With the notion this summer that Kobe Bryant may be nearing retirement (according to the Los Angeles Times), it begs the question, what is his legacy if he never wins another title with the Los Angeles Lakers?
Bryant entered the league in 1996 as a kid straight out of high school, and over the past 16 years, he’s found arguably the most success of any player to ever make the jump.
At this point in his career, Bryant’s legacy has to be defined partially by his ability to remain durable and stay on the court as long as he has. Whether it be a knee, a shin, a finger or a broken nose, you’d never guess that Bryant is constantly as banged up as he is by the numbers he posts and the amount of games—and minutes—he’s played.
He is a 14-time All-Star, a 10-time All-NBA First Team member and a two-time scoring champion, having averaged more than 25 points per game for his entire career.
As a former NBA MVP, he’s essentially mastered the mid-range game and is one of the better post-up guards that the league has to offer. A nine-time All-Defensive First Team member, Bryant has gotten it done on both ends of the floor as well.
His individual success is absurd, but his team accomplishments are what separate him from others in a league that judges success largely by championships.
A five-time NBA champion and a two-time Finals MVP, Bryant has the most championships of any active player, and his success on the court is hard to duplicate.
He’s been a part of a dynasty with Shaquille O’Neal, in which the two won three straight championships, and now he’s a part of another great—but completely separate—team, in which he, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have been to three NBA Finals and have collected two rings.
Bryant is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and has to be considered one of the greatest of all time to lace up in the NBA.
That being said, if you’re going to evaluate a player’s legacy, you must examine both the good and the bad, and Bryant has given us plenty to look at from both sides of the argument.
“Best Ever” is certainly going to be thrown around whenever Bryant hangs it up for good, but “Best Teammate” isn’t something you’re likely to hear.
Since becoming a starter in 1998, Bryant has hoisted more than 20 shots per game 11 times, yet ironically enough, he has been known to refuse to shoot in protest, according to Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com.
Putting up high volumes of shots is what allowed Bryant to record the second-most points ever in an NBA game—81 at home against the Toronto Raptors—but it’s also what earned him the description of “enthusiastic offensive participant” in John Hollinger’s 2005 article titled “Is Kobe Bryant a ball hog?” (ESPN Insider).
Speculate about Bryant’s willingness to share the ball if you want, but one of the most impressive parts of his legacy is that every single one of his shots has been taken in a Lakers uniform.
Bryant called himself a “Laker for life” in 2004 (via ESPN), but even that part of his legacy hasn't come without drama in Tinseltown. The L.A. legend demanded a trade in 2007, according to ESPN, nearly signed with the in-town rival Los Angeles Clippers in 2004 and infamously feuded with O’Neal during their time together in L.A.
The two players should have gone on to win more titles together, but paying the two of them was clearly a concern for the Lakers organization, as well as getting them to coexist.
No player—or person—is perfect, and Bryant is a prime example, but while the superstar has been called a selfish player in the past, it all stems from the idea that he has one of the best competitive drives that the NBA has ever seen.
Bryant wants to win his sixth championship, and he wants the ring that will tie him with the great Michael Jordan.
For those who want to compare Bryant to Jordan, the edge has to go to MJ.
Despite the incredible numbers Bryant has posted throughout his career, Jordan averaged more points, rebounds and assists and shot nearly 50 percent from the field throughout his 15 years in the league.
Bryant wants a sixth ring to shrink the gap between he and Jordan, but the truth is, another ring or two still wouldn’t be enough to overtake the Greatest Of All Time title that Jordan seemingly has.
In all six of Jordan’s NBA championship runs, he was the man. He was the player who took over a series and dominated year after year, and he is the player who has six NBA Finals MVPs to his name.
Jordan was never anybody’s side kick, whereas Bryant was overshadowed by O’Neal in all three of his first championship appearances. No. 23 also never lost an NBA Finals.
If you say Bryant is better than Jordan, you don’t truly understand what Jordan’s legacy is and what he did throughout his legendary NBA career. However, if you say he’s not even close, or that he’s not one of the top players in history, you’re undervaluing what Bryant has accomplished, and you’re looking far too closely at the negatives.
His illustrious career may not match that of Jordan's, but needless to say, that's more a testament to what Jordan did, and not a knock on what Bryant has done. His success has earned him a place in history, and even if he never wins another title, nobody can take away what he's achieved thus far.
Place a number on it if you want—top five, 10, 20, etc.—but know that Bryant will go down as one of the greatest players to ever enter the Association.
The length of time for which Bryant has been dominant in such a star-driven league is beyond impressive. At age 33, Bryant averaged 27.9 points per game in 2012, the second-highest in the league.
He’s one of the most accomplished players in league history, and even without that coveted sixth ring, Bryant’s legacy is set as arguably the best shooting guard to ever play the game behind the great Michael Jordan.