This is part 4 of my 5 part series, covering Kobe’s greatest seasons. If you missed any of the first 3 parts, click the Kobe tag (or right here) to catch up!
Now, because Kobe had to share the spotlight with Shaquille O’Neal, his statistical averages suffered a bit. Personally, after I have now seen what he was able to do on his own, and the way people view poor Scottie Pippen, I almost can’t blame the guy for wanting to spread his wings and fly solo. But, truth be told, he had one peak Kobe season under Shaq, the 2002-03 season, following the Lakers 3-Peat.
In this season, he dethroned Shaq as the team’s leading scorer with a 30 PPG average, while also yanking down nearly 7 rebounds (a career high), dishing out 5.9 assists, and 2.2 steals per game (a career high). He also averaged a career high 38.3% from behind the arc, and set the (then) NBA record for 3-pointers in a game with 12 against Ray Allen and the (then) Seattle Supersonics. He would go on to finish third in the NBA MVP voting (ahead of Shaq, who you might’ve forgotten amongst all of these numbers, was still his teammate).
And that’s all great, but I have to say his best season wearing #8 was 2005-06, his second season sans-Shaq. This is the same season where he averaged a career high 35.4 PPG, and recorded an 81 point game against the hapless Toronto Raptors (second most points all time by a player in a single game). In the seasons following the Lakers trading of Shaquille O’Neal, I would always wish Kobe could get some help, because basketball is obviously a team sport. This season of Kobe’s was different though. I felt like he was from another planet. All the team had to do was get out of his way and let him win playing one-on-five. I still have never seen anyone do what he had done in this particular season. It completely killed the team concept, and I’m sure nobody else liked playing with the guy (watch Smush Parker’s body language during some of these games. It’s so painfully obvious he hated playing with Kobe), but damn, was it fun to watch.
You can play the numbers game with me all you want regarding both seasons, but at no point did I feel Kobe Bryant was invincible during the 2002-03 season. They would go on to lose to San Antonio in the second round of the playoffs, which you can also still argue is a lot further than Kobe took his Lakers in 2005-06. But, keep in mind, Kobe’s teams were much different in both seasons. In 2002-03, the starting lineup alongside Kobe were Lakers teammates Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and Rick Fox. The team’s ultimate downfall would be depending on Slava Medvedenko to provide O’Neal a ten minute breather (he couldn’t).
In 2005-06, the Lakers would have killed to have Slava back on the team. Starting alongside Kobe Bryant in 2005-06 was Kwame Brown, a pre-useful Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, and Smush Parker. Ugh. Not even LeBron James could save this team. I say this because they didn’t need someone to take the focus off of them so that they could sink an open jumper. What this pathetic excuse for a professional basketball team needed was for someone to score every single point possible, because something terrible happened every time someone other than Kobe touched the ball. So, it was the perfect team for him to exploit opposing defenses with his incomparable one-on-one abilities.
I once wrote an alternate reality where Kobe Bryant and the 2005-06 Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Playoffs. The game was very close, and Kobe was a huge reason. If you look back at his highlights from this game, he was a man possessed. Announcer Doug Collins would constantly preach that the Lakers were getting nothing inside, and how he didn’t think the Lakers could win shooting jumpshots. I kept telling him to shut the fuck up and watch Kobe single-handedly destroy the #1 team in virtually every offensive statistical category that season (FG%, 3P%, FT%, and PPG). To end the first quarter, Kobe took an inbound pass from well past the 3-point line for a turnaround jumper that banked in, and I remember thinking to myself, “Man, Kobe isn’t going to let us lose this game!” And I was right, he wasn’t going to let the Lakers lose, his boneheaded teammates would.
