With the 2012/13 season around the corner, Sportskeeda presents the NBA Top 20 – a countdown of who we predict will be the NBA’s 20 best players in the upcoming season. Six of the finest basketball writers on this website – Karan Madhok (hoopistani), Sabarinath Sankaranarayanan (sabarinath.sankara), Siddarth Sharma (sidbreakball), Siddharth Srikanth (darthsid), Sidhartha Patra (sidhartha), and Souvik Roy Chowdhury (souvik) – put their minds together to vote for the NBA’s best, the players who will be most “valuable”, not just to their team but in determining the course of how the upcoming season unravels. Enjoy!
The summer was all about the exploits of the indomitable and pertinacious USA basketball team as they shot their way into immortality, annihilating and decimating many international teams in the process. The media went bonkers, leading to the overbearing and patronizing comparison with the Dream team of 1992 and the star-studded roster boasting of the likes of LeBron and Carmelo didn’t disappoint, as they rampaged through the tournament group and knock-out stages.
But, while the young and enterprising assemblage of stars was busy shooting their way into immortality, a certain Kobe Bryant looked on from the side-lines. He wasn’t having a great Olympics and was easily overshadowed by the younger superstars. The media was quick to dismiss his talents, acrimoniously side-lining him as a ‘had been’, as a motivational support rather than the leader on the court. A lot of acerbic tirade, yet he chose to bear all with patience. He knew better, he was aware of his abilities and strengths, and so was Coach K.
He knew that he had a lot to offer; his killer instinct and his ability to come up huge in clutch situations. The high-flyers are great for the highlight reel, but come clutch time it is not about the histrionics, or the plays above the rim. It is all about being quick and decisive, and having confidence in one’s abilities. And come clutch time he was always called upon by Coach K and he delivered like only he can. The Black Mamba indeed!!
While Kobe was busy playing for the national team, the NBA saw a sensational off-season. In an unprecedented and shocking deal, the Lakers managed to pull the greatest coup in recent history by adding the sorcerous Steve Nash and the irrepressible Dwight Howard to their roster. The addition of these two transcendent superstars to go with the talents of the dexterous Pau Gasol and the mercurial yet ever so belligerent MWP established the Lakers as the prime contenders for the NBA title.
But, amidst all this embellished and bedizened assemblage, the Black Mamba stands tall, fore-looking a season that might very well be his last chance at winning the elusive sixth ring. To find fault with the starting five of the Lakers almost seems impossible, at least on paper. But, matches aren’t played on paper and quite a lot needs to be done to ensure that the dynamics of the Lakers franchise undergoes a smooth hassle-free transition. And primal to this transition is the attitude of the alpha dog and the Lakers franchise man. And in his most recent statement on Facebook, the Black Mamba made his intentions very clear.
“Leadership is responsibility. There comes a point when one must make a decision. Are YOU willing to do what it takes to push the right buttons to elevate those around you? If the answer is YES, are you willing to push the right buttons even if it means being perceived as the villain? Here’s where the true responsibility of being a leader lies. Sometimes you must prioritize the success of the team ahead of how your own image is perceived. The ability to elevate those around you is more than simply sharing the ball or making teammates feel a certain level of comfort. It’s pushing them to find their inner beast, even if they end up resenting you for it at the time. I’d rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate. I wish they both went hand in hand all the time but that’s just not reality. I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success. Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.”
Kobe is well aware of the hazards of over-confidence. His experience in the year 2003-04 when he had been a part of the original “Big Four” in Lakers history should hold him in good stead. He is well aware of the fickle ego issues that might build up in a team glittered with so many superstars. So, the first thing that he did was announce his status as the franchise player and the leader. And in the very first practice session he made it clear that on his team there is no respect that you inherit, everything has to be earned. He encouraged his teammates to be tough, pushing them to their limits and beyond, and encouraging them to punish each other in practice.
But, even Kobe has to make great modifications to his game to suit the needs of the team. And it is here that his greatest challenge resides. The brash and insolent kid inside him would want to do everything on his own, trying to create his own shot off isolation opportunities. But, the smart way would be to use the greatest PG of his generation to create opportunities. Nobody in the league orchestrates offense better than Nash and the Lakers would be expected to run most of their moves through him. Thus, Kobe might not get the ball as much as he would like, and for sure his isolation opportunities would be minimized. Further on the newly advocated Princeton Offense would ensure that the Lakers concentrate on movement off the ball, and rotating the ball in and around the perimeter. The move could be dicey as it may rob Kobe of his post-up isolation game; something that he can easily claim to be the greatest perpetuator of in today’s date.
