Will Kobe Bryant's (right) legacy approach Michael Jordan's (left)?
The Hall of Fame is already calling for Kobe Bryant given his accomplishments during his illustrious career. As great as the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer has been though, he still has a few things he must achieve to cement his status as a top-five player of all-time.
This cannot be stressed enough: Bryant is one of the greatest players of his generation and quite possibly one of the 10 best players in league history. On that front, his legacy is secure.
However, if he is going to enter the vaunted pantheon of the five greatest men to ever play basketball, his body of work needs a couple of additions.
Although it is quite difficult to obtain a consensus on the top five, experts usually include Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in some type of order. Others,such as Bryant himself, subtract Chamberlain and instead replace him with Larry Bird.
These are the men that Bryant is jousting with in terms of NBA history and overall legacy.
If Bryant is going to unseat one of them, he must hit a couple of historical landmarks and surpass the accomplishments by some of the greats that came before him.
When judging the careers of players, the measuring sticks that are often cited are championships, awards and an ability to consistently raise the level of play when the situation calls for it.
Thus, Bryant must at least be on the same level as those in the pantheon in order to make it in and compare credentials.
So what’s left for him to do?
Kobe Bryant (left) and Karl Malone.
Kobe Bryant is tied with Karl Malone for most All-NBA 1st team selections. Both have been named 11 times by virtue of the stellar and consistent play throughout their careers.
With one final selection, Bryant becomes the player with most first team appearances in league history. In addition, earning one last spot on the All-NBA squad also breaks his tie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most selections ever.
Bryant has been named to the second and third teams four times in total, giving him 15 showings on the coveted list.
Breaking the draw in both places Bryant at the top of the All-NBA teams and also speaks to his superb play and longevity.
It provides him with an achievement that no other player can claim and forces him into the discussion thanks in large part to his long, productive career.
Kobe Bryant (right) presented with the 2007-08 NBA MVP trophy.
Kobe Bryant is the proud owner of the 2007-08 MVP award. He captured the trophy after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to 57 wins and the top spot in the Western Conference standings.
After Shaquille O’Neal exited the franchise in the 2004 summer, Bryant routinely demonstrated his ability as a solo artist. Mind you, his greatness was missing an important component prior to the 2007-08 season: team success.
Bryant’s teams post-O’Neal either missed the playoffs or made it as a lower seed. However, the 2007-08 campaign brought out a different Bryant and consequently a different Laker team.
The superstar guard subjugated his game in some respects to better fit with his teammates and also was paired alongside Pau Gasol after the Lakers acquired him via trade that same season.
The individual brilliance coupled with team success led to Bryant winning his lone MVP trophy.
When debating the merits of players from a historical standpoint, conversations invariably turn to accolades. In the case of Bryant, his lone Maurice Podoloff trophy hurts his case a little.
The top five players of all-time, as well as those on the fence, have all been crowned as the most valuable player of the league on multiple occasions. Have a quick look at the amount times each of them have received the honor:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: six times
- Michael Jordan: five times
- Bill Russell: five times
- Wilt Chamberlain: four times
- Magic Johnson: three times
- Larry Bird: three times
It’s worth noting that Tim Duncan has two MVP awards on his résumé, which could place him ahead of Bryant in the hierarchy.
Incredibly high standards are required when talking about a spot among the truly great, and on this front Bryant is lacking.
Although it’s merely an individual achievement, winning an MVP trophy speaks volumes to a player’s talent, productivity and direct impact on victories. Those that win it once are seen as great but also look like aberrations.
Those with multiple MVPs are the cream of the crop. Do not take my word for it though, just look at the list of winners. The Maurice Podoloff has been handed out 58 times over the course of history.
Of those 58 instances, only 17 guys won it once. Every other player has won the award on numerous occasions, and those multiple time winners are all viewed as the standard by which their positions are judged.
In other words, when the truly transcendent got their hands on the Podoloff, they rarely let it out of their sight. The ones who won the award once did so because of a truly impressive season, sentimental reasons or the absence of a great challenger.
Truthfully, Bryant’s lone MVP campaign could fall under one of those umbrellas. Fair or not, that will get him lumped in with Allen Iverson, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett to name a few players that won the trophy once.
However, a second award elevates Bryant’s status and puts him fairly close to equal footing with Chamberlain and company.
Kobe Bryant has scored over 30,000 points in his career with plays like these.