Kobe would finish the night as any superstar should in a closeout game, scoring 50 points on 20-35 shooting (5-8 from three), 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. He would have 38 before the overtime period, which, had he been playing with smarter teammates, would not have been necessary. Following a miraculous corner three to beat the shot clock and put the Lakers up one, Kobe would then blow past Shawn Marion and sink a floater, giving the Lakers a three point lead. A clumsy Phoenix offensive play would end with Nash having a wide-open look at a three to tie, which he missed. Shawn Marion would snare the offensive rebound, and here is where I believe depending on Kobe to do everything killed the Lakers.
Lamar Odom (who was defending Marion) should have immediately fouled him, to send him to the free throw line. The Suns needed a three pointer, and there was no chance of them getting that with two shots from the stripe. But he doesn’t, and Marion was instead able to pitch the ball back to Tim Thomas, for another chance at tying the game. Thomas throws a pump fake at Kwame Brown, who bites like a shark breaching for a seal. I have never seen Kwame Brown swat a shot that wasn’t a layup, so I have no idea what he was thinking on this play. This allows Thomas to calm down, make sure he’s behind the line, ensure his shoelaces are tied, check the wind direction, and tee up the game tying three pointer. Again, had Kwame simply put a hand up to contest, I don’t believe Tim Thomas hits this (properly) contested shot, and the Lakers advance to the second round.
Who would the Lakers opponent have been in the second round? Why, none other than the Los Angeles Clippers, which would have been the first time in recent memory that a team in the playoffs would not have had to play a single road game (with both the Lakers and Clippers sharing Staples Center as their homecourt). The Lakers and Clippers had actually split the regular season series 2-2, but the way Kobe had been playing all year (in the four games against the Clippers, Kobe scored 36, 50, 39, and 38), and against a suddenly hostile Staples Center crowd (even when the Clippers are actually good, their home crowd always has a heavy saturation of purple and gold when the Lakers are in town), the Clippers would have no answers. I say the Lakers would have rode the momentum of defeating the 2nd seeded Suns and sunk the Clippers on the road (technically) in Game 6.
Suddenly, the Los Angeles Kobe’s would find themselves in the Western Conference Finals, against the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas would move on to the Finals that year, but had they run into Kobe and the Lakers, I’m not 100% for certain this still happens. The Lakers were just one of those teams that gave the Mavericks fits (Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors being another example), and actually won the regular season series against the Mavericks 2-1. In their second meeting, Kobe outscored the entire Dallas Mavericks team 62-61, by himself (!), after three quarters. Which, to this day, as far as anyone knows (since it isn’t really a recordable stat), has never happened. Not Wilt, not Jordan, not anybody, has every outscored an entire team by themselves after three quarters of play. Needless to say, the Mavericks would not be very eager to see Kobe again in the playoffs. Perhaps, Kobe continues his 43 PPG regular season scoring clip against the Mavericks and defeats them as well? I honestly believe this to be a coin flip.
Where I see this finally ending is in the Finals against the Miami Heat. I’m not crazy, so I’m not about to say Kobe defeats Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and their countless gun for hire free agents on one year championship-or-bust rentals, by himself. Shaq would come back to LA and deny his former team (as well as Kobe) of a championship, and probably gets his middle finger sized for the ring. But how does the narrative change for Kobe and his legacy? What are basketball purists worldwide to think, when Kobe drags his team of D-Leaguers to the brink of an NBA championship, playing “selfish” basketball? How many more moments does he create and records does he break in a season where he kept showing us something we had never seen before, if he was allowed to advance even just one more round?
And I think that’s my point in regards to this season of Kobe’s: Sure, had his teammates been just a little better, maybe I cringe a bit as he ignores them to register one of his seven 50+ point games of the year. I only wish they were a little better in that Game 6, because Kobe was lighting the entire league on fire, and I wanted to see just how long the blaze would last.
Nobody tuned in to watch the Lakers in 2005-06. The Lakers sucked balls. Every single one of us all tuned in to watch Kobe.
