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Facing the defense, Bryant has no peer. He can avoid defenders like a stunt driver swerving through oncoming traffic. He can blow by for a dunk, pull up for a short jumper or simply rise up and hit a long-range, heavily contested perimeter missile.
With his back to the defense, Bryant is equally dangerous. If a defender gives him space, he faces up and banks in a jump shot. If a defender crowds him, he speeds past or overpowers him. If he's double-teamed, he up-fakes, pivots and squeezes between defenders for a layup, almost always without traveling. Innate athleticism aside, he has labored like a Broadway dancer to perfect his footwork.
Besides leading the league in scoring, Bryant ranked in the top 10 at week's end in steals, minutes, field goals attempted, field goals made, three-pointers attempted, three-pointers made, free throws attempted, free throws made and player efficiency rating.
It's been three decades since a player from a .500-level team was the league's MVP--that was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who took the 1975--76 award even though his Lakers finished 40--42. With Bryant's Lakers 41--37 and tied for seventh place in the Western Conference through Sunday, even the "M-V-P!" cheers that erupt from time to time in Staples Center are tepid. But his play has been so outstanding this season that he must be on any short list of candidates.
III. THE GHOST
At times Bryant almost eerily channels Michael Jordan on the court--the same fadeaway jumper, the same feral, crouched-panther stance on defense, the same pigeon-toed walk downcourt. But the debate over whether Kobe is the next Jordan is settled. As much as Madison Avenue might have wanted Bryant's crossover appeal to be as impressive as his crossover dribble, it is not. Jordan's default facial expression was a wide smile, Bryant's a cloudy frown. Still, the specter of Jordan looms inescapably over Bryant.
Like Jordan, he is capable of reducing even All-Stars to little kids in his presence. In a nearly deserted hallway long after a late-March game against Sacramento, Bryant emerged from the locker room to find his wife, Vanessa, and three-year-old daughter, Natalia, waiting for him. Kings forward Ron Artest, whom Bryant had badly outplayed on this evening, came by, carrying a throwaway camera and his five-year-old son, Ron Ron. "Kobe, would you take a picture with my boy?" Artest asked, the way a timid kid would ask a teacher for a favor. "Sure," said Kobe, stationing himself between Natalia and Ron Ron as Artest snapped away.
While Jordan, too, could be forbidding to other players, he also projected warmth--far more than Bryant does. "When players sit around, Kobe's not a guy you might talk about and say, 'He's such a good dude,' like a Kevin Garnett,'" says Los Angeles Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley. "Nobody knows Kobe that well. He's not a sociable guy. That's not a fault; it's just his preference. When I was a rookie [in Houston], Scottie Pippen told me that Michael would go out with his teammates sometimes. He included guys and balanced everything out. I'm not sure Kobe does that."
"From a talent standpoint, he may be better than Jordan was at this stage of his career," says Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. "The part of his game that he has to get better as opposed to Jordan is in the leadership department, how players respond to him, how he gets along, creating a chemistry. Players loved playing with Jordan. I don't know whether they do with Kobe."