If anything is clear this season, it is that Kobe Bryant may have finally been surpassed by Lebron James as the best player in the league. With Lebron projected to finish in the top five of all time in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for the second consecutive year, an argument can be made that Lebron is the most statistically dominating player ever.
Kobe still holds on to the crown, but the advanced statistics are harder and harder to argue with every day.
PER, Roland Ratings, Efficiency, Value Added, and Win Shares all suggest that Lebron is superior to Kobe Bryant.
With Lebron making a strong case for best player in the league and Kobe on the sidelines because of injury, some commentators have taken the opportunity to once again question Kobe Bryant.
Just about every reputable publication from Foxsports to ESPN to SportsIllustrated to SportingNews has named Kobe as the NBA Player of the Decade. There's a good reason why. Kobe Bryant has been a top three player for the entire decade. He's been the consensus best player for half the decade. Nobody—not Shaq, not Duncan—can say the same.
That still didn't stop Charles Barkley from essentially calling the fans stupid when they voted Kobe Bryant last week as player of the decade. Barkley and Kenny Smith thought that Shaq's three years in LA earlier in the decade were enough to carry him for the other seven years.
It is not enough that Kobe's made the All NBA team every year this decade. It isn't enough that he's made the defensive team nine out of 10 years, or that he's been to the finals six times winning four rings. It isn't enough that he's scored more points this decade than any other player both in the regular season and the playoffs or that he's been the leading assist man on four championship squads.
It still isn't enough for a seven letter word: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Kobe heard Charles and Kenny. He's heard the noise about Lebron being better. He's heard the criticism that he still shoots too much. He's heard the knock that he's not efficient enough.
Four rings and counting and he's still being second-guessed. He's still being questioned.
But Kobe doesn't mind. The hate and the criticism are fuel for Kobe. It pushes him to prove the haters and the doubters wrong.
In 2004-05 after having a coach quit in midseason and having substantial injuries for a significant part of the year, Kobe missed the playoffs for the first time in his career. The haters reveled in the Lakers' misery. They said he couldn't even lead the Lakers to the playoffs without Shaq.
Kobe came back the next season and drug Kwame Brown, Luke Walton, and Smush Parker as starters for most of the season to the playoffs. In doing it, he had an 81 point game that will go down as the greatest individual performance the league has ever seen.
Still, after having one of the greatest seasons of all time and taking the second place Phoenix Suns to seven games in the first round, the haters ignored the accomplishment. Instead, they accused Kobe of giving up on his team in a game seven.
In the MVP race, it was clear to anyone with a pulse that Bryant was not only the best player in the game, but that the Lakers would be in last place without him on the team. That's the year when this ridiculous notion of "making your teammates better" became the criteria for MVP. Instead of Kobe hoisting a MVP trophy that should have been his, some writers left him off the MVP ballot completely.
Another year, more disrespect.
To be fair, Kobe sometimes rubs people the wrong way. After the 2006-07 season, he demanded a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. Unhappy that he wasn't getting any closer to a championship, Kobe thirsted for a competent running mate. He'd settle for an older Jason Kidd. He'd settle for Luol Deng. Just give the guy somebody...anybody that could take just a little bit of the responsibility and he could deliver a championship.
There were those who were overjoyed. They thought Kobe had made his bed with forcing Shaq out of L.A., now it was time for him to lie in it. As good as Kobe was, they said the Lakers would never contend with him at the helm.
No trade was made, but by January of the 2007-08 season, the Lakers were in first place in the West.
That little detail gets lost because a couple of weeks later, the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol. But the Lakers were contenders before Gasol ever got into a Lakers uniform.
Again, doubting Kobe proved to be wrong.
That year, Kobe led his team to the NBA finals where they were overwhelmed by the league leading Boston Celtics.
The mantra that summer was initiated by Kobe's arch nemesis, Shaquille O'Neal. "He couldn't do it without me. Hey Kobe, tell me how my (expletive) tastes."
Kobe didn't respond. Fuel. Next year.
That summer, people questioned whether he could fit in with a team of all stars and check his ego enough to help Team USA win gold. Nevermind that Kobe wasn't on the embarrassing team that brought home a bronze medal in 2004, the questions about winning focused on whether Kobe would "fit."
Not only would Kobe fit, he would lead. He willed Team USA to the gold by being the go to player in the championship game against Spain. Hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, the best players in the world deferred to his greatness. The Redeem Team was able to redeem itself by simply adding the player it was missing four years earlier.
Still, could he do it without Shaq? Could he lead the Lakers team to the championship?
Nevermind that Shaq has never been on a championship team that didn't also feature one of the top five players in the league at the time, Kobe was dared to win without Shaquille.
Hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy up at the end of the 2008-09 season, Kobe had answered every criticism. He had answered every question. The haters had to begrudgingly give him his props. They just had to respect him, didn't they?
"He had Gasol." "The Lakers were stacked." "Fisher had to bail him out."
Nevermind the fact that Gasol had never been considered as good until he played next to Kobe. Nevermind that Andrew Bynum was injured and ineffective. Nevermind that Kobe gave Fisher the game winning assist.
Another year, more disrespect.
Kobe hears the criticism.
Recently, as Kobe has been sitting out to nurse an ankle injury, the Lakers have been winning without him. Some have suggested that the Lakers are better without their star.
Turn on ESPN and you'll hear Bill Simmons or John Hollinger claim that Lebron is better than Kobe, and it isn't even close.
Kobe knows that as he ages, another young player will snatch the reigns of best player in the league. The ironic thing is that as he passes on the reigns to Lebron, he'll be getting closer to his ultimate goal: being the best player of all time.
He'll need rings to do it. Six of them.
But people doubt that Kobe can win like Jordan.
Now with Lebron playing out of his mind and with the Cavs recently adding Antawn Jamison, the stage has been set for an epic battle in this year's finals. Cavs-Lakers. Kobe-Lebron.
The world will be watching. Lebron will stand in the way of Kobe's fifth Championship. A tie with Magic is at stake. The legacy toward Jordan is in the balance. Questions will be asked.
How do you think Kobe will answer?
Nate Smith is a co-founder and regular contributor of http://thetransition3.wordpress.com/ , a blog about basketball that unites three friends.