On the way to his fourth championship, Kobe Bryant was guarded by Mickael Pietrus, Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Dahntay Jones, Carmelo Anthony, Shane Battier, and all of the Jazz players whose names Jerry Sloan could remember. None of them had the combination of speed, size, and advanced weaponry needed to stop the league's best scorer.
Based on these confrontations, there is no reason to believe that anybody would ever have figured out how to stop Kobe. As soon as Dwight Howard shanked those two critical free throws at the end of game four, the Lakers became heavy favorites not just to win the title, but to win successive championships until the waning stages of Kobe's career.
A dynasty seemed even more certain when the Rockets, who have Chuck Hayes (along with KG, one of the two players who can shutdown the Lakers' bigs and switch pick-and-rolls with Kobe), fell out of the NBA elite because of injuries to their core; just one less team for Phil Jackson to gameplan for on his way to championship number 11.
This is, of course, not to say that the Rockets would have been serious contenders; they are only one of 29 organizations in a league of 30 that tried and failed the Kobe challenge.
With Thursday's announcement that Ron Artest will join the Lakers, the 30th team has decided they can stop Kobe from inside the locker room.
While, obviously, the Lakers are not actually attempting to sabotage their team, they are certainly misguided in their pursuit of toughness. This is not to say that they are oblivious to Ron-Ron's erratic tendencies, but simply that they believe that they are the same type of problems that Jackson was able to manage when he coached Dennis Rodman in Chicago. They're wrong.
The difference between Rodman and Artest is that Dennis would compare Kobe to Michael Jordan, while Ron believes Bryant is the second coming of Scottie Pippen, and Scottie's job at the end of games was to watch Jordan shoot.
Even as I'm writing, I can't help but balk at the idea that Artest believes he should be the one to take the final shot, but as one of the few people who actually bleeds Rockets' red, I've seen too many late three-pointers with Yao in the post (he made two of them, both off the glass) to believe that Ron and Kobe can coexist.
If Kobe throws tantrums whenever Luke Walton glances in the general direction of the basket, how is he going to act when Ron dribbles away the final 18 seconds of a Celtics' game, can't get open, and heaves a step-back 28-footer (his go to move) that glances off the side of the rim (after glancing off the floor)?
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And while the more clichéd of NBA analysts insist that Kobe, Jackson, and Derek Fisher can control Ron-Ron with their veteran leadership, they are counting on Artest realizing that his fantasies of late-game heroics don't translate into real life. Unfortunately, Ron's fantasies are not dreams, but delusions.
He believes he is the best player in the NBA. He believes he is the world's preeminent rapper. He believes that Jermaine O'Neal, Yao Ming, and now Kobe Bryant exist only so that other teams are reluctant to triple-team him. His imagination is rivaled only by Barney's, and is completely insulated from the events that transpire outside of his unicorn-shaped brain. To him, losing is only a state of mind.
For instance, last year in the regular season, Ron tried to turn a Rockets-Lakers game into a personal duel with Kobe Bryant because he thought he had an advantage. Kobe scored 31 points in the second half and provided running commentary throughout. As the clock approached zero and the rest of the world was staring intently at the skid-marks Bryant had blazed into the Rockets' defense, Artest looked over to the free-throw line and informed Kobe: "You aren't ready for me."
Next year in the regular season, Ron will try to win a close game by himself; he will miss his sixth three of the fourth quarter and Kobe will angrily demand the ball. Ron will confidently smile and respond "they aren't ready for me." Staples Center will cry out in unison as Ron steps into a three to win the game... and all eyes will turn pleadingly to the backboard.