Kobe Bryant has scored an absurd 31,617 career points, good for fourth best all-time. His scoring binges have come in multiple forms, all of which have been entertaining and also quite aesthetic.
The ease with which Bryant has put the ball in the basket has made him often look infallible. When looking at his career as a whole, his point totals look even more astounding given the fact he came off the bench in his first two seasons.
With that said, if the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer is going to be considered among the top five players ever, he is going to need overwhelming numbers that support his case.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s leading scorer with 38,387 points. That number is practically impossible to attain for any active player, let alone Bryant.
For the sake of perspective, the 2007-08 MVP has to average 25 points per contest and appear in every regular season game for the next three seasons to get there.
It’s worth noting that Bryant’s lowest scoring average in the last five seasons is 25.3 points per game during the 2010-11 campaign. Thus, a healthy Bryant has a chance.
However, the face of the Laker franchise ended his 2012-13 with an Achilles tear, and there is a risk he will miss part of the 2013-14 season. That makes surpassing Abdul-Jabbar increasingly harder.
Mind you, the other guys on the list are fair game. If Bryant can suit up for 72 games per year during the next three seasons and score 25 points a night, that moves him past every one the all-time scoring list not named Abdul-Jabbar.
Bryant would surpass Michael Jordan (32,292 points) and Karl Malone (36,928 points) and own the second spot on the NBA’s total points list. The best way Bryant can secure a spot among the game’s greatest is by sheer volume of numbers and accomplishments.
Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record is arguably the toughest one to break in NBA history. But if Bryant gets even remotely close and adds these accomplishments along the way, denying him a spot in the pantheon becomes progressively perplexing.
Michael Jordan (left) and Kobe Bryant (right) go head-to-head in the All-Star Game.
No one has scored more postseason points than the incomparable Michael Jordan. And yet, Kobe Bryant has a chance to take over the playoff scoring lead in the near future. Indeed, Bryant has 5,640 points and trails Jordan’s 5,987 points.
Essentially, Bryant can overtake Jordan by generating 348 points. If he averages 25 points per contest in his next 14 playoff games, the record is his. Thus, with his regular point production in two sets of seven-game series, he becomes the undisputed playoff-scoring king.
That title sounds awfully impressive and has a nice ring to it. It firmly places Bryant in first place as far as postseason scoring goes and enhances both his legend as well as his legacy.
Kobe Bryant hugs the Larry O'Brien trophy.
The worst kept secret in professional basketball is Michael Jordan’s stature as the undisputed king of the league. He cemented his legacy as the greatest ever by winning six championships as the best player on each of those title teams.
Jordan dominated the game in a way that very few ever have. His six successful victories in the NBA Finals are the standard by which we measure modern day winners in the sport of basketball.
Kobe Bryant is the proud owner of five championships. He was the best player on two of those teams, but ultimately his ring count is still a significant part of the equation.
Bryant will be hard pressed to surpass Jordan’s legacy, but a sixth title certainly places him into the discussion and gives him more titles than Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird combined.
Winning “six” considerably narrows the gap with his predecessors. More importantly, accomplishing this as the best player on the team brings him into Magic Johnson and Larry Bird territory.
Kobe Bryant poses with the Larry O'Brien trophy and NBA Finals MVP trophy.
The Finals MVP award is typically given to the player that performs best during the NBA Finals whilst leading his team to victory. Given that the Finals oppose the two best teams from each conference, producing in this setting is a difficult proposition.
One must raise his level of play and counter all the strategies of a top-flight opponent in order to win the title as well as this precious trophy. It’s perhaps the best indicator of greatness on the NBA’s biggest stage.
The honor was introduced in 1968-69, which hurts athletes like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell since they played the best seasons of their careers prior to that season.
Kobe Bryant is the proud owner of two Finals MVPs for his performances in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 championship rounds.
He led the Lakers to championships in both seasons and solidified his legacy as one of the greatest Lakers ever. He is part of a small group that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Hakeem Olajuwon and Willis Reed as players to win the award twice.
On this front, Bryant is in rare company. However, the list of players with three Finals MVP awards is smaller and thus more prestigious. Michael Jordan headlines this group with six trophies.
Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal complete this collection with three such decorations each.
Earning membership into this club is a tough task as evidenced by the amount of people in it. It’s rarefied air, and Bryant’s inclusion into this group helps him knock down the door of the NBA’s great quintet.
These requirements may seem like a stretch at first glance given the difficulty involved, but that’s just it: Sitting at the table with the four other best players in league history is not supposed to be easy.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.