Retiring Kobe: The Best of Number 8 and 24

It was announced today that the Los Angeles Lakers will honor Kobe Bryant on December 18th prior to their match up against the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers will retire both 8 and 24, the two numbers worn by Bryant during his time in LA. Bryant will become the sixth player to have two different jerseys retired, joining Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Oscar Robertson and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal. Prior to the announcement that both would be etired, the internet had fun speculating which number would be hung in the Staples Center. Each number represents different points in Kobe’s career; let’s take a look at some of his best moments in both numbers.

#8

Bryant wore 8 from his rookie year in 1996 through the 2005-06 season

81 Point Game vs Toronto

On January 22, 2006, Kobe Bryant torched the Toronto Raptors for 81 points in a Laker win. 81 points set the second most points scored in an NBA game behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points. What many people forget is that this was a close contest for much of the game. Only in the 4th quarter did the Lakers proceed to pull away for a 122-104 victory. Not only was it one of the most prolific scoring efforts in NBA history, it wasn’t in a blow out, lopsided win.

2004 NBA Finals

The 2004 Finals is one that Laker fans like to forget during that span of winning. Alongside Hall of Famers Shaq, Gary Payton and Karl Malone, Kobe and the Lakers were upset in five games by the Detroit Pistons. The lone Laker win in that serious, however, was a bright spot for Kobe. He scored 33 points and had 7 assists. He also buried a clutch three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. It was a forgotten series in LA, but on a personal level, but it was still vintage Kobe.

1997 Slam Dunk Contest

Kobe Bryant took part in the 1997 dunk contest as a Rookie in the NBA. Kobe Bryant won the 1997 dunk contest and became the youngest player to ever win the event. While a dunk contest title doesn’t separate the good from the great, fans do like to see the best in the game compete during All-Star weekend. For Kobe, this became another similarity he shared with MJ. His dunks weren’t too shabby either.

2000 NBA Finals

Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals showed the emergence of the Mamba’s clutch gene. His partner in crime fouled out in overtime of a crucial Game 4, leaving Kobe to take the reigns and lead the Lakers to victory. With the score 112-109 in favor of LA, Kobe would score three of his team’s final four buckets, helping the Lakers take a 3-1 series edge on the Indiana Pacers. In what would become a career of clutch moments, 2000 was just the beginning for Kobe.

#24

In 2006, Bryant switched to number 24, which he wore for the rest of his career

2010 NBA Finals

Bryant’s fifth and final NBA title was classic Kobe through and through. While Game 7 wasn’t one of his best shooting games in the series, like always, Kobe found a way to win. Kobe scored 10 of his 23 in the 4th quarter, tallied 15 rebounds and helped erase a 13 point deficit to win a second straight NBA Final and Finals MVP. It was the perfect “find a way to win” performance from Bryant, something we saw many times from him in his career.

61 Points at MSG

Like many NBA players, Kobe loved playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Also like many players, Kobe would go on to dominate the Knicks with a memorable performance, dropping 61 points in a 2009 win over New York. The world’s most famous arena, saw a famous performance. Bryant made 18 field goals on 31 attempts and shot 88% from the stripe that night. His 61 passed Bernard King’s Garden record, but would later be broken by Carmelo Anthony in 2014.

2009 NBA Finals

2009 was a big year for Kobe personally. It was the first championship post Shaq and proved to those that doubted him that he could win on his own. He and the Lakers would make light work of the Orlando Magic, dominating them in five games. Bryant would get his fourth ring, but first Finals MVP, averaging 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Shaq had gotten his ring without Kobe three years earlier, now Kobe would get his without Shaq.

One Final Game in the Staples Center

Some may argue that this is not one of the Mamba’s best moments, but I think it’s perfect. Did Kobe need 50 shots to score 60 points? Sure, but for one last night, basketball fans got to remember the real Kobe. Leading up to his last game in 2016, Kobe struggled with injuries from 2013-2015. He was a shell of the assassin he used to be. But on April 13th, in his last game ever at the Staples Center, Kobe scored 60 points in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz. 60 points was the most points scored in a game that season, and Bryant became the oldest player to score 60 or more points in a game. It was the perfect way for Bryant to walk into retirement: a winner.

