From Selfish to MVP in the Blink of an Eye
However, three years later it's pretty amazing just how much he has changed. Bryant has gone from a guy who was often salty with the media and his teammates to being a leader of perhaps the league's best team.
Others around the league have taken notice, too.
"My compliment to Kobe is that he has in a very quick period of time since Shaq and him separated and all of that chaos, I think that he has shown he can carry a team by being a team player," explained Denver head coach George Karl. "The power of Kobe Bryant is that he can beat you so many ways. He can be a defensive force. He's the most difficult cover on the perimeter in basketball. If you don't do it with two guys some nights you can't do it."
Even the most optimistic of Laker fans would have to acknowledge that Kobe has a different demeanor than he had three seasons ago. Moreover, I'm not sure too many people would have predicted that Kobe would have evolved into the type of leader and teammate he is now so quickly.
"He's come quick," Karl acknowledged. "You know, I didn't expect him to go from kind of a selfish player a couple of years ago -- or whatever phrase you want to use... individualistic player a few years ago -- to being now a leader of a championship drive."
In previous seasons Kobe had been known to throw a temper tantrum or two after tough losses like the one the Lakers suffered on Friday in Denver. Instead, what I observed was Kobe encouraging his teammates in the locker room after the game and brushing the loss right off his shoulder while conversing with the media.
His evolution has been something to behold.
What Could Have Been For Portland
I can already hear the keys tapping from those fans in Portland preparing to send me hate mail. Truth is, I really like Greg Oden. I've had the chance to sit down and speak with him on a couple of occasions and think he's a great kid.
What we're talking about today, though, is strictly business.
The Portland Trail Blazers had the chance to draft Kevin Durant. Instead, they went with size and drafted Oden, who, by the way, was the player most were saying the Blazers should select at the time.
Almost two years later it's hard not to think about what could have been had the Blazers opted to run with Durant instead. Dude is straight blowing up right now in Oklahoma City.
Just think how good the Blazers would be right now with Durant in the lineup.
Ohh! I just shivered a little bit pondering it.
Go ahead and get started with the rationalizations Rip City.
"Oden isn't the focus of the offense like Durant."
"The Blazers are still a dynasty in the making without Durant."
"It's too early to call Oden a bust."
Blah, blah, blah...
The bottom-line is that any intellectually honest Blazer fan knows that Portland would be better right now with Durant, and most of you are simply lying if you say the thought of how good Durant would look in a Blazers' jersey has never crossed your mind.
Could Oden come around and show that his early injury problems are simply a fluke?
However, does anyone seriously believe the Blazers would be better if Oden were healthy and the focus of the offense? He's not for a reason, and that reason is that his offensive game is extremely limited.
A lineup of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Durant is significantly more imposing than the Blazers' lineup when Oden is healthy. My suspicion is most of the coaches around the Association would likely quietly agree if asked off the record, too. I know because I asked a few this week.
Look, I like Oden as a person and hope he goes on to have a fantastic career. It would be great for the Blazers and great for the league as a whole if Oden eventually hits his stride. But given the relatively small but ever growing sample size we have thus far, it's looking more and more like the Blazers made the wrong decision.
Problems Start at the Top for Detroit
You remember that scene in the movie Titanic where the ship was perpendicular to the water and cats were jumping and falling off the ship into the cold water below? I can't help but surmise that must be what it feels like to be a member of the Detroit Pistons these days.
The easy answer is to blame Allen Iverson for everything that's happening. However, it's really so much more than that.
Michael Curry is another easy scapegoat. But is it really his fault he was asked to lead a veteran team that would have been better suited to be captained by a more seasoned coach?
The guy who should be getting most of the blame seems to somehow be getting a free pass. I know you're not allowed to criticize Joe Dumars for anything in Detroit, but I don't live there so here goes.
Dumars first made a bad choice by assuming a young coach like Michael Curry could come in and gain the respect of the players simply because he played in the NBA. Guess what? It takes more than playing experience in the league to gain the respect of the players. Dumars would have been better served to hire a veteran coach. Either that or he should have stuck with Flip Saunders.
Dumars' next major mistake involved trading away the heart and soul of the franchise for Allen Iverson. The current spin in the Motor City is that it was a financial move. That may be true, but that sure wasn't the way the Pistons tried to spin it when they first made the decision to kick Chauncey Billups to the curb.
Creating cap space helps buy Dumars time. However, if he doesn't get a big free agent or two that gets this team back to the Eastern Conference Finals in the near future than it's time for Dumars to really feel the heat.
Go ahead and blame Iverson or Curry if that makes you feel better Piston fans. However, the real problem for the Pistons right now starts with the shot caller in the luxury suite.
Marbury Soon Won't Matter
It seems everybody has an opinion about Stephon Marbury being signed by Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics.
I'll say this: If I was running things in Boston I wouldn't have brought Marbury aboard simply because of the risk that it might disrupt the team's chemistry. However, given the Celtics strong team concept I don't think one player has the power to tear all of that down.
What's interesting to me is that the issue seems to have become extremely polarizing. Either people think Marbury is going to win the Celtics a couple of playoff games or he's going to be the kerosene that gets poured over the C's that ultimately leads to an explosion.
My guess is that neither will occur. Sure, Marbury will probably have a couple of nice regular season games. Come playoff time, though, I think Marbury will just kind of fade into the background and become insignificant. I don't think he'll end up winning the team any playoff games, but I also don't think he's going to implode and cause them to lose any games, either.
The Celtics were good enough to win a title before they signed Marbury. And if they win one again this season, it won't be because of Marbury's contributions.
In the end, his presence will be a non-story for the Celtics.
Shaq's Not Done Yet
Okay, I'll admit it. I was one of those that said Shaquille O'Neal's days of being a real factor in the NBA were over after what I saw last season.
Obviously, I was wrong. Look no further than his 45-point performance on Friday night against the Toronto Raptors if you need additional proof.
"He was just camping down in the lane," said Toronto forward Chris Bosh after the game. "I mean, if they're not calling three seconds... I thought it was a rule, but I guess not."
Sound like sour grapes to anyone else?
What's interesting about Bosh's comments is that these were the same kind of remarks we used to hear routinely four, five or six seasons ago. The fact we are now hearing them again is a testament to the kind of basketball Shaq is playing this season.
When brought up to speed that Shaq had dropped 45 on the Raptors Friday night, his former Laker teammate Kobe Bryant whose Lakers will play in Phoenix on Sunday replied: "Did he really? Go ahead, big fella."
Bryant later quipped: "That means he ain't going to have (expletive) left in the tank on Sunday, so I'm cool with that."
The sad thing is "The Big Cactus" is wasting what will certainly be one of his final two or three seasons on a team that has absolutely no chance of winning a championship this season.
Perhaps he will get traded or bought out by the Suns this summer. Fans of the NBA can only hope so because seeing Shaq on a true contender would be the perfect way for one of the best big men in the history of the game to go out.