Kobe Bryant’s exceptional play this season has many wondering whether he is producing the best basketball of his career. Although an argument could be made that he is, taking such a stance would be inaccurate.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ leading scorer has had nights where he’s looked like the best player in the game, and that’s a testament to his singular skill. Indeed, prior to his recent ankle injury, the 17-year veteran was winning the battle against Father Time.
In late February, ESPN.com’s TrueHoop blog ran a piece putting in perspective just how fantastic the former scoring champion has been:
Is Kobe playing his best basketball of the season right now? Perhaps it goes even beyond that. It seems that he could be playing the most efficient basketball of his career […]
For most of the season, Bryant’s efficiency hovered around career high levels. Entering the March 13th contest against the Atlanta Hawks, he was the proud owner of a 57.7 percent true shooting percentage (a combination of field-goal, three-point and free-throw percentages all wrapped into one).
That figure would represent the second-best of his career.
The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer has not only ramped up his efficiency this season, but he has also added a few responsibilities to his ever-expanding role.
Mike D’Antoni has turned the former league MVP into the team’s de facto point guard. Consequently, the onus falls on his shoulders to score, initiate the offense, make the proper reads and also anticipate defensive rotations in order to take advantage of them.
Defensively, Metta World Peace is now responsible for checking opposing power forwards. As a result, Bryant must guard the other team’s best perimeter player regardless of position. It’s not uncommon to see the four-time All-Star game MVP pressuring opposing point guards in the backcourt.
The list of tasks dropped on Bryant’s 34-year old shoulders is ridiculous. And yet, he shakes it off and produces.
However, it’s difficult to unequivocally state that he is playing his best ball ever. The reason is simple: He is not.
If we simply rely on his statistical production, the 2012-13 campaign would rank as his ninth-best. The two-time NBA Finals MVP is posting a player efficiency ranking (PER) of 23.5.
That last mark is the 11th-best in the league.
It’s worth noting that Bryant’s defense has been exceptional since the All-Star break. The perennial All-Star has been far more engaged both on and off the ball, which has helped the Lakers thrive during that same time span.
Mind you, an improved defensive effort in the last month or so is synonymous with a lack of it prior to the midseason classic.
The superstar guard’s contributions on this front were laughable early in the season. Bryant was often caught ignoring his main assignment in favor of ball watching. He even had instances where he simply observed his teammates get beat off the bounce and did nothing.
NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that the Purple and Gold’s defense has been in the NBA’s bottom third with their leading scorer on the floor. Remove him from the equation, and the team is among the Association’s elite with the eighth-best ranking.
These last few details make it hard to endorse this current season as the future Hall of Famer's best. Make no mistake though, it’s somewhere in his top 10.
Many believe that Bryant’s best season is the 2005-06 campaign that saw him average an almost absurd 35.4 points per game.
He recorded 27 games in which he produced 40 points or more and tormented the opposition with his scoring outbursts. His best piece of work that season was a jaw-dropping 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors.
Even today, many people aren’t sure how the Raptors allowed one perimeter player to produce such an ungodly amount of baskets.
The 2005-06 campaign put Bryant in an entirely different stratosphere in comparison with his peers, as well as other legends that came before him.
Very few had ever scored as much as the Laker guard that season, and it was a sight to behold. But in my books, that yearlong assault on the NBA ranks as his second-best season of all-time.
Although it may be an unpopular opinion, Bryant’s best stretch of basketball occurred in the 2000-01 season.
Fresh off an NBA title, the young guard improved his already impressive game.
Armed with confidence and an improved jump shot, the former Olympian became a much more assertive player. He drove by defenders with incredible ease, finished with authority at the rim and essentially scored at will.
At the tender age of 22, Bryant had the best scoring season of his career (at that stage of his NBA life), averaging 28.2 points per game on 46.4 percent field-goal shooting.
The increase in shot attempts did not please Shaquille O’Neal because it came at the expense of his own opportunities. The duo eventually found a healthy compromise late in the season and captured their second consecutive title.
The 2000-01 campaign served as a precursor of Bryant’s exploits.
At that point in his career, he was not the finished product he is today that can annihilate a defense from just about any spot on the floor. Indeed, his game has seen multiple transformations throughout the years.
Nonetheless, the superstar’s offense took a huge leap that season, which in turn made him a dominant player.
This very same season also brought in a new facet of his game that elevated him to levels not seen at any other point in his career: ball-hawking defense.
After celebrating his first championship in June 2000, the former gold medalist rejoined his teammates in the fall as the most destructive perimeter defender since Gary Payton.
The Philadelphia native used his jaw-dropping athleticism to put the clamps on the best wing players on opposing teams. Bryant hounded whichever players were placed before him and made life miserable for them. There were occasions when the Laker guard was assigned to defend point guards, and they simply could not run their offense.
These days, the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer does this in very small spurts. But 13 seasons ago, he executed this consistently in every game.
In other words, Bryant was defending like former San Antonio Spurs great Bruce Bowen, while pouring in 28 points a night.
That very same effort in the postseason helped the Lakers destroy the opposition. The Purple and Gold won 15 of 16 playoff games on their way to another parade in downtown Los Angeles.
Bryant’s play this year has been amazing by every possible measure. It just comes up short in comparison to his most destructive NBA season as a two-way player.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can also be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.