After Kobe Bryant's farewell game at the AT&T Center, he had a number of interesting things to say. Chief among them was this bit about what he and Gregg Popovich said to one another:
We had a chance to catch up and we talked for 15 minutes. After the game we talked about Kawhi a little bit and he wanted me to stay in his ear a little bit, talk to him a little bit, and I definitely will. He has a tremendous amount of potential and he's only going to get better so if I can help him out in that regard I certainly will.
Now this is fascinating to me for several reasons. On the surface, knowing what we think we know about Pop, one would think that Bryant is, in most aspects, the antithesis of what he looks for in a player. You can make a top ten list of reasons why. In fact, let's do that, in no particular order.
1. Bryant has always been an unrepentant chucker who sought out "hero-ball" shots.
2. He's been selfish and egotistical.
3. He's been a poor teammate, to the degree that he drove away a fellow all-time great Shaquille O'Neal -- or at least refused to keep trying to work with him.
4. Bryant has repeatedly publicly belittled guys on his team.
5. He's sought the spotlight and the credit when things went well, regardless of how well he played individually. He loves and seeks media attention.
6. He's held sway over his organization to the point where he controls how many minutes he plays, what shots he takes and what plays are run in critical moments.
7. He's refused to take a pay-cut the way Hall-of-Fame-bound contemporaries such as Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and others have in order to surround themselves with enough talent to compete for a championship. On the contrary, he's the highest-paid player in the league, despite the erosion of his skills.
8. The Lakers have hired one puppet coach after another since Phil Jackson retired to mollify Bryant, at the expense of developing their youngsters. Their organization has practically been held hostage these past few years waiting for him to retire.
9. Bryant stopped trying on defense several years ago to preserve his energy for offense.
10. He was suspended for hurling a gay slur at a referee a few years ago --and we've seen Popovich recently admonish the Kings' Rajon Rondo for doing something similar with referee Bill Kennedy.
Despite all of those red flags, Pop seems to genuinely love Kobe. It doesn't seem like lip service. He practically gushes when talking about him, similar to the way he does with Michael Jordan, who also shared many of Bryant's faults. Why would he want Bryant anywhere near Leonard when he already has teammates like Duncan and Manu Ginobili who can be better all-around role models?
To be fair, Bryant has positive qualities as well. He's always been a maniacal competitor, which is the trait above all that Popovich values in players, in my estimation. His work ethic and level of dedication to his craft is unparalleled. No one has more confidence. And obviously in terms of sheer talent and skill, Bryant's one of the best there's ever been.
We know that Leonard is from the Los Angeles area and while he's never spoken at length about growing up a Lakers fan it's a safe bet that he holds Bryant in some esteem, as most players his age do. Certain moves in Leonard's arsenal, like his turnaround fadeaway jumper, seem to be modeled after Bryant's. I don't get the impression that Pop wants Leonard to visit with Bryant for skill work on the court, the way many post players make a pilgrimage to train with Hakeem Olajuwon during the off-season. My sense is that whatever counsel Popovich wants Leonard to receive from Bryant is more on the mental approach of the game, though I stress that's just me speculating.
(Besides, skill-wise what can Bryant even teach Leonard at this point? Kawhi already shoots threes and mid-range jumpers far better than Kobe ever did. Bryant's best season in terms of three-point percentage was 38.3 percent, when he was 24-years-old, which was so long ago that Manu was a rookie. His second-best season was 37.5 percent, when he was an 18-year-old rookie, which was so long ago that Duncan wasn't in the league yet. Meanwhile, Leonard's career three-point percentage is 39.4.)
Pop has addressed numerous times that the next hurdle in Leonard's journey to superstardom is being able to consistently deliver night after night. I think Leonard has come a long way in that regard in the regular season, and on the rare occasions he hasn't, it's partly been because one or more of his teammates had it going in that game. I don't believe it's in Leonard's nature to demand to have the most points or most shots in each and every game, the way it was for Jordan or has been for Bryant.
What we have yet to see with Leonard is consistency in the playoffs, which might surprise some people since he's already won a Finals MVP in 2014 and was pretty awesome in the Finals before that as well. Remember, Pop and the vets had a talk with Leonard after he was quiet through the first two games of that series. He then went on to score over 20 points in three successive games for the first time in his career.
As a rookie, Leonard all but disappeared in three of the four losses to Oklahoma City, including Games 5 and 6. In 2014 he was wobbly against the Mavs in the first round, then really good against Portland, then pretty quiet in Games 2-5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder before rallying in Game 6. Last season he was disappointing in Games 5-7 against the Clippers, despite there not being anyone on their team who could check him.
Of course no player is impervious to bad playoff games or bad playoff series. Not Duncan, not Ginobili, not Jordan and certainly not Bryant. Heck, Kobe won a Finals MVP in a series in which he shot 40.5 percent, including 6-of-24 in Game 7. My guess --again, it's only a guess-- is what Popovich wants to see from Leonard is more performances like that WCF finale at OKC where he had the confidence to keep shooting even though the ball wasn't going in, and still had the fight in him to make the series-winning defensive play.
One thing that made Bryant special was the confidence to believe he was the best player on the floor each and every night, regardless of who he was playing, how his body was feeling, and how that game was going for him. He could miss ten shots in a row and still have the assurance that the next one was going in. Perhaps that mentality is what Popovich wants to see in Leonard, especially from this summer onward, when quite likely Duncan and Ginobili will hang 'em up, creating a leadership void. The Spurs will be Leonard's team and he'll have to figure out a way to lead despite not being the talkative, engaging type.
What things Pop specifically wants Bryant to talk to Leonard about will likely remain a mystery, at least in the short term, hidden beneath the umbrella of one of Popovich's core tenets, "family business."
You'll just have to excuse me if I'm dubious about the idea of Bryant as an honorary family member.