"Kobe Bryant will go down as the greatest basketball player that has ever lived.”
When I first heard Mark Jackson say this on an ABC halftime show during the 2005-2006 season, I nearly fell out of my chair in shock. How could a veteran like Jackson, who had played during the great Michael Jordan’s heyday and had grew up watching guys like Magic and Bird, say that the often-criticized Kobe Bryant, would go down as the greatest player to ever live?
ESPECIALLY since he had just come off of 2 sub-par seasons, and still had yet to prove he could win without Shaquille O’Neal and was still shaking off the dark cloud that was the Colorado rape case. At the time, I simply thought Jackson was nuts, and should have been fired from ABC. Now, it is 2008, over two seasons since Jackson made that comment, and slowly but surely I am starting to believe he may have been on to somethig.
What has caused my change of mind?
Maybe it’s the realization that in the eight seasons with Shaquille O’Neal by his side ,he won three NBA championships, earned five All-Defense team selections, six All-NBA team selections, six All-Star Game selections, one All-Star Game MVP trophy, and finished top five in MVP voting three times, despite having arguably the greatest center in NBA history playing the best ball of his career by his side.
Not to mention his impressive playoff averages during the 3-peat: 25.3PPG/5.7RPG/4.9APG. What the stats don’t show, is that on top of all the scoring, passing, and defending he did, his most important contribution to the Lakers during their championship years from 2000-2002 was his ability to take over in the clutch and hit game winning shots.
Due to O’Neal’s inability to hit free throws at a consistent rate, and problems with foul trouble, Kobe was greatly looked upon to hit the big shots down the stretch of those tough playoff games. His most notable clutch performance in the post season was his performance against the Indiana Pacers in game 4 of the 2000 Finals when he went 4-4 in OT, including the game winning basket.
For a guy who was only 25 by the time he had accomplished all of that, what he did in his time with Shaquille O’Neal was incredible.
Maybe it was his record breaking 2005-2006 season, when he averaged 35.4PPG/5.3RPG/4.5APG/1.8SPG, including outscoring the Dallas Mavericks through three quarters by himself (62-61) on 12/20/05, and his infamous 81pt game against the Toronto Raptors on 1/22/06. He shot 28-46 from the field during that game, 7-13 from behind the arc, and 18-20 from the free throw line.
His 35.4PPG average that season put him at ninth all-time for highest points per game average for a single season. He broke many other scoring records that season. His four consecutive games of scoring 45 points or more, marked the first time that had occurred since 1964. His 43.4PPG average in January 2006 is eighth highest in NBA history, and he set a franchise record for most 40pt games in a single season (27) as well as most points scored for a season (2,832).
Not only were his individual stats impressive, but also he led a very young and untalented team to a 45-37 record, which put the Lakers in the seventh seed in a very tough Western Conference. Kobe was elected to his eighth straight All-Star Game, and received both All-Defense First Team and All-NBA First Team honors. By the middle of the 2005-2006 season he began to be recognized as the consensus best player in the NBA.
Maybe it was the 2006 playoffs, when he showed he could adjust his game to his team’s needs as they nearly pulled off one of the NBA’s greatest upsets by losing to the Phoenix Suns in seven games. To beat the Suns, it was essential that the Lakers exposed the major size advantages and flaws in the Suns’ defense. To achieve that, Bryant had to play team ball and let his teammates expose those miss-matches.
He willingly did just that, and they slowed down the Suns’ offense enough to make the game be played at the Lakers’ pace, in which the Lakers picked the Suns apart. In game No. 4, with the Lakers up 2-1 in the series, the Lakers were down by two with 7.9 seconds to go when Smush Parker stole the ball from Steve Nash, and gave it to Bryant, who tied the game with 0.7 seconds to go on a very tough lay-up to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Lakers once again had their backs against the wall, being down by one with 6.1 seconds to go, but with a tie up between Nash and Luke Walton, and some help from the refs, Walton and Nash met at half court for a jump ball.
Walton easily won the jump ball, which found its way to Bryant. He raced up the court and buried a fade away over two Suns’ defenders at the buzzer to win the game. Unfortunately for Bryant, the Lakers would lose the next three straight games.
Despite an incredible 50pts/8reb/5ast from Bryant in game six, it was a crushing loss.
Maybe it was his 2006-2007 season, in which Bryant averaged 31.6PPG/5.7RPG/5.3APG. Bryant once again made history this season with his scoring exploits. For the season, he tallied 10 50pt games, which makes him the only player not named Wilt Chamberlain to do so in a single season.
That was not the only record that he set that only he and Wilt would share. Between March 16-23, Bryant scored 50+ points for four consecutive games (65, 50, 60, 50). That same month, he averaged 40.4PPG, marking the third time in his career that he had averaged over 40PPG in an entire month.
