Kobe Bryant Is Not the Wizard of Oz

Jonathan TjarksSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 23, 2011

He's just a human being like you and me.
He's just a human being like you and me.

He has been the most polarizing figure in the NBA for over a decade.

His fans point to his prolific scoring ability (from his run of 40+ pt games to his 81-point masterpiece in Toronto), his willingness to take (and make) game-winning shots no matter the situation and most importantly, his rings.

His detractors point to his nearly legendary selfishness (from pushing Shaq out of LA to make it "his team" to consistently leading the league in usage rating despite playing with multiple All-Stars), his tendency to jack up shots heedlessly and the inability of his team's to win anything meaningful without a Hall of Fame level seven-footer.

There's a reason the Lakers are always playing on Christmas Day, the league's biggest regular season showcase.  Everyone has an opinion about Kobe.

** I use my mother, a Filipino immigrant in her 60's, as a barometer of how famous someone is.  She knows about two NBA players—Kobe and LeBron—and two rappers—Lil' Wayne and Kanye West. **

With the Lakers showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, there's no question what the NBA's dominant storyline will be over the next few years: will Kobe pass MJ and get seven rings?  And if he does, can we ask the most "blasphemous" question of all?

But why should his team's success (or lack of it) affect our perception of Kobe as a player after 15 NBA seasons and over 1,000 games?  We already know everything we need to know about him as a basketball player.

He's a 6'6" perimeter player with the ability to run a team like a point guard, score like a shooting guard and post-up like a small forward.  In his prime, he was an All-NBA level defender of all three perimeter positions.  

There aren't any holes in his game.  He can do anything an aging 6'6", 200 guard can do on a basketball court—shoot, dribble, pass, run the pick and roll, post-up and defend guys with similar physical profiles.  

However, there are a lot of things on a basketball court an aging 6'6", 200 guard can't do.  The most important area on the court is the 4 feet around the rim, and there isn't much Kobe can do down there in the land of the giants—he's not blocking shots, rebounding or establishing low-post position at the front of the rim.  And these are the things that win games—and championships.

While the media tends to endlessly fixate on individual battles between perimeter players and the search for the next MJ, it's really a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Just look at the pattern of titles in the last decade—Lakers three-peat (Shaq, Shaq, Shaq), Spurs (Duncan), Pistons (Wallace "brothers"), Spurs (Duncan), Heat (Shaq), Spurs (Duncan), Celtics (KG) and Lakers (Gasol and Odom).   

In contrast, the following scoring wing players were on All-NBA teams the last five years —Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, Brandon Roy, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson and Manu Ginobili.  The only one of them to make a Conference Finals without an All-Star big man was Carmelo in 2009.

** A 6'9", 270+ forward who plays on the perimeter but can dominate the paint, LeBron is the exception that proves the rule. **

It's similar to football where QBs (the glamour players) get credit for the win and blame for the loss when the games are primarily won and lost in the trenches.

Kobe was instrumental in all five Laker championships over the last decade, but does anyone think they win a single title if they replaced Shaq and Pau Gasol with Shawn Bradley and Erick Dampier?

The one time in his career he didn't have an All-Star seven-footer—from 2005-2007—he didn't win a single playoff series.  But does that say all that much about him as a player?

In 2005-2006, Kobe put up 35/5/5 and was a first-team All-Defense player.  The Lakers won 45 games and lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.  Many people seem to hold that against him, but what more was he supposed to do exactly?

There are 10 guys on a basketball court.  Kobe can only do so much—he can't give Kwame Brown a heart, Smush Parker a brain or Vlad Radmanovic some courage.

He's not the Wizard of Oz.  And LeBron is not the Green Lantern.

They are just really good basketball players.  Can't that be enough?  How well their teams do in the playoffs says only so much about them as players, and very little, if anything at all, about them as human beings.

More than any other team sport, basketball fans fixate on how individual players compare to each other across eras.  Most have their own personal version of Bill Simmons' HOF pyramid, which he ranks primarily on career accomplishments.  In a recent chat, he said that Kobe would "leapfrog Duncan and Wilt" if he won his sixth ring this season.  

What's important to remember is that there's a huge difference between ranking a player's career and ranking his talent.  If the Lakers win another championship, Kobe will have two more rings than Tim Duncan.  But are we really going to act like he was a better player or he had more of an impact on a game?

In fourteen seasons, Duncan's Spurs have missed the second round of the playoffs only twice, and in one of those instances (losing to the Phoenix Suns in 2000), Duncan was out with a knee injury.

It's really not fair to either Kobe or Duncan to compare them to each other.  They play different positions; they do vastly different things on a basketball court.  It's like trying to compare Orlando Pace and Kurt Warner.

Historically, Kobe is one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time.  But he wasn't better than MJ, and there's nothing he can do as a 32-year-old on the downside of his career to change that.  Even if the Lakers win the next three championships, the stats are the stats.


No matter where you go, you are what you are player /And you can try to change but that's just the top layer /Man, you was who you was 'fore you got here.

-- Jay-Z


Jordan had a thicker build and bigger hands, which allowed him to establish much lower post position and finish inside easier.  It's the primary reason why Jordan had a career field goal percentage of 49.7 percent and Kobe's 45.5 percent.  The best PER of Kobe's career was 28.0; Jordan beat that number seven different times!

So he may end up with a top-10 career of all time, but he will never be a top-10 player. And this is not an insult to Kobe!  It would be literally impossible for someone of his size and frame to have more of an impact on a game revolving around throwing a ball through a 10-foot cylinder than guys like Kareem, Wilt and Shaq.

Or maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe "drive" and "killer instinct" and the "will to win" is what determines championships.  And maybe the explanation for the dip in the Lakers success in the middle of the last decade wasn't the lack of an elite low-post player, maybe it was just that Kobe's heart wasn't as pure as it needed to be.  Maybe trading for Pau Gasol didn't bring LA back to dominance, perhaps Kobe took a spirit trip to the Himalayas to ensure that his heart was as pure as white snow, and once that happened, his titles were pre-ordained.

Maybe NBA players aren't flawed human beings who make a lot of money to play a game designed to keep children in shape.  Maybe they really are larger than life icons, transcendental figures who can save a city and cleanse us of our sins.

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