Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant show off their respective right digits in 1999 (Getty Images)
Earlier this week, two proud franchises decimated by injury squared off in what was actually a very good game. The Chicago Bulls prevailed over the Los Angeles Lakers on Taj Gibson’s sweeping lay-in attempt at the buzzer, but a quick scan of the inactive list for the game couldn’t help but bring you right down. Steve Nash would not be pairing with Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant would not be working against a recently-traded Luol Deng, and both the Lakers and Bulls would be left to string out yet another year, waiting for everything to heal, and banking on the 2014 offseason to put things right.
It hardly reminded of a contest from the winter in 2000, one that saw Phil Jackson bring his eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to Chicago to face a Bulls team that started Dickey Simpkins at center against Shaquille O’Neal, a squad that would later go on to win 17 games on the year. Los Angeles would go on to win two more titles after 1999-00 before the Bulls even made the playoffs again, mostly as a result of poor management in the wake of the decision to dismantle the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.
As a result of that dismantling, following the game coach Jackson kept a steely face and swore up and down that he had “no reflex” about returning to the city where he coached from 1989 through 1998. One anecdote, initially released with Jackson’s book that was published last year, gets in the way of that stiff upper lip. Jackson asked Jordan, still living in suburban Chicago, to come to the game to have a talk with Kobe Bryant, who was uneasily settling into a secondary playmaker role of sorts in his first year with Los Angeles’ triangle offense. Jordan came to help, but Bryant immediately led off the conversation by throwing off the proverbial scent:
This comes on the heels of Kobe Bryant adding to the old man chorus about how the days of low-scoring, two-man basketball with endless illegal defense calls was much preferable to the modern game:
"I like the contact," Bryant said. "As a defensive player, if you enjoy playing defense, that's what you want. You want to be able to put your hands on a guy. You want to be able to hand check a little bit. The truth is, it makes the game [where] players have to be more skillful. Nowadays, literally anybody can get out there and get to the basket and you can't touch anybody. Back then, if guys put their hands on you, you had to have the skill to be able to go both ways, change direction, post up, you had to have a mid-range game because you didn't want to go all the way to the basket because you would get knocked ass over tea kettle. So I think playing the game back then required much more skill."
(Kobe Bryant should never lead off a sentence with “as a defensive player.”)
Let’s tee off on the hypotheticals. Kobe Bryant’s scoring average in 1999-00 was hindered by the presence of Shaquille O’Neal, then in the midst of O’Neal’s only (which may be the most shocking reference we’ll make in this column) MVP season, so it’s not fair to compare the 22.5 points per game he scored that year with the 28.7 points per game Jordan managed two years before. MJ played half of that season without Scottie Pippen, and with a limping, plantar fasciitis-ridden Toni Kukoc as the team’s only other offensive creator.
What we can look at is a catch-all stat like Player Efficiency Rating. Both Jordan and Bryant, on the whole, were pretty average defensively for the healthy chunk of those particular two seasons (both could lock down when asked to, but they rarely applied themselves for various reasons, some of them quite reasonable), so PER’s failings in that area can be tossed out. Bryant managed a 21.7 PER in 1999-00, fantastic work for a 21 year old working for the first time in a brand new offense, coming off of a broken right hand. Jordan managed a 25.6 PER in 1997-98, pretty sound play for a man working through a bum right shooting wrist and without much offensive help for most of the season.
Would things have even out individually in the time between June of 1998 and whatever point of the 1999-00 season Bryant told Jordan he could kick his ass one on one? Sure, probably. If you’ll recall, Jordan mangled the tip of his right index finger on a cigar cutter in the summer of 1998, and that malady still plagued him upon his return to the NBA in 2001.
Would 1999-era Michael Jordan, substituted for Kobe Bryant, do a better job with the Los Angeles Lakers that season? Hell yes. Jordan would have run the offense through Shaquille with a far more patient touch; he would have picked his spots and taken over during fourth quarters. Kobe was too young, too tempestuous, and at times too jealous of O’Neal (and his allowed-to-shoot-at-all-times contemporaries like Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce) to know how good he had it. It’s not his fault, he was 21, and one often responds to what one believes is criticism by lashing out.
That’s my take, at least. What I’m sure we all can agree on is the fact that Kobe Bryant, that dogged alpha male who is already complaining like a crotchety old man about how good the kids have it these days, will be just as insufferable in retirement as Michael Jordan already is.
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