Life is great for Laker haters these days.
The storied NBA franchise is well en route to the draft lottery, again. That would give Los Angeles back-to-back lottery picks for the first time since 1993 and 1994. The Lakers are also a threat to break their record for fewest victories in the post-merger era, set last season when they had a measly 27 wins.
There’s even more joy for fans with particular animus against Kobe Bryant. Shooting a career-low percentage from the field (.393 through Tuesday), he’s struggling to carry his talent-challenged team. He leads the league in points per game and shots per game, which is nothing new.
But at his advanced age, on a sorry team, with a $48 million contract that’s viewed as a financial albatross, he makes for an easy target. Even though he’s essentially the same player he’s been for 19 years, critics have assailed his personality (too competitive), his shooting (too much) and his leadership (too self-centered).
Here’s something else they can point to and rejoice: Bryant just became the NBA’s all-time leader in missed field goals. He added 16 to his ledger Tuesday in a 107-102 loss to Memphis, giving him 13,418 for his career.
The headline – “Kobe sets mark for misses” – caused his detractors to smile. But that only proves they’re surface-dwellers, either too shallow to look deeper or too dense to understand layers. That’s the only way to chide Bryant for being the greatest shooting guard not named Michael Jordan.
Yes, the “Black Mamba” can turn into the “Black Hole,” the place teammates pass the ball and never see it again. Bryant took 37 shots in a loss to Phoenix last week while the Lakers’ other starters took 35 shots combined.
On the flip side, Los Angeles wouldn’t have come close without Bryant’s 39 points.
“It’s almost damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” coach Byron Scott told reporters Tuesday after the Lakers’ shoot-around. “The games that he don’t take shots, people ask why didn’t he take more shots. He can’t win neither way, which is unbelievable to me for a guy who gives it everything he’s got every single time he’s on the floor.
“It’s unfortunate because he is one of the greatest competitors that we’ve seen in a long time. I take all that stuff with a grain of salt and I’m sure he does too because the bottom line to him is championships.”
His days of winning titles in Los Angeles are over, but that’s about the only thing that has changed. He’s still adding to his Hall-of-Fame resume, and even records that appear embarrassing at first glance can reveal an athlete’s true greatness.
Here are the five players directly behind Bryant on the all-time clank list: John Havlicek (13,417), Elvin Hayes (13,296), Karl Malone (12,682), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (12,470) and Jordan (12,345).
Not bad company, every one a Hall of Famer. Bryant had no qualms about his ascension and no problem explaining it.
“Well, I’m a shooting guard that’s played 19 years,” he told reporters afterward, putting an emphasis on “shooting.”
Opposed to LeBron James, who matriculated at Magic Johnson University, Bryant earned his hoops doctorate at Air Jordan Academy, where gunners develop the instinct to take over rather than step aside.
Though Jordan famously won championships while sometimes passing to open teammates such as Steve Kerr, he’s better known taking and making clutch shots, no matter how many defenders were draped on him.
“I remember when I was a kid and I watched Michael shoot 49 times in an NBA Finals game,” Bryant said. “Can you imagine if I did that – and lost? Puts things in perspective.”
Starting from his rookie season, when he launched four airballs (one in the final seconds of regulation and three in overtime) during the 1997 Western Conference semifinals, Bryant never expressed reluctance or exhibited fear when it comes to putting the game on his shoulders. There’s definitely no shrinkage in tight spots.
“You’ve got to step up and play, man,” he said. “You can’t worry about criticism. You can’t worry about failure. You really can’t worry about that stuff.”
The greats never do. Bryant is straight out of that Jordan commercial from the late 1990s, when His Airness walked into an empty arena and voiced these words:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
It’s not quite that simple (only Kareem, Malone and Wilt have more field goals made). But Bryant gets the point.
That’s something he hasn’t come close to missing.