Kobe Bryant may be one of the most polarizing NBA players in the history of the association. People either seem to respect him or loathe him.
Yet, consider a player who has been called selfish by the media and teammates. A player who once punched a teammate because he wasn’t playing hard enough in practice, and was almost suspended by the league for gambling. This same player who recently gave one of the most arrogant Hall of Fame speeches ever delivered and settled a large divorce settlement because of being unfaithful to his wife on multiple occasions. As you may have guessed, the player being referenced is Michael Jordan.
The difference is that the hatred today shown towards Kobe Bryant marks a double standard that it is not accorded in the same manner to Jordan, a man who has a worse off-the-court record.
Or consider Larry Bird who refuses to recognize a daughter from his first marriage. Everyone loves Magic Johnson, even though his infidelity on countless occasions led to him testing positive for HIV.
In order to make a fair comparison between basketball players, we need to throw out these double standards and personal biases and only judge them by what they do on the court.
This article’s intent is not to say Kobe Bryant is the greatest of all-time but rather argue that it is near impossible to pick 5 other players that have been better over their careers. In the end, the best way to compare players is based on their overall game, including all aspects of playing, and their ability to win. Hence, in this analysis, players that could not find a way to lead teams to multiple championships or otherwise had considerable weaknesses in major parts of their game will be negatively impacted.
First, consider the list of players that have won at least 5 championships and 2 Finals MVPs. This list includes just 4 players: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant. Michael, of course, excelled at nearly every facet of the game. Magic was probably the best playmaker in NBA history and was able to shine at all 5 positions on the floor. Kareem is the league’s all-time scorer whose consistent hook shot was the most unstoppable shot. While most people consider these 3 players to be in the top 5 of all-time, Kobe’s game merits an inclusion with them.
Scoring is the most important part of the game. Everyone knows that Kobe is one of the top scorers of all-time, but critics compare his scoring average to other legends. Let’s put Kobe on a fair comparison with Michael Jordan. Michael spent 3 years in one of the top college programs. Take away Kobe’s first 3 years and Bryant’s averages look eerily similar to Jordan’s: 28.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 5.2 apg. That scoring average would put him in third place behind Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Now imagine if Kobe entered the league as “the man” on his team as did Jordan. Doing this makes it easy to figure that Kobe’s average would probably be north of the 30 point mark.
Then consider Kobe outscoring the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 through 3 quarters on December 20, 2005—a feat that has never been done before. There is also the monster 81 point game he poured on the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006. Forget Wilt’s 100 point game. This is the most impressive scoring feat ever in the NBA for a few reasons. First, Kobe scored 51 of the points in leading LA back from a deficit of 18 points in the second half. This wasn’t a meaningless attempt to get him a record on the part of his teammates when the win was already decided in the first half, unlike Wilt’s game.
Second, the ways Kobe scored (check out the YouTube videos breaking down this game) was much more impressive than Wilt’s repertoire, which consisted mainly of shots 5 feet from the rim, including finger rolls over shorter players and dunks. Even Jordan’s 69 point game was not nearly as impressive as he needed overtime to get to that total. Nevertheless, along with Jordan, it is easy to consider Kobe as the greatest scorer ever.
Rebounding and Playmaking
Like Jordan, Kobe has been one of the premier rebounders and playmakers at his position, posting similar career numbers. Over the past decade, it’s no coincidence that he has led the Lakers in assists every year.
Bryant has been named to the All-NBA Defensive team 10 times in his career, including 8 times on the first team. The only other players that can match these numbers are Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan. Gary Payton and Michael Jordan can also be considered, each making the team 9 times all being on the first team. Unlike Pippen, Garnett, and Payton, Kobe has proven to be a more potent scorer and has led his team to championships. Similar to Duncan and Jordan, Bryant has been able to inspire other teammates to play hard on defense. It’s of particular note that Lebron James accredited turning around his defensive abilities to studying Bryant on the 2008 Olympic squad.
In comparison to other all-time greats, this is one area that separates Kobe from players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Oscar Robertson. In his ability to shut-down the best players on opposing teams, Kobe Bryant has to be considered one of the best defenders of all-time.
NBA pundits like Bill Simmons are quick to let their Kobe hatred show by pointing out Kobe’s 6-24 shooting performance in game 7 of this year’s Finals, while conveniently forgetting about key playmaking, pulling down 15 huge rebounds, and shutting down the Celtic’s best player in Rajon Rondo. Even more telling is the double standard applied to Kobe. Magic and Bird had their fair share of playoff lapses in key Finals games. In addition, Jordan had a closeout game of 14 points against the Celtics in 1986 (including 4 points in the second half), and another in the Finals shooting 5-19. Everyone remembers him hitting the game winner in 1998 to close out Utah, but few remember that Jordan missed 20 shots in that game and only had a total of 1 rebound and 1 assist. Every superstar has bad games, even in deciding games. The difference is that the best players find a way to will their team to victory.