Kobe Bryant is one of the most decorated players in NBA history. He’s one of the best winners of his game’s generation and one of the best players to play in the NBA. There was nothing like the seeing Kobe get that snarl on his face, and proceed to pick an opponent apart. While it may look a bit funny of a player to have two separate numbers retired by the same team, Kobe Bryant certainly has had enough memories in each to warrant this decision.

The Solution to Superteams

Ask any fan what the two most exciting words in sports are.  You’ll probably get some answers that vary by person and allegiance – “Jets win!”, “Krzyzewski retired!”, and so on – but at a certain point, they’ll say “Game 7”.  This year, the NBA playoffs featured two game sevens:  Jazz vs. Clippers in the Western Conference first round and Wizards vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  But unless you are a fan of one of these four teams, these game sevens weren’t all that exciting.  They were formalities to see who would be slaughtered by the Warriors and Cavs.

The main storyline of these playoffs was not about who would be in the Finals, a foregone conclusion.  The storyline became “are super teams good for the NBA?”  One popular narrative is that super teams aren’t new, that the league has always been top heavy.  While it’s true that the NBA has traditionally had less parity than football and baseball, the outcome has never seemed more inevitable than it was this year.

Some argue that super teams have been around much longer than when The Big 3 formed in Miami

Look back at some of the legendary dynasties.  During the Bulls’ first three-peat, they beat the Lakers in what was considered a coin flip series in the 1991 Finals, needed 7 games to beat the Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Semifinals, and were down by 4 points to the Suns, without the ball, with one minute left in game 6 of the 1993 Finals.  Without a miracle comeback they would have faced a game seven in Phoenix.  The 1996 Bulls were head and shoulders better than the rest of the league – but to win their 1997 title, they broke a 2-2 series tie with the Jazz with a 2 point win in the “Flu Game.” They then won game 6 by just four points.  In 1998, game 6 versus the Jazz was eerily similar to game 6 five years earlier versus the Suns. Bulls down three with less than a minute left, they came back and avoided having to win a game 7 on the road.  Out of their six titles, only the 1996 one could be considered inevitable, and it still took six games for the Bulls to top the SuperSonics.

The Lakers and Celtics combined for eight titles during the 1980s, but they always had each other to ensure that there was some suspense throughout the year and the playoffs.  Usually, the Rockets, 76ers, or Pistons kept things interesting as well.  Out of those eight championships, all of the Finals’ went at least six games.  The “Heatles” dynasty of the 2010s never materialized.  Each time a LeBron James team has won a title, they needed to win a game 7 at some point to do so: 2012 vs the Celtics, 2013 vs the Spurs, and 2016 vs the Warriors.  Besides the 1996 Bulls, the 2001 Lakers are the only other team that was truly untouchable by the rest of the league.

As good as Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics were this season, no one considered them serious contenders for a 2017 NBA Championship

Last year, the moment Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, objective observers knew it was much more probable than not that the Finals would end with the Warriors beating the Cavs, most likely in 5 games.  During the season, there were other compelling stories. Russell Westbrook’s quest to average a triple double, the 5’9” Isiah Thomas leading the Celtics to the one seed in the east, and the development of budding superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic.

But the inevitable Finals match-up loomed over these stories.  They were interesting, but they ultimately didn’t matter when in the back of my mind, I knew that these teams and players had no chance of making real noise in the playoffs.  This is a problem.  Maybe the NBA feels differently, as the ratings for these Finals were sky high.  But with Warriors vs Cavs Part III in the books, with no end in sight, people will start to tune out from the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs.  No matter how many people watch the finals, this isn’t a good model for the NBA.  The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but obviously the current system doesn’t work.  The good news is that there is a simple solution to prevent these type of super teams from forming: increase the maximum contract.

Many say that the only reason the Warriors had the cap space to sign Durant is because Steph Curry was on the books for just $12 million.  This is partially true, but the real culprit, if you agree that super teams are bad for the NBA, is the maximum salary.  Coming off of his 9th year in the league, Durant was only able to make up to 30% of the salary cap, or approximately $28 million.  In order to afford that, the Warriors had to trade Andrew Bogut.  But if Durant was able to make anything close to what he is actually worth – in the $55 million ballpark with a salary cap of $94 million – the Warriors would never have had a chance to sign him.

