This is the polarizing question. Ask some people and they’ll scoff at the question. Of course, he’s a superstar and one of the top ones at that. He’s Kobe Bryant. In fact, they’ll probably annoyingly throw his middle name in there when they say that.
Ask everybody else and they’ll ask you if you’re posing that question from 2010, only to quickly remind you this season will end in 2013.
The idea of a superstar in the NBA is such a bizarre thing, and ranking the stars of the NBA is even more peculiar.
There are guys like Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love that the stats adore but the eye test just really likes.
There are guys that the stats are fond of and the eye test like to flirt with, but the allure of their marketability makes them superstars. We call these guys Carmelo Anthony.
And then there’s someone like Kobe Bryant. The stats do love him but not as much as his fans do. The eye test loves him but it requires some selective memory to continue a legacy he spent a decade building up as one of the most impressive résumés ever.
Kobe Bryant is such a tricky player to still assess. It’s natural to remember the player he was and pretend it has a lot of carryover into the present day. And on some level, maybe it does.
There are a lot of players and coaches that still fear Kobe Bryant, even if the majority of his non-fans might be wincing at his end-of-game shooting numbers. The perception is he’ll rip your heart out and step over it like it’s the Tyronn Lue to his Allen Iverson.
There are some nights in which that’s true. Kobe can still go on runs and his numbers last year were fairly impressive. He averaged 27.9 points per game, his highest scoring average in four seasons. He also had the second highest usage rate of his career, which is incredible when someone is in their 16th season.
The problem though is he was pretty inefficient, by his standards. He had the lowest shooting percentage (43.0 percent) since he was 19 years old. He had the lowest WS/48 (.132) since he was 20. And his true shooting percentage was a career low (52.7 percent).
Was Kobe Bryant a top-5 star in the NBA last season? For me, I would say he was.
It wasn’t the best I’ve seen him play, but that doesn’t really need to factor into it. He found ways to help his team win most nights and helped grind out victories in a truncated schedule. I don’t fault anybody for thinking he wasn’t a Top-5 guy last season, but I don’t think either side of the discussion is a ridiculous stance to take.
Superstardom and ranking are all in the eye of the beholder. Stardom is about perception and trust. When you trust a certain player to come through night after night, it builds the perception in your mind that this guy is virtually unstoppable. And when those factors get constructed in your analysis of a player and his place in the league, it brings about stardom.
For Kobe Bryant, stardom is still very much a part of the NBA fan’s reality because that trust is there. If you want to know how I believe he can/will re-assert himself as a Top-5 superstar in his 17th season, the reasoning is saturated with the concept of trust.
Any player in the NBA is clutch if you trust them to be clutch because it’s such a subjective term. Players have long been destroyers at the end of tight games, but until a fan is willing to admit to trusting them with the ball; it doesn’t really matter what the numbers show.
Kobe Bryant is someone that a lot of people trust with the game on the line. It doesn’t matter what the numbers necessarily say because the acceptance of him having the ball with the game on the line is real.
During the 2011-12 season, Kobe Bryant was not very good at the end of tight games.
This was pretty unusual because the previous two seasons, Kobe had been extremely clutch. While his career numbers don’t always seem to show this idea that he’s one of the best shooters with the game on the line or in the balance, he was quite exceptional from 2009-2011.
The second and third charts are exactly what people want to remember with Bryant. If you need a final shot, he’s getting the ball. Some people complain about him taking harder shots than need be or attempting to thrive on nothing but hero ball when the game needs a heroic effort.
Regardless of the manifestation that takes place within the waning moments of the game, Kobe will always bring entertainment and held breaths when he’s given the spotlight.
Check out Kobe’s misses during the last 30 seconds of tight games from last season.
There are a variety of good shots and bad shots, close calls and bad bricks, forced attempts and opportunities within the flow of the offense at the end of games. Even though the title of the video said, “Kobe’s clutch misses 2012,” wasn’t there a part of you that wondered if he might make some of these shots?
I don’t show that video in a salty attempt to show Kobe as fallible. It’s simply evidence that he missed a lot of big shots last season, and when compared to the numbers on the chart, he missed a big number of clutch shots compared to the number of shots he made.
But in a way, that’s what makes Kobe Bryant a superstar in this league. We all know how insanely talented he is. He can continue to put up sexy numbers that can allow you to look past the detracting stats on his basketball-reference page.
There are some that would say Kobe has to increase his true shooting percentage, cut down on turnovers, and be a much better defender to re-assert himself as a top-5 NBA superstar next season. And while those all seem like valid ways for him to improve his game, it might be making a simple issue too complex.
Want to see Kobe re-assert himself as a definite top-5 superstar next season? All he has to do is raise that shooting accuracy in the clutch back to where we saw him in the 2009-2011 stretch of his career.
With oodles of options at the Lakers’ disposal, spacing the floor and setting up Kobe for better game-winners and game-clinchers will bring back that allure. It will bring back the thoughts of “I can’t believe they let him get the ball.”
Check out his makes in the last 30 seconds of close games from this past season.
This is the Kobe Bryant many of us want to continue to see. We want to see the cold-blooded nature of a man that calls himself the Black Mamba. We want to see the killer instinct bring results.
Kobe doesn’t have to be LeBron or Durant or Chris Paul this coming season in order to cement himself back into the Top-5. He simply has to bring the theatrics back to the end of Lakers games and end them with a held fist pump...the new-age Red Auerbach victory cigar.
After all, that’s what has separated Kobe Bryant from a multitude of superstars throughout his career. And that’s how he can take away any doubt from the polarizing question wondering if Kobe Bryant is still one of the Top-5 superstars in the NBA.
** -- Charts for this post were taken from NBA.com/stats