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Daily Babble: Theorizing About Kobe's Value In Celts Terms

Indeed, I'm ripping off my own forum thread and taking it to the main page in my efforts to add my two cents (as promised, or threatened, depending on your sentiments about my writing) to debate one of my favorite hypothetical "would never happen in a million years for either team" trade ideas, courtesy of a reader known as The Guru.  A quick excerpt from my post on the initial thread to set the table:

Just finished up a column on Kobe and how he probably confounds me more than any other player in the league, but a conversation I had with someone while writing the piece led to an interesting question in order to debate Bryant's relative value.  A disclaimer beforehand: Obviously, the chances of Bryant coming to Boston lie somewhere in the vast range between zero and none, and the chances of Mitch Kupchak and Danny Ainge having this type of discussion are somewhat similar.  That said, the question still intrigues me:

It is December 27, 2007.  You're Danny Ainge.  The Lakers call and offer you Kobe Bryant (plus some necessary parts to make salaries match; I'm not looking to delve too far into technicality here but more to address the pure basketball value of the players involved) in exchange for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.  Your response?

It's my hypothesis that especially on this board, the responses will be overwhelmingly in favor of a quick rejection, and understandably so given our natural biases as C's fans and the early-season success this team has had so far.  That in mind, there is still certainly an intrigue for me to that type of deal, and if put in the position, I think it's one I would have to consider making.  I'm curious to hear what other posters on this board think before expounding more on this. 

Having let a couple of days pass to let the responses come in and to do some thinking of my own, it certainly appears that the initial results were, as expected, overwhelmingly against the idea of making that type of move if it ever presented itself.  The principal reasons given were the 2-for-1 nature of the move (at least as far as superstars were concerned, the C's would going from the Big Three to the Big Two) and the possible chemistry issues that could be invited by bringing in Bryant.

Both of those are fair arguments.  That said, while I can't say with one hundred percent certainty that I would make the move, it is an idea that would be very intriguing if presented and one that would merit a very serious degree of consideration, for the myriad of reasons outlined below.  And my belief is that, unlike many of my colleagues in the forum, I would lean toward making the deal.


So far as the individual comparisons between Kobe and Paul Pierce or Kobe and Ray Allen, there are none.  Kobe is the NBA's premier individual talent, and -- to estimate his capabilities conservatively -- he is in a stratosphere with just one other player at the swing positions: LeBron James.  At a scoring-oriented position where relatively able players come a dime a dozen, Bryant is clearly on another level.  He has established himself over the past few seasons as the best scorer in the game (though he currently sits at second in the league with 27.2 points per game).  Though not quite as strong as Pierce, at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Bryant plays a relatively powerful game for a two-guard, and he absorbs contact very well.  The man is a threat from everywhere on the floor and can completely commandeer a game on the offensive end when his team needs him to do so.  He is a decent rebounder (5.2 per game for his career) and is currently having his best season in that department with 6.3 boards per game.

What really separates Kobe beyond the fact that he is simply a better scorer than virtually everyone else, what provides the most reasonable case for the comparisons that are often made between Bryant and His Airness himself is the defense.  Bryant isn't merely a good defender; he is a great one.  He is easily the best of the scoring swingmen in this league in that area, and he can be called on to shut down the opponent's best player on a nightly basis.  TNT analyst Doug Collins observed last season that because of the added offensive burden placed on Bryant over the past few seasons, he has had to resort to conserving energy and playing defense in spurts for the Lakers.  On a team with Kevin Garnett helping take the burden off of him on both ends of the floor, that would likely no longer be the case, allowing Bryant to fully flourish defensively once more.  Pierce and Allen may be putting forth increased effort and focus on the defensive end of the floor, but neither of them hold a candle to Bryant in that regard.  With Bryant and, as one poster suggested, Trevor Ariza on the floor (or perhaps incumbent James Posey) to go along with Garnett, the top-ranked defense would be far more strangling than it already is, which would really be saying something.

One other point about the comparisons between Kobe and MJ, however warranted they may or may not be (that is another discussion for another time, to be sure): the issue of killer instinct.  As my good buddy, Chicago native and devout Jordan believer Mays loves to say, "Those two players share a sociopathic approach to dominating basketball games.  That is all there is to it.  They have to succeed.  End of story."  Mays means this as a compliment.  While this certainly isn't to advocate the labeling of Bryant as any sort of sociopath, the point stands: Kobe Bryant is a stone-cold killer on the basketball court.  There is something intangibly different in the way he works at and plays the game.  He wants and needs to kill you, and he will do it or die trying.  Given that there is certainly a school of thought that shares Mays's sentiment that there have been two guys over the last two decades to possess this singular will to succeed on the floor, this isn't a knock on the respective desire levels of Pierce and Allen.  We have seen thus far that both are very much committed to going out and getting a title, and both want badly to go out and push this team to success.  But they aren't Kobe.  Because nobody is.  He is that special.

