What's important to note here is that I'm not saying the Black Mamba can be the Chosen One, but that he can be like him.
Yes, Bryant is older and has never been considered the versatile athlete LeBron is, but he could be if he wanted to.
I'm referring of course to James being a perpetual triple-double threat. As one of the most dexterous players in the game, someone who can distribute, rebound and score, he's a threat to drop a triple-double on any given night.
And so is Bryant—when he wants to.
One of the greatest differences between Kobe and LeBron is the frequency at which they pass. Not the ability to thread the needle, but the willingness to do so.
Bryant is known as one of the best rebounding guards in the league, having averaged 5.3 boards to go with his 25.5 points per game for his career. James, by comparison, is also a dominant rebounder for his position. He's grabbed 7.2 a night for his career to go along with 26.9 points.
But where Bryant and James are similar in rebounding and scoring outputs, they are vastly different in their assist totals. LeBron is dropping 6.9 dimes per game for his career to Kobe's 4.7.
Some would point to Bryant's purported selfishness as the driving force behind such differences, yet what it really comes down to is that James has been tasked with a point-forward role for nearly a decade. Kobe hasn't.
I won't pretend that Bryant hasn't had the ball in his hands for the past 16-plus years, but his job was never to distribute—it was to score. And score he did.
"It's trying to evolve and figured out what we need as a ballclub," Bryant said of his new style. "Instead of me being a finisher, I'm just really facilitating and drawing the defense in and making plays. I game-planned for it, and it seems to be working."
To say it is "working," is a lewd understatement.
In the six games since Bryant took over the facilitating duties, the Lakers are 5-1 and Bryant is averaging 16.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 10.2 assists. He has eclipsed the 20-point mark just once, which LeBron surpasses in his sleep, but his assists-per-contest ratio is a bit higher.
Before anyone cries "foul," understand that I understand this is a small sample size. And yet the significance of it is not to be devalued.
This is the first time in Bryant's career that he has been tasked with being a full-time playmaker and part-time scorer; this is the first time he has been asked to do what he's doing. And just look at the results.
As Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles acknowledges, Bryant has become a continuous triple-double threat, not unlike James:
He finished one rebound shy of a triple-double against both Utah and Oklahoma City, two rebounds shy of the mark against the Hornets and two assists short against Minnesota on Friday -- but he insists he doesn't have anyone tracking his stats throughout the game for him (however, most NBA arenas display players' stat lines in real time somewhere during the game).
"Sometimes it comes to you, sometimes it don’t," Bryant said after practice on Saturday in preparation for the Lakers' game against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday. "I mean, I’m in there with a bunch of trees. I’m not the tallest guy in the world, so sometimes it’s just kind of luck of the bounce."
Truthfully, Bryant's games against the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Hornets are contests James would have likely tallied a triple-double in. Not only does he have two inches on Kobe, but he's a lean bull whereas Bryant is elusively lanky; rebounds come not necessarily easier, but in greater bunches for the King than they do the Mamba.
Yet does this diminish the triple-double threat Kobe has not just become, but sustained?
Absolutely not. Unlike James, Bryant is not as voluminous a rebounder, but he has proved to be at least as dangerous, if not more lethal, a passer. And we all know he can score.
Judging by his "sometimes it comes to you, sometimes it don't" sentiments, he could also hoard more boards if he pleased, or rather, if he made the attempt. I mean, if Rajon Rondo can bring down 10 boards a night on a regular basis, so can Bryant.
Kobe has never received the credit he deserves for being a complete player. Much of that is due to his serial-shooting tendencies and subsequently, his fault.
Watching him as a bona fide distributor, as someone who plays the role of an offensive catalyst like LeBron, however, has opened our eyes, and (via McMenamin) his as well:
Boston's Rajon Rondo led the league is assists this season at 11.1 per game before going down with a season-ending knee injury. The Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul is second at 9.7 per game. It may be a small sample size of five games, but Bryant has pretty much gone from leading the league in scoring for the first 42 games of the season, to leading the league in assists as soon as he decided to take on that role.
It brings to mind another all-time great, Wilt Chamberlain, who incredibly decided to lessen his scoring in 1967-68 and wound up leading the NBA in assists as a center.
"That shows that I’m versatile, obviously," Bryant said. "If I put my mind to it, I can do it. It just comes from playing the game at an early age, I guess. I’m able to do a myriad of things."
This isn't a declaration that asserts Bryant is a better version of James. Nor is it about who means more to their team or is the more dominant athlete in general. It's about what they're capable of doing, what they're both capable of doing.
For nearly two decades, we've seen Kobe take control of the rock as well. And then we've watched him shoot, and shoot some more.
While we're still watching James do all those things, we've only just begun to bear witness to this version of Bryant: Kobe the passer. I won't go as far as to suggest this is what he's been missing his entire career (although it is), but it has prevented him from being the perennial triple-doulbe threat James has become.
Kobe has always been able to score and rebound, just like James. We've also known he's been able to pass as well, but unlike James, his deferment rate wasn't conducive with the number of shots he was attempting. That's what has separated these two as triple-double weapons. But it separates them no more.
This season, as an active facilitator, James is averaging seven assists while hoisting up 18.7 field-goal attempts per game. This gives him an assist-to-field-goal ratio of 0.37.
At 5.4 dimes and 21.1 shots a night, Bryant's ratio stands 0.26. Yet that has been established as an active scorer. He's only been tasked with committing himself to running the offense over this last stretch of games. And in that breadth of bouts, he's averaging 10.2 assists to 14 field-goal attempts, an assist-to-shot-ratio of 0.72.
As Bryant has shot less, he's successfully deferred the rock at a higher rate than James. Obviously, he's better than James, then.
I didn't say that, though. That was never the point.
Bryant and James have always matched up well in the scoring and rebounding departments, especially when you consider the differences in their positions. It was their differences in aiding their teammates, their differences in roles that accounted for the aberrations of their stat lines.
But Kobe's role has changed to reflect that of facilitator first and scorer second. Just like LeBron.
And he's now become as portentous a triple-double threat as there is.
Just like LeBron.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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