How Kobe Bryant Is Re-Defining Our Expectations for All-Time Greats

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How Kobe Bryant Is Re-Defining Our Expectations for All-Time Greats
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop network certainly got it right when they named LeBron James as the top player in their rankings of the NBA's best players for the 2012-13 season, but their failure to include Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in the top five just proves how ridiculous those rankings really are.

It's bad enough that ESPN decided to rank two players, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose higher than Bryant, despite the fact they both finished the previous season on the injured list with their respective futures in doubt. But that decision looks even crazier when you consider the type of season Bryant is having right now.

At 34, Bryant is definitely an old man playing a young man's game, but there is nothing in his numbers that would suggest that.

Currently, Bryant is the third leading scorer in the NBA at 27.0 points per game, but more impressively he is on pace for the highest shooting percentage of his 17-year career. Add in Bryant's six assists per game—which equals the best season in his career—and it becomes extremely difficult to exclude him from the top five players in the game today.

In fact, when you consider the type of season Bryant is having at his age the conversation about him as a top-five all-time player looks a lot more reasonable.

There is no shortage of people who will tell you that Bryant is no Michael Jordan, but one fact often overlooked in the endless comparisons is how each player finished, or in Bryant's case, will finish their careers.

For some of Jordan's fans his final two seasons in Washington don't exist, but if the blinders are removed you will see a portrait of a great player in the throes of decline.

Jordan only shot below 45 percent from the field four times in his career and two of those occasions were in his final two seasons, Jordan's 14th and 15th in the NBA.

In Bryant's 17th season his averages have increased in nearly every category, and while he constantly ruminates on retirement, there is nothing in his game that suggests he's ready for a rocking chair.

On the contrary, Bryant has shown more bounce and spring in his legs than at any point since the 2007-08 season, and while there were no more tales to be told about Jordan in his final two seasons, Bryant is still adding chapters to his legacy.

This season alone, Bryant has climbed into the top four of the NBA's greatest scorers, became the oldest player ever to record consecutive 40-point games and he just happens to have more 40-point games than any other player in the NBA.

I'm sure Jordan's fans will remind us he did average almost two more points at an older age than Bryant, and his ascension up the NBA's point ladder came in a much shorter period.

Not to mention that Jordan scored 51 points in a game when he was 38, and even had a 43-point game when he was 40.

But those two flashes in the pan don't change the fact that Jordan was nowhere near the top of his game when he finally and unremarkably bowed out.

And just so Jordan's fans don't feel slighted, the argument for Bryant's extraordinary staying power holds up in a more historical context as well. In fact, it's not really close.

Most NBA fans' top-five player lists would include some combination of Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Bill Russell.

Kareem is the only player on that list who played more seasons than Bryant, and managed to add to his legacy at the same time. But there are few people who would say that Kareem looked better than ever in his 17th season.

And that is what separates Bryant from the rest of the NBA's all-time greatest players, and simultaneously raises the bar for those who follow.

There have been better players in the NBA than Bryant, but none who have accomplished the same feats with as much physical mileage.

LeBron and Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant may be the game's premier talents in their 10th and 6th seasons, respectively, but will they be top-five talents in their 17th?

Father Time will eventually leave a permanent mark on Bryant like he inevitably has for all of the NBA's greatest players, but then again, isn't that what ESPN said last year?

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