Different rides into the sunset for Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki

While Dirk Nowitzki has accepted, and thrived in, a slightly less prominent role in Dallas, Kobe Bryant has chosen to remain the alpha dog for a Lakers team going nowhere, writes Jonathan Raymond.
At 1-8, Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers have the worst record in the NBA's Western Conference to start the season. Jae C Hong / AP
At 1-8, Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers have the worst record in the NBA's Western Conference to start the season. Jae C Hong / AP

Last week, a pair of entirely divergent NBA records were set. One prestigious, one ignominious, both set by players with arguments for being among the 10 best of all time.

Together, they illustrate the disparate ways in which greats can find themselves leaving the game.

First, the good. In a 53-point win over Philadelphia on Thursday, Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki became the leading internationally-born scorer in NBA history, and ninth overall all-time.

Speaking the next day about his ongoing motivations late in his career, Nowitzki said in a conference call,”When you get older it’s not really about your career, it’s about a good team.

“I wanted to be on a good team again. The last couple years after the (2011) championship were tough, we didn’t even make the play-offs one year.

“It’s a huge reason why I took a pay cut this summer, to get a good team in here and I think we hit that.”

Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks have started 7-3 and have the look of a Western Conference darkhorse contender. Nowtizki hailed in particular his teammate Monta Ellis, for taking on a big chunk of the scoring load, and Dallas signed Chandler Parsons in the off-season for his scoring ability, as well.

Dirk has been able to play a more efficient, deliberate, supportive game as he enters his career’s twilight.

On the opposite end of that spectrum are Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers.

Bryant set his own record the night before, in a 109-102 loss to the Pelicans. Kobe, himself the NBA’s fourth highest scorer of all-time, added 33 points to his total in the defeat. Typically for him this season, they came on a poor shooting night, a 10-for-28 showing in which he set the record for more missed shots than any other player in league history.

That’s not an indictment of Kobe by any means. You don’t get to be the fourth-highest scorer ever without taking (and, inevitably, missing) more than a few shots. Kobe, like Dirk, has been an alpha dog during his career.

The problem is while Nowitzki is scaling things back, Bryant is still locked into an alpha dog role.

The Lakers, to be blunt, stink right now. At 1-8, they have the Western Conference’s worst record. Kobe is regularly posting ugly shot totals – 1-for-14 and 14-for-37 among them. He’s scoring 25.4 points per game and making 36.7 per cent of his shots, a remarkable combination.

Which, partly, is a function of the Lakers simply not having anyone else really worth giving the ball.

Which, unfortunately, is what Bryant signed up for,

When Kobe inked a two-year extension worth $48.5 million (Dh178.1m) last November, he was taking more money from the Lakers than any other team could or would offer him – entirely his right.

Bryant certainly didn’t owe it to anybody to do anything other than maximise the value of his last, best seasons. But he was also committing his last, best seasons to an obvious rebuilding project in Los Angeles.

You get the sense that Kobe, notorious competitor that he is, might have been happier taking less money to play with a better team.

“I don’t know if I can express to you how jealous I am of the fact that Tim, Tony, Manu and Pop have all been together for all those years,” he told ESPN LA the other day, referring to the San Antonio Spurs and their stability. “Not all this up-and-down stuff.”

Kobe’s an alpha dog, maybe inextricably so. Maybe, and perhaps even it’s likely, he’s built in such a way he could never have eased off into the sunset, thriving in a slightly more reserved role the way Nowitzki has.

But it would’ve been fun to see him give it a shot somewhere, rather than take the leading role in LA’s Kabuki theatre production.

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Published: November 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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