Countdown: LeBron was MVP, but Kobe is the King of Clutch
Kobe Bryant's champion instincts rank him above MVP LeBron James
Size still wins, as Dwight Howard and Boston's Big Three have shown
Other topics: LeBron to Bulls reports, new coaching hires, SI's cover jinx
Kobe Bryant is No. 1. LeBron James was undoubtedly the regular-season MVP, and his talent is peerless. But when it comes to getting things done when all is otherwise lost, no one is better than Bryant. After reportedly having more than an ounce of fluid drained from his swollen right knee in the opening round of the playoffs, Bryant has averaged 32.5 points in his last 10 playoff games and has scored 295 points in nine games while shooting 52.4 percent. He has created 43 assists over the last four games.
If it were possible to quantify a statistic to recognize talent and focus on winning important games, no one would rank higher than Bryant. He went through those long mid-career seasons of being viewed as a failure against his potential. But that baggage was abandoned a couple of years ago. He is now cashing in relentlessly.
The Lakers had lost two in a row at Phoenix when 6-6 Bryant -- in his 1,211th career game -- found the energy to respond with 30 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks. When it was time for the Lakers to make a big play around him, Ron Artest lunged across the lane to pluck a Bryant air-ball and bank in the game-winner at the buzzer to put the Lakers up 3-2 in the series.
Artest has sought validation all year from Bryant. He clearly wants to be viewed as a champion and a peer in Bryant's eyes. Bryant understands this and he has applied it to make the Artest experiment work thus far, to overcome all of the potential difficulties that have emerged throughout Artest's previous seasons. When Artest made that shot he instinctively turned away from his bench and ran to Bryant for a certifying hug. Their celebration says everything about Bryant's unique form of leadership, which is based on his ability to command respect.
Now think about James, who finds himself in the limbo of possibilities as he exercises his right to free agency amid frustration with his team's inability to reach the NBA Finals. Bryant was in the same frustrating place a few years ago when he demanded a trade in hope of forcing his way back into championship contention. Then the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol, and now Bryant is on the verge of a third straight run to the Finals and a second championship in a row.
Bryant needed years of experience to learn how to lead, and he also needed a proper blend of talent that could be led. At this moment he holds the advantage over James in both categories.
Big men are relevant. The NBA rules have been revised to liberate perimeter players, and point guards in particular. Defenders can't hand-check on the fringes of the court, enabling the quicker players to create space to drive or shoot. But size still wins.
Look at Dwight Howard, who has never been more intimidating than in the Magic's two victories to force a Game 6 Friday. Not only has he been clobbering the Celtics' big men, he has also been inflicting foul trouble across their front line.
The rules call for two styles in every NBA game -- patty-cake above the foul line, and greco-roman below it. The difference has been viewed as being unfair to Howard, who can be double-teamed and hammered in the paint. But he has turned that dynamic to his advantage by becoming the aggressor and forcing the Celtics to stop him by fouling him.
In turn the Celtics have renewed themselves around a trio of long defenders in Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis -- with the latter three capable of shooting from the perimeter to draw big men away from the basket.
Even Robin Lopez (8.4 points, 4.9 rebounds during the season) has been viewed as crucial against the Lakers' 14 feet of big men.
Then there is Lakers 7-foot forward Pau Gasol, who was viewed as soft while being victimized two years ago in the Finals by Boston. Hasn't he put that past behind him? Gasol was impressive defensively against Howard in last year's Finals, and in this postseason he has averaged a sensational 20.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 blocks. Gasol applies his European sensibilities to produce in a variety of ways, whether it's out on the floor or in the post. He bears little resemblance to the player who succumbed to Garnett in '08.
Zone defense is still under construction. The Suns worked their way back from a 2-0 deficit by relying on the zone more than any postseason team has done since it became legalized in 2001-02. Coaches have remained stubborn to fully deploy the zone, considering it to be a passive device.
Think about how much the NBA has changed over the last decade of the new defensive rules. All you hear coaches discuss now is the need for ball movement, which wasn't as much of a priority in the previous era of boring isolation play.
The pragmatic Suns weren't ashamed to do whatever they could to extend their conference final, and they've created a new awareness for the zone's potential. This is a copy-cat league and I bet we'll see more of the zone next season, which will lead to offenses responding with more ball movement and dribble-drive penetration (the latter is being sold by coaching candidate John Calipari).
Now consider this: Commissioner David Stern told me in December that the league will consider doing away with the three-second limit on defenders in the lane, which would result in a European approach to team defense based on zone principles. Styles and strategies will continue to grow.
The regular season means little. Mike Brown and Mike Woodson combined to win 114 games this season, and both were fired after poor showings in the playoffs.
Woodson's teams improved over each of his six years with Atlanta. But there comes a time when management knows a coach too well and wants someone new. The feeling in Atlanta was that Woodson had reached his ceiling -- a very high ceiling at that.
Brown was let go not only because the Cavs needed to win a championship while James was under contract, but also because they'll need a new coach to compel him to re-sign in July. It's a business decision, as Robert Duvall used to say in The Godfather movies. Winning in the regular season means little if it doesn't lead to winning in the playoffs.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers understood this when he accepted regular-season losses in hope of turning the last three months into an extended training camp meant to rehabilitate Garnett and Paul Pierce for the playoffs. It was a high-risk strategy that underlines the fact that regular-season success is prolog.
Rookies need not apply. It has been 30 years since Magic Johnson was MVP of the NBA Finals as a rookie. The draft no longer yields such instant success stories.
No rookie was playing a meaningful role for any of the final four teams this postseason. One reason is that rookies today are too young and unprepared to transition to the highest level.
Over the previous two years no more than two rookies have played a meaningful role in the NBA final four -- Courtney Lee helped Orlando reach the NBA Finals last season, and Rodney Stuckey was part of Detroit's rotation in the '08 Eastern finals. Each was a non-lottery pick who had spent three or four years at a small college. They weren't the most talented rookies, but they were far more experienced than most of the players picked ahead of them.