By Jack McCallum
May 28, 2010

Where and when the Great Free Agent Summer Summit takes place no one is certain at the moment. Ambassador Dwyane Wade has called it, and, presumably, fellow diplomats LeBron James, Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh (the attendance of the Toronto Raptors forward would make this a truly international meeting) will be there, too. We can only hope that a photographer is present to capture the moment, as one was at Yalta, where Roosevelt, Stalin and a fur-hatted Churchill famously met to figure out what the post-World War II world should look like, much as the future geography of the NBA will be sussed out this summer.

Meanwhile, a more isolationist-minded superpower named Kobe Bryant trudges on in this NBA postseason. Were the Los Angeles Lakers guard a free agent, I can't imagine that he would've accepted a seat at the summit, for in Kobe's world view ... well, there is no world view. There is what Kobe wants to do and nothing else. A summit is for others; Kobe will make his decisions in the solitude of self-reflection and, ultimately, arrive at them with certainty.

And so, as No. 24 laces them up for what could be a decisive Game 6 against the Suns in Phoenix on Saturday night, this would be a good time to remind everyone that, in many quarters, Bryant is now considered only the second-best player in the NBA.

Not in my book. Not yet. And probably not even next year, no matter where LeBron is playing.

The question of whether The King had surpassed The Kobester began to be asked quietly a couple seasons ago. Bryant was still the pick of most, but he engenders such enmity that many fans and journalists just couldn't wait until the NBA became LeBron's League. My own reading is that, by last season, a majority would've picked LeBron over Kobe, and after the Cleveland forward grabbed his second straight MVP award this season, that majority could be described as overwhelming.

Let me repeat: I was not one of them.

The idea that reputations are permanently made and permanently unmade in the postseason is uttered so often that we get tired of hearing it. But that doesn't mean it's false. It's the way it is. Cruel as it sounds, six months of sterling play can be erased by six weeks of mediocrity.

At this writing only a precious few insiders know exactly what happened to distract James during the Boston Celtics series. But something did. He let himself be taken out mentally, and not for the first time. By contrast, when throughout the 2003-04 season Bryant had to jet back and forth to Colorado for legal proceedings surrounding his sexual assault case, I never saw him turn off mentally. Of course it was a mental strain. He admitted as much. But on countless occasions he made big plays on the very days that he was traveling.

True, the Lakers did not win the title in the summer of 2004, but there were myriad problems with the franchise at that time: A war of wills between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal (we see who won that one since Bryant is still there); the not-always-smooth integration of Karl Malone and Gary Payton into a lineup that had been fairly set; tensions between the front office and PhilJackson, which, in this 360-world, might be happening again, a story for another day.

But let me propose another simply but often overlooked reason that Bryant remains superior to LeBron: Kobe is a better basketball player. Not a better athlete, which sometimes gets lost. A better basketball player. He dribbles better, passes better, has more ways to score and understands the game better. Which is not to say that LeBron is inferior in any of those areas. He is great. But he's not as good as Bryant.

When Kevin McHale was general manager in Minnesota, he used to complain that his scouts came back with reports like "jumps out of the gym" and "has running-back quickness." McHale used to tell them: "That's great if we're putting together a track team. But I'm looking for guys who can actually play basketball." (Feel free to make the obligatory mention that McHale was not an overwhelming success as an exec.)

The Suns are getting the whole Bryant basketball repertoire in this series. The absurd double-clutch jumper over Goran Dragic in the second quarter of Thursday's Game 5 win. The ridiculous three-minute span in the second quarter when he hit a 24-footer and two 25-footers to stretch the Lakers lead to 41-25. (The Suns call that shot "the rise-up." Bryant might be tightly guarded but he simply elevates above everyone and releases. It's unguardable, and he does it better than anyone ever, including Michael Jordan.)

The way that Bryant turned distributor in the fourth quarter when the Suns went fulltime to their vaunted 2-3 zone (which they had worked on for all of 15 minutes before unveiling it in the series), finding the dependable Derek Fisher in the corner and Lamar Odom down on the blocks. L.A. needed all of Bryant's game-high 30 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists to hold on to the 103-101 Game 5 win. Had the scorekeeper been convinced that his fall-short turnaround jumper (that ended in Ron Artest's hands and the put-back miracle) was a pass, Bryant would've had a triple-double. Plus, he had four blocked shots.

To differentiate between Bryant and James, the Suns' Grant Hill, who has been charged with guarding both, turns to a baseball metaphor.

"LeBron has the pullup jumper and he takes you to the rim," said Hill. "He has the two pitches, and, trust me, both of them are great. But Kobe is like the guy with all the pitches. He brings his fastball, his change, gives you something on the corner. LeBron will overpower you but you might know what's coming. With Kobe, you're never comfortable."

There is also that ineffable something known as will. Earlier this season Orlando's feisty Matt Barnes was standing close to Bryant when he feigned throwing a ball at Bryant's face. Bryant never even flinched. "That scared me a little," Barnes said later. "I mean, that wasn't even human."

Perhaps LeBron wouldn't have flinched either, but the simple fact remains that he has flinched in several key spots between the lines. Around the NBA LeBron's skills are universally respected, but it's not just the media that wonders if he lacks the right stuff when he most needs it. "Hey, they say if a dog doesn't bark as a puppy," said one player who desired anonymity, "he doesn't bark when he gets older either."

Actually, the one place where Bryant has not barked quite as loudly over the years has been in Phoenix. In the first round of the 2006 playoffs at US Airways Center he all but quit in Game 7 when he stopped shooting and at one point said, as he strolled by the Suns bench, "They expect me to play with him at center?" (He was talking about Kwame Brown.) And going into Game 6 the Lakers have lots of issues. It will be on their mind that they frittered away an 18-point lead at home in Game 5. The Suns are destroying Andrew Bynum (who was MIA on Thursday night) on pick-and-rolls, and LA.'s strategy of switching high and having a big man pick up Steve Nash failed miserably in Game 5 when Nash had 29 points. Jackson has searched among his backcourt backups (Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic) for some solid play on the road and has not found it. Plus, the Suns are really good, really deep and really determined.

With all that in mind, Phoenix has to be considered the favorite in Game 6. I don't disagree and see a strong possibility there will be a Game 7 back in L.A. on Monday. But Bryant scored 36 and 38 points in the Games 3 and 4 road losses in this series of this I am certain: He senses the urgency in this road game will come out barking very, very loudly.

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