By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” - Napoleon
As NBA legend Kobe Bryant walked off the court for the final time, he took with him the last of isolation championship basketball..........for now.
Long before Kobe graced an NBA hardwood the game and specifically the way teams scored was completely different. There was a time when ball movement ruled the professional courts, and individually gifted scorers were prohibited from standing out. Scoring, while essential, was not a celebrated part of the game. Coaches preached ball movement and rebounding as the core staples to winning games and eventually championships. Then the ABA happened, more specifically showmanship and scoring became fashionably exciting. High flying scorers like George McGinnis, David Thompson, Rick Barry, Charles Scott, Spencer Haywood, and the incomparable Julius Erving became household names. Basketball fans began recalling player exploits in NBA team starved cities, instead championing team success.
Thus a seed was planted that would later be cultivated in the NBA by the likes of Tiny Archibald, Pete Maravich and a litany of other ball dominating players. Such play, while extremely entertaining to watch, rarely yielded team accomplishments. The belief remained that “team ball was the only way to win an NBA title”. There needed to be a player who could balance prolific scoring, ball domination and still find a way to have habitual NBA team success. That player would arrive in the form of Detroit Pistons’ guard Isiah Thomas. The mercurial guard managed to surpass his contemporaries, and predecessors for that matter, by rebuking the NBA premise that a “formidable” center and ball movement were the only way to win an NBA title. The little big man won two Big Ten Championships and an NCAA title in just two years at Indiana University and two titles in 13 years playing for the Pistons.
Now it is unclear if the guard was incapable of playing with a traditional lane clogging back to the basket big man. However, what is certain is the Piston excelled in an offense dedicated to allowing him to freelance and at times use all 24 seconds of the shot clock “finding his shot”. This would lead to Thomas being the team’s leading scorer and the main offensive initiator. With no big to be concerned about, the former Hoosier was free to control a game and put his teammates in position to score. Routinely Detroit would score off high pick and rolls, where the center or power forward (which in most cases was either Bill Laimbeer and/or James Edwards) would pop out for a jumpshot instead of rolling to the basket. This would allow Thomas to have the option of penetrating or settling for passing to his teammates for 12 to 15 footers. To put things in layman terms John Salley and Dennis Rodman were considered “finishers” and not shooters on offense for a reason. Their offense as a whole, while efficient, would never be confused for a juggernaut. However, the Little General was showing the league that he was every bit the juggernaut his squad may not have been.
In the three straight years Detroit went to the NBA Finals, their offensive rating went from sixth to seventh to 11th. Thomas was the leading scorer on both championship teams and only once in that run did someone even average 20 points per. Oddly enough that was the one year, of the three that Detroit did not win it all. The 1972 – 73 New York Knicks led by Walt Frazier, the 1974 – 75 Golden State Warriors led by Jamaal Wilkes and Rick Barry and arguably the 1978 – 79 Seattle SuperSonics led by Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma were the only guard orientated teams to win NBA titles. Exactly ten seasons from Seattle winning a title, the Piston leader not only duplicated that feat, he expanded upon it. The man known as “Zeke” would become the forefather of a new NBA by illustrating to the world that ball dominating little men could deliver rings as well. The Chicago native birthed a new style, but it was a certain Chicago Bull that would raise that child (style).
Michael Jordan will forever be the king of isolation championship basketball. As dominating a scorer Jordan was, he equally dominated the field goal attempts his teammates took throughout games. M.J.'s highest single season assist total sits at 650, which rest squarely behind the likes of Greivis Vasquez and the immortal Rickey Green. In six championship seasons the most assists “His Airness” registered was 453, good for 5.5 per game. Let there be no doubt that No. 23 put the “shooting” in shooting guard. For those in need of further reconfirmation, the Boston Celtics’ John Havlicek and Larry bird (both forwards) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all have more total career assists then Jordan. The shooting guard currently sits 93rd all-time in assists per game with 5.2. M.J.’s game was scoring and scoring a lot, and to be clear he was damn good at it. Obviously, the moment His Airness stepped on the court his talents were not going to be wasted relying on others. As Thomas and Frazier would work to get others shots, on the way to scoring their on points Jordan simply worked to get his shot. And in the process he solidified a brand of basketball that was unsuccessfully emulated, until Los Angeles Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant reinvented it.
In the last 30 years only two players have taken 2,000 or more field goal attempts………………. Those two are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Since 1990 only two players have managed to lead the league in field goal attempts and win an NBA title……………………….those two players; Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. There have been a plethora of great scoring guards to enter the league, but none have been as ferocious AND as accomplished as Thomas, Bryant and M.J. The three made their respective clubs rely heavily on their scoring prowess and competitive fire. Their offensive competency became the main reason their teams won multiple titles. The end of Jordan’s championship run, which coincided with the beginning of Kobe’s championship run, witnessed several scorers. These players were hungry to prove they too could yield the very same results. From Tracy McGrady scoring 13 points in 33 seconds to Allen Iverson dropping 40 points in five straight games to Vince Carter dunking on every man, woman and child it was apparent isolation basketball was now the norm.
A style predicated on four members fighting for offensive table scraps while one player ate big was now supreme, and the viewing public adored it. Often times the ball would stick to one player deemed capable of carrying a team offensively. The results were consistent, as players failed (in the case of Carter and McGrady mightily) to capture the crown Kobe and Jordan flaunted so brashly. What separated Isiah, Michael and Kobe is incapable of being categorized or charted. More importantly, that remarkable skill set is unlikely to ever be duplicated. Their greatness was isolated much like the possessions they so frequently mastered. The NBA can be hard on jump shooters and unforgiving to penetrators; subsequently martyrs are made of scorers. Bryant was both champion and scorer.
The success of the Golden State Warriors and the habitual success of the San Antonio Spurs have ushered in the return of ball movement. With birth, death is inevitable. Therefore it was inevitable the style we were witnessing was bound to dissolve. Nevertheless, the era comes to an end more because few if any are equipped to sustain it. The likelihood of ever seeing a player win titles, while playing the game in too completely different fashions is about as likely as witnessing a player score 81 points. In the end, the rarity in which Bryant operated will forever be complimented by the isolated talents of the few his legacy now rests aside.