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When ‘M-V-P’ Chants Went from Hope to Prediction

February 22nd, 2020 · No Comments · Back in the Day, Basketball, Kobe, Lakers, NBA

“Blasts from the Past” is the idea. On days when I feel like writing but don’t feel like doing much research, I am going to revisit topics from my 40 years in journalism.

This will be one of those. It is my take, from January of 2008, on Kobe Bryant’s chances of winning his first MVP award.

Kobe’s memorial/celebration of life is in two days, on Monday. It certainly will generate a lot of emotion as the league and his fans say goodbye to Bryant, who died at age 41 last month, when a helicopter crash killed him and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, 13.

A spoiler: I could only speculate, in 2008, if Bryant could win an MVP trophy. Turns out, yes, he could, and 2007-08 was the one time he did it.

So, here is a column that appeared on January 23, 2008.

By Paul Oberjuerge

LOS ANGELES — At first, in say, 2003, Staples Center chants seemed more of a suggestion. Good thinking by Lakers fans, considering Shaquille “The Big Jealous” O’Neal had not yet left the building.

“M-V-P, MVP” they politely recommended when Kobe Bryant went to the free-throw line.

Then Shaq left, Kobe became The Man and he led the league in scoring and put up 40-point games like clockwork.

By 2006-07, the tenor of the chanting ramped to a full-throated demand.

“MVP!! MVP!!”

And now?

More of a muted plea for old-time’s sake, from fans who no longer seem so sure of themselves or of their favorite player.

“MVP? Uh, MVP?”

Please? Maybe?

The reality is, Bryant is better positioned right this moment to win his first MVP award despite a fall-off in his scoring statistics (27.4 points per game from 35.4 two seasons ago) and the slight but noticeable erosion of his physical gifts.

Bryant has twice finished third in MVP voting, and fourth once. But he has never been within a half-court shot of winning the award despite a sort of league-wide consensus that he has been the NBA’s top talent these past few years.

Turns out, MVPs come from good to great teams, and the Lakers have not been one of those in the Post-Shaq Era. That is, while on Kobe’s watch.

They could be this season.

These Lakers are 27-12, putting them on pace to win 57 games.

Certainly enough to make Bryant a viable MVP candidate. Along with LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, to name two prominent contenders.

But here comes the tough part:

–The Lakers play 11 of their next 13 on the road, six of their next seven versus winning teams, beginning with games in San Antonio and Dallas.

–The team that started out well has been hammered by injuries.

Andrew Bynum, enjoying a breakout season at center, is out for another seven weeks with a sore knee. Trevor Ariza, athletic and a top defender, won’t be back from a broken foot for two months. Chris Mihm (ankle) won’t play until February, if then. Vlad Radmanovic (ankle) has been day-to-day for almost a month.

If Bryant’s paper-thin Lakers survive the next three weeks, 50 victories will be in sight, and no one has won the MVP award without 50 victories since Moses Malone in 1982.

Much of this will be up to Bryant. He is the team’s leader, its star and its arbiter of style.

He must adapt himself to the diminished roster. He must understand, on a nightly basis, what his team needs from him — not something he has done regularly during his career. But something MVPs manage.

(See Nash, Steve; Duncan, Tim; etc.)

It was clear to whom Phil Jackson was referring on Monday night when he said, “The measure of a great player is how much better he makes his teammates.”

An inability to lift the play of those around him has been a drag on Bryant’s reputation all along. Sure, he scored a lot. But so did Pete Maravich and Adrian Dantley, and they were never MVPs.

Bryant is showing signs, however, of getting it. Understanding he has to let others share his burden.

And we’re not talking about the passive, I-give-up- I’m-just-gonna-watch Kobe we sometimes have seen.

This is an engaged, thinking, driven player who perhaps already hears the clock ticking at age 29 and knows his career odometer is about to roll over to 200,000 miles. Who seems ready to Do Whatever It Takes to win.

Against the Denver Nuggets last night, the Lakers scored 47 points before Bryant scored even one. The game was 4:02 into the second quarter before he took his first shot.

Not because he had given up on the team he asked to trade him last summer, but because he recognized that the Nuggets were over-committed to stopping him. He drew defenders like moths to a flame and passed off to teammates, picking up a season-high 11 assists in a 116-99 victory.

He took only seven shots, a season-low, made five and scored 17 points. But the Lakers won. Easily.

“He deserves a lot of credit, actually, for not scoring in that first quarter,” veteran guard Derek Fisher said. “He really read the game well. He recognized how Denver was defending them, and he made the open play, the extra pass, and that became contagious.”

There will be nights when teams play Bryant more straight-up, and those are the games when he will need to play 40 minutes and score 30-plus. Such as in Seattle last week, when he shot 44 times and scored 48 in a two-point game.

Bryant recognizing when to shoot and when to pass will be the key to their next 43 games. His decision-making will need to be something approaching flawless.

If the battered Lakers end up with 50-some victories and Kobe’s individual statistics are better than Garnett’s and comparable to James’s (as they are now), this could be the year voters take note and we add “MVP” to Bryant’s list of accomplishments.

Which would guarantee he doesn’t go into NBA history as a sort of 21st century George Gervin. Great fun to watch, a scorer extraordinaire, but not a guy who carried a good team.

These Lakers are a good team. The best since Shaq left. But they need help from someone who might then be seen as the league’s Most Valuable Player.

Bryant seems committed to making the effort. “The mentality we have here,” he said, “is ‘Look, guys are down but this is not gonna affect us come April. It’s not gonna affect us come May.’ All we have to do is to continue to build our rhythm, get the guys back and when the playoffs come around we’ll be ready to go.”

Keep an eye on these Lakers. If Kobe Bryant holds them together — and he is already talking about the playoffs — he will deserve those booming “M-V-P!” chants again. More than ever.


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