As for the chemistry and character issues, the concerns are certainly legitimate.  However, much as I have been a devout adversary of Bryant's in this regard for a long time (see the column from earlier in the week for details), and as much deserved love as Pierce is getting right now, it isn't fair to brand Kobe the cancer and canonize Pierce for his behaviors over the last few years.  Lest we forget that Pierce was the one who made one of the most thoughtless gaffes in the last decade of Celtics basketball with his thuggish elbow to Jamaal Tinsley's mug that got him ejected from Game 6 of the playoff series with Indiana in 2005.  Or that he followed that up by loafing and getting T'd up in the embarassing Game 7 loss at home, a game the Celtics were fortunate to even be a part of after Pierce's teammates picked up the slack and bailed him out with an overtime win in Game 6.  Or that Pierce had started some semi-public rumblings of his own about his discontent with the team and possible desire to leave if Danny Ainge didn't bring in veteran help this summer.

Particularly on this site, that last paragraph absolutely must be disclaimed with the declaration that those weren't irreparable acts by Pierce.  He has since largely redeemed himself in the eyes of Celts fans all over the place.  He made major strides as a teammate and leader during the 33-win 2005-06 season and was for the most part a model citizen throughout the two seasons after that Indiana playoff series and prior to his trade demands.  Since the summer, he has been a joy once more, saying and doing all the right things and happily ceding a major portion of the spotlight in Beantown to his new 'mates.  Pierce is playing solid basketball and looking better on defense than he has in a long time, and he deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround.  But by the same token, Bryant is playing excellent team basketball and saying all the right things in Los Angeles, only to have it largely written off by the idea that it is easy to act well when one's team is winning and everything is peachy.  Undoubtedly, adversity is perhaps the best test of character, but both Kobe and Paul have made their share of mistakes in the face of adversity.  And both are currently helping their teams move in the right direction.  There needs to be one standard, which is the point about Pierce here.  It isn't that he is a bad guy (he isn't), or that he sinned in ways that will never be pardoned in Boston (he didn't) or that he doesn't deserve the love he has rediscovered in Boston (he certainly does), but simply that there is an inherent hypocrisy in slamming Bryant and canonizing another individual guilty of some similar behaviors.

Right now, Pierce is playing winning basketball, and all is well in Boston.  Kobe Bryant is playing winning basketball, and all is well in Los Angeles.  Kobe Bryant plays basketball better than Paul Pierce does, and he might even play it well enough that it would be worth losing Ray Allen to get Bryant as well.  As Pierce has matured, it certainly appears that Bryant has as well in his own way, and one would have to expect that he would relish the opportunity to play with Kevin Garnett.  In fact, it might not even be out of the question to presume that KG might be able to exert some positive influence on him and bring him toward being a bigger part of the team off the floor.

Certainly, the chemistry is important, and it has been wonderful to date in Boston this season, but it has been wonderful for a team that has faced minimal if any adversity.  Of course, one would love to believe that if and when adversity shows itself, this chemistry will remain intact, and as an ever-optimistic Celtics fan, I'm certainly predisposed to believe that this will be the case.  But the truth is that I don't know.  And that makes putting the extra value on the part of this I feel more certain about -- the simple issue of basketball ability -- seem more palatable.

Finally, to the most significant issue of all: That of winning a championship, which is the ultimate goal.  Given that this Celts team is off to a wonderfully enjoyable 24-3 start, it is understandable that the old faithful "Don't fix what ain't broke" sentiment was expressed with regard to making moves with this Celtics team.  So far as having a solid regular season record and grabbing a high seed, this Celts team is nowhere near broken and can likely continue rolling along as currently constructed.  What the playoffs will bring, however, remains to be seen.  Make no mistake; I'm no pessimist:  I embody the fact that fan is the root of fanatic, and I firmly believe that this team as currently constructed can and will win the 2008 NBA title.  But being a fan who is head-over-heels in love with his basketball club does not necessarily equate to pure objectivity.  Bringing in Bryant doesn't solve the Celtics' greatest concerns (the questions at point and center as well as the depth issues), but it would likely give them the best scorer and the best big man in most playoff series and a proven playoff winner.  Bryant understands what it means to play winning playoff basketball in this league, and he has done it at the highest level there is.  That cannot be overlooked.  Further, while looking to make defensive improvements to the league's top defensive team may seem nitpicky at this point, it is defense that wins games in the playoffs, and the addition of Kobe would make this team a far stronger defensive unit come spring time.  That stone-cold killer issue becomes all the more important then, too.  Also, it doesn't hurt that Bryant would provide an alternate ball-handler when necessary and would likely be more successful in that regard than Piece or Allen.

Ultimately, I've now spent an evening musing about an imaginary trade idea that will never happen, so to wrap up, it comes down to this:  There is an understandable plethora of reasons for not liking the idea of moving Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for Kobe Bryant, many of which were expressed well in the forum (although we certainly welcome more explanations in the comments section).  But there are responses to many of those reasons, and above all for those who support the idea, there is this, the truth that keeps hitting home over and over again as the Lakers' early-season success continues: Kobe Bryant might just be that special.

But that situation will never present itself, and that is likely for the best.  Because make no mistake: I am indeed head-over-heels enamored with this basketball team.  No matter the outcome, it is and will be a joy to watch them go about their quest for a championship.  As I have said all year, we Celts fans are just along for the ride right now.  And I couldn't think of a place I would rather be.  How about you?

Steve's daily posts can be found on the CelticsBlog NBA page.  Check back daily for quality content.

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