Still Special

Pistons brace for Lakers as Kobe’s scoring assault continues at 33

Kobe Bryant's game is noticeably different--yet just as effective--as it was in 2004.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
The list of NBA players who can say they’ve been around for all of Kobe Bryant’s career reads like a future Hall of Fame checklist. Among them are Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Ray Allen.

And Ben Wallace, a rookie in 1996-97, when Bryant also entered the league.

“From day one, you could see that drive, that willingness to take the big shot, that willingness to step up and guard the best player on the floor,” Wallace said Monday after practice for Tuesday’s annual visit to The Palace by the Lakers. “I’d be lying if I said I knew he’d turn out to be the player he is today, but you can’t say that about any player.”

So, yeah, it was hard to project back in 1996 that one day there would be an honest debate whether Kobe Bryant was the greatest Laker of all-time or whether he had ascended to the same plane as Michael Jordan. But the fact he would become and remain a member of the NBA elite for a long time wouldn’t have shocked anyone back then, either.

“Everyone, since he was in high school, knew just how determined he was,” said Lawrence Frank, who in Bryant’s second year became the advance scout for the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1997. “He used to play against the Sixers when John Lucas was the coach there. Tom Thibodeau used to work him out in high school. Kobe is one of the greatest to play.”

Bryant was 23 in 2002 when the Lakers swept New Jersey in the NBA Finals. Frank had by then moved from Vancouver to a spot on Byron Scott’s staff with the Nets. Bryant averaged 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists that season. He was 25 in 2004 when the Pistons executed the “five-game sweep” of Bryant’s Lakers to win the franchise’s third NBA title. Bryant averaged 24 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists that season.

Today, at 33, he’s averaging 28.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists. The production has remained remarkably consistent, even if the ways he goes about it have changed.

“When good players lose a step, if you want to call it that, they just pick their spots a lot better,” said Tayshaun Prince, whose NBA chops were made during the 2004 playoffs, first for his spectacular block of Reggie Miller but then, on a larger stage, for the job he did as the primary defender on Bryant in the Finals. “They get to where they want on the floor and do it short and quick.”

“There are little things,” Wallace said. “He’s not going for the home run play all the time, not trying to get to the basket on every possession. His mid-range game has gotten a lot better. He posts more. You see little dropoffs, but as a great player in this league, they usually do something to make up for that dropoff or that lack of explosiveness.”

The Lakers have a different look this season with Phil Jackson and the triangle offense out and Mike Brown in.

“They’re a defense-first team, an outstanding rebounding team,” Frank said. “They don’t run the triangle, but they’ll play him in the post, they’ll play him off the elbow, they’ll put him in pick and rolls. He’s a great player. You could run the octagon and Kobe is going to find a way to be special in it.”

Bryant got whacked from behind by Dwyane Wade in the All-Star game, suffering a broken nose and a concussion, but not only hasn’t he missed a game, he’s been superb in the three games since suffering the injury and donning a protective mask. He’s scored 31, 38 and 34 points in wins over Minnesota, Sacramento and Miami and made more than half his shots.

“The guy is driven,” Frank said. “The guy thrives on challenges. God forbid someone tells him that he can’t do something, because he’s going to get it done. He’s an unbelievable competitor, great spirit in everything he does. He’s a winner. He’s got five championship rings. But we’re just talking about playing one game. That’s all we need to focus on is tomorrow.”

Trouble is, Kobe Bryant is likely to be as good tomorrow as he was yesterday.