It's been said time and time again that a lot of things are born not made, implying a sense of destiny. That some things in this world are pre-destined. Because nothing in this world makes people more calm than destiny -- that things that should happen will happen, one way or another. While some things are like that -- you know, the nature vs nurture thing -- most of the time, it isn't. Life is what we make of it.
Basketball players are most of the time a product of both. Born with genetic advantages, whether through parentage or through the lottery, these players are the cream of the crop in terms of physical gifts. But the players that actually stick, the ones that actually make it to the big league known as the NBA, are the ones that make all the physical gifts work through hard work, rising above the physical gifts to own the privilege of owning one of the few spots on a professional team.
When one talks about Kobe Bryant, people may think that his legacy is more of a given than something earned. The son of a basketball player (Joe Bryant), Kobe had everything he needed to become a professional basketball player. He won the genetic lottery when he was born with Joe's DNA, giving him the chance to grow long and tall. His father had to move his entire family to Italy so he could continue his basketball career when his NBA career didn't go as planned -- that taught Kobe how hard it is to make the NBA. To most of us, our fathers are our heroes, our milestone. Making the NBA became Kobe's milestone, something his father was never able to do. His grandfather gave Kobe basketball clips to watch as a kid, to give him the fundamental knowledge he needed to succeed.
So when his family moved back to the United States after Joe's retirement, he was more than ready. The rest is history: dominating Lower Merion HS before declaring for the 1996 NBA draft and going on to have an illustrious NBA career.
Why the need for a history lesson? Because 19 years later, Kobe will be playing in his last game against the New Orleans franchise. It's an important distinction because the New Orleans franchise has a peculiar history. A few years ago, the still New Orleans Hornets rebranded to the Pelicans, returning most of the history it held back to the city that originally should have held it -- the Charlotte Bobcats. That created a weird situation where part of the "Hornets" history was sent back to the new Charlotte franchise (1988 to 2002), the rest stayed in New Orleans (2003 to present).
If you didn't know, Kobe was originally a Charlotte Hornet, i.e. he was once a part of the franchise we now root for (whatever the official books say, it was still our franchise that drafted him). And for much of Kobe's career, he held a distinct vendetta against the teams that traded him (I remember someone quoting him on it). It's true -- his career PPG vs New Orleans (40 career games) is only bested by 3 other teams (POR, TOR & GSW), his career MPG only against two other teams (ORL & HOU) and his games vs New Orleans had the 4th highest offensive rating. Basically, Kobe made right by his promise that he'd make this franchise pay for trading him.
Here's the thing: There was a lot of talk that Kobe wouldn't play for any franchise other than his favorite one (the Lakers) and that any team that drafted him would regret it (or something like that). But the Lakers didn't have a pick until number 24. Jerry West, the Lakers' then general manager, made a draft day deal, sending Vlade Divac to Charlotte in exchange for drafting Kobe.
Which is why it's weird that Kobe held such a vendetta -- he wanted out in the first place and the team that traded him was actually just following his agent's (and probably his) wishes. So, why the need for personal motivation?
Because that's who Kobe is. He's always been the star that holds a chip on his shoulder, even when he has no reason to. Sometimes, he just likes to create that chip to fuel the fire. That's who Kobe is. Because as much as we like to talk about basketball players being lucky, they also aren't destined. They work for it, just as Kobe worked for everything that made him great. Those 5 championships, all those MVP awards and All-NBA honors, the 33,521 points (which ranks 3rd behind Wilt and Malone) -- he worked for it. And working for it means working through the times when you feel unmotivated.
To me, Kobe's last game against the New Orleans franchise isn't just about his finality, that this will be the last time the people of New Orleans will get to watch one of the best shooting guards to ever lace them up. To me, Kobe's last game in New Orleans ends the one connection the franchise has had with an all-time great. Kobe's vendetta of playing well against New Orleans ends Friday night.
Kobe is the great what if for me. We could have been approaching Kobe's last home game for us. I always catch myself saying, I could have been rooting for him, the franchise could have had an all-time great fall into their lap. (No, Anthony Davis is not there and CP3 is just on the way there, if he ever does get there).
I won't ever get to see Kobe lace up for the final time against the New Orleans franchise, but I've always appreciated what he is, thousands of miles away from the arena. People may think Kobe was born to be a basketball player. I tend to disagree. Every year, there are hundreds of new "family" lines that enter the NBA. Only a few are actual "legacies" (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the players that come to mind) and few are legacies from families who were just on the brink (like Joe Bryant). Kobe's legendary work ethic is legendary for good reason -- his path to who he is now wasn't any different from most players coming to the league.
Kobe represents how hardwork outworks talent when talent fails to work hard.
As for the game itself, the Pelicans will be in a precarious position lottery wise. They're already outside the magical Top 5 lottery spot and New York and Sacramento are just a 1.5 games ahead of us in the standing so they could still catch up to us. A few wins here and there could mean the Pelicans could wind up with less than 63 combinations and a few losses (especially on the last game of the season against Minnesota) could mean an additional 25 combinations (for a total of 88).
Honestly, I don't know which team is going to win but instead of giving you 3 keys to wins, why don't we switch things up and give you the 3 keys to a loss (which actually means a victory for us). Here we go:
1. Play the Game Slow: The Pelicans rank 10th in pace while the Lakers rank 18th (or basically average). It may not seem like much but the Lakers usually win when they slow the game down and limit the possessions. With the exception of their win against GS more than a month ago, their last 8 wins have been played at a pace that was lower than their season average. That includes the February 4 game, when the game pace was 95.1 possessions. If the Pelicans let the Lakers dictate the pace, the odds of them losing go up.
2. Shoot Badly from Deep: The Lakers usually have a chance at winning games when their opponent is shooting badly from deep. The Lakers allow upwards of 24 3PT shots from deep. Their defense is horrible allowing 111.4 points per 100 largely because they allow an eFG of 52.1%. Now, the big thing is that in their wins, opponents only shoot 23.8% from deep. In their losses, their opponents shoot 37% from deep. That's a sizeable gap. Have a bad shooting night (which isn't all that hard with the ragtag group of end-of-bench guys the Pelicans are fielding) and the loss becomes even more possible.
3. Just Play Without Purpose: For much of the season, the Pelicans played without much purpose and heart. What's one more night, eh? I know these guys are end-of-the-bench guys so they'll probably play their hearts out. But everyone gets a night off, why not these last few games EH?! *wink*