Is Kobe Bryant the Most Successful Player of His Era?

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Is Kobe Bryant the Most Successful Player of His Era?
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers is widely accepted as the best player of his generation, but does that make him its most successful one?

Bryant may have missed the entirety of this season due to a torn Achilles and knee fracture, but his impressive list of accolades still remains.

Bryant earned a league MVP award coupled with five championships and two NBA Finals MVPs during his 17-year career. By and large, he’s been an elite performer since the Lakers drafted him out of high school.

In December 2009, ESPN.com’s Marc Stein selected him as the player of the decade:

No one has ever shouldered the Next [Michael] Jordan burden like Bryant, who would suddenly appear to have a decent shot at surpassing MJ's six titles in Chicago with the crew he's got in Lakerland now. He's been the consensus top talent in the league for years and is widely considered its hardest worker.

With that said, there are other players who have enjoyed a similar level of success during Bryant’s reign. In this specific case, we are referring to superstars who joined the league around the same time as Bryant and won at least a title.

I’d have a hard time arguing the merits of athletes who haven’t reached the mountaintop, given that many would argue that winning one or more titles is the best illustration of a successful career.

Here is the list of intriguing names that make the cut: Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki.

Thus, we will look at the combination of team and individual accolades to determine if in fact Bryant is the standard by which we should measure accomplishments during his era.

 

Individual Success

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Bryant’s hardware might be the envy of many players, but it’s worth noting that some actually match or surpass his lofty credentials.

Let’s quickly look at the awards count:

Career Awards
Player MVPs Finals MVPs All-NBA 1st Team
Dirk Nowitzki 1 1 4
Kevin Garnett 1 0 4
Kobe Bryant 1 2 11
Shaquille O'Neal 1 3 8
Tim Duncan 2 3 10

Basketball-Reference.com

Garnett is one of the best power forwards of all time, but he is a little light in terms of accolades. In his peak years, he may have been the best all-around player at his position given his immense skills.

From 2002-03 to 2004-05 (three seasons), Garnett appeared in every single game and averaged 23.1 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 50.1 percent shooting, per Basketball-Reference.com.

He won the MVP trophy during the 2003-04 campaign and led the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell before Bryant’s Lakers. Still, "The Big Ticket" led the league in PER twice, a feat that Duncan and Bryant have combined to achieve zero times.

What’s more, Garnett is the only player on this list with a Defensive Player of the Year award. And yet, he appears to have the weakest case of all.

Duncan and Nowtizki stole a few All-NBA first-team appearances from him, which suggests voters felt as though Garnett was either inferior or only occasionally better in comparison. Keep in mind, Garnett possesses the worst career PER (22.9) out of anyone in this group.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Interestingly enough, the Boston Celtics probably would not have won a title during the 2007-08 season without his superb defense and low-post scoring, but it appears as though Garnett didn’t make a big enough impact to compete with others at his position, which means he won’t come close to sniffing Bryant.

In the case of Nowitzki, he might actually be underrated. Nowitzki is perhaps the greatest shooting big man in league history, and he utilized that skill to become a deadly scorer from every spot on the floor.

Nowitzki may have become a laughingstock after winning the MVP in 2006-07 and his top-seeded Dallas Mavericks were upset by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, but he bounced back in his second trip to the championship round.

Nowitzki secured a title at the expense of LeBron James’ Miami Heat during the 2010-11 campaign. The victory probably vindicated him on some level and actually vaulted him somewhere into the list of 15 best players ever, per Grantland's Bill Simmons.

Nowitzki is certainly a step closer to Bryant in comparison to Garnett by virtue of his Finals MVP trophy, but the gulf is still fairly wide.

Enter Shaq.

O’Neal could certainly make the case that his #BBQChicken days should place him either alongside "Kobe Bean" or, perhaps, past him.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Shaq leads Bryant in Finals MVP trophies and leads all listed players in career PER. Have a look:

Career PER numbers
Player PER
Shaquille O'Neal 26.4
Tim Duncan 24.6
Dirk Nowitzki 23.5
Kobe Bryant 23.4
Kevin Garnett 22.9

Basketball-Reference.com

Bryant was selected to the All-NBA first-team on more occasions, but an argument could be made that O’Neal got the short end of the stick. He was competing with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing (all of which were in their respective primes) for votes in the first five seasons of his career.

Olajuwon is listed as a top-13 all-time player, per SLAM magazine (via Basketball-Reference.com), while Robinson and Ewing were talented enough to be part of the greatest team ever assembled: the 1992 "Dream Team."

Can we really hold that against O’Neal? I say no.

For those seeking to make the same argument for Bryant, there actually isn’t one.

His first few years in the league came around the time Michael Jordan was nearing retirement, and more importantly, Bryant hadn’t been deemed good enough to start in his first two years.

Bryant finally became a starter in his third year, and Jordan was well-removed from the game.

Hence, O’Neal gets the nod over Bryant in a very short-lived victory.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Duncan Card trumps them all, and LeBron James echoed these sentiments last year during his pre-finals media availability (via ASAP Sports):

Probably one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball.  If I just look at the last 15 years, he's probably been the most consistent, most dominant player that we've had as far as 15 years all together.  He's won four titles, multiple All Stars, MVP, and so on and so on. 

I think He doesn't get a lot of recognition because he's not flashy like a lot of guys are.  He's not jumping over people and high‑flying and doing the things that attracts people to the game.  But I think true basketball, true IQ people, players know how great he is.  What else can you say?

