What Principles Matter Most For Kobe Bryant?

Kobe Bryant

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On January 15, Kobe Bryant dropped 17 dimes on the Cleveland Cavaliers, helping the Lakers stick close against LeBron James and his coalescing Eastern Conference powerhouse. He spoke at length to the media after in what turned into a frank discussion of his athletic mortality, and the process of changing his approach on the floor. It wasn’t as complicated as some might have guessed.

“I’ve always been a realist,” he said. “I’m not afraid to self-assess.” Fundamental to that process is the willingness to be “brutally honest” with yourself.

I asked if, given that eye towards self-assessment, Kobe believes his play meets the standard he’s always set for himself.

“It’s still at the elite level, it’s just different. It’s different. It’s more putting the pieces in the right place, quarterbacking. It’s more strategic. It’s less foot on the throttle,” he said. “I’ll be at a high level. I can get 15 (points) and 10 assists with eight rebounds in 30 minutes my sleep.”

Would you tolerate less, I asked?

“Is that “less?” Kobe replied.

It was a poorly phrased follow up. Where I meant “less-than-elite,” Kobe heard “15/8/10 in 30 minutes isn’t good enough for you?” But the exchange showed how Bryant has permanently re-calibrated his view of dominant play, believes he can still influence games at a high level and, importantly, that certain people won’t see “elite” unless it comes with a vat of points and unapologetic shooting. Still, it wasn’t the answer to the question I was asking, so I clarified.

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Would you tolerate something less than performing at an elite level, whatever form elite takes?

“For myself?” he asked. “Absolutely not. Are you kidding me? If I can’t do that, I’ll call it quits.”

He can play on a bad team without freaking out, as some expected he might. He can play fewer minutes without complaining, as some insisted he would. What he won’t do is tolerate his own mediocrity, as a matter of principle.

When Bryant signed his $48.5 million extension, he wasn’t simply padding his bank account, but defending the principle of pay reflecting value.

And why not? Kobe likely looked at a Lakers franchise stripped of assets following the Dwight/Nash gamble, the free agent market, and the unending brutality of the Western Conference and rightly decided no matter what he did, the odds of a genuinely competitive team, let alone a sixth ring, were small. $20 million left on the table wouldn’t make a difference. The Lakers earn money off his presence either way, so why not get his cut? Why should players be expected to accept less than their worth?

Athletes, Kobe included, weigh any number of variables when making significant decisions – money, comfort, legacy, winning, climate, and more. We all value different things in different situations. Bryant deserves criticism less for the choice he made than attempts to square it with the realities of salary cap math and Traditional Kobe Mythology, which states that winning is the only principle that matters. Sacrificing cash for the Lakers to have more flexibility wouldn’t have guaranteed a competitive roster, but would have made winning easier. Kobe knows this, and can’t have it both ways.

Now, in the wake of a third consecutive season-ending injury, Bryant will again have to decide which of his principles are of greatest value.

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