Mamba #1: Kobe Bryant is’s 2008 NBA MVP

Click to read my article explaining how I came to name Kobe Bryant as the 2008 NBA MVP.

The NBA is a league built upon moments. Wilt Chamberlain posing with a scribbled ‘100’ on a piece of paper. Magic Johnson sweeping across the lane in the Boston Garden with his version of the sky hook. Michael Jordan holding his follow through after a game-clinching, picture perfect jumper in Utah.

Perhaps that is why it’s so hard for people to come to a consensus on Kobe Bryant as the 2008 NBA MVP. The Lakers have had so many non-basketball moments this season that it’s sometimes easy to forget they’ve won 56 games – far exceeding preseason expectations.

The season started in turmoil with Bryant’s trade demands. But management held firm and Bryant remained a Laker. And much to everyone’s surprisethe Los Angeles Lakers exuded the qualities of a cohesive team (and a good one to boot). Andrew Bynum developed into a double-double machine. Derek Fisher returned consistency to the point guard position and young reserves Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Ronny Turiaf fueled one of the deepest, most productive benches in the NBA.

Suddenly, purple and gold moments were happening around Kobe and not simply because of him. It seems strange to speak of the improved impact of Bryant’s teammates in his MVP column, but isn’t that the main claim for those clamoring for Garnett and Paul? Well, Kobe’s team went from just two games over .500 last year to the top of the ultra-competitive Western Conference in 2008.

Amid all this team talk let’s not forget that Kobe has had his moments. There was the 18-foot jumper with less than five seconds left to secure a 123-121 overtime victory on the road in Seattle in the first game after Bynum’s inury, dropping 41 points to spoil Shaq’s debut with the Suns and shooting 15-for-15 at the free throw line in the second half and overtime in a March 2 victory against the Mavericks.

However, many of Kobe’s moments this year have been uncharacteristic of “The Black Mamba” nickname Bryant gave himself a few seasons ago. Without losing his killer instinct or poise in the clutch, Kobe has seemingly become less venomous, especially with his teammates. Watching Kobe yuk it up on the sidelines with teammates during a Lakers rout is a sight for sore eyes. He’s smiling, laughing and having fun. Basketball is a game, after all.

Make no mistake about it, though, Kobe’s numbers are still great. At 28.5 points per game, he’s number two in the league in scoring. He also leads his team in assists at 5.4 per game and is ninth in the NBA in steals at 1.85 per game. And let’ s not forget that since February he’s been doing this all with a torn ligament in his right pinkie finger. Still, this is not his best season statistically. Yet his body language shows that he has no problem sacrificing shots (down 500 from two years ago) for wins (up 14 from a year ago with one game left to play).

And perhaps nothing put a bigger smile on Kobe’s face than the Pau Gasol trade, which should only bolster Kobe’s case for MVP. The team was a half game out of first in the West when Bynum went down with injury. They lost their starting center for the rest of the season and, admittedly received a gift from Memphis. However, they plugged him into the lineup and kept on rolling in the loaded West. No one has a better record than the Lakers’ 19-11 mark against the other Western Conference playoff contenders.

A great team is better than the sum of its parts, and so is a great player. That is what Kobe is all about. He’s a great scorer, ballhandler, defender, crunch-time performer and – now more than ever – great leader. Among the current Lakers, only Derek Fisher has been in league as long as Bryant. Including the playoffs, he’ll have played more than 1,000 games played before the age of 30. And he’s now using that experience to help his teammates learn the intricacies of the game.

Kobe’s had more moments than most could ever dream of: winning the ’97 Dunk Contest, starting in the ’98 all-star game as a 19-year-old kid, scoring 81 points in a game. But three June moments stand out in his mind.

And all the little moments from this season are just stepping stones toward the one Kobe wants most of all – hoisting that NBA Finals trophy once again. In the mind of this MVP, there’s a reason why that defining MVP moment is hard to pinpoint – it hasn’t happened (yet).

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