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Vince Thomas

Kobe Bryant has played in more than 1,200 NBA games in his career.
Rob Schumacher/Pool/Getty Images

Kobe rages against time to stake claim as best there is

Posted May 25 2010 4:35PM

Have you noticed that folks (fans, media, players) are back to calling Kobe Bryant the "best player on the planet" again? The shift began earlier this month, while many were questioning LeBron James' head and heart and Kobe was toying with the Utah Jazz. Now, with LeBron at home in his sweats, humbled by another early playoff exit, and Kobe two wins from his third straight trip to the Finals, it seems Kobe has reclaimed the public's "best player alive" crown.

Now, here's where some of you will say, "I never stopped thinking Kobe was the best player in the world." A few you will be telling the truth. Many will be lying. I, for one, was one of the folks saying that Kobe -- while still great, and, possibly, still the best in the world -- had lost a discernible step. He was not the force he once was, wasn't and couldn't be as consistently impactful as he was as recently as 2008. Kobe, as seen through my eyes, was getting old.


Kobe's absolute No. 1 mission for these 2010 playoffs is winning a championship. We know that. But it seems that Kobe's also on a "Y'all Must've Forgot" mission. Remember that joint? It was boxer Roy Jones Jr.'s lead single from his debut rap album Round One: The Album. It was 2002, Roy was turning 33, younger fighters were on the come-up and Roy wanted to remind everyone that he was the baddest man on the planet. Two years later he began the twilight of his career, losing six of his next 11 bouts.

That seems to be where Kobe is at right now. He's reminding us that he's still the baddest man on the planet -- at least he thinks so. Several times this postseason, Kobe has, with his trademark smirk and snark, made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how "old" he is. Kobe told reporters that his "old age" was responsible for his recent string of 30-point games. Comical, yeah, but telling. Kobe wasn't so cavalier about things in late-April when he was hobbled and tired and his shot wasn't clicking and he couldn't get to the line and the young Thunder had him looking more like 2002 Michael Jordan than 1998 Jordan.

Sekou Smith and I had fellow dotcom columnist John Schuhmann on the Hang Time Podcast (which you can subscribe to here for free) the week the playoffs started. The three of us got into a heated exchange about Kobe. Schuh and I asserted Kobe was still great, but on the decline. Sekou didn't notice anything decline'ish about Kobe. Even with Kobe's recent play, I still think Schuh and I were right.

To me, it wasn't about Kobe's game. He remains, probably, the most skilled player in the league. Kobe's problem was exactly what Kobe tweaked us media folk about: "old age." Kobe is not real-life old, but he is getting "basketball-old." At this point, Kobe has played more games and minutes than MJ when he retired in '98.

For Kobe, the wear and tear started in December when he fractured his right index finger. Then he sprained his left ankle in January. In Februrary the back spasms came. And on and on and on. Five years ago, Young Kobe probably would have recovered more quickly. But this was a body that had played around 1,000 games and 37,000 minutes. So what happened? After coming out of the gate killin' it MVP-style, the last three and half months of the season -- especially January and February -- were Kobe's least productive and efficient since he started winning championships 10 years ago.

And it wasn't just the numbers. Yeah, Kobe barely averaged 24 ppg in January and shot less than 42 percent, but you could literally see it. I probably watch about 70 of the Lakers regular season games every year. Never had I seen Kobe's shot get blocked so frequently or someone rip him on the drive or some rotation player blow by him with a first step. Kobe was front-rimming a lot of shots late in games. He'd get the ball on the break and, if there was man between him and the basket, he'd hesitate, when the Young Kobe would have charged to the bucket and done something jaw-dropping. You didn't see a lot of Black Mamba out there. Kobe rarely "wreaked havoc." And it wasn't because he stopped knowing how to play basketball. He was getting basketball-old and the games and minutes and injuries were taking a conspicuous toll.

Kobe and the Lakers figuratively limped into the playoffs and I wondered, "Is Kobe capable of carrying this team for four series and two months?"

We know what's happened since. The Young Thunder challenged him. The Lakers escaped. He got some rest, drained a knee and BOOM -- the Mamba's back. Lately, Kobe is playing a brand of basketball so skilled and wise and calculated and productive that it's majestic to watch. But for how long?

Allow me to get ahead of myself and be the bearer of bad news. With all respect due to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, they ain't the Boston Celtics. Did you see what they did to LeBron? Are you watching them shut down Vince Carter? Dwyane Wade was an efficient scorer against them in the first round, but they forced him into, like, 87 turnovers per game. They make it hard for great players to be great.

Eight months after his first regular-season game, balling against a physical, grown-man squad like Boston, we'll see if Kobe is like that new Jay-Z track, "Forever Young," still the best player alive.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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