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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

LeBron may be the future, but the future isn't now

LeBron James is only 24 and the front-runner for this season's MVP award. But it's important to remember that the Kobe Bryant era is far from over.

February 08, 2009|MARK HEISLER

Whose time is this again?

Here they are, on national TV this time, LeBron James, 24, vs. Kobe Bryant, 30, the future vs. the past.

Handy as this is for headlines, marquees and commercials, it leaves out one important thing: the present.

It's a funny thing about eras: They're not awarded, they're won.

Between 1997 and 1999, Utah's Karl Malone won two MVPs to Michael Jordan's one. Jordan's Bulls won the '97 and '98 titles, giving them six in the decade, which is why no one talks about a Mailman Era.

If James, currently the front-runner, becomes the MVP, it won't matter a bit if Bryant's Lakers win the title.

Era-wise, Bryant now has all the advantages, starting with the team he's on, the youngest, deepest superpower around.

James' humble Cavaliers are in the East, with Boston and Orlando, where they are not only challenged but disrespected at every turn, as when the Magic and Celtics got a combined five All-Stars to their one.

When Orlando's Jameer Nelson went down, they got all excited about the prospect of Mo Williams finally getting picked -- only to see Boston's Ray Allen chosen, making it 6-1.

(The Celtics think they're disrespected too, in favor of the Lakers, but they have the good taste not to talk about it.)

Meanwhile, Bryant's Lakers are in the West, which is starting to look more like it did in the '80s when the Showtime Lakers dominated it.

Bryant is also playing at the very top of his game, which is up there with that of anyone who ever played.

Bryant idolized Jordan as a young player, but hated being compared to him. He didn't want to be like Mike, but to surpass him, which wouldn't have been seemly to mention.

The comparison was stupid for another reason: It wasn't close.

As great players go, Jordan was a maestro. Bryant was a thrill ride.

Jordan shot 49.7% for his career, to go with his five MVPs, six titles and 10 scoring titles.

Bryant has never shot 47% for a season -- although he's at a career-high 47.6% now -- because not even Jordan would take many of the shots Bryant takes.

For sheer lightning-bolt brilliance, however, nobody could match Bryant, who routinely did things not even Jordan had. With Shaquille O'Neal gone after 2004 and Bryant on his own, it began to happen a lot.

That 61-point game that broke the Madison Square Garden record and got everyone in New York in a tizzy?

That's 20 below Bryant's Staples Center record of three years ago. A month before that, he got 62 in three quarters.

For the entire month of January that season, he averaged 43.4 points.

Those were actually the bad times, when it looked as if he would never win another title, after having won three by the time he was 23.

The Lakers were only pretend contenders, and the clock was running. Going into the 2007-08 season, Bryant, 29, had played 33,465 minutes. When Jordan turned 29, he had played 24,623.

The difference -- 8,842 -- was the equivalent of three NBA seasons, averaging 36 minutes and not missing a game.

It took a turnaround that was stunning even for Bryant, going from raging at the Lakers organization in the spring of 2007 to MVP in the spring of 2008.

It has largely been lost, but this is a new Kobe, oblivious to personal achievements (unless he's in Madison Square Garden), often volunteering to spend the night hounding James or Dwyane Wade on defense, rather than shooting it out with them.

Still, after he went for 61 Monday night, ESPN's Jim Rome held a discussion of the topic: "Bryant: Will he become a ball hog?"

Rome: "Is this part of the evolution? Is he a better teammate? Is he a better leader? Is he going to share the ball or is he not going to trust anyone else, take it upon himself and try and get them there by himself?"

Eric Adelson, ESPN: "I think there is no evolution. I think Lakers fans see this and it's entertaining, it's great, but they know if he gets more points, the team suffers."

Similarly, O'Neal gets most of the credit for the three titles he and Bryant won together.

It's not a sophisticated subculture, deifying winners and demonizing losers, with a premium on recent events, since teenage boys, the key demographic, were in kindergarten in 1998 when Jordan left the Bulls.

If Bryant gets a fourth title, he may be anointed Jordan's peer, or perhaps the best ever, whether that's fair to Jordan or not, since six is still more than four.

For Bryant, who was demonized for years, as in 2006 when he was scorched for not shooting in Game 7 in Phoenix, that's how much the world has changed.

You couldn't say his trip hasn't changed him. If you knew him as the golden child at 18, boyish, poised, serene in his belief in himself, you might say it changed him more than it ever changed anyone.

Scorched to the consistency of charcoal in recent years, Bryant now deals with reporters only in groups. No local writer has had a one-on-one in years.

Aside from passing mentions of how frustrated he was, he has never talked about his turnaround. In China last summer, with easy availability at U.S. practices, I asked about his days of rage, or as I put it, as gently as I could, "the period when your life was difficult."

"My life has never been difficult," he said, beaming as if nothing could be further from the truth, cutting off that route of inquiry.

OK, maybe he just had a headache all that week.

Whether he understands it or not, he's moving beyond cheap shots and bad notices. One more title and the people who bashed him for everything that went wrong will explain away anything he does wrong.

It won't ever get any better than this, at his peak, with a rising power and the world to be won.

He has known good times and bad times, but these are the best times.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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