…Oh, and Adam Levine was there too.
Before taking center court at Staples postgame Wednesday and treating #Lakernation to a third-person nickname reference and a (literal) mic drop, Kobe Bryant turned in a final performance that can most aptly be described as subpar for the ages.
In the context of his final three seasons, the finale was actually a decent outing for Kobe. More importantly, the farewell performance (a breakdown of it below) was emblematic of how much Kobe’s game failed to progress in time with the rest of the league over the last decade.
In 1999, the N.B.A. eliminated contact by a defender with his hands and forearms both in the back- and frontcourt. This freed up top scorers to move around unfettered and ushered in the ISO era.
That was Kobe’s third year in the N.B.A.
In the decade to follow, stripping defenders of their hand-check rights enabled Kobe to force up unheralded amounts of shots, 1,924 in 2002-’03, 2,173 in 2005-’06, 1,757 in 2006-’07, 1,690 in 2007-’09 and 1,712 in 2008-09. Coincidentally, all five of Kobe’s rings came during that time (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010).
To mitigate the ISO threat, which helped established a handful of superstars but eliminated the illusion of parity, the NBA eliminated its illegal defense guidelines in 2001-’02. It took the zone-unfamiliar league several years to catch up but it manifested in 2011 when the Maverick’s fully baked zone defense was credited with bringing owner Mark Cuban his first and only title. Subsequent championship teams (San Antonio in 2014, Golden State in 2015) credit the zone defense for changing their pace and efficacy of play.
It wasn’t that Kobe’s ISO style simply became outdated, it’s that the screen roll and step back and shoot from way way outside (see: Steph Curry) became an indefensible weapon. Watch the upcoming playoffs and wait for Steph to move around a high screen and create three feet of space. One player screened out and one fighting through on the help side to defend five feet beyond the arc also creates mismatches on the rest of the floor.
It was a technique Kobe tried to parrot in his final four seasons but he was either too established, too old, too hurt or didn’t have the right set pieces to make it work.
But his last game was a revival of sorts: Bryant shot 44 percent (22-50) from the floor including an abysmal 28 percent (6-21) beyond the arc. Decent all-told considering his career shooting percentage was 45.4. Forty four percent was also markedly better than his average this season (35 percent, a career low). The rest of the Lakers combined took 35 shots and made 19 of them. So statistically speaking they were a little more than 10 percentage points better than the black snake they were feeding all night.
Standing in as the Washington Generals, the young Utah Jazz were complicit in rolling over and letting Bryant have his way as if he were 24 again dialing up “room service” from his Eagle, Colorado hotel room. There was nary an opposing hand nor body anywhere near Kobe. Shots were more uncontested on his final night than when the condom breaks.
Kobe ended up with 60 and ESPN either didn’t have enough time to compile or simply ignored his dozens of clanks as they stitched together last night’s highlight reel. The talking heads fell all over themselves and their warmed over platitudes. Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith spent breakfast fighting over who got to make out with certain parts of their shared Kobe cutout first.
For Kobe’s last supper, Staples seemed positively packed with a who’s who of has-beens (Snoop, Jack, Jay-Z, Kanye, Beckham, Adam Levine…Jeremy fucking Piven) …oh the early ‘00s, weren’t they great?
Meantime, what and who’s next was celebrating the spoils of actual team basketball—and the future to come—370 miles north.