August 16, 2010
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For some NBA fans, to ask whether Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant is "overrated" as a basketball player would be similar to asking music fans whether the Beatles were overrated as rock group, or Jimi Hendrix as an electric guitarist, questions which would be considered absurd and ridiculous by most rock music aficionados given their bodies of work, innovations, achievements and contributions to their respective crafts.
Bryant is certainly an amazing basketball talent, that much is undeniable. He may already be one of the 20 greatest NBA players ever to play the game. But with conversation this summer after Bryant won his fifth NBA Championship turning to him challenging basketball legend Michael Jordan as the greatest ever basketball player period, perhaps for the first time in his career Bryant has been elevated to a status that is undeserved, even when considering his many great achievements.
Consider this. For Bryant to even be considered rivaling Jordan as the "best player ever", it would be to concede that Bryant is a greater basketball player than Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, two players that rightly rival Jordan for that title, along with other greats including Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legends who have all, at one point or another, been debated as the "best player of all-time", and even his contemporaries Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.
That Russell is the greatest champion in NBA history is difficult to dispute. His 11 NBA Championships with the Boston Celtics in his 13 year career between 1956 to 1969 as a player means not only has he won more titles than any other player in the league's history, but that his career championship-winning percentage is 85%, a stunning statistic that will likely never be matched in the modern era by any player in the league playing longer than four seasons. Only his Celtics teammates KC Jones and Tom Heinsohn have have had a higher career championship-winning percentage for any player having played more than four seasons in NBA history, both at 89% by winning 8 titles in their 9 year careers.
By virtue of his 11 NBA championships, Russell has won the most titles by a player not only in the NBA, but in all professional sporting leagues in the U.S. and Canada. In fact, during his 13 year career, Russell only missed out making the Finals once, in 1967 when the Celtics lost in the Eastern Division Finals to the Chamberlain-lead Philadelphia 76ers, which went on to win the NBA title that year.
Russell was also a two-time NCAA champion, leading his University of San Francisco squad to two consecutive national championships in 1955 and 1956, the year in which he also won an Olympic gold medal in Melbourne Olympics as captain of the U.S. men's national basketball team.
But to define Russell only by the number of his championships would be a disservice to his legacy. Russell was a complete player, notable for shot-blocking and his defense, as well as his ability to elevate the performance of his teammates. In fact, many basketball historians consider him the greatest NBA defensive player of all-time. His ability to defend opposing players was the cornerstone in the Celtics' dominance, allowing them to achieve their historic championship run.
Russell was also the league's leader in rebounding for four seasons, including once having grabbed more than 50 rebounds in a game, the only player along with Chamberlain to have done so, and is second on the all-time career rebounds list. He also holds the NBA record for most boards in a half, when he grabbed 32 against the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1957-58 season on his way to 49 total rebounds that game. His excellence didn't go unnoticed, and he was awarded the NBA MVP Award five times.
If Russell is the NBA's greatest-ever champion, then Chamberlain might be the league's greatest all-time scorer. Besides scoring 100 points in a single game against the New York Knicks in 1962, the record he is most famous for, Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to score more than 4,000 points in a season when he amassed 4,029 points in the 1961-62 season for the Philadelphia Warriors. The closest anyone else has come to that record is Jordan, who totaled 3,041 points in the 1986-87 season as a member of the Chicago Bulls.
That same 1961-62 season, Chamberlain averaged an astounding 50.4 points per game, a record that will surely stand as long as his 100 points in a game record, if not longer. To accomplish that average, Chamberlin scored 50 points in 45 games, more than half of the number of games that season, and scored 50 points in seven consecutive games, both of which are NBA all-time records.
In total, Chamberlain scored 50 or more points in 118 games, making up 11% of the games he played in his entire career. Jordan, another player known for 50 point games, in comparison scored 50 or more points in 38 games in his career, less than a third of Chamberlain's total.
That same 1961-62 season, Chamberlain also set the all-time record for most 40 point games in season, scoring 40 or more in 63 games. That accounted for an incredible 78% of the games he played that season, back when the NBA season was 80 games instead of 82.
