Who Will Really Be the Next Kobe Bryant?
There will never be another Michael Jordan, but Kobe Bryant has come about as close as anyone likely ever will to being a clone of His Airness. The NBA titles (five with the Los Angeles Lakers to MJ's six with the Chicago Bulls), the tutelage under Phil Jackson, the points amassed (Kobe's less than 700 points shy of Jordan on the all-time scoring list) and the uncanny comparison videos on YouTube all add up to one superstar meticulously following the blueprint laid out by another on the path to greatness.
But Kobe was hardly the lone MJ imitator to hit the NBA. He was merely the most successful, outlasting and outperforming the likes of Vince Carter, Harold Miner and the now-retired Tracy McGrady, to name a few.
In chasing Jordan's ghost, Bryant established a distinctive legacy for himself. He was, in large part, the bridge between Jordan and LeBron James in terms of dominance from the perimeter. The phases of his career have been dictated not by retirements, but rather by roster turnover. Bryant may never have owned the league to the extent that Jordan once did, but he's been so good for so long that it doesn't really matter.
With his 35th birthday just passed and the end of his NBA career probably right around the corner, the question now becomes: Who will be the next Kobe? Which of today's young guards and wings will become the sort of perennial All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive performer who lights up scoreboards, frustrates opponents and attacks the game with the sort of relentless fury that's made the "Black Mamba" nickname a fitting moniker rather than an ill-fated attempt at self-description?
Or, will Kobe's career stand alone in the annals of NBA history, just as MJ's would've had Bryant not grown into such a spot-on emulation of Air Jordan?
These five brilliant, young ballers will have plenty to say about that.
(Note: Kevin Durant and LeBron aren't on this list because they already inhabit a completely different plane of existence than the one on which Kobe's lived for his entire career. They've already established themselves as individuals. They don't need to be Kobe, they are LeBron and KD.)
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When seeking out the NBA's next Kobe, it doesn't hurt to start with young guards and wings playing next to All-Star bigs. The early portion of Bryant's career was very much shaped and defined by his (shall we say) shaky partnership with Shaquille O'Neal. Playing with the Big Diesel both allowed Bryant to ease his way into superstardom and forced him to wait his turn before taking over the team.
There will be no such wait for Paul George. The 6'8" swingman has already assumed the position as the Indiana Pacers' best player, albeit after a rough start to his third campaign. George averaged 13.5 points with a tawdry true shooting percentage of .486 through the first month of the 2012-13 season while adjusting to a bigger, more pivotal role in place of the injured Danny Granger.
Consistency was an issue at times for George in his first season as Indy's top option, just as it was for Kobe in his first as a full-time starter in 1999. Here's a look at some of Kobe's year-by-year stats through his first three:
And some of Paul's through his first three:
The biggest differences between the two? George's height and length make him a better rebounder than a young Kobe, though he still has some catching up to do in terms of drawing fouls.
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At first glance, Kyrie Irving seems a poor choice for this exercise. He's four inches shorter than Kobe, mans a different position, doesn't play much in the way of defense and is already a far better shooter than the Black Mamba.
(To that last point, Irving's hit 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts thus far. Kobe has yet to convert more than 38.3 percent of his threes in any single season.)
But, as far as sheer talent, franchise star power and late-game heroics are concerned, Irving is a perfect match for the Mamba.
Like Bryant, Irving was selected for the All-Star Game in just his second season as a pro, thanks in no small part to his late-game heroics. According to NBA.com, Irving ranked third in the league last season with 145 points scored in the final five minutes of games with his team either ahead or behind by five points or fewer.
Who ranked first and second? Kevin Durant...and Kobe, with 154 points apiece. This, after Kyrie checked in ninth in this regard during his Rookie of the Year campaign.
Irving's already established himself as the singular star around whom the Cleveland Cavaliers are building for the present and the future. The addition of Andrew Bynum, who won back-to-back championships with Kobe in 2009 and 2010, connects the rest of the loop.
All Kyrie needs to do is stay healthy (he's missed 38 games through his first two seasons) and turn the Cavs into a winning operation, and he'll have a spot among basketball's super elite sewn up in no time.
As far as championship-caliber inside-out combos are concerned, there may be none better—or more reminiscent of the Shaq-Kobe tandem—than that which is due to begin between James Harden and Dwight Howard with the Houston Rockets this season.
Personality-wise, Howard is about as close a match for Shaq as the NBA has yet seen at the center position. The fact that Dwight was Kobe's teammate just last season only further validates the comparison.