But, it will be sure to open up easier looks for him. He wouldn’t be required to beat double-teams with his isolation fade-aways, but rather he can spot up on the weak-side and hurt the opponents as a spot up shooter or take advantage of any lapses in the opposition defensive rotations by attacking off the dribble and taking the ball to the cup. And if the three pre-season games are any indication, Kobe’s life playing with Nash seems much simpler. He may be struggling to get his shots going, but the looks that he is getting are far better than what he has ever had the luxury of. For, the first time in his career, Kobe is playing with a legitimate PG in Nash, and the recent fiasco involving Smush Parker is nothing but a clear indication of his appreciation and happiness at getting to play alongside an adept back-court mate. With some more training and rhythm we can easily see him dominating the scoring charts this season. This season he can expect to get many open looks at the perimeter and he thus needs to ensure that his 3-pt shooting percentage improves vastly from the paltry 28.7% he averaged this year.
Kobe also in his two pre-season games so far has shown a clear motive to share the ball and create for his teammates. The luxury of playing alongside the likes of Nash, Gasol and Howard has given Kobe the assurance that he doesn’t need to win games on his own and the perhaps the best way forward for the team lies in sharing the ball and finding the open man. And if the pre-season is an accurate preview to the future, Kobe might end up averaging a career high in assists and maybe even his Field Goal percentage.
Also, the nine-time NBA All defensive first team selection might find himself revelling in his defensive duties again. With Nash running the show, Kobe’s burden on the offensive end of the floor would be greatly reduced, and should allow him to concentrate more on his defensive duties. Also, with a great defensive player like Howard protecting the ring, he can afford to take more risks on the defensive end of the floor, intercepting the passing lanes and getting some steals. Further on, Kobe might be expected to cover up for Nash on the defensive end. Nash has never been known as a great defensive player, and Kobe might actually take on the unenviable task to guarding the better guards of the opposition teams. However, If Kobe does decide to play defense there aren’t many players in the league who can beat him off the dribble and with Howard protecting the ring, scoring from the paint off dribble penetrations would be very difficult.
However, most importantly Kobe would be aware of the fact that the dawn might be fast approaching on his basketball career and after 17 years in the league, one can’t see him realistically continuing in the same vein for a much longer time. He might have still managed to keep himself in great condition and is still able to match up against the young guards in the league, but all the years in the league have definitely taken a toll on his body: a double knee-operation, broken fingers, back issues and the most recent nose injury. Kobe might still remain a great athlete but it is time that he understood his limits and tried to play within the same.
The other vital thing playing on his mind would be the ever burgeoning comparison to Michael Jordan. Now Jordan was, is and shall always remain the greatest to grace the NBA. But, the media is so fussy about its celebrated star that nobody can ever get the right to claim a rostrum equal to Jordan’s. Nobody can get a coronation similar to him, and the pundits and the media are more than happy instituting him as an unsurpassable standard, the repercussions of which have haunted the other budding superstars like Bryant. Now, I don’t wish to claim that Bryant is a greater player or even an equal. The stats that Jordan posted can’t be bested and his legacy can never be eclipsed. But, this thoughtless rhapsodical tirade never allowed Bryant to have his own distinctive legacy. When he came into the league he was crowned as the heir to Jordan’s throne, with many regarding him as the closest that anybody will ever get to being Jordan. But amidst this disparage Bryant never was given a chance to be himself. For him averaging 27.9 points in a season wasn’t still good enough. All because Jordan averaged over 30!!
Bryant often has said that the purpose of his playing the sport was to become the best player that he ever could be. He doesn’t care for the pundits, or for the media. For him it is all about winning, whether it happens with the ball in his hands or him passing water on the bench. When he is done with his career, he is sure to have his jersey retired and maybe a statue also. But, his legacy will never be complete until he gets the 6th ring and puts the entire hoopla to rest. Then only can he leave and live as Kobe Bryant, a legend, a player much deserving to be seen in the same vein as Magic, Bird and Jordan. Till then he will be the player who won one less than Jordan.
SportsKeeda NBA Top 20
20. James Harden
19. Chris Bosh
18. LaMarcus Aldridge
17. Pau Gasol
16. Dirk Nowitzki (for 20-16, read here)
15. Blake Griffin
14. Tony Parker
13. Andrew Bynum
10. Kevin Love
9. Derrick Rose
7. Dwyane Wade
6. Kobe Bryant