Mamba Mentality: Every NBA Team’s Kobe-est Player
In some sense, Kobe Bryant's jersey retirement, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 18, will mark the end of an era. Once those jerseys (Nos. 8 and 24) are in the rafters, a sense of finality attaches to a player's career.
At the same time, we're never going to be free of Bryant's influence.
There are players on every team who share traits with the self-styled Mamba, many of whom deliberately modeled their games and mental appproaches after his.
Today's maniacal competitors and technical masters are all drawing from the example Bryant set. So are the slightly selfish gunners, rappers, unorthodox trainers, possible bear-fighters and likely snakepit owners.
Turns out there are lots of ways to display a mamba mentality.
Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder
We'll start simply and peg Dennis Schroder, the Atlanta Hawks' defiant, overconfident spark plug, as our first Kobe disciple.
Schroder shares Bryant's single-mindedness on the floor, sometimes to his detriment. He's a relentless attacker who, from his first moments in the league, believed he could dominate. That mentality may not have come from observing Bryant, but the fact that Schroder's mindset springs organically from within actually makes him an even closer analog to Kobe.
Some guys are just born ornery.
"In Germany, they like the stone face. They can't see the talent behind the personality," Liviu Calin, one of Schroder's early coaches in Germany told B/R's Ric Bucher. "I thought, 'This guy is better suited to live in America than Germany.' He wants to fight and win every time."
"I like [being the bad guy]. I think that’s just another motivation for me to win the game," Schroder told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe during a feisty series agains the Celtics in 2016.
A fight-anyone talent who embraces on-court villainy?
Yeah, Schroder's our guy.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving
Like Bryant, Kyrie Irving is a fan of pseudo-scientific, faux-intellectual wokeness.
A big fan.
Irving's got the "undeniably" flat earth thing going for him, which is some Grade-A delusional weirdness. And there was also the time he said "I don't really have an ego. I have a presence and aura about me that's very reality-based," and "Oh, if you're very much woke, there's no such thing as distractions, especially all this," on ESPN.
Bryant's post-career passion has been an ultra-bizarre children's program project (sort of a take on The Secret, but for parents who'd like their kids to become pathologically competitive) in which he throws around terms like "musecage" while fielding questions about how to become "a beast" from a purple sock puppet.
A 20-year-old Irving, one with 11 games of college ball as his entire resume at that point, was also dead certain he could smoke Kobe one-on-one. The only other guy with confidence like that is Bryant himself.
These guys might be related.
Brooklyn Nets: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Sometimes, guys will just straight up tell you Bryant inspired them or somehow altered the way they mentally approach basketball.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one of those guys.
"Sometimes I'll let the outside world affect the way I played, but then I watched the Kobe documentary," he told Ryan Lazo of the New York Post last season. "I really listened and paid attention, and the biggest thing is how he created the Black Mamba. Kobe handles Kobe stuff at home and the Black Mamba is on the court. That resonated with me."
Hollis-Jefferson hasn't quite actualized the mamba mentality to the degree Kobe did. Few do. But if the point of this exercise is finding players who embody some aspect of Bryant, we can't turn a deaf ear to one explicitly saying he's trying to think like Kobe did.
If he starts belittling D'Angelo Russell or Jeremy Lin, two former Lakers unlucky enough to wind up in Bryant's crosshairs in his final years with the Lakers, we'll know Hollis-Jefferson is getting closer to his goals.
Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan
This is supposed to focus on current players, but when the guy Bryant so clearly modeled his game after is right there in the owner's box, you can't overlook it.
Michael Jordan was Kobe before Kobe was Kobe.
We've all seen the comparison clips—the ones that show mirror-image footwork, shot angles and on-court carriage. It's as if Bryant spent his entire life mimicking Jordan's subtle shoulder shakes and backward leans. It's uncanny.
"His technique was flawless," Bryant once said. " I wanted to make sure my technique was just as flawless."
It's not just the basketball stuff. If you really pay attention, you can even see resemblances in mannerisms and hear them in speech patterns.
