Every two weeks, the gents at Free Darko will be taking a look at the deranged ecosystem that is the National Basketball Association in their own indelible fashion. Here's this week's entry, from Bethlehem Shoals.
Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have a lot in common. Both were drafted right out of high school. Both are almost pathologically competitive. And both have the kind of star quality that makes a silly little ball game actually seem weighty. You could look into their eyes and feel your own existence dwindle by comparison.
But oh, the differences. Garnett has no ring; Kobe's got three. If you asked two-hundred NBA fans who they'd most like to see get themselves a championship, most of them would answer KG. Bryant, on the other hand, must constantly face questions as to whether or not he actually deserves his three-peat, or if they belong mostly to Shaq. Garnett is unflinchingly honest, so real it scalds. He inspires profound feelings of respect and adulation; yours truly would gladly follow him into the mouth of a live volcano. Kobe? Introspective, guarded, and makes even those who worship him a little uncomfortable.
Going into this season, both were at a crucial junctures in their careers. Garnett teamed with Pierce and Allen in Beantown so he might not die ring-less. Kobe, now in his prime as a player, needed another of his own to inject himself back into the G.O.A.T. discussion. This season, Andrew Bynum came into his own, giving Bryant an exceptional big man to work with. And with this week's acquisition of Pau Gasol, the Lakers now have the talent to take a solid shot at the ultimate prize.
However, a trade isn't only about whether or not a franchise takes flight. Trades transform teams and jumpstart legacies, but they also change the meanings of those involved.
That's why it's with great pain and a heavy heart that I admit: The Celtics have diminished Garnett in my eyes. Not as a player, or a warrior, or anything real like that. I mean that when I watch him, there's no aura, none of that mystique that makes me want to howl at the moon. One time a few years back, I saw this Inside Stuff segment where KG took an at-risk youth on a London vacation for the hell of it. It stayed with me for months.
Now, Garnett's just a fiery veteran on a very good team. I no longer feel like he's got the power to make the world end, or at least lives each second like the end is near. He's been normalized, and frankly, that's not the stuff myths are made of. He's gone from a regional god, the identity of a franchise whose very font seemed ripped from their star's consciousness, to a professional athlete capable of moving on.
It doesn't help that I hate the city of Boston, the Irish, kelly-green, Tommy Heinsohn, and most every Celtic ever (no, Len Bias doesn't count as one). I wanted badly to feel that KG and crew were pimping this noble city, which would've given me no small amount of satisfaction. And yet here we are, nearing the halfway mark, and when I look at Garnett, I see a Celtic. He's embraced a lot of things that I—and plenty of others who once fed off of his energy—can't stand. Kevin Garnett may well get his title this season, but he'd be just as stoked about restoring the Celtics to glory. And that bums me out. While "sell-out" is a little strong, KG's now the company man.
Conversely, with this Gasol trade, Bryant suddenly finds himself on one of the West's premier buzz teams—and likely, one of its more fashionable postseason picks. Overnight, the Lakers went from "winning with Kobe" to "&(A*S()U)DHJWOIQHD%#^%@HWQ". Shanoff quoted me as saying that the Lakers are the new Suns, a team of exciting, bizarre players thrown together to achieve a dream. It's just as likely that they're the new Anthony/Iverson Nuggets, whose reputations preceded them coming together. Either way, they'll be must-see in a way the Celtics can only dream of.
Since Shaq's departure, the Lakers have been Kobe, dull and dull. Even Lamar Odom's been reduced to only intermittent breakthroughs. Best case, this dulled Bryant's luster; worst case, he was somewhat to blame. But then, with Bynum's emergence as one of the league's most exciting young bigs, already Kobe seemed less rote. Bringing in Gasol, who is harder than people think and can pass more than anyone knows, allows Odom to move to his natural three. All of sudden, this is one of the most intriguing front-courts known to man, plus Kobe Bryant.
I have no idea how good this team will be. But I also have zero idea what these players will look like together, or how it could be any less than enthralling. Garnett willed himself into a new situation; Bryant's team finally got him a vet, without giving up the future star they'd been reluctant to give up. Now, for the first time in years, we can truly say that Kobe Bryant is novel, unpredictable and part of a real basketball madhouse. This trade's instantly helped Kobe's championship chances, but it's also made him relevant in a way he wasn't before, and that KG always was.
If the Celtics and Lakers do somehow meet in the Finals, everyone will harp on history repeating itself. But they'll be missing the real story: That Garnett got there by giving up his revolutionary stripes, while Kobe got over being a "student of the game" and ended up joining the fun house. Two different paths to the top, and not the ones anyone would've predicted.