Editor's note: Kobe Bryant turns 35 on August 23. To commemorate the Los Angeles Lakers legend's big day, we're seeing how his career stacks up next to five NBA luminaries, be they current Hall of Famers or those in the making.
Today, in the first of our five-part series, we're throwing Bryant's career in the ring with Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. We'll be comparing them in four main areas: career accomplishments, career statistics, off-the-court influence and impact on the game.
Let's see how each player stacks up compared to one another.
Seventeen years into his NBA career, there's little question that Kobe Bryant stands among the all-time greats to ever play the game. He's responsible for the second-highest scoring game in NBA history, after all.
As Bryant gears up for his 35th birthday, however, he's facing more uncertainty than ever.
He swears that he's "shattered" the typical timetable for recovery from his torn Achilles tendon, according to SportingNews, but there's still no telling whether he'll return to form once he's healthy enough to play.
Meanwhile, his Los Angeles Lakers appear miles away from contending for an NBA championship after losing Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets in free agency. No matter when Bryant returns, contending for a 2014 playoff spot will be a challenge in and of itself.
Assuming Bryant caps his illustrious career without ever winning another title, where does he stand in the pantheon of NBA legends? That's what we're aiming to answer this week.
The table below helps explain why Bird earned the nickname "Larry Legend" during his 13-year NBA career.
With three regular-season MVP awards, three NBA championships and two Finals MVPs to his name, Bird was one of the most dominant players throughout the 1980s.
The Boston Celtics famously selected Bird sixth overall in the 1978 draft, a year before he even graduated from college. Had he been gone in the 1979 draft instead, he would have given his former rival Magic Johnson a run for his money as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
Upon joining the Celtics in October 1979, the so-called Hick from French Lick quickly made his impact felt. He dropped a game-high 28 points in his second-ever career game (a 139-117 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers) and went on to average 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game during the 1979-80 season.
Despite an equally strong season from Magic, Bird took home the 1980 Rookie of the Year award. Johnson got the last laugh that year, however, by winning the 1980 NBA championship as a rookie.
Bird wasn't far behind. He won his first title one season later, capping an impressive sophomore campaign in which he averaged 21.2 points, 10.9 boards and 5.5 dimes per game.
From there, it was off to the races between him and Magic. The two waged war in one of the most memorable Finals series in NBA history (1984), then battled twice more in the 1985 and 1987 Finals.
Bryant never had a rivalry along the lines of the one between Larry and Magic, unless you're willing to include his own teammates (namely, Shaquille O'Neal). His career also got off to a significantly slower start compared to Bird's.
After being drafted 13th overall by the then-Charlotte Hornets in 1996, Bryant was traded two weeks later to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac. By his third season in Los Angeles, he was averaging nearly 38 minutes and nearly 20 points a game, making the Hornets look plain foolish in the process.
With the behemoth O'Neal manning the middle, the Kobe-and-Shaq Lakers dominated the turn of the 21st century, winning three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. Bryant's unwillingness to cede the spotlight to O'Neal bubbled under the surface of those title teams, however, eventually boiling over following the 2003-04 season.
O'Neal left for the Miami Heat, where he'd win his fourth and final championship, while Kobe was left to pick up the pieces in Los Angeles. He first tried to lead the team to success by lighting up scoreboards on a nightly basis, finishing as the league's back-to-back scoring leader in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Bryant soon realized that no matter how many points he scored per game, he'd need assistance from his teammates if he wanted to return to the NBA's grandest stage. After threatening to demand a trade, the Lakers brought him the help he was looking for in the form of Pau Gasol.
After falling to the hated Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, the tandem of Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum led the Lakers to back-to-back championships in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Kobe racked up both of his Finals MVP awards those years, proving once and for all to Shaq that he could "do" without the big man.
When comparing the career totals of Bird and Kobe, it's a one-round knockout in favor of the Laker legend.
With four more NBA season under his belt, it's no surprise that Bryant has surpassed Bird's career totals in minutes, points, assists, steals and turnovers. Matching Bird's rebounds total seems out of the question, but if Bryant continues his career into his early 40s, he could feasibly pass Bird in blocks.
Advanced statistics, however, tell a far different story about the two players.
In four of Bird's first seven NBA seasons, he led the league in defensive win shares. He also led the NBA in total win shares and win shares per 48 minutes during the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons, and posted a league-leading 10.5 offensive win shares in 1984-85, too.
In the two seasons where Bird posted league-leading marks in total win shares, he additionally finished with the NBA's highest player-efficiency rating (26.5 in 1984-85, 25.6 in 1985-86).
The following two seasons, Larry Legend did the unthinkable for a high-volume scorer: He shot over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the charity stripe. He was the first player in NBA history to ever do so.
Bryant, on the other hand, has never led the NBA in offensive win shares, defensive win shares, total win shares, win shares per 48 minutes or PER. He also has no 50-40-90 seasons to his name.
