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Of all the major sports, basketball is one of the only ones where we have conversations about who the “alpha-dog” on a given team is. It’s certainly the only one where this subject is not just hype or banter but is quite legitimate; where it can strongly affect teams, hinder or even ruin player relationships, and in extreme cases even make or break a season for a title contender (cases in point: 2004 Lakers, 2011 Heat).
In a game like basketball – where winning is based on an intricate balance between chemistry and individual talents– it’s easy to understand why the alpha-dog thing is such an issue. Many teams have more than one elite talent, and nearly every team has several guys who have spent at least some portion of their basketball career being the go-to-guy. Throw in egos inflated to the size of hot-air-balloons, media pressure and everything else, and you can see how something as seemingly meaningless as “Who’s our lead guy?” can cause distress.
So while I maintain my opinion that the 2012 US Olympic Basketball team cannot and will not be beaten, it’s always fun to play a little devil’s advocate. And while every basketball media outlet in the known world is bandying on about Spain’s menacing front-line being the potential undoing of another American gold medal, I think the real threat is much closer to home – in the USA’s own locker room.
After watching each Team USA prelim (except the Great Britain game…I’m sure you’ll forgive me for having better things to do), the team looks solid. Not great, not spectacular, but solid. The defense is excellent. The offense has been lethargic for periods, but that’s to be expected when you take 12 guys who are accustomed to being first or second options and ask many of them to be pick-setters or rebounders. No, considering everything, this team has performed to expectations thus far, even if they’ve come nowhere close to their ceiling. All the players seem to be growing more comfortable together. Along with that, the role-players seem to be adjusting to their new jobs, and this is starting to look like more of a real team than just a collection of talented individuals…with one exception.
That’s right, Kobe, I’m looking at you. Are those spot-up threes with 15 seconds left on the shot-clock part of Coach K’s game plan? I’m going with no. That stuff flies when you’re in LA and your next-best outside shooter is Pau Gasol, not when you’ve got LeBron posting up and Durant raining triples like free throws. Sure those turnaround jumpers look great when you sink them (and no one is questioning that you do it better than anyone), but with all this other talent, do you really think that’s the most efficient way to get points? Sooner or later, Kobe, you’re going to have to face the fact that you’re not the best player on the court anymore. That is, of course, if you value the gold medal around your neck over individual accomplishments…and with you, it’s always been tough to tell.
Look, this type of thing is understandable. Kobe was the dominant player of his generation, the greatest talent since Jordan. He was the clear-cut alpha-dog of the 2008 gold medal-winning USA squad and has won two NBA titles since (also, of course, as the alpha-dog). And he’s not just here based on his past resume – with Dwayne Wade out he’s still clearly the best 2-guard available, and don’t think for a second that I’m questioning that. It’s entirely reasonable that he’d have trouble giving up the throne, especially while still an elite NBA player.
But at the same time, it’s not reasonable. For all the talking he’s been doing lately about the 1992 Dream Team, Kobe seems to be missing one of the key lessons he should have learned from them. Namely, from two of the legends who played for them. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, while not in exactly the same career position as Bryant is right now, entered the ’92 Games as greats. Both were at the tail end of spectacular NBA careers as the unquestioned alpha-dogs of their respective teams. And while both were expected to be leaders on and off the court (just like Kobe should be in 2012), these legends knew better than to expect to log the most minutes or take the most shots. Younger stars like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen were in their primes. And while many wouldn’t have blamed Magic and Larry Legend for being stubborn and demanding top-dog status, they knew it wasn’t in their team’s best interest. A huge part of what made the Dream Team so untouchable was these two all-time greats allowing themselves to take on lesser roles for the greater good of the team.
Keep in mind, though, that this was 1992. The quality of international competition wasn’t a fraction of what it is now. Back then, even if those two had gotten pushy and hogged the ball, Team USA still would have won every game by 25. Fast forward to 2012, though, and the competition is much stiffer. The US still has the most talent by a long shot, but their opponents aren’t going to be snapping pictures from the bench and asking for autographs like they were 20 years ago. And if push comes to shove, Kobe might have to make a decision between being the alpha-dog and being the winner.
What does “if push comes to shove” mean exactly, you ask? Consider the following scenario: It’s the gold medal game against Spain. The score is tied with four minutes remaining. Kobe has had a reasonable game, with 14 points so far on 5-12 shooting. Meanwhile, Durant has been unstoppable, sinking four triples and scoring 25 points already. LeBron has been in perfect facilitator mode, only scoring 13 but dishing out 11 dimes and crashing the boards for nine rebounds, all while guarding Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka most of the game.
For at least the past seven years, there has only been one option for Kobe Bryant in a game like this – dominate the ball. Every Lakers possession during these final minutes would involve him either dribbling the ball up or taking an immediate pass on the wing, then going one-on-one with a defender. Never mind that several detailed analyses have proven this strategy (for any team, not just Kobe or the Lakers) ineffective, and never mind that his clutch-time numbers are in reality nothing short of horrifying. This is Kobe time. For someone who has spent his career trying to emulate MJ, this is the best time to do so.
But what about in this situation? You’ve got the best pure scorer in the game, along with the best distributor and overall player. Both are well past any late-game issues they may have had at some point in their careers. Both are having excellent games. Can you justify sticking with your hero-ball approach when the guys around you give you a better shot at winning?
Again, I don’t see this scenario as too likely. I think the massive talent disparity along with growing team chemistry will propel the USA to a series of blowout wins, even against so-called rivals Spain. But you can’t help but ask what if? Will Kobe be able to put his pride away and do what it takes to win?
I can honestly say I’m not sure. But a big part of me wants it to happen, just to see. In a way, it could end up telling us just as much about Kobe Bryant as any of his past triumphs.
By Ben Dowsett (@ben_dowsett)
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