Ever since Kobe Bryant entered the league in 1996, he's been compared to Michael Jordan. For his first decade in the league most people questioned his ability to make his teammates better or even trust them.
In this recent championship run, Kobe Bryant seemed to be talking to a teammate about something or the other almost any time he was out on the court during stoppages. On the bench he would give advice and guidance to players that probably weren't even going to play meaningful minutes.
But, those are all evident things. People still question his teammate-ness and think it may be forced, contrived, or just a marriage in order to achieve success.
In being objective, let's allow for a moment that this could have all been a front; his transformation, coaching, guidance, and seeming likability. I'll admit that Kobe lacked a lot in terms of being a teammate when he first came into the league. He was selfish, introverted, above it all, and immature. He has matured over the years to become more instrumental in his teammate's success.
Aside from everything else, I think we can look to three people to affirm or deny Kobe's transformation as a teammate.
1) Lamar Odom
Lamar has openly stated he wants to come back to LA, and will even take less money for a role. He loves the city and loves playing for this team. He's completely happy in his current arrangement, the staple of which is Kobe Bryant. Lamar throughout the 2009 playoffs had praise for Kobe, both for his dedication, his ability to play long minutes, and how great a player he is. None of it look forced. When the media asked Odom about his severe back injury he suffered, Odom said Kobe has played hurt for two years.
If Kobe isn't a good teammate NOW, do you really think Odom would offer to take less money just to play by his side? I doubt he's riding Kobe for the wins and championships. He genuinely enjoys Kobe's game, admires his greatness, and likes complementing his play.
2) Pau Gasol
Gasol has been asked many times about how it is to be Kobe's sidekick. He was afraid at first after being traded from Memphis in the 07-08 season, and admitted that he was anxious to see how it would be. Even Shannon Brown has said that playing with Kobe is nothing like what people think it is. Gasol has hammered home that Kobe's focus, dedication, and work ethic rubs off on all his teammates. Gasol says he has become a better player, more dedicated, stronger, tougher, and more focused on winning because of Kobe. Kobe's drive has been transferred to Gasol, who was even up at 3am when Kobe sent him pump-up texts through the playoffs.
Gasol is Kobe's No. 2 guy on the Lakers, and he seems completely happy to continue to get better and feed off Kobe's competitive drive. He loves it.
3) Trevor Ariza
A player who just made a HUGE name for himself in the 2009 playoffs and is now a free agent, recently announced he wants to come back to LA. Obviously he wants a pay raise and he surely deserves it. He's only 24 and has proved his worth to a championship team. He's made huge strides in his shooting and defense. You know who he credits with this? None other than Kobe Bryant. Kobe gave him guidance, tips, and even a video to work on his shooting and get better. Ariza talks about how Kobe had taken him under his wing and treated his guidance almost like a Bible.
He had taken 61 threes in his entire career before coming to the Lakers. He took 65 threes in the 2009 playoffs. He made 47% of them. He graciously gave Kobe part of the credit.
Now, people will still say it is just a marriage to win, that Kobe will inherently never be liked as a person or a teammate. While all of that is fine, we forget sometimes that these players are also normal people. They go to work everyday like everyone does, and want to enjoy their workplace. If people don't like their workplace they don't perform as well, and would leave if they got equal or better offers elsewhere.
Now, if Odom didn't like playing with Kobe, wouldn't he leave for more money? If Ariza didn't, wouldn't he want to leave now on a high as a free agent and make loads of money elsewhere? If Kobe's guidance and drive wasn't helping them, how come both of them have made such huge strides in their individual games?
Maybe they are just putting up with him because they know they have a good chance of getting rings with him. Maybe. But Odom could monetarily discount himself in a similar fashion and probably make it onto a number of other contenders if he wanted to, as many would be happy to get the versatile forward at a bargain. Ariza could probably get onto another West contender looking for a tenacious, long, defender to guard the likes of Kobe Bryant. He could ship himself out east to deal with the likes of Wade and LeBron. But he doesn't want to leave after just one year with Kobe.
You don't have to like Kobe as a person, and don't have to like all the things he's done as a teammate. But we should give him credit for the good things he has done as a teammate.
(references: Lakers.com, ESPN.com)