For the second straight year, Bryant earned All-Defense First Team honors as well as All-NBA First Team honors. He was also elected to his ninth straight All-Star game, and won MVP honors with his 31pts/6reb/5ast/4stl game. Bryant would once again lead his team to the playoffs, but would be bounced in five games to an improved Suns team.
Maybe it was his summer of 2007. As the media and fans alike blasted him for his trade requests, Bryant tuned it all out and focused solely on getting in the best shape of his career, as he was set to represent his country and play for Team USA in the FIBA America’s Tournament.
Much like virtually every off-season for Bryant, he worked extremely hard and lost 20lbs in preparation for the tournament. In the White vs. Blue Team USA scrimmage, Bryant took over down the stretch of the game and upstaged Lebron James in the clutch, hitting a fade away over Tayshaun Prince to put his team in the lead, and then making the defensive stop on James to seal the victory.
Right before the tournament, he took it upon himself to ask Coach Mike Kryzewski to put him on the best offensive player on each team, showing his willingness to return to the lockdown defender he was earlier in his career. During the tournament, he did just that; he locked down virtually everyone he guarded, as well as averaging 15.3PPG/2.0RPG/2.9RPG, and shooting 54.8% from the field (45.9% from 3). All of this helped lead Team USA to arguably its most dominating international performance since the Dream Team’s domination of the 1992 Olympics.
Maybe it is how he has conducted himself so far in the 2007-2008 season. To start off the season he conformed to playing team ball with the emergence of young guys like Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar, as well as the comfort of having a veteran like Derek Fisher by his side. As a clearly matured player with supreme confidence in his teammates, along with an effort on the defensive end that carried over from his stint on Team USA, Bryant led the Lakers to a 25-11 record with averages of 27.0PPG/5.9RPG/4.9APG.
With everything going so well, rising star Andrew Bynum went down with an injury on January 13th. With things looking bleak, Bryant would lead the Lakers to a 5-5 record over the next 10 games, with averages of 33.6PPG/7.9RPG/5.6APG. Then a miracle happened: the Lakers stole Pau Gasol (as well as a second round draft pick) from the Memphis Grizzlies for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie and a few draft picks.
Gasol, a former All-Star, suddenly rejuvenated both Bryant and the Lakers, giving them hope that they could be a serious contender for an NBA title. Since the trade, the Lakers have a 14-3 record, and are currently only .5 games back from No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Bryant was elected to his 10th straight All-Star Game, and the majority currently concedes that he is in prime position to win his first regular season MVP.
Maybe it is the fact that, on top of his brilliant 11 year career, he is still only 29 years old, and with the way he keeps up his body and how refined his style of play is, he still has at least another five years or so of being a dominant player in this league, barring any major injury.
He possibly has even more than five years. With his pace, he will surpass Kareem Abdul Jabaar and become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. To go along with another few years of dominance, Bryant also has a terrific opportunity to win more championships and a few MVP trophies due to the incredibly talented and young team surrounding him.
Finally, maybe it is simply the fact that over the last few seasons, Bryant has played at an all-around level not seen from a perimeter before or since Michael Jordan’s rule. In my opinion, which is often bashed, I feel Kobe Bryant is the most TALENTED and SKILLED player to ever play in the NBA.
No player in the history of the league has such a wide variety of weapons at his disposal as a scorer as Bryant. His incredible shooting ability from all ranges, his length, his athletic ability, his aggressiveness and relentlessness as a scorer, his wide variety of moves to get himself a good look (pull-up jumper, spin moves, fade away jumper, behind the back, between the legs, power moves to the rim, etc).
It all points to, along with his gaudy scoring numbers the last few seasons, Bryant being the most dangerous and skilled scorer to ever play the game. As his efficiency continues to rise as a scorer with his maturity, he will eventually take over Jordan’s spot as the greatest scorer of all time. On top of his incredible scoring ability, he is a terrific rebounder for a two guard, and is a very skilled and underrated passer and ball handler.
Bryant also happens to be a terrific defensive player who can, and sometimes does, lockdown his counterpart no matter if they are a superstar or simply a role player. Bryant is also one of the greatest clutch players in NBA history, taking over countless games and hitting tons of game winning shots over his career.
Not to mention Bryant has the rare trait of having the attitude to want to take your heart out and stomp on it each and every night, which is largely what makes him such a special player.
Whatever the case may be, Kobe Bryant has made me a believer, and slowly but surely I am starting to believe that he may very well go down as the greatest player that has ever lived by the time he retires. With what he has already done, with what he is currently doing, and with what the future holds in store for #24, I firmly believe if he plays his cards right he can very well pass Jordan and be known as the greatest basketball player to ever play the game.
As Lakers commentator Stu Lantz put it, “Be happy you’re getting a chance to see #24 play, because there is going to be a LONG time go by before you see a player that has THIS amount of skills on the basketball floor.”