Throughout his legendary NBA career, Kobe Bean Bryant was never one to back down from a challenge. Kobe seemed to welcome a challenge and embrace the opportunity to prove people wrong. Whether it be the challenge of hitting a game-winning shot while being double-teamed and falling out of bounds. Or pissing off Shaq resulting in the implosion of the Lakers in the mid-2000s and trying to win titles with the likes of Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown. Physical challenges such as hitting two foul shots after he ripped his Achilles in half. Even the last game of his career when Kobe hoisted 50 shots and scored 60 on his way out the door. Kobe Bryant was never afraid of a challenge.
Kobe is not averse to issuing challenges to other people as well. He recently challenged Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo to win league MVP this season. Greek Freak had a breakout season last year as he led Milwaukee to a playoff berth. Giannis averaged 22.9 pts a game on 52.1 % shooting with 8.8 rebounds a game. He played in 80 games and averaged 35.6 minutes as Milwaukee finished with a 42-40 record, their first winning season since 2010. At 22 years of age Giannis only stands to improve. At 6'11 with guard skills and a 7'0 wingspan, Antetokounmpo is a problem the rest of the league is going to have to deal with for years to come.
John Wall requested a challenge from Kobe and 24 was more than happy to oblige. Kobe challenged Wall to be named 1st team All NBA defense. Kobe himself was named NBA 1st team defense 9 times a record he shares with NBA luminaries such as Micheal Jordan, Gary Payton, and Kevin Garnett. Wall has staked a reputation in the league for being one of the most explosive offensive players in the game. Last season the Wizards guard gave you 23.1 ppg with 10.7 assists on 45% shooting. He had his best season in the league to this point and led the Wizards to a 49-33 record and a second-round playoff appearance going 7 games before eventually losing to the Boston Celtics. As celebrated as Wall is offensively he is largely overlooked for his defensive output. Since 2013 Wall has been top 10 in the NBA in steals and led the league in that category last season with 157. However, he was left off all 3 NBA defensive teams last season and only once has he earned that honor his entire career (2014-2015 2nd team All-Defense)
So in the spirit of Kobe Bryant issuing challenges. I have decided to issue a few Kobe themed challenges of my own to three NBA players for the upcoming season.
The first challenge is for Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker to score 81 points in a single game equaling Kobe’s ridiculous performance against the Raptors in 06. Booker last season dropped 70 on the Celtics albeit in a losing effort. Nonetheless, 70 points are 70 points and to score that many points in a game is impressive. Booker is the most talented player on a team largely devoid of talent. The Phoenix Suns are a young team in a league that is historically unkind to young teams. It doesn’t help that Phoenix plays in the rough and rugged Western Conference and on a nightly basis will step on the floor against a superior team. Making matters worse is the fact that Brandon Knight blew out his knee in a charity basketball game this summer and is out for the season.
Booker last season established himself as one of the league’s up and coming players. Posting 22.1 ppg on 42.3% shooting, 36.3% from 3, and going 83.2% from the line. With Knights injury, much of the scoring load is going to fall on the shoulders of Booker and Eric Bledsoe. A young team coming off a 24-58 campaign Booker is going to have ample opportunity to put the ball up and get buckets. He put up 70 before he can legally buy a drink. Given the circumstances, I don’t think 81 is out of reach.
The next challenge is for James Harden to match Kobe's scoring output from his 2005-2006 season of 35.4 ppg. The Beard has averaged 29 ppg each of the last two seasons. Last year he was running point in Mike Dantoni's “seven seconds or less” offense and had his best overall season since joining the association in 09. While running point Harden posted a career-high of 11.2 assists per game but look for those numbers to come down slightly with the addition of Chris Paul. Paul is the quintessential pass-first point guard who makes everyone around him better. Both are exceptional ball handlers but I look for Paul to handle the rock more often and facilitate the offense. Harden has proved he can create his own offense throughout his career and he should get more looks and easy buckets playing alongside CP3. Harden has also averaged at least 10 free throws a game 4 of the last 5 seasons shooting at a career 85% clip. El Chapo is entering his 9th season in the league at age 28. Kobe was in his 10th season in the league at age 27 when he put up 35.4 during the 05-06 season. These are prime years for a basketball player and playing in Dantoni's offense with Paul’s floor vision I think Harden can get 35 a night.
Kobe’s best overall season in the league was his 2002-2003 season. He was 24 years of age that season and played in all 82 regular-season games that year. Scoring wise he averaged an even 30.0 ppg on 45% shooting. He dropped 5.9 dimes per game, shot 38.3 from 3, with 2.2 steals per game, and a player efficiency rating of 26.2, good for 5th in the league that year. In his age 25 and coming into his 7th year in the league I challenge Kyrie Irving to replicate Kobe's 02-03 output. Last week’s trade that sent Kyrie to the Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas is still up in the air pending the status of Thomas's hip injury. Assuming the trade is final and all parties remain where they are, Irving is poised to be the leader of the Boston Celtics.
No other player in the league embraces the “Mamba Mentality” more than Kyrie. He got what he wanted last week freeing himself from the spotlight of LeBron James. This is his team now. If the Boston Celtics are going to make noise and potentially a run to the NBA Finals, Kyrie will need to have the best season of his career. We all know what Kyrie is capable of as a playmaker and individual scorer, but it will be interesting to see how he plays in the Brad Stevens system. Kyrie is an isolation player while coach Stevens prefers to rely on the ball and player movement. I think Kyrie is good enough to adapt to it and will have some of the burden taken off him playing alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. I personally want to see Kyrie play all 82 and make a concerted effort to become a better defensive player. If Boston can get 2002 Kobe Bryant in the form of 2017 Kyrie Irving things can get interesting in the Eastern Conference.
So there you have it. Three Kobe specific challenges to three of the NBA's best and brightest. I personally don’t think any of those challenges are outside the realm of possibility. If Devin Booker gets 81 I won’t be surprised. The Beard putting up 35.4 for the whole season shouldn’t be a problem. Kyrie having a complete season such as the one Kobe Bean notched in 2002 is doable. With so many great young players capable of leaving earth every time they step on the floor the league is definitely in good hands. I can’t wait for the 2017-2018 season to tip-off.