By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant has had better statistical seasons and won more games but has never been closer to winning the league's most valuable player award than he is this season.
On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers won the Pacific Division for the first time in the post-Shaquille O'Neal era and are in position to clinch the top seed in the tougher-than-ever Western Conference with a win tonight against the Sacramento Kings.
Ballots for the league's top honors are due Thursday at 3 p.m., and Bryant appears to be in a dead heat with New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul for the game's top individual honor. Bryant is averaging 28.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists, and he has lifted his team to elite status despite playing the final two months of the season with a torn ligament in his right pinkie finger. Plus, center Andrew Bynum has been out since Jan. 13 with a knee injury, and forward-center Pau Gasol missed nine games with a sprained ankle.
Bryant did what some thought he was incapable of -- toning down his game to let his team get the glory. "I think for me to win an MVP [this season] would be special because that's always been the criticism of my game, is that I don't make other guys better," he said. "To win that or be in the hunt for that is special because it means people are recognizing that I am making my teammates better."
Bryant is making his teammates better partly because he has better teammates this season, beginning with the emergence of Bynum, who is in his third year; the midseason trade that brought former all-star Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies; and the signing last summer of free agent Derek Fisher, which has added stability at point guard position. Bryant said he feels that now he is "in a position to go into a gun fight with a gun."
"This is a special crew. I have more bullets in the chamber now," Bryant said. "We had Smush Parker, who is not really playing now. We had Kwame Brown, who's in Memphis and not really playing much now. That was my point guard and my center, and in a pretty tough Western Conference, we still managed to win 45 games [in 2005-06] and get in contention. Now I'm fortunate to have weapons that my peers have had the last several years, with [Amare] Stoudemire and [Shawn] Marion, [Tony] Parker and [Manu] Ginóbili. Now I have weapons."
Bryant's talent has never been in question; he is widely considered by players and executives as the game's best overall player. But despite the impressive résumé he has built over the past 12 seasons -- three NBA championships, two scoring titles -- Bryant has never finished higher than third in MVP voting.
Two years ago, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 35 points a game and provided the signature highlight of this millennium so far when he scored 81 against the Toronto Raptors. How did he fare in MVP balloting? Fourth, when Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash won his second consecutive MVP.
"Kobe Bryant has been the best player in our league the last five years and he hasn't received the MVP. I don't know why," Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James said. "He's playing probably the best basketball, all-around. This is his year. He's had that type of year and his team has had that type of success."
Bryant was asked recently if he felt the reason he hasn't received more support is because voters don't like him. "I don't think so," Bryant said. "I think a lot of times the criteria changes. I think now, the way people vote for MVP is how you make your teammates better as opposed the '80s, when it was always just the best player."
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recently said that this is Bryant's "best year ever as far as an overall team player. I think the judgment that I kind of make is, how much better do you make your teammates? This has been one of Kobe's finest years in that regard."
Jackson added that he isn't surprised that Bryant hasn't won the award yet.
"With Shaq on this team for [eight] of those years, basically Kobe was going to be a second choice as far as being the most valuable player on that team," Jackson said. "Since that time, of course, not making the playoffs the subsequent year, there wasn't an opportunity. The following year, he really had an exceptional year. He had some outrageous games. That was the year that I would've guessed that he would've been named the MVP."
The difference for Bryant this season, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said, is "our performance as a team and his individual performance are kind of aligned and matched for the first time."
After failing to win MVP the past two seasons, Bryant said that winning championships were more important to him. Now both are within his grasp, something he said he wouldn't have imagined last summer after the Lakers lost in the first round for the second year in a row. Bryant made a clumsy demand to be traded to the Chicago Bulls, which included him publicly criticizing both Kupchak and Lakers owner Jerry Buss. But Bryant believes that he put the organization on alert that he wouldn't settle for mediocrity any longer.
"I feel happy," Bryant said. "I had to shake the trees a little bit. The sense of urgency is there. Just from the magnitude of things, the hit that I took from that, I wish that I could've done some things differently. But looking at how things turned out, it's tough to argue that."
Bryant is pleased that the Lakers kept him, especially after the Bulls missed the playoffs this season and Phoenix granted Marion's trade request, shipping him to the league's worst team, the Miami Heat.
"That's why it's good to have a no-trade clause," Bryant said. "I'm very happy to be in this position. To win an MVP would be special. Winning a championship would be extremely special because we could've gone from the bottom to the top. Seeing this whole process evolve, to see it end with a championship or parade would be very special."