By Shaun Powell, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 9 2009 1:38PM
His last basketball season ended in a blur, when he averaged 38 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and zero congratulatory handshakes against the Orlando Magic, although maybe there's a reasonable explanation about that last part.
Perhaps LeBron James was saving his props for ... Kobe Bryant? After all, Kobe beat the Magic in the NBA Finals without the help of a megastar teammate (sorry, Pau), and while LeBron, the reigning MVP, has no reason to want to be like Kobe, he definitely wants to do like Kobe.
What Kobe did was stick a finger in the eye of conventional NBA thinking, which says a team needs at least two big-timers to even dream about winning a title. You know: Michael/Scottie, Tim/Tony, KG/Pierce/Ray, etc. While the Lakers were certainly blessed with Pau Gasol and quality players who did what they do well, the achievement gap between the best and second-best on that team was wider than Eddy Curry. The Lakers orbited around the otherworldly skills of Kobe, who helped elevate his supporting cast when it mattered most.
As the start of another NBA season creeps near, the most interesting drama, by far, will unfold in Cleveland, where basketball fans are hoping the local team catches fire much like the Cuyahoga did four decades ago. It'll all come down to LeBron, naturally, and whether his shoulders are still broad enough to haul a team through the end of June.
He'll need an MVP encore for that to happen, because while the Cavaliers were nipped and tucked in the offseason, they must make do without a solid No. 2, unless they discover that the diesel fuel inside Shaquille O'Neal is vintage 2002.
It's never easy for the lonely superstar; just ask Michael Jordan to list all the titles he won before Scottie Pippen figured it out. The challenge is enormous because, sooner or later, the solo act wears thin. Somebody else must step up and take the big shot or make the big stop or put a scare into the other team. Only a handful of singular stars managed to beat the system. One of them was Rick Barry, 35 years prior to Kobe.
Barry, for you young'uns, was as all-around as they came back in the day. He averaged twice as many points as his nearest teammate back in 1974-75 and constantly found the open man. The Warriors, with two rookies in the rotation, pulled a surprise, swept the Bullets in the Finals, and the series MVP was a slam dunk.
All season, Barry beat up people with his shot, his quick hands and his swagger because, as he says unapologetically, "I wasn't out there to make friends. I was out there to win."
Count Barry as a big Kobe believer, even during the days of the post-Shaq era when backing Kobe wasn't fashionable.
"You heard all the garbage about Kobe being so selfish," said Barry. "Those people had no clue. Kobe shows up every night and is a great competitor. He tried to do too much early on because he didn't have the confidence in his teammates. It made him look selfish, but he wasn't. Once Kobe got Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher back and Lamar Odom started playing the way he's capable of playing, he adjusted. He respected those guys. I was so happy for Kobe this season. I admired his professionalism and commitment."
Barry has an appreciation for LeBron as well, although his enthusiasm is slightly tempered.
"Put this down and underline it: I'm a huge LeBron James fan. But he was never taught how to shoot properly, which isn't his fault. He has a flaw in his shot. I want to see him become even better, and this guy is scary good. He just needs to become a better shooter, especially from the free throw line, where he's less than 80 percent. I believe there were times when LeBron didn't even want to get to the line."
The odds of LeBron winning a championship depend on a lot more than his free-throw shooting. As a solo star, the ability to motivate less-talented teammates -- always a tricky task -- will weigh how far the Cavaliers go. In that vein, LeBron is a pat-on-the-rump guy, not a shouter, which separates him from a number of stars. Jordan was rough on teammates, as was Kobe, as was Barry. Larry Bird could be vicious to Kevin McHale, and McHale was an NBA Top 50 selection.
Will LeBron venture out of character if he feels his title chance slipping away? Does he give orders to Shaq, a frequent Kobe target when the two were together in L.A.?
One way or another, he must unearth a reliable teammate for tight situations, someone he didn't have against Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals. In their championship rounds, Barry had that player in Jamaal Wilkes. Kobe found Fisher, a certified big-shotmaker.
LeBron's answer might be Mo Williams, finally, or newcomer Anthony Parker, if not the Big Fella.
"You need someone to count on," Barry said. "No way we would've won without Jamaal."
Before the LeBron Free Agent Watch begins next summer, the LeBron Title Quest is up first. Perhaps they're tied together. Whatever, both dramas will bring their own high level of suspense and, as a bonus, maybe next summer LeBron and Kobe will challenge each other, which would qualify as the people's NBA Finals.
In that case, may the best supporting cast win.
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