After dropping Kobe Bryant to No. 3 in the most recent Race to the MVP, we exchanged numerous e-mails with well-written and well-reasoned Kobe fans as to why Kobe fell or why Wade rose or why LeBron was still No. 1.
We think we've finally stumbled on the reason LeBron and Wade are ahead of Kobe this season. It has to do with expectations.
I think we expect Kobe Bryant to be the best basketball player in the world. And you know what? He is.
As I noted in Race to the MVP two weeks ago, Kobe has no weakness. As a matter of fact, we expect him to be great, night in and night out.
We also expect LeBron and Wade to be excellent every night as well, but I believe we are more surprised when LeBron hits 6-of-7 three-pointers or Wade goes for 50, because, as NBA TV's Steve Smith said Saturday night, and I'm paraphrasing, "Wade looks likes he works for his 50."
And that's the difference. It doesn't surprise anyone when Kobe hits for 50 or goes for 37-6-5 as he did in Houston on Thursday. "He does that all the time," one talking head said.
In addition to carrying the Lakers, Kobe carries the burden of outlandish expectations. And you know what, he more often than not meets them. I can empathize with Kobe Nation's consternation when others don't recognize this: Kobe's great, he expects to be great, he meets those expectations. How can he not be MVP?
Last season, the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 3, 2008 helped L.A. stay in the thick of the race for the West's best record. And because they, and in turn Bryant, were able to acclimate Gasol into the triangle offense, the Lakers eventually nabbed the best record in the West. Thanks to the Lakers' late-season surge past the New Orleans Hornets, his exceptional play and his willingness to play with a broken pinkie, Bryant earned his first Maurice Podoloff trophy.
So, what's the difference between the Kobe and Pau tandem this year compared to last and Bryant-Gasol compared to LeBron James and Mo Williams? Glad you asked.
Again, here's where expectations come into play. One, Bryant and Gasol have now played together for a full season. General managers, experts and more experts, expected the Lakers to be the cream of the Western Conference crop.
As for the Cavs, many wondered how Williams would fit in and whether he would benefit from playing alongside James or whether the Cavs would benefit from adding Williams, who could take the pressure off James as legitimate offensive threat.
It's worked both ways for Williams and the Cavs. Williams has benefitted greatly by playing with James. As a Bucks fan, I have watched Williams since he arrived in Milwaukee before the 2004-05 season. Williams had All-Star level talent, but he never reached it with the Bucks. He did reach that level, however, playing alongside LeBron, albeit as an alternate when Chris Bosh couldn't play because of injury. But the basic premise here is: LeBron helped make Williams an All-Star. Gasol was an All-Star before he reached Los Angeles.