ESPN's NBA Player Rankings say otherwise, designating the Black Mamba the Association's 25th-best player. But that's simply not accurate. It's not even close to accurate.
The folks who participated in the rankings are no doubt good people. Their placement of Kobe isn't villainous, at least. It's just incorrect.
Recovering from a ruptured Achilles and now on the wrong side of 35, Kobe's stock isn't what it once was. All his previous accolades don't make him ageless or immortal. Like everyone else, there is reason to doubt he'll make a full recovery.
On any given night, it will be difficult to find four players better than Kobe, let alone 24.
Now may be an acceptable time to doubt him, to question him, but it's no time to count him out completely.
Why It's Weird
Achilles injuries are no joke. They're even more damaging when sustained at such an advanced age.
Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton (now of ESPN.com) wrote about this particular injury after Chauncey Billups (then of the Los Angeles Clippers) ruptured his Achilles in 2012. He says that "Achilles ruptures are less common than ACL tears or microfracture knee surgery, they don't carry the same gravity, but the NBA track record with severe Achilles injuries is every bit as negative."
He wasn't kidding.
At the time of the injury, Billups was logging 30.4 minutes a night for Los Angeles. Upon returning in 2012-13, he logged 19 minutes a night over 22 games.
Elton Brand is another high-profile player who suffered a similar injury. He ruptured his Achilles during the summer of 2007 and hasn't been the same since.
Look at how Brand's numbers before his injury compare to those following his recovery:
|Elton Brand Before and After Achilles Injury|
For a little more perspective, check out how much of a percentage dip that comes out to for each category:
Now, Kobe isn't Brand, nor am I insinuating he is. But Brand was just 27 when he suffered the injury, and he's not the same player he was beforehand. More importantly, he's not even close.
To that end, I understand the drop.
Like ESPN TrueHoop's Henry Abbott says, the rankings are about this upcoming season and Kobe's Achilles is outfitted with a big question mark. Rajon Rondo, on the heels of an ACL injury, went from No. 12 to No. 27 himself.
But while the decline is reasonable, the extent of it is not. Kobe fell 19 spots between this year and last on account of his injury. That makes almost no sense when you consider past precedents ESPN set.
Last year Andrew Bynum jumped 17 spots (No. 30 to 13), even though his knees already began to show signs of wear. Derrick Rose's standing increased by three slots in 2012 (No. 8 to 5) after he tore his ACL during the playoffs.
What gives? Is it that Bynum and Rose were younger? Didn't suffer an Achilles injury? Made their rankings null and void by sitting the entire season?
Accounting for Rose and Bynum's prolonged absences, along with Kobe's age, is understandable. Kobe shouldn't have gone from No. 6 to No. 2 or something like that.
Neither reason, however, is enough to justify such a significant drop. Bynum had a history of knee problems, while Kobe has a propensity for shattering timetables.
Doubting him in the midst of his latest struggle makes sense. Questioning him this much, is just, well, weird.
Why It's Too Low
For player rankings, and pecking orders of any I kind, I like to take an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach.
The Miami Heat are defending NBA champs until proven otherwise. LeBron James is the reigning MVP until someone rips the Maurice Podoloff Trophy from his bare hands. And Kobe is a top-10—I'll listen to cases for top-five—talent until he shows us he can't perform at a similar level anymore.
Placements will always change for the better or worse, but unless we have the proof, that definitive evidence showing us Kobe has taken a turn for the worst, the message needs to stay the same.
In 2012, the message was clear: Kobe's 34 and still here. Deal with it. One year later, one injury later it's: He's a fringe superstar.
That's what No. 25 is essentially. Right now, according to the folks at ESPN, Kobe is a fringe superstar. He's good, great even, but not elite.
Underestimating him this much after the season he just had, an anomaly in itself, is radical. Players aren't supposed to improve as they get older; Kobe did. His six assists per game tied a career high, and his effective field-goal percentage of 50.4 and 29.7 assist percentage were career bests. The 27.3 points a night he notched were also above his career average of 25.5.
Kobe's 23 PER made him just the 15th player in NBA history aged 34 or older to match said total. It also ranked ninth in the NBA last season.
More impressive was his player impact percentage (PIE) of 15.6, per NBA.com (subscription required). While usage rate doesn't factor in assists, rebounds and events that don't end plays, PIE does. A player who posts a PIE higher than 10 is considered above average. Kobe's 15.6 clears that easily, and it ranked seventh among all NBA players who appeared in at least 25 games last year.
Here's a look at Kobe's league rank in other statistical categories:
Save for assists per game, Kobe ranked in the top 10 of minutes and points, usage rate, PER, PIE and Win Shares. Only two other players in the NBA accomplished the same feat: LeBron and Kevin Durant.
See, this whole "Kobe will fall" thing banks on the Mamba regressing to the mean, on him showing his age, which he has yet to do his entire career. People expected him to slow down last season and he proceeded to log 38.6 minutes a night, second-most in the NBA and just the 17th time in league history a player over the age of 34 broke 38 minutes a game.
Of the 28 players to receive more than 35 minutes of burn last season, Kobe was one of only two over 30 to make the list (Joe Johnson). The average age of players on the list was 25, almost a decade younger than Kobe himself.
Nothing about Kobe is normal. His work ethic is superhuman and the results he generates always challenge what we know. That trend isn't bucked in injury. Not unless he shows his diligence is waning, which he hasn't.
Until he does, there's nothing to suggest he deserved to drop 19 rungs down the player ladder.
Kobe, now 35, is still here. Deal with it.
Where Should He Be?
Rankings are predominantly subjective.
When statistics are used, there are still people behind the numbers picking which metrics determine a players standing. Where someone like Kobe winds up is open for interpretation.
There's still acceptable and indefensible ranges, though. Placing Kobe outside the top 20 falls into the latter. So does ranking him outside the top 15. And 10.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal has him coming in at No. 6 in his latest superstar rankings, and that's fair. Much more conceivable than No. 25. Or No. 20. Or No. 15.
It's also believable that he won't be the sixth-best player in the league during the regular season. His injury could drive his stock down. His grit and determination could propel him back into the top five. Either is possible.
For now, we have to go with what we know. And we know Kobe's injured. We also know he's 35. We know he's coming off a sensational, improbable season.
Most importantly, we know he's still Kobe.
"Maybe I won't have as much explosion," Bryant tells Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins of his impending return. "Maybe I'll be slower. Maybe I'll lose quickness. But I have other options."
Our only option at the moment is to see Kobe for who he was last season. For who he always has been. For who he still is. Still defiant, still persistent and still driven. Still great.
Still a superstar.