But first, Jordan and Kobe jaw at each other like the only the media-savvy can.
Clash of the Titans ... Sort Of
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. You all know these guys. Not only are they two of the game's greatest guards -- nay, players -- ever, they're also as compelling, and complicated, as professional athletes get. Jordan, with his hyper-competitive, nearly vindictive, drive to stay on top; and Kobe, known for his moodiness, self-consciousness, and craftsmanship on the court. When such strange creatures collide, it's like a monster movie we can all agree on.
MJ's playing days are long behind him; no, the Wizards never happened. So when the two have a backhanded, heavily-mediated back-and-forth, it's the closest we'll get to these two squaring off on the court. Unless you believe video games are real. Never mind earlier contestants like Bill Russell; Jordan was once the consensus G.O.A.T., to such an extent that he got that snappy nickname. Kobe, a shabby pretender, and worse, a biter. But as Jordan's luster has faded, and Kobe has found his own story and style -- oh, and won a few more rings -- the conversation has shifted. Maybe it's the residual effect from Jordan's reign, but you will find plenty of folks today asking if Bryant might not be the best ever.
As you can expect, this doesn't sit so well with Jordan. When asked by USA Today about Kobe's place among the immortal ones, he concluded that "If you are talking about guards, I would say [Kobe] has got to be in the top 10." Ouch.
But wait, it doesn't stop there. In a Yahoo! piece published yesterday, Kobe responded in equally shrewd, quizzical fashion:
"It's an accurate statement," Bryant said. "I'm definitely one of the top 10 guards. It could mean two, it could mean one, it could mean four or five. I'm definitely one of the top thousand. Look, I know how he feels about me.Ouch. If you don't think this is two of basketball's foremost manipulators running wild with the mind games, check your watch. It's competition, plain and simple. Legacy never dies, but nor does the need to defend it end. It starts the moment consensus builds on your value to the game (Bryant recently) and doesn't stop. Jordan's second comeback, his restless presence at Bobcats' practice ... that's not the real war. Making sure that no one else replaces him as the central figure in 2k11, now that's a post-retirement project for the ages. And in Kobe, he sees a very real threat.
"There have been a lot of great guards to play the game. For me to sit here and say, 'He should have said top five,' that's disrespectful to the other guards that I've watched."
Am I the only one who found this commercial less than convincing, even a little snide?
Yet as Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, or 50 Cent's Twitter can tell you, these struggles aren't always about direct frontal assault. In fact, especially when you are wizened and respected like Jordan, killing them with kindness, putting young'uns in their place, and presenting yourself as a father to history are seemingly benign ways to go about achieving victory. At the same time, Kobe Bryant, whose game is arguably more intricate and technically adept that Jordan's ever was, is no slouch when it comes to psyching out opponents. Jordan vs. Kobe. It's here, and boy is it a sight to behold. On the surface, this exchange might seem harmless enough. Look closer, though, and you get a few different options -- and clues as to what might happen next.
Jordan Strikes, Kobe Takes the High Road: Seems like the most predictable turn of events. Jordan, chronically on the war path and a little insecure in his dotage, refuses to even acknowledge Bryant as a peer. Kobe manfully accepts the master's pronouncement, even if it's a little batty to you and me on the ground. After all, Jordan is Jordan. You saw the commercial. He's afforded a respect like no other, and maybe, just maybe, Bryant's time will come. The time when he'll crack the top five guards, that is. Forcing it? That would simply be an insult to basketball, and the fans who make it great. It's the humility that Bryant has always been accused of lacking, and in the face of Jordan, all must kneel, and find solace only in the slight vagaries that allow for light and hope to peep through. Hey, at least Jordan didn't Vince Carter him.
Jordan Strikes, Kobe Backhands: Notice, Kobe never actually says anything about Jordan's greatness in his response. In fact, he goes out of his way to suggest a multitude of other great players, none mentioned by name. "I know how he feels about me" is ambiguous, but there's no way to ignore the fact that, as paying homage goes, Bryant's response is pretty weak. If anything, it's pantheistic, shifting the focus from him vs. Jordan to the two of them afloat in a sea of "a lot of great guards." Later, he stresses that he Jordan are "different", and yet never does he suggest that MJ is up and above all others -- the gold standard by which all others are judged. In fact, when Kobe insists on not being "disrespectful to the other guards that I've watched," it's a pretty stinging reference to Jordan's narcissism and his Nike-sponsored distortion of history.
Jordan Means Nothing, Kobe Jumps on a Gaff: Jordan may have astronomical popularity on his side, but his reputation has taken something of a hit over the last few years. Did anyone see his Hall of Fame speech? If nothing else, he's regarded as somewhat more unpleasant, even scary, than during the days when every single wholesome ad on television featured MJ's shaved dome. That ad where he sits on an airplane with some schmoe? I'm not sure that kind of thing works anymore. His Airness can't pull off disdain with a smile anymore. Come to think of it, we doubt appearances with him now the way we once did Kobe.
Of course Bryant knows all this, and whether or not Jordan meant to start something with his comments, the Lakers star will seize an opportunity to jockey for position. See above; Jordan may have simply been saying "I don't want to get into this, Kobe is one of the greats, there have been others," but failed to choose his words as carefully. So Bryant stepped in and turned the sloppiness back against him.
