed Kobe up of the burden of responsibility in his younger days, to shoulder the scoring load AND to guard the best opposing wing. This was coming off an Olympic performance in which Kobe specifically performed the role of defensive specialist (in addition to being a timely closer) en route to the Gold Medal. Sure enough, the idea of finding ways to reduce the burden on Kobe's body to extend his career bears merit; and bringing in a defensive specialist to reduce Kobe's defensive burden sounds fair enough; but seems to have also served to cause Kobe to lose focus in defense altogether for large stretches.

The result is that, with Artest guarding the opposition's best perimeter player much of the time, Bryant is often left to guard an offensive non-factor or spot-up shooter. Of course, 'guard' here is speaking in theoretical terms, and rarely is Bryant within 5 feet of his man, preferring to play 'free safety' in an attempt to disrupt an opposing defense. The results of this are mixed, to say the least. In some instances, such as against the Celtics where Kobe generally guards Celtics' Point Guard Rajon Rondo, playing free safety and daring Rondo to shoot; he has performed his defensive role with great effectiveness. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has heaped praise on him for his defense, crediting him with removing offensive options for the Celtics and disrupting their passing lanes.

In general, however, the 'free safety' strategy doesn't seem to work. Whilst some would like to point out his OPER (PER of the opponent playing at the same position as him) is significantly below the average, indicating he is a superior defender, it's important to note that OPER is a shaky statistic at best, due to the amount of cross-matching the Lakers do on the wings. It's quite possible that much of that OPER is to Artest's credit, as he often plays Small Forward yet defends Shooting Guards. And when it comes to Defensive Rating, Kobe's is 105 - better than the League average, but actually marginally worse than the Lakers' team 104.3 mark.

Ultimately, it's hard to credit Kobe with 1st-Team All-Defensive honours, considering he isn't even his team's primary wing defender, and the player who is didn't make the team either. However this seems par for the course with First Defensive Team selections, which seem entirely based on big name players with a reputation for defense as opposed to actual defensive contribution. While this season's first team is more accurate than the norm, a strong case could be made for the second team wings replacing the first-team wings (who quite frankly don't deserve first or second team honours).

Now, as for his 1st Team All-NBA nomination, this seems more verifiable. For one, offense is more quantifiable than defense, with statistics actually proving somewhat useful. In addition to this, whilst when considering All-Defensive team nominations one must account for players relatively unknown to the ultracasual fan, such as the Tony Allens and Keith Bogans of the world, whereas the NBA's offensive superstars are more easily nameable.

In terms of the shooting guard position, the name most frequently floated in contention to Kobe's is that of the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade. Indeed, with Roy's injury, and the fading into obscurity of the old guard of Guards such as Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, the contention for best shooting guard in the League today seems to be solely between Bryant and Wade.

In terms of unquantifiable arguments, such as Wade not even being the number one option on his team much of the time, or Kobe Bryant having talented team-mates, there are points going both ways. I would argue in favour of Bryant by pointing out his off-court influence of his teammates, his on-court leadership and his status as undisputed alpha dog of the (formerly) two-time defending champions (anyone who wishes to argue in favour of Pau, please refer to the 2011 Playoffs.. as a starting point); but these arguments are subjective, and, ultimately, unnecessary.

See, whilst the intangible was often used in promoting Kobe over his supposedly statistically superior candidates such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, it is moot here, considering Wade did not even statistically out-perform Bryant. Sure, if one simply takes a glance at the base stats, one may argue in favour of Wade (as, though the two are virtually identical in points and assists, Wade holds the advantage in rebounds and efficiency). But one needs to realise, due to the respective age of the two players and depths of the two teams, Wade played 3 minutes a game more than Kobe.

Indeed, in comparing starters, it should really be practise to normalise the statistics, either to a per-36 or per-40 minute basis. Using as a reference point, one can examine the per-36 minute statistics of the two, noting that Bryant significantly outperforms Wade in terms of scoring and assists, while Wade maintains the rebound advantage. Here the two seem even, with the disparities in numbers being explainable by a variety of factors, such as Wade's greater efficiency being due to having another perimeter threat who will draw the opposition's best defender and the attention of their defensive scheme; whilst Bryant's rebound numbers are handicapped compared to Wade's due to the rebounding prowess of the two's respective frontlines; and Wade's assist numbers being disadvantaged due to having another creator on the team (though Kobe's are arguably similarly disadvantaged by usage of the Triangle).

Through all these explanations, the statistics come out even, perhaps even with Kobe having a slight lead. In such a scenario, the nomination comes down to a simple question. Bear in mind that this is not the MVP ballot, where playing less minutes puts you at a disadvantage as it implies the team does not need you as desperately, or team records are a major factor. The All-NBA team attempts to name the best player at each position. Consider this: Kobe is effective from more areas on the court, with superior midrange, long-range and post-up games to Wade (with Wade solely having the advantage in athleticism, and its attached benefits such as finishing at the rim). Kobe is more versatile and has a greater array of offensive tools. Kobe is less efficient, true, but he is often being guarded by better and/or more defenders, courtesy of Wade having LeBron on his team to draw attention.

If the argument is reduced to its most base form, who would win in a game of one-on-one? My money is still soundly on Mr. Bryant. Kobe is on his downturn; he's getting older, but he's one of the best 15-year players to ever play. He is probably not the best player in the NBA, at least not consistently over the course of an 82-game season; but he is still a better player than Dwyane Wade.

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