Of course, Kobe won his (somehow) only NBA regular season MVP award for his performance during the 2007-08 season. But, if you look at the season averages compared to his two previous single season campaigns, his numbers (save rebounds) seem rather similar, with a continued dip in scoring. After two straight NBA scoring championships, Kobe failed to lead the league in this category (that said, his season average was still nothing to sneeze at):
2006: 45% FG, 5.3 RPG, 4.5 APG, 35.4 PPG (led NBA)
2007: 46.3% FG, 5.7 RPG, 5.4 APG, 31.6 PPG (led NBA)
2008: 45.9% FG, 6.3 RPG, 5.4 APG, 28.3 PPG
There is nothing eye-popping at all about the 2007-08 season. You almost have to tell someone, “Oh, that’s the season when they started winning games and earned the best record in the Western Conference.” The award itself almost seemed like a “My bad” for not handing him an MVP trophy sooner.
My personal favorite #24 season is the 2012-13 campaign. This is the season when the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. When finally, after two straight seasons of being bounced out of the second round, things were finally looking up… and then the season started. It very quickly became apparent that the Lakers were going to be even worse in this season, and perhaps miss the playoffs. Until Kobe put on his cape, told Dwight to stop being a wuss, and made everyone start calling him by a new nickname: Vino. Remember, this was two full seasons after we saw him hoist up the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2010. Following that season, popular opinion was that Kobe had nothing left in the tank. Below are his numbers from this season, in comparison with his previous two:
2011: 45.1% FG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, 25.3 PPG
2012: 43% FG, 5.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 27.9 PPG
2013: 46.3% FG, 5.6 RPG, 6.0 APG (highest in 8 seasons), 27.3 PPG
I realize this is now the second time I’ve mentioned the Vino Kobe season, and trust me when I say, he did more than just make a large leap in the assists department. Lucky for you, you don’t have to take my word for it. Go to Youtube and watch his Top 10 plays for the first two seasons listed above. Aside from a 2011 All-Star game in Los Angeles where he showed off for the home crowd, you get a few “milestone” jumpers (where he passed someone on the all-time scoring list), some acrobatic layups, and a couple, quite honestly, weak dunks. If you lived through these seasons, you were probably coming to terms with the fact that you may never see Kobe Bryant throw down a thunderous slam-dunk ever again. I know I was.
Now watch the 2012-13 season Top 10:
It starts off innocent enough with a reverse layup, but then comes #9, a rim-rattling reverse slam with nothing weak about it. Then #7 brings a filthy one-handed slam over a Grizzlies defender. #4 is another vicious reverse on Golden State. #3 is a late game tomahawk over Josh Smith. #2 is a fast break hammer over CP3. And then, for #1, Kobe dunks on the entire city of Brooklyn so hard, LAPD had to re-open the Biggie Smalls case and place Kobe as a suspect.
The entire season was a callback to when he had to carry a team all by himself, since the two key summer acquisitions weren’t living up to their lofty expectations. Fans began to turn on Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and the team would once again look to Kobe to save the day. Even in his advanced age, Kobe somehow found a way to win in spite of his teammates lackluster play. A late season meeting with the Toronto Raptors stands out, when he converted on three straight three pointers to tie the game (the entire building knew he was getting the ball, there are players draped all over him on all three shots, and there was still no stopping him), and then took the lead in overtime off a two-handed stuff.
Sadly, his amazing season was cut short. Kobe would go on to miss the remaining two regular season games and a first round playoff series with a ruptured Achilles suffered in a regular season matchup against the Golden State Warriors. But not before he somehow walked himself back onto the court, in front of the Staples Center crowd, to shoot a pair of free throws. Standing alone at the stripe, with tears in his eyes from possibly realizing these could be his last moments on the hardwood, he calmly drained the first, then the second. A foul was then committed to finally remove him from the game, and indirectly allowed the fans to properly say their (probable) final goodbyes to a Lakers legend.
In the summer of 2012, following a Team USA game against Australia, the Olympic committee chose to test Kobe for steroids. After watching his performance in the subsequent NBA season to follow, it’s kind of hard to fault them.
Tune in next week, for my 5 part series finale: Kobe’s Greatest Game.