The way I like to think of the Kobe-MJ comparison is this: Bryant beamed down from another planet, decided the best way to blend in was to emulate human beings, happened to see Jordan first and picked him as his template.
Chicago Bulls: Robin Lopez
Robin Lopez is at war.
For him, every game is a martial exercise, a test of how far a man is willing to go and how tirelessly he's prepared to fight for a cause. His purpose: the destruction and humiliation of all mascots.
Kobe embraced the warrior's mentality to an extreme degree, which sort of lines up with Lopez's commitment to battling his plush, anthropomorphized enemies. But there's a deeper connection here.
Bryant had no patience for mascots either. And, like Lopez, he did not fear them.
They're kindred spirits, these two.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James
But that would have been petty and, more importantly, it would have ignored the overwhelming commonalities between LeBron James and Bryant.
You've got the prep-to-pro journey, the rings, the MVP awards, the generational greatness, the obsessive attention to on-court detail and the dogged devotion to physical preparation. Also, Bryant and James were puppets together in some old Nike ads. That's a bond that can't be broken.
"I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant. I knew he was in the gym and I knew he was working on his game. And I knew he was great. So every day that I didn't want to work out or every day I felt like I couldn't give more, I always thought of Kobe. I knew that he was getting better and I was like, 'Man, if you take a day off, he's going to take advantage of it. You cannot take a day off. You cannot take a day off.'"
Jordan begat Kobe, and Kobe begat LeBron.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki. Easy.
Kobe scored 33,643 points while logging every second of his NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nowitzki is the only active player over the 30,000 mark (though LeBron James is going to join him shortly), and has spent every second of his career with the Dallas Mavericks.
So unless you'd like to make some ridiculous stretch and compare Harrison Barnes' isolation scoring or J.J. Barea's feistiness to Bryant's, it's probably simplest to just go with the only guy besides Kobe to score at least 30,000 points while never changing teams.
Don't forget Nowitzki's ring, Finals MVP and regular-season MVP award.
And just for reference, Tony Parker is the next guy down the line on the "one team, lots of points list." He's never been anything but a San Antonio Spur, and waaaaay behind Dirk and Kobe, checking in a bit short of 19,000 points.
Hot take: We're never going to see another player spend his whole career with one team while scoring 30,000 points. Bryant and Nowitzki are the last of a nearly extinct breed.
Denver Nuggets: Wilson Chandler
Wilson Chandler once caught a 350-pound fish.
What are the odds Bryant also caught a fish this size as part of an unorthodox offseason training regimen—except probably without the aid of a boat, reel or hook? And what are the chances Bryant was disappointed with the catch because he was legitimately trying to fight Poseidon?
Does 85 percent seem too low?
"When you've mastered the sea, the earth and air are no challenge at all," Bryant probably said sometime in the summer of 2001.
Also, Chandler wears Kobe's shoes. The parallels are overwhelming.
Detroit Pistons: Avery Bradley
You think of Avery Bradley's defense first. The league does, anyway. Bradley has checked in as the second-best perimeter defender in the league (behind Kawhi Leonard) in each of the last two NBA GM surveys.
His shut-you-down approach is reminiscent of Bryant's—or, at least early and mid-career Bryant. Kobe picked his spots on D pretty liberally in his final seasons.
In addition to that resemblance, though, Bradley's offensive approach also draws on Kobe as inspiration.
"The reason why I watched [Bryant] is because he doesn't waste time to get to his move," Bradley told Jay King of MassLive.com in November of 2016. "He just kind of whipped through and got to his spot. He's not really a ball-handling guy. Not to say he can't, but he just doesn't waste any time getting to his spots."
Bradley's offensive approach is ambitious. He takes some tough pull-up jumpers off the dribble and has no shortage of confidence. But he doesn't spend much time yo-yo-ing the ball or wasting energy. That's Bryant to a T.
Golden State Warriors: JaVale McGee
Klay Thompson scored 60 points in 29 minutes once, which is actually more impressive than Bryant's famed 62 points in 33 minutes.
