If you have chosen not to watch the Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant mashup that has been floating around the Internet this week, we don't blame you. Kobe versus Michael (and, to a lesser extent, Kobe versus LeBron James) ennui can hit hard; and if you're an NBA fan you probably already know that the greatest shooting guard of one generation has modeled himself similarly after the greatest shooting guard of the generation before him. In related news, both Chris Paul and John Stockton play a lot of pick and roll basketball.
It's still a pretty inspiring watch, if even for its 100th viewing:
And to the detractors, those in the comment sections railing on Bryant for "copying" Michael Jordan … you would like Kobe to drop 25 a night on only lefty hook shots?
Michael Jordan has about an inch on Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson (to Kobe's chagrin) always liked to point out that Jordan's hands were much larger than Bryant's. Outside of that, these are two similarly shaped off guards. Jordan was a trendsetter; even if he did model his game after various players that came before him — most notably David Thompson and Julius Erving. Bryant, no dummy and with plenty of time on his hands, VHS tapes to watch endlessly and competitive fire to spare, couldn't help but learn from the best.
Because, you'll recall, no shooting guard led a team to a championship before Jordan. There have been greats from the position on championship teams. Jerry West sure was somethin' else, but he didn't win a title at off guard and was Los Angeles' point man when he won his first title in 1972. Jordan was the first go-to guy at the position that carried a team on his shoulders. Efficiency and potency at a position that plays off the ball and not in the low post: Jordan was on the vanguard. Of course Kobe's going to copy it, because Jordan set the standard for the way it is done. Bryant would be betraying his own talents if he didn't style his game after Jordan's.
This is where our longstanding criticism of Kobe comes in. A good chunk of this video is shots of the Kobester killing teams from the low or mid-post. Using his touch and footwork to clear space and get off a Jordan-styled turnaround jumper. There are a few inefficient long jumpers in there from both MJ and Kobe, but by and large these devastating makes are the smartest shots available. This is why it kills us when Kobe takes a bailout shot after killing ball movement by dribbling, pump-faking, or holding the ball too much. The smartest and potentially most devastating offensive force of a generation curtails his own brilliance too often with poor decision-making.
Which Jordan was not averse to, of course. Trust me, I'm a Bulls fan. I yelled at Jordan more than anyone else on that team.
Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe, in an attempt to discern whether or not Bryant could fit in with his team's newly styled Princeton offense, went over endless Bryant possessions from last year's up-and-down Laker campaign. Here's his take on Kobe at his worst:
Watch the tape of Bryant's post-ups and isolations from last season (which I did on a loop via Synergy Sports), and you'll see hundreds of possessions that start with promising off-ball movement and end with Bryant launching a horrific 18-foot jumper with a hand in his face.
Correction: You have to be a careful about labeling all of those possessions "horrific," for lots of reasons. The most obvious is the shot clock, an NBA reality too often ignored in micro-analysis of what happens during a possession. If Bryant makes that initial catch with five seconds left on the shot clock, the Lakers are nearly out of time for him to pursue an easy alternative.
But there are plenty of possessions — literally hundreds — in which Kobe makes that catch on the wing with 11 or 12 seconds remaining on the clock, holds the ball long enough for you to roll pasta around your fork without missing anything, and then finally goes to work. And on those possessions, there is very little stylistic difference between the Lakers — the high-powered, superstar-laden Lakers — and the Kings, which have any number of dead possessions throughout a game. The movement stops, with the other four Los Angeles players bunching on the other side of the floor, moving their defenders out of help position and readying for offensive rebounds.
This is our criticism of Kobe. He knows better. He learned from Jordan, and he chooses too often to ignore the template. It nearly cost the Lakers a championship in the 2010 Finals, and I believe it cost them a shot at the conference finals or even Finals in the two years following. As an analyst, I have to point it out. As a fan of his game, someone that wants to watch him in June, it bums me out.
The proof is in the production. Both Jordan and Bryant shot about the same amount of free throws, per minute (though Bryant's marks might dip as he moves deeper into his 30s), and both made right at 33 percent of their 3-pointers. But Bryant takes nearly 2 1/2 as many 3-pointers as Jordan, per minute, despite only shooting above the league average from long range three times in his career; with one of those years coming during Kobe's lone (rookie) season with the shortened 22-foot line. All this in an era where you weren't forced to drive against a defender that was allowed to handcheck you on your way to the rim.
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That's what you're allowed to get Kobe on. And that's it. Because beyond that, he's one bad dude. And someone to learn from, as Jordan was.
He took what is admittedly a genetic gift that is to be envied, and did just about all he could with it. Bryant studies, he tapes, he talks, he notes, he's the kind to rewind and watch again, and he learns. And this is all before he goes to the gym to fire up those practice jumpers and knee treatments. Bryant's not alone in spending hours emulating the best, but when the best emulates the best? When game learns from game? After that, you're allowed to count the rings.
Jordan had no such luxury, stuck in a three-channel world with precious little NBA filtering into the home set and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson already having retired by the time MJ made it to middle school. Bryant may have been the son of a professional basketball player and ex-NBA forward, but he didn't have it all that easy himself relative to his generation while growing up away from CBS and TBS/TNT in Italy.
Today's kid? Tomorrow's superstar? They have unending input, even if they have to sneak YouTube clips in at the library or go to someone else's house when the cable's out. It's why the next generation is going to be even better, and why this game is so great.
I can't wait to post another video starring that kid — probably from my colony on Mars in 2037 as I stroke my spacebeard — featuring a screen split three ways. Roll over Michael Jordan, tell Kobe Bryant the news.
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