Has the NBA ever seen anything quite like the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour? I think it's safe to say that this has been unique in the history of the league.
It's not just that Kobe is iconic -- there are have been many other iconic players. But various factors have come together to create this singular -- and somewhat bizarre -- spectacle.
Let's start with the simple fact that the Los Angeles Lakers are terrible -- a truly horrible team, and playing absolutely the wrong way. When the Clippers faced the Lakers back-to-back last week, long time Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler (who has been there for each of the 69 times the Clippers have played against the Jelly Bean's boy) lamented the fact that the Lakers were so bad in Kobe's final season.
Then again, isn't it better this way? If the Lakers had something to play for -- anything at all, really -- then they might have second thoughts about simply staging a Kobe curtain call every night, as opposed to playing basketball.
Kobe is in the process of posting the worst ever true shooting percentage for any player with a usage percentage over 30% since the introduction of the three point shot. Now, that sounds like a lot of qualifiers, but it's actually pretty straightforward:
Usage tells us who dominates the ball the most;
True shooting percentage tells us the actual efficiency with which they score
Which means that Kobe is putting the final touches on the least efficient high volume season EVER. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the previous holder of that mark was retirement year Michael Jordan, so KB is one-upping MJ right to the end.)
(I can't resist pointing out the other end of that spectrum, where Stephen Curry is having the MOST efficient high volume season ever, which is a lot harder to do.)
Now, if the Lakers had something to play for -- say for instance if they were battling for the eighth seed in the playoffs, as far-fetched as that seems -- then someone might have to say "Whoa there, Kobes. Um, maybe you should stop hoisting threes at a rate of 7 per game when you're only making 28% of them." With the Lakers firmly mired in last place in the conference (and happily so, given their situation and the fact that they would lose their first round pick if it were not in the top three), it's no big deal if Kobe wants to shoot. The fans still get a kick out of the few he makes and winning isn't really the point anyway.
Of course, the idea that someone would say something to him presumes that a coach on the Lakers staff would actually stand up to Kobe, which Byron Scott is not about to do.
In fact, everything about this season was set up to make it the Kobe Farewell Tour, which is why we've never seen anything like it before and may never see anything like it in the future. By way of contrast, take a look at two other iconic players who've been in the league almost as long: Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. Obviously Kobe has always sought the limelight more than the other two, but they've each won rings, they've each won MVPs, and they've each played for one franchise all of their professional careers. The difference is that both Nowitzki and Duncan have remained key contributors on good teams, maintaining high efficiency while accepting diminished roles, and both will make the playoffs again this season.
Will we see a similar display when Dirk and Tim do actually retire? Let's hope that opposing arenas and opposing fans gush just as much -- and that we see fewer terrible shots along the way.
I hear a lot of talk about how it must be killing Kobe to be on such a terrible team. How the young Lakers just don't have the discipline that the Mamba had. But looking at the numbers this season, it's tough to argue that the likes of D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson should be emulating Kobe Bryant more.
I still find it strange that we've never seen this sort of thing before. The player and the era (both of which tend toward the extreme) certainly have something to do with it. There's also the tendency of players to hang on a bit too long, to chase rings as they move from team to team, to delay the retirement decision as long as possible. How could you have this type of farewell tour for Jordan? I mean, which retirement would you have done it for? Karl Malone was a Laker in his final season and no one really knew it was his final season anyway. Allen Iverson made it back to Philadelphia for his last few months in the league, but after stops in Denver and Detroit and even Memphis it was tough to know how to react to his final games. Not to mention that once again, he did not leave the game on his own terms, not really announcing his retirement so much as failing to sign another contract.
And the list goes on. Most players don't make the decision during the season, deferring it until the summer. Maybe they don't want it to be a distraction -- which of course was a non-issue for the Lakers since anything that distracted from their team was a good thing.
Duncan, Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett -- we'll find out soon enough if we've entered the era of the long goodbye.
When Kobe signed his contract extension back in 2013, I called it a great deal for the Lakers. I even used the term "Kobe Farewell Tour" (which I sadly neglected to copyright at the time). Obviously injuries played a major role in what has happened since then, but the Lakers got more or less what they expected out of the deal. They were one of the biggest stories in the NBA all season, despite having the second worst record.
Now that it's almost over, the real work of building a competitive basketball team can begin.
Of course from the Clippers standpoint, it means that a bit more oxygen will filter into the Staples Center. No Clipper fan I know is going to miss the "M-V-P" chant while an opposing player shoots free throws (though sadly those equally annoying Warriors fans will still show up in droves). The Clippers have been much the better team for years now though you'd be hard pressed to know it based on shelf space at the Team LA store. But next season will be the first where the Lakers are both terrible AND nameless, which could make a difference.
Will it make a difference to the team's standing in Los Angeles? It remains to be seen. But the Clippers still have some business to attend to this season, even after the Kobe Farewell Tour has left the building.