Stephen Curry is a stone-cold killer.
Kevin Durant scores with perhaps even greater ease than Bryant did.
Draymond Green will go to any length to get an edge.
There are similarities up and down the Golden State Warriors roster, but none of the big-name players come close to the actual winner.
Houston Rockets: Chris Paul
Yes, this is motivated at least partially by a desire to remind you of two remarkable highlights.
Imagine how much fun CP3 and Bryant would have had badmouthing Howard if they'd been teammates—which they would have been in 2011 but for a vetoed trade.
And sure, both are exceptionally feisty limit-pushers who'll wind up in the Hall of Fame as two of the best to ever play their positions. But this is mostly about punking Howard.
Indiana Pacers: Lance Stephenson
The whole concept of choosing your own nickname is a little weak. A legit sobriquet has to come from someone else. So I can't sign off entirely on Bryant coining the Mamba moniker.
But it's still a pretty cool handle.
Not as cool as "Born Ready," though. And maybe even not as cool as "Ice Water," which is what Lance Stephenson went by until his current nickname stuck.
If quality of nickname isn't enough to establish Stephenson as the Indiana Pacers' most Mamba player, please consider his foray into the rap game. A little more Brian McKnight or Tyra Banks, and Stephenson could have been Kobe's unintentionally comedic rap equal.
And of course, you can't mention Stephenson without noting his delightful overconfidence. Bryant's didn't manifest in quite as much hot-dogging (no shade; everyone loves hot dogs), but he and Stephenson share similar levels of faith in their own on-court abilities.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin
Austin Rivers definitely believes he's doing Kobe Bryant things when he zones in for one of his patented iso attacks...right up to the point where he has to hoist up a floater instead of getting all the way to the rim.
Danilo Gallinari is Italian, and Bryant spent lots of time in Italy as a kid.
But Blake Griffin broke some Portland hearts this year with a buzzer-beating game-winner, and even if that's a relatively recent example to draw from, it works. Because there may not be anyone who did more gut-punching to Blazers fans than Kobe.
There was the time he hit an impossible three to send a game in Portland to overtime, after which he drilled a second decisive trey to win it in double-OT. And don't forget the 2000 Western Conference Finals, when Kobe set up O'Neal for an iconic bucket in the biggest fourth-quarter comeback ever recorded in a Game 7.
Let's also not forget Bryant's extensive injury history. There may not be a square inch of his body that avoided damage during his 20-year-career. Griffin has been similarly prone to health problems.
Los Angeles Lakers: Luol Deng
The Lakers signed Luol Deng to an above-market contract in 2016. That deal immediately became an albatross, and the Lakers have spent most of the time since trying to figure out how to clear it from the books so their rebuild could begin in earnest.
The Lakers signed Bryant to an above-market contract extension in 2013. That deal immediately became an albatross, and the Lakers spent most of its duration floating in directionless limbo—trapped between building a competitive team and preparing for the post-Bryant era. That $48.5 million contract resulted in a pair of wasted seasons that did no one any good.
Props to Deng and Bryant for cashing in. NBA careers are relatively short, and you've got to get what you can while you can. But it'd be dishonest to pretend as though the final chapter of Bryant's career was all wine and roses.
His contract set the Lakers' developmental curve back, just like Deng's is doing right now.
Memphis Grizzlies: Kobi Simmons
Kobi Simmons has only played five minutes for the Memphis Grizzlies this season, but his connection is too good to pass up.
According to research by Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg, the current Memphis G-Leaguer was named after Bryant. Better still, Simmons' parents named his older brother Jalen after Jalen Rose.
I bet Kobi lit Jalen up in driveway pickup games back in the day.
Miami Heat: Dion Waiters
Prove to me definitively that Dion Waiters doesn't believe he's Kobe Bryant reincarnated.
See? You can't!
Waiters' shot selection and supreme self-confidence line up with Bryant's, as does his preferred retort for poor nights from the field.
Here's Waiters, via Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel this past January: "I'd rather go 0-of-30 than 0-of-9, because you go 0-of-9 that means you stopped shooting. That means you lost confidence."