The San Antonio Spurs forward leads everyone on this list in MVP awards and is tied with O’Neal as it pertains to Finals MVP trophies.

Bryant has the lead with respect to appearances on the All-NBA first team, but Duncan's five-to-three MVP count (league and Finals) over Bryant puts him over the top.

From an individual standpoint, Duncan is the most successful player of Bryant’s era by virtue of his hardware and statistical output.

 

Team Component

Team success plays a huge part in players' legacies, given that fans tend to gravitate toward winners.

For instance, Tracy McGrady was once upon a time viewed as Bryant’s equal from a talent standpoint, but his inability to get out of the first round during his prime prevented him from entering the discussion with the greats.

As Winston Churchill once said, "History is always written by the winners," and the Black Mamba certainly agrees. When pressed by CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger on what Carmelo Anthony could do to avoid being labeled as simply a scorer in January, he responded:

The only way to do that is win. That's it. I've won five championships and there's some of you who still say that. ... The most important thing is winning a championship, and that's the only way to shake it. That's the only way Michael [Jordan] shook it. That's the only way any top scorer will be able to shake it.

Bryant’s rings hover over everyone on this famed list.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

What’s more, his Lakers have dispatched Duncan’s Spurs and Garnett’s Celtics to claim titles. Naturally, one would be tempted to give Bryant the nod, but what is there to make of the years where Kobe’s Lakers either missed the playoffs or failed to get out of the first round?

Those lowlights count just as much as his titles. Thus, instead of merely flexing our “count the rings” muscles, let’s take a look at the total package. Have a look at the regular-season win-loss records of our respective superstars:

Regular-Season Win-Loss Records
Player Wins Losses Winning Percentage
Tim Duncan 898 356 .716
Shaquille O'Neal 819 388 .679
Kobe Bryant 813 432 .574
Dirk Nowitzki 767 421 .646
Kevin Garnett 791 586 .574

Basketball-Reference.com

Garnett played on some teams that lacked talent in his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and as a result, his winning percentage took a hit. ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons perfectly captured this “tragedy” in November 2006:

Here's one of the greatest big men ever, one of the fiercest competitors in any sport, someone who could finish his career with historic scoring and rebounding numbers ... and yet we have absolutely no clue how good he really is. He's played with, by my count, only six quality players in his 12 seasons: Joe Smith, Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Cassell, Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak.

Spoiler alert, none of the previously mentioned players will make it into the Hall of Fame. Context is important, but the fact is, Garnett has the lowest winning figure, and Nowitzki-led teams have won more games.

Bryant is in the middle of the pack, thanks to 11 seasons in which L.A. won 50 games or more.

O’Neal played alongside Bryant in L.A. and was part of some of those wins. He also played for five other clubs and helped those units to a couple of 50-victory seasons because of his dominant play.

That was the case with the Orlando Magic and the Heat, which O'Neal led to the finals. He later joined the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics where he was a fairly important contributor. However, O’Neal practically comes with an asterisk because he was more so along for the ride after his Miami years.

In the case of Duncan, no qualifiers are needed. Care to guess how many campaigns with 50 wins or more he has attached to his name?

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Give up?

Duncan’s Spurs have failed to win at least 50 contests once: the 1998-99 lockout year in which every team played 50 games. Duncan’s in the lead here, but some would argue that postseason wins are more important.

If that’s your preferred flavor, we are more than happy to oblige. Here:

Postseason Win-Loss Records
Player Wins Losses Winning Percentage
Tim Duncan 138 82 .627
Kobe Bryant 135 85 .614
Shaquille O'Neal 129 87 .597
Dirk Nowitzki 67 68 .496
Kevin Garnett 69 71 .493

Basketball-Reference.com

It’s slightly surprising to see Duncan rank atop all players. He’s appeared in five NBA Finals (winning four) whereas O’Neal played in six and matched Duncan in rings. Bryant’s made seven trips to the title round, while Garnett and Nowitzki have combined for four.

Bryant’s superior amount of finals trips would have you believe he had the superior amount of wins and winning percentage, but Duncan is actually the standard here.

Ultimately, this might come down to preference. Bryant’s five championships are certainly impressive, but the dark days in L.A. during his prime were incredibly somber.

On the other hand, Duncan is a championship short in comparison to Bryant, but his steady consistency throughout his career is simply amazing. San Antonio has been a contender in every season with Duncan on board, and one could argue they’ve been the franchise most have tried to emulate.

 

Conclusion

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Bryant has been a terrific performer throughout his career, but Duncan has been the most successful superstar of their era.

He has the combination of individual awards that put him in rarefied air. Furthermore, he has been part of four titles and consistently put his Spurs at the top of the standings in every year.

O’Neal also threw his name into the hat and had a strong head-to-head case with Bryant because of his statistical dominance and overwhelming style of play. With that said, Duncan’s curriculum is simply too strong to ignore, and Bryant himself realizes it.

In June of last year, he offered this poignant take to ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin:

There’s all this competition about who does this generation belong to, in terms of Tim and myself, and I enjoy hearing those conversations. I think what he’s done, I think he’s a great example for kids who grow up playing the game and understanding and learning the fundamentals and the work ethic. 

The current crop of superstars should be measured by the standard that Duncan has set, because he is the very definition of success.

 

All stats accurate as of May 9, 2014.

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