But we're talking about Harden here, not Howard. Like Bryant with the Lakers, The Beard got his start as a superb sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The similarities between their second-year stats, when Bryant was an All-Star and Harden was coming into his own, are striking, to say the least:
Kobe clearly got more touches and more looks at that point in his career than did Harden. The former moved into the starting lineup in Year 3, while the latter took home Sixth Man of the Year honors (both in lockout-shortened years, mind you) before nabbing a starting gig with the Rockets. Here's how each fared in Year 4:
Harden has already raced past a young Kobe in terms of three-point shooting, getting to the line and overall efficiency. If all goes according to plan with Dwight in Space City, James should find easy opportunities that much more frequently and, in turn, surpass Kobe as the premier player at his position.
Brash. Gifted. Raw. Underappreciated.
Who am I talking about? Kobe Bryant? Russell Westbrook?
How about both?
In his earlier days, Bryant was known for his irreverence, much of which was born of his supreme self-confidence and freakishly competitive streak. Phil Jackson recounts in his book Eleven Rings a meeting he set up between Kobe and Michael Jordan during the 1999-2000 season, per Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times:
When we played in Chicago that season, I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfless teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were, 'You know I can kick your ass one on one.'
As far as we know, Westbrook hasn't been quite so brazen in his interactions with other living legends, though he's done plenty to abuse Bryant on the court. In their last six tilts, Westbrook has posted three 30-point performances, including a 37-point pounding in their most recent row—which prompted Kobe to proclaim that Russ has "Mamba blood"—and a near-triple-double (17 points, nine rebounds, 13 assists) the time before that.
It's in performances like those that the chip on Westbrook's shoulder is most evident. For much of his five-year career with OKC, Russ has had to handle slights—perceived and otherwise—about playing second fiddle behind another prolific superstar in Kevin Durant.
Westbrook's been criticized for his, at times, reckless behavior on the court and for not deferring to Durant, a superior shooter and more efficient scorer, more often. All the while, much of the criticism seems to discount what a magnificent player Russ is in his own right (22.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.8 steals over his last three seasons) while focusing a bit too intently on the relatively miniscule shortcomings in his game.
That was and has been largely the same story for Kobe. He drew the ire of many for jacking up shots and attacking the rim rather than feeding the ball to Shaq—who was, at the time, the most dominant player in basketball—each and every time down, as if by automatic dictum.
Even today, there are those who discount Kobe's role in the Lakers' three-peat, suggesting that Bryant wouldn't have wrangled those rings absent O'Neal's help without considering the reverse: that Shaq would've been hard-pressed to hang any banners at Staples Center sans the support of a preternaturally talented teammate like Kobe.
In that way, there's a silver lining to be found in Westbrook's knee injury from the 2013 playoffs. Without Russ, the Thunder fell from prohibitive Western Conference favorites to second-round fodder. That unfortunate turn of events clarified and reinforced Westbrook's importance to the team.
But will Russ' critics abate? And if they don't, will he use their naysaying as fuel with which to torch the rest of the NBA, just as Kobe has throughout his career?
Somewhere toward the opposite end of the personality spectrum lies Kawhi Leonard. He's quiet and unassuming, with nary an ounce of egotism to be found in his 6'7", 225-pound frame.
But don't let that fool you. Leonard has shown himself to be every bit as intense, focused and up to the task of performing in big moments as the Mamba was in his younger days. He played the best basketball of his just-now-burgeoning career on the biggest of stages: the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.
In that seven-game series, Leonard averaged 14.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals while amassing a strong true shooting percentage of .563 and hounding LeBron James into four subpar performances on the other end.
Had the San Antonio Spurs emerged victorious in Game 7, Leonard, who was 21 at the time, may well have snuck away with Finals MVP honors—something Kobe didn't do until he was 30.
Leonard may not possess the skill or carefully crafted finesse that's made Kobe great and such dogged determination that Bryant's honed year after year, but that's not to say he won't get there. Kawhi came into the NBA with a broken jump shot and, with the help of Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, has already morphed into a 37.5-percent three-point shooter. With that kind of work ethic, there's no telling how much or how else Leonard can improve, or even what his overall ceiling might be.
And it's not as though there's any rush for Kawhi to tap into the entirety of his potential. As was the case with Kobe, Leonard can bide his time learning the tricks of his trade and getting a feel for the finer, more interpersonal points while Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili continue to carry much of the mantle in San Antonio.
In the meantime, Leonard can already boast a defensive reputation on par with Bryant's best from any of his 12 All-Defensive seasons—an all-around ability to affect the game in any number of ways and a fearlessness in asserting himself when the lights are brightest and the pressure is at its most suffocatingly intense.
Which is about as close to a Kobe facsimile as we've seen from any second-(and going into third-)year player since the Black Mamba crashed the Association as a teenager in 1996.