Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players and people to ever play basketball. I had him ranked 10th all time in our #HCHot50, where we placed him 9th as a group, and I wondered if I placed him too low. He is way more than just a scorer. He is a warrior, one of the most fierce competitors the game has known. 5 NBA championships, one NBA MVP, 2 Olympic gold medals, and a consistent place among the game’s top 5 players from 1998-2012.
Nobody has to like Kobe: this is a free country. But his career is an undoubted raging success, and he should be remembered as such. The debate about retiring 8 or 24? Retire them both. Kobe is one of the greatest players I or you will ever see, why think about it.
With all of that said, one thing also is true. Kobe Bryant should not be placed on the United States’ 2016 Olympic basketball team, for multiple reasons.
He is Clearly Not Good Enough At This Point
If the Olympic team is picked based purely on merit, the roster could look, approximately, as follows (note: I am not advocating for this specific 12, just suggesting this 12 could reasonably constitute the roster):
-Point Guards: Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook
-Wings: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Paul George
-Bigs: Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Draymond Green, Andre Drummond
It is without argument that, at this moment in time, Kobe is no longer at or near the level of any of these players. Kobe is shooting approximately 30% while using approximately 30% of Lakers’ possessions. What Kobe does this year does not affect his all time legacy, not even a little bit. Still, the current Kobe, as of December, 2015 and most likely until his last game, is a bad basketball player, frankly one of the league’s worst.
We may be witnessing the greatest season ever (Stephen Curry) and the worst season of the shot-clock era (Kobe Bryant) at the same time.
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) December 7, 2015
The current team USA crop is not just ultra talented. The roster is chock full of deep playoff and Olympic experience. LeBron has an extensive big game resume. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are gold medalists with deep playoff experience. CP3 and Carmelo have been around both blocks as well. Paul George was a huge part of multiple Pacers title contenders. Curry and Draymond are pillars of the defending champions.
The point of all that: the idea that Kobe adds necessary experience to team USA is really a farce – this team is loaded with experience, not just talent. There is nothing Kobe can add to this team, at this stage in his life, and nobody can dispute that in good faith.
Nobody wants to say it, but really, the idea that Kobe should be a member of Team USA has nothing to do with what he can add to the team, but is packaged that way because it arises from a more arrogant place – the belief that, “there’s no way Team USA is losing, so we may as well give Kobe a cool send off.” Such underestimation of the competition in sports is incredibly arrogant – insulting, really.
Sports can be unpredictable, and no result is ever guaranteed. 18-1 happened to the New England Patriots. The Miracle on Ice happened. Serena Williams losing her calendar grand slam and Rafael Nadal losing to Robin Soderling in the French Open happened. This list could take up twenty paragraphs if we added every example. Upsets — minor and titanic — are part of the foundation of sports, and when all an upset requires is 1 loss, they can happen more often.
All it takes for Team USA to lose is 1 medal round loss, and in the last fifteen years we have seen the US lose or come close. Team USA lost in the 2004 Olympics, finishing with a bronze medal, and then followed that up with another loss, and bronze, at the 2006 FIBA Championships. The 2008 Olympic Team won gold, but the gold medal game against Spain was a competitive game throughout where Spain fouled late to stop the clock, and the team needed every point it got (and, yes, many of those points came from Kobe). In the 2010 FIBA world championships, the US beat Brazil by two points in a game that, frankly, Brazil choked, missing point black shots and free throws that should have won them the game. Then, in the medal rounds, all of Team USA’s games were largely competitive.
Most recently, in 2012, Team USA won gold, but came close to defeat. In pool play against Lithuania, team USA won by just 5 points, 99-94, in a pick ‘em game. The score was 85-84 with 4:46 left in the fourth quarter – anyone’s game, and Team USA trailed at one point in the third quarter. Spain then led the gold medal game midway through the third, and the game was a one possession game for most of the second half. Team USA did dominate more thoroughly in the 2014 FIBA Championships, but it was the only international competition over the past dozen years where there was no loss, or game where the US was in real jeopardy of one.