Everyone Is a Jerk: And then, there's this option. Neither wants to acknowledge how good the other one is, plain and simple. It's all polite equivocating that, as loudly as you can without starting an outright feud, seeks to downplay the others' importance. Jordan gives Kobe an outrageous ranking; Kobe responds by refusing to say Jordan's name, and suggesting that Jordan isn't the uber-guard, either. Here's the beauty of it, though -- we may never know for sure, since the next episode could be just as multi-layered and confounding. One thing's for sure, though. Neither Jordan nor Kobe would engage in this kind of sparring with just anyone. That, in the end, might be the one uplifting message to take away from all this. (BS)
NBA Mid-Majors: Oklahoma City Thunder + Denver Nuggets
It's not just that the Heat, Lakers, and Celtics are the favorites to win a championship. Try and picture any other team hoisting up the Larry O'Brien; unless your homer-ism runs so deep and wide that you deny the existence of any national media, it's a feat that requires no small amount of imagination. In any other season, we would figure these teams had an outside shot at a title. With parity going out the window, they're effectively demoted to a second tier. Good, but not great; formidable, but not dominant. This league has its very own bourgeoisie -- or, since this is sports, mid-majors.
Of course, the tragedy is that each represents a really, really solid model for building up, and generally, sustaining, a winning basketball team. Each one has a program, an ideal, that they have used to get to where they are. Can they respond to this season's hostile environment by bringing it harder than ever before? Or does each come crashing up against the limitations of their own pet thinking? For the next couple of days, The Works will survey the NBA's mid-majors, breaking down what they stand for and what hope, if any, there is of them going even further next season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season, as the Thunder climbed from the bottom of the league up toward the top, expectations were so confused OKC really couldn't lose. No one would have blamed Scotty Brooks if the team fell apart down the stretch run and lost its contested playoff spot. Kevin Durant wouldn't have been dragged through the mud if the Thunder were swept out of the first round. The calibration of what we expected from the Thunder was so, so off that it was impossible to find a scenario where the greater observership of the league could be disappointed.
That's not the case now. OKC's great success is met with serious expectations, with some even touting the Thunder as the Lakers' top challenger. NBA GMs voted Durant as their favorite for the MVP award, over two-time reigning winner LeBron James. Expectations are wonderfully high for this team, and failure to meet them will come with harsh, unfair questions about Brooks, about Durant, about Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. Last season was just for fun. The real climb upward, the real slog to true contention begins now.
What Needs to Happen for Them to Win: First and foremost, Westbrook must be more efficient. When a player controls as much of the offense as Westbrook does (nearly 26 percent of the offense when he's in the game), he's got to execute more efficiently than, say, Baron Davis. Westbrook shot just 44 percent on two-pointers and a ghastly 22 percent on threes last season. He became a much better playmaker in his second season (despite still-high turnover totals) and excels at getting to the rim. But he still takes too many long jumpers considering his lagging skill there. When every possession counts in the throes of a tight playoff series, you can't be wasting attempts on a Westbrook 20-footer. He needs to either defer to Durant more frequently, or develop his jumper.
This team also needs some offensive consistency out of the center position; Nick Collison remains one of the great pick-setters in the NBA, and a fine defender, but he's not a scorer and Nenad Krstic just doesn't have the wherewithall to compete with the league's best in the paint. We'll see how ready rookie Cole Aldrich is.
Worst Case Scenario: If the Thunder struggle through a section of the schedule and can't beat the other top teams in the league, questions could start picking at Brooks, Westbrook and even Durant. It's been easy sledding in Oklahoma City so far, with universal adoration. But having such passionate, engaged fans is a double-edged sword; disappointment and disillusionment spreads like sarin in a tight city like OKC. One bad stretch could send this love affair -- and the Thunder's all-important confidence -- into the tank. (TZ)
Here's something everyone forgets: The Nuggets, god bless their haggard souls, have caught fire the last two springs, with many experts and such considering them dark horse contenders. That doesn't pan out, but it tells you something about this most unorthodox of farming collectives. Like their spirit animal J.R. Smith, the Nuggets run hot, cold, and absolutely incoherent. Chauncey Billups had given them just enough stability to channel that energy when it was there, and keep the ship steady when all hell broke loose. It was a magical, if dangerous, balance. But alas, reality seems to have intervened once and for all.
What was the Nuggets' vision? Superstar scorer, plus veteran guard, plus parade of dynamic big men, plus a coach willing to ride out any and all storms. To say that the Nuggets were built to succeed is to misunderstand what makes this team tick and to paper over how badly they disappointed. Raising expectations only to bring them crashing down; that was the cycle of play in Denver, one that started back again near the middle at the beginning of each season.
Except now, the team is dealing with Carmelo Anthony's deep, deep interest in getting out, as well as the uncertain health of coach George Karl. To remedy things, they have signed Al Harrington. Oh, and Chauncey Billups is getting old. Maybe the Nuggets never should have happened in the first place; if nothing else, the team was chaotic enough that it's hard to try and retool. Or is it?
What They Need to Do to Win: Assuming Karl can make it back -- and this might be the most important component of the puzzle -- the Nuggets just need a revitalized roster. That means trading Melo for the best they can get, and bringing along Ty Lawson as their starting point guard. The old Nuggets just won't work anymore, but if this team gets an infusion of talent, and gets used to a new floor general, they could once again strike gold partway through the season. Maybe that's too optimistic, but certainly they can avoid all-out rebuilding. The good thing about not having a plan is that you don't really need a plan.
Worst Case Scenario: The Nuggets get no return on Melo, Karl decides to retire, Kenyon Martin and Billups go downhill fast but no one wants to acknowledge it. Then the time would be back at square one. Assuming, of course, that they were ever really anywhere to begin with. (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.