In the late '80s, Bird's plague of back problems began to hinder his effectiveness. After posting a player-efficiency rating of 27.8 in the 1987-88 season, his PER plummeted eight points the next year, falling to a 19.8 in 1988-99.
He went from six straight seasons with a PER above 24 (1982-83 through 1987-88) to four straight seasons where his PER hovered around the 20-21 range.
Kobe, meanwhile, hasn't posted a PER below 21.9 since the turn of the century. Seventeen years into his career, he's still routinely putting up PERs between 22 and 24.
As will be a common theme in this week's series, Bryant's longevity is the main factor that distinguishes him from Larry Legend. As he ascends the NBA's all-time statistical leaderboards, it will only become progressively easier to forget about the single-season dominance of players like Bird in his prime.
The arrival of Bird and Magic in 1979 turned the NBA's fortunes around.
The mano-a-mano battles between Bird and Magic, however, piqued the interest of far more fans than just those in Boston and Los Angeles. The two, along with Michael Jordan, helped turn the league into the global empire that it's become today.
An HBO documentary which aired in 2010, Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, delved into the fascinating relationship between the two superstars. In part, it touched upon how their differences in race reflected greater political tensions bubbling to the surface throughout the '80s.
"Most black players at the time were racist," said Cedric Maxwell, Bird's former Celtics teammate, in the documentary, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "We did not think that you could find a white guy that could play better than any black guy."
Bird, of course, put that theory to rest.
By the time Bryant entered the league in '96, any concerns about the NBA's viability were long gone. Jordan had picked up the baton from Bird and Magic and took off sprinting, solidifying the league's place as one of the country's most popular professional sports.
Instead, Bryant's largest off-the-court impact came as a global ambassador for the game.
During his younger days, Kobe's father played professional basketball in Italy. The little Mamba spent eight years of his childhood living there, according to NBA.com, and he's now fluent in both Spanish and Italian.
That international background made him a natural representative for the NBA's worldwide expansion.
During the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Bryant was often the Team USA member who received the loudest ovation from fans, according to USA Today and NBA.com. He's visited China every summer since 2006, the Los Angeles Times reports, which has only helped his international jersey sales. (He topped the NBA's first-ever overall international top-selling jerseys list in 2012.)
Impact on the Game
Of course, Bryant isn't the only one here with Team USA experience.
When the International Basketball Federation lifted its restriction on professional players appearing in the Olympics in 1989, the United States took advantage. Despite his back trouble, Bird agreed to join the so-called 1992 "Dream Team" alongside Magic, M.J. and a slew of other stars.
That group turned out to be historically dominant, eviscerating every opponent that stood in its path. No team came within 32 points of upsetting the American stars that summer.
The success of the Dream Team in 1992 gave rise to basketball interest across the globe, which Bryant would harness in later years.
Bird also gets three bonus points in this category:
- There's a "Larry Bird exception" salary-cap exception written into the league's collective bargaining agreement, which allows teams to exceed their cap space to re-sign one of their own free agents. It may not have gotten its name from the Celtics actually using it on Bird (at least, not right away), but he still gets credit for his name being etched in NBA history this way.
- His post-NBA days have been far more fruitful than Jordan's. After a one-season hiatus, he's back as president of the Indiana Pacers, where he's done a fine job reloading an already strong team that fell one game short of the 2013 Finals.
- To this day, Bird is considered one of the most notorious trash-talkers in NBA history. Between telling an opponent exactly how he was going to score his next basket or walking into the inaugural All-Star three-point shootout in 1986 asking, "Man, who's comin' in second?," Bird's braggadocio remains one of his defining traits.
Bryant has the edge over Bird, however, when it comes to hardware. He's got two more NBA championships and one more Olympic gold medal than Bird, which certainly must be taken into account when comparing the legacy of the two players.
The Lakers legend isn't done writing the story of his career, either. Based on the way he performed in the 2012-13 season, you'd hardly know it was his 17th year of playing professional basketball.
If Bryant can bounce back from his torn Achilles tendon and continue performing at a high level for the next few seasons, there's no telling just how high he can rise among the NBA's best-ever players.
The Verdict: Bird… For Now
Given Bird's excellence on both ends of the court and his monumental impact on the league itself, he gets the nod over Bryant in terms of all-time great NBA players.
That position is still very much subject to change, however, depending on how long Bryant can extend his already impressive career.
If Kobe never returns to form following his Achilles surgery and fails to secure another championship before retiring, he'll likely fall short of surpassing Bird in the eyes of most NBA fans.
Based on what we've learned about him throughout his 17-year career, however, the odds of Bryant fading out quietly appear rather slim.
The more years he can put under his belt, the better. He's already defying Father Time by remaining elite this far into his NBA career; why not push the envelope even farther?
While Bird holds the advantage over Bryant for now, don't be surprised if Kobe surpasses him by the time he hangs up his basketball shoes for good.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.
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