And here's documentarian Gotham Chopra, who relayed this anecdote about Kobe to Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated back in 2014:
"Deron Williams went like 0-of-9. I was like, 'Can you believe Deron Williams went 0-of-9?' Kobe was like, 'I would go 0-of-30 before I would go 0-of-9. 0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game, because Deron Williams can get more shots in the game. The only reason is because you've just now lost confidence in yourself.'"
Either Waiters and Bryant share a mind meld, or Waiters is cribbing notes from old Kobe interviews. Whichever it is, there's a strong connection here.
Milwaukee Bucks: Matthew Dellavedova
Matthew Dellavedova is from Australia, where they have a disproportionate number of grotesque and mortally dangerous animals. This means there's a good chance Delly has seen (and perhaps dived headlong into the knees of) giant venomous spiders, box jellyfish and/or what's ridiculously known as a "common" death adder.
How dangerous are the uncommon ones?
Kobe is not from Australia, but there's a 95 percent chance he had his training staff hide several such super predators around his house to keep his reaction time sharp.
You know, just so he'd be ready for double-teams or hard shows in the pick-and-roll.
If you can evade a common death adder when you're stumbling to the fridge for a snack at 1 a.m., a little ball pressure from a defender is nothing.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Shabazz Muhammad
Bryant was the 1996 Naismith prep player of the year, and the Minnesota Timberwolves have two guys who won that award.
Shabazz Muhammad got the honor in 2012, and Andrew Wiggins followed him in 2013.
There are currently 11 players in the NBA who share this distinction (turns out if you're the best high school player in the country, you've got a good shot of making the league), but only one joins Bryant in the exclusive club of players who have also elbowed Sasha Vujacic in the face.
In an interview with the Vertical this past August, Lamar Odom relayed the story of walking into a Lakers practice just as Bryant drilled Vujacic (then a teammate) with an elbow to the grill for no apparent reason: "It was like, '[Expletive], this mother [expletive] Kobe is really serious.' He's thuggin' at 10 in the morning."
Muhammad's thugging hours of operation are unclear, but he's got more Bryant in him than most would expect.
New Orleans Pelicans: Tony Allen
Tony Allen isn't anywhere near the scorer Bryant was, but his solitary approach to his more limited job is similar to the Kobe's.
Bryant was a true DIY guy. If a shot needed to be taken, he'd take it. If there was a go-to scorer on the other team, he'd check him. Allen has always been game for that second aspect: one-on-one defense with no expectation of assistance.
"He was the only one that really took the challenge of playing straight up. He wasn't looking for help, he wasn't looking for support," Bryant told reporters after his final meeting with Allen in 2016. After that game, Kobe gave Allen his game-worn shoes with a powerful inscription: "To Tony, the best defender I ever faced."
If you earn Bryant's respect, get a superlative label and leave a game with his shoes, it's a good sign you've got some mamba in you.
New York Knicks: Kurt Rambis
Tim Hardaway Jr. has two-generation NBA lineage like Bryant does, and Kristaps Porzingis is the burst-on-the-scene wunderkind who has also dunked on Dwight Howard.
But this has to be about the triangle, an ideology New York Knicks assistant coach Kurt Rambis has championed and implemented at every opportunity.
Kobe's into the antiquated offense, too. He's always been a proponent, but now he's passing it on to his own children.
In an appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden, he explained:
“We run the triangle offense. It’s awesome. Listen, I sit there with my kids. The girls will go out and I’ll say ‘Okay, you’re going against a zone, I need you to crossgrain, wing entry, hit the two pass to the post, bypass first cutter, second cutter, hit the third cutter.’ And they’ll go ... ‘Okay.’”
Here's hoping the triangle works better at the youth level than it does in the pros.
Kobe and Rambis are the last two Phil Jackson disciples on earth.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
It's more fun to get creative in the search for players with traits matching Bryant's, but there are some situations you just can't overthink.
