It’s been exactly three years since a professional basketball game took featuring both Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose. The Bulls and Lakers kicked off the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season at Staples Center with a one-point Bulls victory on Christmas Day. Both teams and players were at very different places in their careers. Rose was the reigning league MVP and his team had just made it to the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season; Bryant was still in the tail end of his prime, but his Lakers had just lost in embarrassing fashion in the playoffs to the eventual champion Mavericks.
Fast-forward three years, and a lot has changed. Serious injuries wiped out two seasons of Rose’s career and one of Bryant’s. This is the first time both players have been healthy and playing in an extended number of games since then, and they’ve been controversial for different reasons. Rose has taken a while to return to form, struggling through an inconsistent early stretch of minor injuries and inconsistent play. He said some things in November about wanting to save his body for his post-playing career that rubbed some people the wrong way. You may or may not have heard about that. He’s only recently started to look like himself again
Bryant, on the other hand, has had a riveting twilight to his career. He passed Michael Jordan on the all-time NBA scoring list, but his play has been as polarizing as ever. He’s leading the league in field-goal attempts (605 through 27 games) and usage rate (36.4%) but shooting just 37.2 percent from the field and 27.4 percent from three-point range. There are plenty of numbers that suggest he’s hurting the Lakers, and Tuesday night’s blowout win over the Warriors (when he sat) certainly didn’t quell that talk.
But this Christmas matchup needs him. Christmas Day is when many casual fans tune into the NBA for the first time (this is regrettable and misguided, but a reality nonetheless), and they want to see stars. It’s why the Knicks keep making the cut for the holiday slate despite miserable. As long as Kobe Bryant is playing, the Lakers will be a draw, and they’ll be compelling. Especially when a finally healthy Derrick Rose is involved.
The rest of the game probably won’t be that interesting. The Bulls are much, much better than the Lakers in every way. They have depth, they have offense, they have defense. The Lakers have…well, not much of any of that. Pau Gasol facing the Lakers for the first time is compelling on a human level, but there’s no doubt that he’s in a much better place now playing on a title contender than languishing on a lottery team.
But all that matters is that we’re getting Kobe vs. Rose. The league is a better place when a matchup like that is possible.