Additionally, there’s a reason that in each of the past few years, over 90% of NBA GMs have declared Kobe to be the best clutch player. With Kobe hitting 7 game winners last season, he only gave further justification to these opinions. But the telling moment was in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics. When Spain was threatening to steal the gold medal from Team USA, it was Bryant who stepped up and made the clutch plays in the second half to lead the team to victory. It doesn’t matter what some stats sites say; it is more telling that on a team with other clutch superstars such as Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Lebron James, Kobe was the one who stepped up.
Another criticism by NBA pundits has been the fact that Kobe has only won 1 MVP award. This argument might have merit if the award always went to the top player in the league each year. However, it is in fact awarded to the top player on a team with one of the best records. Everyone knows this to be the case when players like Dirk Nowitzki won the award, and Steve Nash won it twice. Since the 2002-2003 season, one can argue that Kobe has been the best all-around player in the league and consequently could have won the award any of those years.
The Intangibles and Addressing Other Criticisms
As one of the hardest workers in the game with a legendary conditioning routine, Kobe has lasted in the league longer than many of the all-time legends. His footwork and mid-range game may be the best ever next to Jordan. Compared to Magic and Jordan, Kobe has proven to be a better outside shooter, evidenced by hitting multiple 3 point game winners and holding the NBA record for most 3 pointers made in a game (12).
Perhaps it is Bryant’s willingness to learn from others that sets him apart. By studying moves such as Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake”, Kobe has one of the best post up games, which has helped him to be just the third guard in league history to dominate the league over multiple seasons (along with Jordan and Magic).
Some NBA pundits are quick to point out that Kobe played second fiddle to Shaq during the first 3 championship runs, but this is not entirely accurate. While Shaq was the clear leader in 2000, he never would have come close to winning without Kobe. In 2001 and 2002, Kobe was more like an option 1A (think of him playing Magic Johnson along with Jordan versus playing Pippen). This can be seen by his all-around brilliant play in the 2001 playoffs with Jordan-like averages of 29.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, and 6.1 apg.
Fact is, Kobe Bryant is a proven winner. The only season he didn't make the playoffs in 2004-2005 was a rebuilding year for the Lakers, where their second best player was an inconsistent Lamar Odom. Odom missed 18 games and LA was still in a position to make the playoffs until Kobe went down with an injury during the last 15 games.
Over the past few years, Kobe has shined despite playing with bad ankles, knees, and broken fingers, including the index finger on his shooting hand. These nagging injuries are things that Jordan never had to deal with. Kobe should be given credit for continuing to dominate despite having some serious injuries.
The Ability to Play in Any Era
Comparing players of different generations is difficult at best. However, some facts are undisputable. Back in the 1960s, players were shorter, smaller, and less athletic. With no 3-point line, the object of the game was to get a shot as close to the basket as possible. With shorter shots, less defense, and higher scoring games, centers were able to dominate to a greater extent. This is why the rebounding numbers were higher across the board then, and why even the best rebounders today only get around 12-14 per game.
While players like Bird, Jordan, Magic, and Kobe could have played well back in the early decades of the NBA, it is unlikely that Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain would have dominated in the same way today. For being taller than many early centers and with superior athletic ability, Russell had a mediocre offensive game with horrible field goal and free throw percentages. He is the game’s greatest winner, but he also had a team full of Hall of Famers that clearly outmatched any other team. At 6-9 and 230 pounds, he would be a power forward at best today and would be challenged to not foul out against players such as Shaq in his prime. Today, he might be considered a superior version of Ben Wallace.
Wilt Chamberlain had less of an offensive repertoire than centers such as Olajuwon, Ewing, David Robinson, and Shaq. The first time he had to play against a superstar 7-foot center in Kareem, he self-admittedly struggled. Most likely Wilt would still be one of the game’s best today, but with averages closer to 25 ppg and 12 rpg. In considering all-around ability, it is hard to justify Wilt and Russell as clearly being ahead of Bryant.
Most people consider Jordan to be the greatest of all-time, and rightly so. But Kobe Bryant is as close to Jordan as it gets. There are other worthy nominees of being in the top 5, including Magic, Bird, Kareem, Duncan, and Oscar Robertson. However, when considering all-around game and winning, just make sure Kobe is on your list.