Russell Westbrook is wired with the same hyper-competitive drive that defined Kobe's career—right down to the part where critics questioned whether there was more than a hint of selfishness creeping in to sabotage team goals.
His approach is expressly Kobe-approved.
It's also interesting to note that Russ, like Kobe, shared his early career with another superstar before a bitter breakup. Kevin Durant is Westbrook's Shaq. Mid-career, we got the same stat-stuffing one-man show from Westbrook (see last year's triple-double average and MVP award) as we saw from Bryant in the period after O'Neal left but before the Lakers rebuilt a contender.
Remember that 81-point game? What about the 35.4 points per game in 2005-06? Bryant was Westbrook-ing hard back then.
We don't know how Westbrook's twilight years will play out, but considering his game is based almost entirely on athleticism, and the fact that he's having his least efficient season ever, there's a good chance he'll face criticism for trying to do too much with diminished skills—just like Bryant did as his career wound down.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross
There are only seven active dunk-contest winners in the league right now, and that includes Zach LaVine and Blake Griffin. The former hasn't played this year, and the latter is out for an extended period with a knee injury.
Terrence Ross makes it three former winners currently sidelined with knee issues, which makes you wonder if there's some quiet connection between jumping high enough to win dunk contests and inevitable physical breakdown.
Amazingly, Dwight Howard and Vince Carter are the only active winners who haven't missed time with some kind of leg injury this season. Stick to layups, kids.
Anyway, the Orlando Magic are easily the hardest team on which to find a Kobe comp. So we'll go with Ross, who won the dunk contest 16 years after Bryant did and also hit 10 threes during a game in which he scored 51 points. Kobe is the only other dunk-contest winner with a 50-point game and a 10-triple game (he made 12 in 2003).
Close enough, right?
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Jalen Rose gets all the credit in the world for leaning into this, but the fact remains Bryant owned him for 81 points just over a decade ago.
Bryant zings him nicely in the clip above, and Joel Embiid kept the bit alive in his own way this season by claiming his conditioning was at 81 percent..."shoutout Jalen Rose."
If you need a second angle of attack on this comparison, you could point to Embiid's chances of dominating the league sometime in the near future, much as Bryant did for a few years. There aren't many active players with the potential to match Kobe in that regard.
Phoenix Suns: Tyson Chandler
This is a tough one.
Devin Booker scored 70 points in a game, which is the highest total since Bryant hung 81 on the Raptors. More than that, Booker credited his outburst against the Celtics in 2016 to a mamba mentality.
Afterward, he told reporters, via Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe:
"I’ve seen an interview with Kobe where he said what separated him from a lot of people was everyone thought 30 points was a lot. He said he never set himself a limit. And you know, that always sticks in my head. He said he’d score 100 if he could, so he never had a limit. I don’t put a limit on anything."
Nonetheless, Tyson Chandler is the winner because he didn't back down from Metta World Peace when the two got tangled up in 2012. Bryant, on more than one occasion, was brave enough to get into it with one of the most brutally physical, downright dangerous players to ever take the floor.
There are going to be other 70-point games. But nobody else is going to test World Peace again.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
Outlandish confidence has been a theme here, but Bryant reached an elevated level of self-assuredness that most players never even touch.
He claimed he could win a fight with a bear.
Actually, he went a step past that, asserting the bear would be so overmatched as to need divine assistance. That is confidence on a cosmic scale.
Because here are some facts about bears:
- They are big and mean and strong
- They can run super fast
- They have claws and sharp teeth purpose-built for rending flesh and splintering bone
- They do not care how confident you are
Anyway, Jusuf Nurkic seems like the only guy on the Blazers roster who might hold his own in a fight against a bear.
If you're not into that, CJ McCollum is a skilled shot-creator who also seems to have designs on a post-career gig in some form of televised media—two traits in common with Bryant.
But, come on: Bear fight.
Sacramento Kings: Zach Randolph
The world is an uncertain place, and you can get into trouble speaking in absolutes.
But it is unequivocally true that Kobe Bryant is not afraid of Matt Barnes. We know that because we have the (totally awesome) video evidence.
