While everyone is ready to crown Kobe Bryant the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all-time, let’s hold up a moment on putting another statue up in front of Staples Center.
Sure, Kobe is closing in on Magic Johnson as the greatest Laker, but he’s not there yet. No way.
Before you start kicking and screaming, and cursing at your computer screen, hold up and hear me out. Because I’m serious.
Kobe isn’t there yet. And, the person that would be the quickest to admit this is actually...Kobe.
He’s even said he feels like he’s only finally in the discussion, and can now go to dinner with Magic. Like he is tied with Magic. Whether he means it or not, that’s his outward position.
And, true or not, that’s always going to be Kobe’s approach, even if he is really already on top. He’s fueled by being the underdog, and he has been his entire life. He always wants to be challenged, and wants to be remembered as an overachiever with talent.
You can see why he feels this way. He and Magic are only tied. Until Kobe surpasses Magic in rings, there will always be this discussion, this opening. But if Kobe gets to six titles, this type of debate is meaningless. But not yet.
Kobe’s still got work to do because Magic is still the best, for now.
The components that make up, at least in my opinion, the greatest Laker are: Championships Won; Level of Competition to win titles; Style of Play; and Individual Talent.
We’ll knock the last one out first.
Kobe is by far the most talented Laker. Ever.
Magic might not even be in second place. That isn’t to say Magic wasn’t amazing. He actually only averaged 20 points a game because he didn’t need to score thirty. But he could have scored more and did, when required.
But one on one, head to head, player against player, Kobe takes the individual bucket easily. But not the rest of the categories.
Let’s roll with the Championships Won next.
At five apiece, Kobe’s only tied with Magic right now in championships won. But, he hasn’t matched Magic’s NBA Finals appearances.
Magic Johnson owned the 1980’s. His Lakers played in eight of the ten finals that decade. That’s not a misquote. Eight out of ten. That’s a fact.
And, Magic actually played in nine finals in eleven years. A staggering level of excellence.
Magic also played in eleven finals in his thirteen year career. That's crazy.
But Kobe is rapidly closing in on those mind-boggling Finals appearances. For the decade of the 2000’s, Kobe played in six out of ten Finals.
With an appearance again this past year, he’s been in seven out of eleven. And, it’s a high probability, in my opinion, that he makes it to an eighth final next year.
Those are Magic levels of excellence. But for Kobe’s career, he’s only at 50% on finals appearances, having played in seven finals in his fourteen year career.
So, until Kobe actually notches another Finals appearance and garners a sixth ring to break the tie, Magic takes this category.
The next component of the greatest is level of competition. And, again, Magic takes this category. That's because there is little dispute that Magic played against far greater competition than Kobe has.
The league in the 80’s wasn’t as large, the talent not as diluted. Both the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76’ers were powerhouses, loaded teams in the early to mid part of the decade and the Detroit Piston Bad Boy teams closed out those years.
All these franchises won championships and stand up as some of the greatest teams ever. We’re talking massive teams, with massive legends.
Kobe can’t say that at all. The only team and player that comes close to him is Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. But, the Lakers and Spurs never could meet with a title on the line because they played in the same Western Conference.
But, we can even look even deeper, at the teams themselves.
You can make the arguments that both Kobe and Magic had great talents around them. And, sure, Magic had legends on the court, up to one point even having five all-stars on his team at the same time.
But Kobe played with Shaquille O’Neal, when the Big Fella was at his peak, in his prime, the most dominant player of his generation, if not ever, at least for that brief stretch of time.
But for Kobe’s Lakers, where were the serious competitors? They aren’t out there.
The Shaq/Kobe teams had no real competition in the Finals. Sure, this past season’s battle with the Boston Celtics was epic, but that is literally the only one for Kobe in winning a championship.
Maybe this next June, the Lakers will battle the newly assembled Miami Heat or have a rematch with the Boston Celtics. A Finals series against an equal foe will elevate Kobe’s Lakers to the level of Magic’s.
Until then, Kobe sits behind Magic on level of competition.
The final component that hasn’t been addressed is Style of Play. And, here again, Magic takes this category.
Magic Johnson will go down in history as the most exciting, most charismatic, and fun to watch player in league history. It all goes to how he played.
He not only passed the rock effortlessly nor simply involved his teammates. He made each possession, each game, truly Showtime.
Magic made the game electrifying. The court buzzed when his team played. Magic could snatch a rebound and take the ball coast to coast. He could post up, and he could knock down the three.
Magic would run the fast-break to perfection, and dish like he had eyes in the back of his head. He truly earned his nickname.
Kobe is equally exciting, but in a far different way. He is a prolific scorer and, in my opinion, the NBA’s hardest working player, ever. He can score from anywhere on the court.
He simply is unmatched in offensive weapons. I’m not even sure that Michael Jordan had the same array of shots on the offensive end. (That is not to say that MJ wasn’t a more proficient or better scorer. That’s a different discussion.)
But Kobe is a one on one player. Some people love his style, others loathe it. Some say he’s the guy in the gym who hogs the ball, goes up one on three but still makes the difficult, nearly impossible, shot.
Even Phil Jackson has said multiple times that Kobe takes far harder shots than MJ ever did. And, I agree.
Especially in his earlier years, Kobe made the game far harder for himself than he had to. Sure, after the Shaq years, in those dark days of barely making the playoffs, Kobe had to. He had no real talent around him.
A forced shot by Kobe was always better than an open shot by Kwame Brown or Smush Parker. But not now.
Kobe has adapted, as a great player will. He is more efficient now and it shows. Not just in the shooting percentage column but in team wins. He’s a facilitator. And, he now has massive talent around him that he’s learned to trust.
So, on style of play, it’s a close one but Magic still takes this category. I’d say it’s mostly a personal preference.
Do you like a showman who razzle-dazzles everyone and makes the game up-tempo, fast paced and exciting? Or, do you like a one on one superstar, who blows by two defenders, flies to the hoop, and finishes over a big with a poster dunk?
I love both.
For this moment, Magic gets to remain alone with the statue outside Staples. He’s still the greatest Laker. For now.
But, Kobe is closing in on the 80’s superstar, and should pass him next June with a three-peat title and a definitive, tie-breaking, sixth ring.