To add Kobe to the Olympic team would be cool for him if the team won gold. But, in reality, it would be tremendously insulting and disrespectful to the other teams competing for gold, and to the Games as a whole. There is a reason that Knick fans don’t want Ewing on the 2015-2016 Knicks, Suns fans don’t want Barkley on the 2015-2016 Suns, or Lakers fans don’t want Kareem on the 2015-2016 Lakers (insert any fanbase and legend here). The reason is obvious: those teams would be worse by adding those players at this stage in their lives, thus increasing their chances of losing games.
To want Kobe on the Olympic team is highly arrogant, and dismissive of other teams. Should team USA win even if Kobe is on the team? Sure. And they still would be the overwhelming favorites; really, they would be something beyond overwhelming favorites. But their chances of winning, while something close to 100% (perhaps 99.9%) are not 100%. Nothing in sports ever is.
There are Negative Future Implications to Kobe Bryant the Olympian
There is a very popular phrase many learn in school: “history repeats itself.” The concept of the phrase is simple. In life, people (and nations) make mistakes. Bad things happen as a result of those mistakes. We pledge as people never to let those mistakes occur again. But time heals all wounds, and we get away from our newfound good behavior. We start doing the things that caused the mistakes. And, boom. Bad events occur, as they did once before.
When team USA suffered their 2004 debacle – behind a roster stacked with talent, despite the myth that they only lost because they sent a B team – team USA said no more. No more selecting players due to political agendas. After losing to less talented rosters with better roster fits, no more just selecting players because of talent. It was time to get rosters that fit. No more arbitrary roster spots, but time for a sincere tryout process. If you wanted to be part of Team USA, you had to try out, earn your place, fit the team concepts, and then commit, over several summers, to blending in. That was a sea change from “we’re picking whatever 12 guys we want, because the names are glitzy and glamorous.”
Slowly but surely, however, as the wounds of 2004 (and 2006) wear off, we are seeing team USA’s bravado regrow, and the selection process reverting back to the precise political games that it was trying to avoid. With Coach K at the helm, we have seen Duke players, to put it mildly, receive preferential treatment during the selection process. John Wall seems resigned to the fact that there is no way he can beat out Kyrie Irving for a roster spot. Wall has accomplished more than Kyrie, and, given the scoring punch on team USA, he appears to be a better fit, at first blush. While the merits of both players is debatable, however, the fact that this is a problem is not. Wall appears resigned to the fact that he’s not earning a spot on Coach K’s team over Coach K’s point guard.
And after DeMarcus Cousins’ 2014 FIBA spot was in legitimate jeopardy because of the presence of the infinitely less accomplished Duke alum Mason Plumlee, how could Wall feel he got a fair shake.
In honor of DeMarcus Cousins' 25th birthday, watch him posterize Mason Plumlee. http://t.co/xFkMyRrTmm
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) August 13, 2015
Were Kobe to make the Olympic roster over say, Paul George or Klay Thompson, some seem to think that would help inspire the team, as if they are not already inspired to play for their country and, in a once in a lifetime opportunity for some and last opportunity for others, win a gold medal. Is there any Olympic team in any Olympic sport that thinks this way?
Really, Kobe making the team would not inspire players. What it would do would cause whoever gets cut, or nearly gets cut, to feel they did not get a fair shake, and that they were robbed of a once in a lifetime opportunity to win a medal. That makes those players less likely to want to be a part of the team in the future, or to think that they will get a fair chance to do so.
Some argue that players will be happy to see Kobe play given his experience, and that players like George, Klay Thompson, or whoever Kobe would replace, would hate to sit on the bench. But there is no emotion, for players like this, more powerful than getting cut. And when getting cut happens not on the merits, but to honor someone else? That is a scar.
And scars like that can lead to a weaker player pool in 4 years, if players get turned off from the politicized process. Maybe the 2016 Olympic team wins gold regardless – Kobe or not, it is an overwhelming favorite. But what happens in 2020 if LeBron and Curry decide they are too old, with too many body miles, to attend, others are injured, and teams like Canada (armed with Wiggins and Tristan Thompson as a great foundation, given what Wiggins could be by then) are stronger than they once were. All it takes is one loss, after all.
Kobe is one of the greatest basketball players ever. His career was a treasure. I will certainly miss him.
But let’s just hope history does not repeat itself again.