LeBron James' league-MVP honor pales to Kobe Bryant's rings
In the "Is this really breaking news?" category, the Associated Press is reporting that LeBron James earned the NBA MVP award for the second consecutive year. And though I've only been moderating the Lakers blog for just over three months, I think I can say with full confidence that many of the readers are reacting to this news with a collective, "So what?"
The thinking behind that, of course, is that James can collect as many regular-season trophies as he wants so long as Lakers guard Kobe Bryant keeps collecting championship rings. I've long stated that any comparison to Bryant will ultimately be measured in championships. So even though players such as James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant have the potential to surpass Bryant as a basketball player, it's far too early to say definitively that they have at this point. Careers are defined by legacies through the test of the time, and the fact that Bryant has four championships to the zero collected among James, Anthony and Durant and the one collected by Wade immediately end the comparisons.
Nonetheless, you can't ignore the fact that Bryant's game has changed. For the third consecutive season, Bryant averaged below 30 points per game. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson also unequivocally said forward Pau Gasol deserved the team's co-MVP award with Bryant.It's been heavily documented that Bryant's drop-off in statistics is correlated to his age (31) and injuries. But is that really a knock on Bryant? Sure, he's not thrilled to talk about those issues, but this isn't criticizing how Bryant approaches the game or his skill set. It really instead speaks to what Jerry West, among others, said to me as Bryant was on pace to surpass him as the Lakers' all-time leading scorer.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see him in the 30,000 points," West said to me when I asked him his prediction on where Bryant would end on the scoring list once he ends his career. "But health is an issue, and age. There's one opponent you can't beat, and that's age. He will try that, by the way."
But consider this. James dropped below 30 points per game for the last two seasons. Anthony is playing at his best, but he's never averaged 30 points per game in the regular season in his seven-year career. Wade has only averaged 30 points once in the regular season in his seven-year career. And though Durant became the youngest player this season to win the league's scoring title, Durant's accomplishments (2007-08 rookie of the year) pales incredibly when it's lined up next to Bryant's (four NBA championships, one Finals and one regular-season MVP, 11-time All-NBA honors, nine-time NBA all-defensive honors and 12th-place standing on the league's all-time scoring list).
So even if Bryant's numbers aren't the same as in his prime, it's not like he's suddenly becoming a utility player. Bryant has acknowledged in several instances how age and injuries ultimately mean he needs to constantly add new wrinkles to his game. That in itself should be another way to evaluate Bryant, his willingness to make adjustments so his toolbox remains full. Case in point, Bryant played perhaps his best playoff game this season in Game 5, by scoring only 13 points but dishing out seven assists and holding Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook to four of 13 shooting.
There are a number of uncertainties regarding Bryant, such as what kind of rest he'll take in the off-season and whether his recent three-year contract extension means the end of his career has a definite timetable. Another one of those questions isn't how many more MVP awards he can collect, but how many rings, the true measure on how to rank a player.
Photo: Even with LeBron James collecting his second consecutive NBA MVP, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant still remains the best in the game. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times