Dusk and Twilight: Kobe and KG fade out in different ways

Garnett and Kobe

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.

KG Kobe 2

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.


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2 Responsesso far.

  1. PetoSeto says:

    I’ve been reading a lot about Kobe and the influence of his playing “style” on Lakers game, results and young player development. The more a read, the more happy I am, that KG is not doing this to the Wolves. He had the same win-it-all mentality, is also the alfa dog, leader but is also smart enough to do the right things to help his team. I am glad he is not forcing himself into doing things he is not capable. (DUNK on Blake proves he is still capable of many things). Most important is, he knows what his role is. He may be the loudest, but he knows it is not his team anymore. Let Ricky, KAT a Andrew fight for the top dog position. A i am really sorry for Kobe. Becouse he 1. Trying to do his best but the result is awful and he is draging his team down. Or 2. Took the whole tanking, lets-keep-our-draft-pick, thing all on himself and is playing bad on purpouse. Eider way this is not how legendary carrer shoud end. And you sad “Kobe Bryant will make his final appearance at the Target Center tonight” You are trying to tell me, Wolves won’t play agains Lakers in playoff? 🙂

  2. pyrrol says:

    Over the years I’ve developed a grudging respect for Kobe. I started out disliking him on a Darth Vader level, but grew to enjoy his talent, skill and relative smarts over time. Both he and KG have one big thing in common beyond their careers being out of high school and contemporary–they both are mega competitive.

    The nutshell difference between the Kobe and KG is that Kobe is a selfish play while KG is not. This isn’t a epithet–it is often very helpful in sports, particularly if you have superstar talent, to be selfish. Many of the greats in an array of sports are selfish to some degree. Kobe’s selfishness has walked a line between helping his brilliant career and holding it back. But we’re now in the stage where it is only hurting him. He’s playing as his he’s Shaq era Kobe, taking the shots, taking the minutes, taking the lead role. He can’t do it and it is more embarrassing than anything refusing to take an appropriate role. Some talking head shammed the Lakers for letting Kobe’s career end with this horrible roster. But Kobe makes the roster worse by taking as much oxygen as he did in his prime, and the contract he accepted hog tied the Lakers financially. The lack of ability to add talent is a shared blame between the Lakers organization and Kobe himself. As lame as some of these ‘super team’ dealing have been (as exemplified by the big three Heat) at least it popularized taking pay cuts to make more diverse team talent possible.

    KG is gracefully aging, taking a smaller role, tailoring what he does to his still existing skills. He might be slightly overpaid for what he provides, as far as play goes, but he’s somewhat affordable, not paid like a number one option. And this might be KG’s last season, but rather than decide early so he gets a tinker tape retiring legend parade at every stop, he’s leaving it up to what happens this season and how he feels. If he retires in the quiet of summer, I doubt he will care.

    About the game: Boy we needed to win this. And we almost let it wisp away again. Losing this one at home after 2 straight at home down the drain may have started us on the behind the 8-ball track for the rest of the season. To LA’s credit, they just wouldn’t die. I was disturbed the end came down to luck—the Lakers could have easily won it on the last play–but also happy to see us finally see luck that seems to flow to other teams more easily bounce our way. Towns impressed. Rubio looked great, although he was reluctant with shooting from the beginning, making his rough shooting night a forgone conclusion. Martin blasted out of his slump. Most of it is luck, as JP would say, the law of averages, but he mostly stopped trying to play for fouls and that helped his shot selection. Rubio was going out of his way to feed him. Deing is just so inconsistent. It made the thing Sam did with him finishing with him recently even more strange. Anyone who’s seen Deing play knows he’s got a lot going for him, but he never consistently gets it to flow into a reliable product. Perhaps this above all may banish him to a career bench role. The Wolves added another chapter to the annals of restarting the heartbeat of struggling talent when we let so far disappointing Russell have the kind of game some expected to be his norm against us. Generally, our defense has looked bad this home stand, although Portland just made shots, and LAC are a tough order. This was some of the worst defense we played and I hope we get back to working order in that respect, otherwise it could be a long season. Shabazz keeps playing well. LaVine did hurt us. I’ve harped on whether he’s a point before, but whether that is true or not, he’s not a good point guard now. We would be a more dangerous team with a Miller-like guy (I know he can’t play enough minutes to be our primary backup) playing point off the bench and LaVine off the ball, perhaps starting (he could be on-ball occasionally to throw off our opponent). Particularly when he’s not ‘feeling it’ as far as scoring goes, he can hurt the team in the role he’s asked to play.

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