Breaking Down Why Kobe Bryant Is Still a Top-5 Player in the NBA

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2012

ESPN's 2012 NBA player rankings will never make everyone happy, but they'll stir up an especially contentious debate when it comes to Kobe Bryant winding up sixth.

You can make a solid argument for each player who did fall in the top five, but this isn't about explaining why really good players are indeed really good—it's about being comparative in a discussion about who's better.

And coming from a big-time Derrick Rose fan, there's just no way you can say he's better than Kobe right now. In 2010-11? Sure, he deserved that MVP award. But the 2011-12 campaign was a different story.

It's also hard to stomach the notion that Dwight Howard is a better all-around player, especially if you even begin to take off-court contributions (or lack thereof) into consideration.

Of course, my claim is a modest one—that Bryant belongs in the top five.

Had he ranked ahead of either Rose or Howard, that's exactly where he'd be, so a couple of side-by-side comparisons are in order.

Let's start with Rose.

Before even thinking about numbers and what he did on the court last season, it's worth remembering that as of right now, we really don't have a clue how Rose will play when he gets back on the floor sometime in March (maybe). That makes it hard to rate him one way or the other, especially with respect to "the current quality of each player"—the guidelines given to ESPN's 104 voting experts.

It wouldn't be fair to Rose to saddle him with an artificially low rating, nor is it fair to assume we'll be watching an MVP-caliber point guard at his best anytime soon.

We could make predictions about what he'll do in 2013-14, but those are different rankings altogether.

But fine, let's assume we're really evaluating last season's performance—in Rose's case, all 39 games of it.

While it's true that Rose's player efficiency rating edged Bryant out by a 23.10 to 21.95 margin, Kobe was estimated to have added 12.7 wins for the Lakers compared to Rose's 8.3. These kind of advanced comparisons don't necessarily confirm much in the first place, but they're especially inconclusive in this case.

There's no question that Rose is the better distributor, but that also has something to do with how he's used. 

The Bulls' offense relies on him to run the pick-and-roll, drive and kick and hit shooters coming off screens. He does all the good things great point guards do.

Bryant, on the other hand, was expected to shoot—and shoot he did, over five more times per game than Rose. He also had to take a lot of those shots from the perimeter, which had more to do with having a couple of post-scorers often clogging the lane than it did any declining slashing ability.

But despite having to take so many difficult shots, Bryant's shooting percentages trail Rose by the very slightest of margins. 

He also averaged two more rebounds per game and stole the ball more frequently. You could argue that Rose is the better perimeter defender at this point thanks to his quickness, but it's not as if the nine-time All-Defensive first-teamer forgot how to stop his man.

In fact, last season was the first time since 2005 Bryant was named to that All-Defensive First Team, and he was named to the Second Team instead.

You don't have to always agree with the composition of those teams, but they're voted on by head coaches—the guys who have to think about this kind of thing more than anyone else.

But even if you think the Rose/Kobe comparison is too close to call, these rankings are asking us to believe that Bryant isn't even the best player on the Lakers' roster.

Indeed, these same rankings asked us to believe that Dwight Howard was the second-best player in 2011. We get it—Howard is a fantastic big man in an era when such a thing is increasingly rare.

But second? Out of everyone?

Here's the thing about Howard. He does a lot of things incredibly well, especially on the defensive end. But his ridiculous athleticism consistently makes those things look even better. If style points served any function whatsoever in this league, the adoration would be in order.

Though he ranked third in the league in blocked shots, he ranked 16th in blocks per 48 minutes, over 3.5 fewer than league-leader Serge Ibaka collected in that span, and well behind JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan and Roy Hibbert.

He ranked just two spots ahead of Andrew Bynum (by a negligible margin), who—contrary to popular belief—actually had better numbers than Howard when it came to defending in both post and pick-and-roll situations.

Sure, a lot of Howard's blocked shots ended up in the stands, but we probably shouldn't reward him for that—after all, it just means the other team gets the ball back.

And on the offensive end, again, Howard's game is impressive but woefully incomplete.

He was the highest-scoring center in the NBA last season and one of its most efficient, but it's worth noting that productive centers like Bynum, McGee and even Marcin Gortat trailed his efficiency ever so narrowly. That's especially impressive with respect to Bynum and Gortat, because they can, you know, actually shoot from mid-range.

It's also worth noting that Howard's scoring doesn't look nearly as impressive per 48-minutes and that he's an absolutely atrocious free-throw shooter who can't be trusted to touch the ball in the clutch—ideally the time you want a top-five NBA player to be touching the ball as much as possible.

And as for Kobe? Oh, he's just one the game's all-time most effective and versatile scorers—the one who averaged 30 points in 12 playoff games last season and remains the go-to guy for one of the league's very best teams.

Bryant's numbers were ultimately his undoing, of course. He didn't shoot the ball as well this season, and his team didn't win a championship. 

He lost some luster.

But anyone who paid attention to the Lakers understands that Bryant was taking on a slightly different role under a new coach and serving as his team's only real perimeter threat. If your defender rotating to an open man, who are you going to run at?

Metta World Peace or Kobe Bryant?

Kobe's shots were more contested than the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election, and there's still no question anyone rooting for the Lakers would rather see him take most of them when the alternative is passing the ball to someone like Steve Blake.

Finally, if there's any question in your mind about who's better on the court, just remember what Howard put his team through last season: a distraction for the ages.

Meanwhile, Bryant has grown into one of the game's premier leaders and teammates, holding his guys accountable while supporting them to the end.

Either way you slice it, he has to come out ahead of Rose or Howard, if not both. Rankings are never an exact science, but these are looking more and more like a pseudo-science.


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