The post Jordan years have been dominated by Shaq and Duncan. As much of a swell as people might make about Kobe being the best player in the league the last five years, any reasonable fan intrinsically must understand that Shaq and Duncan have been the two best players after Jordan left the Bulls. But almost as logically we can deduce that the best player after these two is going to be playing in the Finals. Kobe or KG is the third best player of the last ten years; it is almost as indisputable as naming Duncan and Shaq the best two. I find this pretty interesting - we are going to get to see two guys go at it head to head in completely new situations for them. How they will be remembered could dramatically change with how this series goes down.
The Kobe train is in full blitz right now - the media can seemingly not get enough of the guy; the MJ comparisons will never end. I have long peered at Kobe cynically, but no one can deny how brilliantly he is playing now, and how superior his game looks thanks to his veteran savvy. While I still believe "best player in the game" is going a bit far, there is little reason to think Kobe is not good enough to lead this team to the championship. And if he does he will surely cement his status as being the best guard since Jordan. Because this Lakers team, for all the hype, is flawed. Their third best player, the middle piece, is gone for the year. The team is still youthful and slightly inexperienced. Their second best player has only been with them since February, and as brilliantly as he has played, is not totally adapted. Yet the Lakers are the favorites - and the main reason is how on top of his game Kobe has been. We marveled at Wade and LeBron the past few years because they were so virtuosic- young but knowing how to seize the moment brilliantly. They were like Kobe used to be playing alongside Shaq. But this Kobe we are seeing now is nothing like his younger self or Wade and LeBron. He is a veteran, and has lost enough to find a new humility within his game that makes his sudden incomparable explosions seem all the more devastating. Many of us never though he would get it together like this, and the fact that he has will probably redefine his career.
KG's situation is totally different. While Kobe had the luxury of playing on great teams throughout his early career, constantly managing to steal the spotlight, Garnett worked his trade in relative obscurity. KG is the ultimate PER and Wages of Wins guy; there are many statheads who actually think Garnett is historically better than Shaq or Duncan (he's not.) Because he was always working with little, it was hard for many to gauge how good KG really was. Yet a victory here in the Finals would seemingly validate all those who claimed that Garnett was always a top 3 player in the league. Interestingly, KG does not seem to be playing at his absolute peak right now, which is how most of us are viewing Kobe's play. KG, on the other hand, is just being KG. His best days may have already passed (although his defense has never been this strong.) But even if the Celtics win and Paul Pierce is named MVP, it will be KG's stamp on the team that will be most remembered, because it will underscore how splendid Garnett has always been.
So this whole "Battle For #3" is an interesting setup. It really is unfair to say that whoever's team comes out of the series a victor is the better player, but don't be surprised if that ends up happening. Of course, both the Lakers and Celtics are very good, and this could be only the first of many Finals appearances in the near future for both squads. Kobe could lose this year and come back with Bynum to win the next three. And I guess such a positive prognostication could even be made for KG and the Celtics. Whatever the case, we are going to see two long revered stars shine in the spotlight in a new way, and the outcome will have significant historical meaning.