In November, I wrote about how Kobe Bryant's never had a true rival over the course of his career. I'm not talking "Magic-Bird 2.0," but rather a universally acknowledged rival of any kind. There's nobody linked to Kobe, whether through meaningful head-to-head battles or a peer of his era. Of his contemporaries, the closest would be Tim Duncan, but such different players make a comparison feel inorganic. (Plus, their playoff battles lacked animosity.) Shaquille O'Neal was, technically speaking, a rival, but for all the wrong reasons. Factor in how no contemporary beyond Duncan or Shaq (who are, in fact, constantly compared) have come close to matching his career accomplishments, and trying to name Kobe's rival really becomes an exercise in futility.
Ask Metta World Peace, as a few reporters did after the Minnesota win, and he'll echo these sentiments. However, had the stars and planets aligned just right, he thinks Kobe might have experienced the sizzle of a true rival.
"I think I'm really the last person to go at Kobe (With the Houston Rockets during the 2009 Western Conference semi-finals) and I'm (now) on Kobe's team," said MWP Wednesday night. "Nobody else will. If I was playing against Kobe, I would welcome (a rivalry), but some people's scared.
"We had our shot. We had Yao Ming. That could have been a potential rival. If we had Yao Ming and Tracy (McGrady) would have been healthy and worked hard, and Dikembe Mutombo. That would have been a rivalry. We would have been Lakers and the Houston Rockets for the next couple years. We would have ran the table winning championship back and forth. But Yao broke his foot in Game 3, turned everything around. But if somebody wants to be a rival of Kobe's, he welcomes it. Just talk up and he would welcome it."
James Harden might disagree with MWP labeling himself the last of a breed willing to tangle with 24, and I've always maintained that series lasted seven games primarily because of the Lakers' uneven focus (and a horribly coached Game 4 by Phil Jackson) rather than two teams emerging a surprisingly even match. But MWP's larger point is nonetheless thought-provoking. With more time together with everyone healthy (and in the case of T-Mac, motivated), perhaps those Rox could have shared the Lakers' stage over the last five or so seasons. They always managed to create a sum greater than the individual parts, and heart was never an issue. Remember, in the 2008 season before MWP's arrival, McGrady led the Rockets on a 22-game winning streak mostly without the services of Yao, who missed the final 24 games of the season. Imagine the long term potential with Yao at full strength.
Or, for that matter, MWP arriving in Houston a season earlier.
More than anything, Metta raises the crucial element of timing when it comes to rivalries. During his peak, when then-Ron Artest was among the best two-way players in the league, he effectively and ferociously defended the Mamba. A mutual respect was forged through, as MWP notes, a willingness to attack Kobe. But their teams never flourished at the same time.
The MWP-era Pacers peaked in 2004, the same season the Three-peat core was dismantled, then were soon busted up in the aftermath of the Palace Brawl. Kobe spent a few seasons in Smush-Kwame purgatory, and MWP's Sacto squads were nothing to write home about. Metta landed with the Rockets just as the Lakers returned to prominence, but also during the last year of his contract. With so much uncertainty surrounding Yao's health, resigning him didn't make sense, which ultimately resulted in MWP joining forces with Kobe after years spent battling him.
Was a rivalry truly "lost" at this point? Given the impossibility of proving a negative, we'll never truly know. But either way, Metta's opinion spotlights the absence of a true rival for Kobe. Few players are talented enough to enter the conversation, and even fewer find themselves part of a team capable of pushing the Lakers at a championship caliber. And while some may lament this missing element, I actually think it symbolizes what makes Bryant's career so memorable. As I've written many times, the most underrated, under-appreciated element of Kobe's career is the uniqueness. It doesn't fit in a box, just like athletes typically don't become icons without a signpost rivalry. Bryant never had one, and that's yet another example of how this career -- at its highest, lowest and all points between -- has never followed "the rules."