Other scoring records that Chamberlain holds include most consecutive field goals in a game, when he made 18 field goals against the Baltimore Bullets on February 24, 1967, without missing a shot. That game is factored into his record of most consecutive field goals in a season when he made 35 field goals without missing over four games in February 1967, the season he lead his 76ers team to the NBA Championship, and the first of his two career titles.
His 14 year NBA career doesn't allow him to be the league's current all-time career leader in points, a record he held when he retired, but has since been surpassed only by Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Jordan, who all competed in more seasons in the league as well as played in more games. But Chamberlain was much more than a scorer. Like Russell, Chamberlain played a complete game.
Despite being an offensive machine, Chamberlain was also an astute defensive player, having been named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team twice in his career in the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider the NBA didn't award this honor until the 1968-69 season, in the latter years of his career. Chamberlain lead the league in rebounding a record 11 seasons, and is the all-time career rebounds leader, with 23,924.
Not surprisingly, he also holds the record for highest career rebounding average at 22.9 per game, the most rebounds in a season at 2,149, the most rebounds in a playoff game at 41, the highest career All-Star Game rebounds at 197, and the most rebounds in a single game, when he grabbed 55 boards against Russell and the Celtics on November 24, 1960.
All together, Chamberlain grabbed 40 or more boards 15 times in his career, another NBA record. But what may be just as impressive is that in five of those games, Chamberlain scored 40 or more points, for five double-quadruples. This includes a game where he grabbed 43 boards and scored 78 points, a feat so impressive that it may never be equaled ever in the NBA. Three of his double-quadruples came during his rookie season, including one game where he grabbed 42 rebounds and scored 58 points.
Predictably, Chamberlain was selected as Rookie of the Year in 1960 and is only one of two players to have won the NBA MVP Award his rookie season, along with Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets in 1969. Chamberlain went on to win the MVP Award a total of four times in his career, the last being the 1967-68 season when he lead the league in assists, being the only NBA player in history to have lead the league in scoring, rebounding and assists at any point in their career.
Despite spending most of his seasons in the league as being by far the best player on average teams, Chamberlain was able to win the NBA Championship twice, the first with the 76ers in the 1966-77 season and the second with the Lakers in 1971-72, a team that won 33 games in a row, still the NBA record. What's astonishing is that in both championship seasons, Chamberlain's teams set the all-time best NBA regular season record, at 68-13 with the 76ers, and 69-13 with the Lakers, marks which has since only been surpassed and equaled by Jordan's 1995-96 and 1996-97 Bulls teams.
Bryant himself is no slouch in the NBA history book, sharing records for the most three-pointers made in a game with 12 and in a half with eight, and owning the record for most free throws made in a four game series, with 51 against the Sacramento Kings in 2001.
He also holds nine records relating to being the youngest ever player in the league to reach certain milestones, including scoring 18,000 points, 20,000 points, 23,000 points, 24,000 points and 25,000 points, as well as being the youngest to be named to the NBA All-Rookie Team, All-Defensive Team, to start in a game, and to start an All-Star game.
Bryant's 81 point performance against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006 is the second most points scored in a single game by a player, a remarkable accomplishment that puts him ahead of the 70 point games of David Thompson, David Robinson, and Elgin Baylor, and far ahead of even Jordan's all-time high of 69 points. That feat is all the more impressive when you consider Jordan needed overtime to reach that total, while Bryant scored every one of his 81 points in regulation.
Bryant, of course, has also won five championships with the Lakers, tying him for 14th on the NBA All-Time list, sharing that distinction with 12 other players. He has also won the league's MVP Award once, has been the NBA Finals MVP twice for the championships won these past two seasons, has won the scoring title twice, and has been selected to the All-NBA First Team eight times and the All-Defensive First Team eight times.
All these accomplishments are remarkable feats for any NBA player, and practically guarantees Bryant will be a first-ballot Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. But despite being impressive, Bryant's accomplishments have not elevated his status to be worthy of being in the conversation of the "greatest basketball player ever", not when considering the extraordinary feats and achievements of players before him.
While Bryant can rightly be placed in the rarified air of the game's all-time greats, even before he has retired and with potentially more championships in his future, to anoint him as the best player ever, or even second only to Jordan, is to do so prematurely and undeservingly, and not dissimilar to when LeBron James was impetuously described before this summer as the best player in the league today, even before he had won a single NBA Finals game.
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