Barring a trade, or a stunning change of heart regarding his decision to retire at the end of this season, Kobe Bryant will make his final appearance at the Target Center tonight. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest players in the history of the league; a 5-time champion, 2-time Finals MVP, 1-time regular season MVP, and 17-time All-Star who has also made 15 appearances on All-NBA teams (tied for most all-time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan) and 12 appearances on All-Defensive teams (second-most all-time, behind Duncan).
Thanks to the in part to the nature of his game (a lethal scorer with a flair for the dramatic and highlight worthy offensive moves), and in part to the new media culture that rapidly evolved and became omnipotent as the Lakers won three consecutive titles in the early 2000s, Kobe is adored in a way that no other player has ever been. Every one of his road games features large swaths of people decked out in his jersey, cheering his every move. Criticizing him on social media is fraught with peril, as many of those same devotees ratchet up their Kobe apologetics by going on cruel, relentless, and often redundant counterstrikes.
These types of debates are always silly, but if one could “choose” between having Kobe Bryant’s total career versus, say, Kevin Garnett’s, the answer would be obvious – five rings are better than one. That’s not to say KG is some kind of schmuck; he does have the ring, an MVP trophy, a Defensive Player of the Year award, was a 15-time All-Star, and has made 9 All-NBA appearances to go along with 12 appearances on All-Defensive teams.
Garnett is one of the greatest power forwards who has ever played the game, and his off-the-court impact was incalculable as well. In 1995, he became the first high schooler to make the leap to the NBA in nearly two decades, helping to pave the way for so many others (Kobe, LeBron, McGrady, etc) to follow along behind. His 6 year, $126 million contract extension (signed in 1997) was cited by many as a catalyst for the following season’s labor strife. He helped transform the Boston Celtics from a 24-game winner to champions in the matter of a single offseason.
That KG title came at the expense of Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers (in 2008), but it was the only time Garnett got the better of Kobe in the playoffs. Shaq and Kobe beat the Wolves in six in 2003’s first round, then did the same thing in the following season’s Western Conference Finals. Two seasons after falling to Boston in the Finals, Kobe and the Lakers had the last laugh, winning their 16th World Championship in the process. Pitting those matchups as simply KG versus Kobe ignores a ton of context, but this is about the two legends squaring off head-to-head for what could be the final time. If you look at it that way, Bryant has easily gotten the better of Garnett.
At this moment, however, Garnett seems to be better off. Consider how Kobe Bryant is ending his career: vacillating between being a washed-up punchline and a sad reminder of mortality, depending on the level of sympathy harbored by whoever is talking about him. The Vino has spoiled. He’s averaging 16 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists while shooting 31% from the floor. Despite his shooting woes, Bryant is attempting roughly the same amount of shots per-36 minutes as always. Only nine other players in the league have a higher USG rate than Bryant (he uses more possessions than guys like Durant, Carmelo, Anthony Davis, and John Wall, which seems insane). As a result of his inefficient chucking, the Lakers are roughly 7 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the bench versus on the floor, but that doesn’t stop him from playing over 30 minutes per game.
Contrast that with KG, who sits on the second night of back-to-backs while averaging career lows in minutes, points and rebounds per game… but whose team is more than a point per 100 better when he’s in the game, whose defense is suddenly around league average (16th) after being dead last a season ago, and who benefits from Garnett’s passing (more assists per-36 minutes than any season since 2007-08). Kobe seems to be holding the Lakers hostage; Garnett seems to be a foul-mouthed tour guide escorting the young Timberwolves to success.
Perhaps, though, it’s worth considering that big men have an easier time as they age. You can’t teach height; there is inherent value in understanding where to be on the floor, and simply being in the way of offensive players. Even if KG contributes little outside of passing on the offensive end of the floor, he can still be a defensive anchor for the 15-to-20 minutes he’s in the game. As a scorer, Kobe isn’t necessarily afforded that option. Agility has always been at the crux of his game, and even though he’s an incredibly intelligent offensive player, there’s not much a scorer can do when he can’t move the way he once did. He isn’t content to play off the ball, or devote himself to facilitating; his own hubris gets in the way. But maybe he was preordained to finish this way.
Remember, too, that Garnett went away, won a title, and returned to much fanfare, the people of Minnesota aware of his new physical limitations but ecstatic at seeing Da Kid back in the home whites at the Target Center. They didn’t watch him atrophy in front of their eyes, hamstrung by his outsized salary as the Wolves tried to rebuild. The Wolves were well on their way to doing that, then called on him to help show them the way.
The opposite is true for Kobe. Perhaps the Nash/Dwight/Kobe triad was always doomed to fail, but Kobe’s role in pushing Howard away was the beginning of the Lakers’ spiral to their current low. The $48 million extension he signed for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons made free agent pitches all the more complicated. And all the while, in between the injuries, Laker fans have watched him atrophy, their appreciation for his absurdly long zenith still in the backs of their minds, but their concern about the future weighing heavily as well.
I guess I’m just happy that Wolves fans get to keep appreciating Garnett in a rational way for a little while longer. He’s helping. The nostalgia is strong in Minnesota, but KG is still a useful player. His twilight coincides with a new era dawning, and the ambiance is beautiful.