Take a look at the other two All-Stars on Golden State.  When Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were eligible for extensions, they were only eligible to make 25% of the salary cap.  Thompson is locked up through 2019 on a team friendly contract averaging about $17 million per year, while Green is on a practically identical contract through 2020.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that with maximum salaries at 25, 30, and 35 percent of the cap, teams will continue to be able to afford 3 or 4 stars.

The max contract also makes it easier for stars to accept even less than their max.  Assume LeBron would be worth about $70 million if there was no max contract.  It would be extremely difficult for him to take, say, $35 million so that his team could sign other stars.  It’s much easier to take a few less million when his contract is artificially capped around $30 million than it would be to leave tens of millions on the table.

The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but the max contract actively detracts from this attempt at parity.  The Players Association is very much in favor of the max contract, as it creates a much higher median salary.  But if the NBA is serious about having more teams in the championship mix, they need to look at either eliminating or increasing the max salary.

Finals Rematch Completely Different Than a Year Ago

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For the second straight year the NBA Finals will feature the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers,  and the NBA’s MVP. As the 2016 NBA Finals tips off tonight in the San Francisco bay area, many of the stories leading up to the series surrounded a number of the same names as last year. However, these are not the same two teams we saw a year ago, let alone four months ago, when Golden State blew out Cleveland on their home court.

The Warriors, while compromised of the same core group of players from last season, have seemingly found a new level of play this year. Their record setting regular season and improbable series comeback against Oklahoma City prove that. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson continue to amaze viewers on a nightly basis with unreal three-point barrages, Draymond Green continues to be an x-factor in Golden State’s success, and every one else seems to contribute at just the right time.

The Cavaliers on the other hand, will (hopefully) be a much different team this time around. With a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving playing at high level, Lebron James will have the sidekick power he lacked for much of the series last year. The biggest difference in Cleveland from this year to last is the man standing on the sidelines.

Tyronn Lue took over as head coach mid season, after Cleveland’s embarrassing midseason loss to Golden State. In the January 18th meeting, the Cavs failed to contain Curry, who went off for 35 points in just 28 minutes of play. Last year’s Finals MVP Andre Iguodala added 20 off the bench, thanks to 4-5 shooting from behind the arc.

It was all smiles for Curry, who sat the whole 4th quarter, and the Warriors on their January 18th win over Cleveland

It was all fund and games for Curry, who sat the whole 4th quarter, and the Warriors on their January 18th win over Cleveland

The issues for the Cavs following that game are the same question marks heading into this series. Can any Cleveland guard, whether it be Irving, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, or even Matthew Dellavedova contain the Splash Brothers? And how effective can Love be against the smaller, faster line up of Golden State? In their two losses to Golden State this season, Love struggled to get into any rhythm offensively. He tallied a mere thirteen points combined points off 6-21 shooting, though he did haul in 18 rebounds on their Christmas Day matchup. In the January 18th blowout, Love also struggled defensively and let Draymond Green blow past him and pick apart the rest of the Cavalier defense en route to 16 points and 10 assists.

Kyrie Irving has provided the support King James lacked in last year's NBA Finals

Kyrie Irving has provided the support King James lacked in last year’s NBA Finals. Will his support be enough this time around?

The addition of Channing Frye should help Cleveland stretch the floor on both ends of the floor. After coming over from Orlando, Frye really found came into own in the Eastern Conference semifinals, providing efficient minutes off the bench and shooting 58% from three-point range. Last season the Cavs went big with Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov anchoring the paint down low. With Mozgov seemingly buried on Lue’s bench, Frye could be the answer for Cleveland’s match up struggles.

Yes, the names on the front are the same as last year. And yes, a majority of the names on the back are the same. But these are not the same two teams we saw a year ago; they are better. Can the Cavs match up with the small and quick line up of Golden State? How will Golden State handle a hot Kyrie Irving? Is Anderson Varejao guaranteed a ring now matter who wins? One thing is for sure, we cannot wait to find out.

2016 NBA Finals Series

Game 1 – Thursday, Cavaliers at Warriors, 9 p.m. on ABC

Game 2 – Sunday, Cavaliers at Warriors, 8 p.m. on ABC

Game 3 – June 8, Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m. on ABC

Game 4 – June 10, Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m. on ABC

Game 5* – June 13, Cavaliers at Warriors, 9 p.m. on ABC

Game 6* – June 16, Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m. on ABC

Game 7* – June 19, Cavaliers at Warriors, 8 p.m. on ABC

*if necessary