Now, it may also be true that Bryant isn't afraid of anyone he ever played against. But we can say so definitively when it comes to Barnes, who couldn't even elicit a a reactionary flinch from Kobe.
There is another man who shares Bryant's fearlessness, specifically with respect to Barnes. That man is Zach Randolph (who also may not be afraid of anyone or anything). In fact, he went a step past Bryant's non-reaction to a threat and actually giddily ran up and embraced Barnes after an altercation.
Randolph wasn't just nonplussed; he wanted more.
That's mamba to the core.
San Antonio Spurs: N/A
Rudy Gay shares the admirable distinction of successfully returning from an Achilles tear, which makes him a good comp for Bryant. We know he's resilient and dedicated. You can't make it it back from that injury without some serious determination.
But he's not the pick.
In fact, nobody is the pick because the San Antonio Spurs do not acknowledge individualism or ego. And say what you want about Bryant, but please don't try to pretend he wasn't self-obsessed.
Remember the time he allegedly tanked Game 7 of the 2006 first round against the Phoenix Suns, refusing to shoot in the second half and drawing criticism for what looked like an attempt to send a message to the Lakers front office?
More recently, recall that ridiculous farewell tour with L.A., when he shot a zillion times a night and effectively derailed the Lakers' rebuild for two full seasons?
Bryant was great, but on several occasions, he made the games about him, and not the team.
Gregg Popovich doesn't allow that sort of thing.
Toronto Raptors: An Actual Velociraptor
The easy move would be tagging DeMar DeRozan, celebrating his impeccable mid-range game and perfect footwork. Bryant had both, and given the dying-art status of those skills in the modern game, the DeRozan-Kobe link would be a great one.
But we can't take the easy route.
The best comparison here is an actual velociraptor.
We learned in the original Jurassic Park that raptors are cunning, adaptive predators. They can learn advanced killing techniques like cooperative pack hunting, and they can even fool prey by creating diversions.
Clever girl, remember?
Bryant's that way, too. He once adapted his hunting techniques after an injury to his right shoulder. The dude shot a turnaround jumper left-handed.
And though we can't definitively prove this, I think it's fair to say Bryant would have disemboweled several opponents on the court if it wouldn't have constituted an ejection.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell
Maybe the league should institute some kind of emergency protocol anytime a team considers trading the No. 13 pick in the draft. We're not trying to establish some kind of nanny-state oversight here, but a simple "Hey man, you sure about that?" would go a long way toward curbing the epidemic of regret that seems to follow when that particular selection gets dealt.
The Charlotte Hornets sent Bryant, picked 13th in 1996, to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. It's fair to say that deal didn't work out evenly for both sides.
And Donovan Mitchell, picked 13th by the Nuggets in this most recent draft, is looking like someone the Denver Nuggets definitely should not have sent away.
Mitchell is assuming a massive role for a Utah Jazz team in need of backcourt dynamism—to the point that he'd probably finish second to Ben Simmons if Rookie of the Year voting happened today.
Though it'd be heresy to suggest Mitchell is in for a better career than Kobe, he's at least outproducing Bryant as a rookie, doubling up on the old man's minutes and points per game.
In summation: Do not trade the No. 13 pick unless you're really, really sure you know what you're doing.
Washington Wizards: Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre
One of the most on-brand examples of Bryant's will to dominate was his takedown of Pau Gasol during the 2008 Olympics. The two were teammates at the time with the Lakers, but Bryant flattened Gasol in a USA vs. Spain meeting and didn't even think about helping him up.
Remarkably, the Washington Wizards have two players with a history of violence against their teammates.
While a member of the Phoenix Suns, Markieff Morris got into a shoving match with Archie Goodwin on the bench. And earlier this season, Kelly Oubre decked John Wall in the back of the head during a melee with the Warriors.
To be fair to Oubre, he was going for Klay Thompson.
If you're going to be a competitive animal on Bryant's level, you've got to be prepared to knock out your teammates. Washington has two guys who measure up.