Left to right: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James
Near the conclusion of this year’s Summer Olympics, Team USA captured gold by defeating Spain in a heavily contested game that had basketball fans around the world sitting at the edge of their seats.
By game’s end, it became apparent, at least to one writer, that the players who carried the United States in the final stages of the game represented the past, present and future of the league, much like Magic, Bird and Jordan had done in the 1992 Olympics.
But here’s where the current group of superstars differ from their glorious predecessors: all three are still at the top of the game.
Indeed, at the end of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Larry Bird retired, Magic Johnson did the same and Michael Jordan ruled the league until he got bored and retired. MJ eventually came back and so did Magic but Jordan carried the league all on his own.
This new trio, on the other hand, is still playing after their Olympics effort. Even better, an argument could be made that they are, at this moment in time, the three best players in the NBA.
LeBron James is easily the top guy in the NBA. The best way to explain why is simply to state that he is mimicking Michael Jordan’s early path to immortality with his play in the last calendar year.
Last season, Kevin Durant was widely accepted as the second best player in the NBA, given his scoring exploits and improved ball-handling, coupled with his amazing knack for stepping up late in fourth quarters and guiding his team to victories.
And yet, the Texas product was far from satisfied with adhering to the status quo. Instead, he once again added something new to his arsenal: reading defenses.
Consequently, the OKC superstar is playing at an incredibly high level and will have the Thunder ready to make a run for a championship.
That leaves Kobe Bryant.
Who is the best player in the NBA?
At the conclusion of the postseason, ESPN.com polled multiple writers and bloggers (full disclosure: I was one of them) to rank every player in the league from last to first in a project named #NBARank.
Bryant was ranked sixth, which caused a bit of an uproar given that many Lakers fans felt he should have been ranked higher.
Indeed, the argument of many was that Kobe’s singular talent trumped many of his peers and that his ability to close games should have rewarded him with a much better ranking.
In a post detailing that the Black Mamba’s rank wasn’t that egregious, I stated:
[…] one can hardly state that Kobe was the model of excellence for clutch play. Indeed, NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that Bryant was tied with Chris Paul for second last season in total clutch scoring—clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points—but also that he took the most clutch shots (122) out of everyone in the league during the 2011-12 regular season.
Bryant’s erratic shooting late in games combined with his iffy shot selection last season kept him out of the vaunted Top Five.
Fast-forward to this season, however, and it’s night and day.
Kobe Bryant is leading the league in scoring but is using far less possessions when compared to previous seasons. His usage rate and field-goal attempts are his lowest since the 2003-04 season, when he played with Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
Bryant is nonetheless still scoring at a high clip, and that’s because he’s playing the most efficient ball of his career. His true shooting percentage is at a career high 62.1 percent; but those that prefer much more traditional figures might be surprised to know that he is converting 49.3 percent of his field goals, 40.5 percent of his three-pointers and 87.5 percent of his free throws.
Furthermore, he is still a terrific playmaker, and Mike D’Antoni has him occasionally playing the role of point guard while Steve Nash and Steve Blake are out of commission.
Granted, his defense has considerably slipped in recent seasons, but the Black Mamba is still playing some of the best basketball of his career. At 34 years old, he has found the perfect balance between managing his own skill and taking advantage of his teammates to create the best scoring chances possible for him and the Los Angeles Lakers.
His elevated play this year not only reaffirms his status as an elite player but places him right behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the best players in the league today.
All three won’t be playing at incredibly high levels together forever; therefore, it’s worth enjoying their talents for as long as possible.
In the same way that many old-school fans reminisce about the days of Larry, Magic and Michael, there will come a time where we will do the same for Kobe, LeBron and Kevin.
Embrace the past, present and future today while there’s still time.