The Jordan era ended when Michael Jordan decided to play his last season for the Bulls in 1998. Kobe Bryant belongs in the post-Jordan era. There’s always the debate about where Bryant stands among the all-time greats.
There have been many great players since Jordan’s departure and Bryant is one of them, but is he the best since Jordan? Is he the best of this era? A good way to look at this is to know which player was the best in each season after 1998.
The 1998-99 season was the first after the Jordan era. It was Bryant’s third season. I think we can agree he wasn’t the best player. But this season isn’t important. The NBA was just recovering from the bad lockout experience, teams played only 50 regular season games, Karl Malone won the MVP, despite not being the MVP, Allen Iverson, in just his third season, led the league in scoring with just 26 points, and the New York Knicks reached the finals as the 8th seed. So it’s not important who the best was during this season, although my vote goes to either Tim Duncan or Alonzo Mourning.
Now we move on to the next three seasons (2000-2002). It’s kind of obvious who the best player was during this time. His name is Shaquille O’Neal. I know a lot of Bryant fans will disagree, but the main star of those Lakers teams was O’Neal. So I always ask this question: How is it possible for Bryant to be the best in the league during this time if he was not even the best of his own team?
The main offensive option for the Lakers was O’Neal, not Bryant. He was the one who won one scoring title, one league MVP and three finals MVP awards during this time, not Bryant. Bryant was not even on the All-NBA first team in 2000 and 2001. O’Neal was the one averaging over 30 points and 15 rebounds, while shooting a great FG percentage in the playoffs, especially in the finals. I’m not saying Bryant didn’t do anything. I’m saying O’Neal was the main star of those teams. And that’s a fact.
Now the 2002-03 season is interesting. For the first time in his career, Bryant averaged more points than O’Neal. This is when Bryant was starting to become the Lakers’ main offensive option, by his own choice. This is when he thought he could lead a team to a championship.
Well, he was wrong.
He failed and would fail again in the following season (2003-04). He did have a great all-around season in 2003. He averaged 30.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG, and a 45.1 FG percent. That’s Bryant’s best individual season. But even with those great stats, he still fell short in the title of "the best in the league."
First of all, these two seasons (2003 & 2004) showed us that Bryant destroyed any chance the Lakers had at winning more than three titles during the early 2000s. In 2003, Bryant’s first season as the main offensive option, the Lakers won just 50 regular season games and were eliminated in the second round. For the first time since 1999, the Lakers failed to reach the Western Conference Finals.
Their 50-win season is the lowest in the "Shaq-Kobe" era. Granted, O’Neal did miss 15 games, but I’m sure the Lakers would’ve won more games if Bryant and O’Neal would’ve switched places. After all, the Lakers have a better record when O’Neal was playing while Bryant was missing games. Also, with O’Neal as the main option, Lakers would’ve had a better chance against the San Anotnio Spurs in the playoffs.
In 2004, the Lakers failed to win another title with Kobe as the main offensive option. I don’t think I need to explain how Bryant shot his team out of games during the finals. Phil Jackson made this clear in his book, "The Last Season."
It’s no coincidence that the Lakers stop winning titles when Bryant decided to become the main option. He can’t be the best in the league if he jeopardizes his team’s chances at winning championships. These two seasons just proved that Bryant wasn’t the star during the "three-peat." If he were, Lakers would’ve lost in each season, just like they did in these two seasons.
He just wasn’t ready to lead a team to a championship. Even Jackson agrees (He said it in a post-game interview when he was asked about his journey with Bryant following their finals Game 5 victory over the Orlando Magic in 2009).
That’s one reason why he wasn’t the best during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Another reason is that there were other players better than him. In 2003, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were better. They both won more games than Bryant as leaders of their respective teams. Garnett even averaged more assists than Bryant. I would even go as far as saying Tracy McGrady was better. He averaged more points than Bryant, and he did a lot for his team with less help. He led his team to 42 wins, despite the fact that each of the other four highest scorers on the team missed more than 30 games.
In 2004, it’s not even a debate. Garnett and Duncan were clearly the better players. Bryant averaged 24 points while shooting a terrible 43.8 percent from the field. He also missed 17 games.
The 2004-05 season was a bad season for Bryant. He missed 16 games, had yet another terrible shooting season (43.3 percent), his team was 28-38 with him in the lineup and they missed the playoffs.
So far, we are entering the 2005-06 and we have seen that Bryant was not the best during the 1999-2005 seasons. Let’s continue, shall we?
The 2005-06 season was a great season for Bryant. If he ever had a chance at being the real most valuable player of the season, this was it. I give credit to Bryant for what he did for the Lakers that season. He averaged 35.4 PPG and led his team to 45 wins.
The Lakers, despite having Phil Jackson as coach and Lamar Odom as second option player, were a mediocre team. That’s why I believe Bryant proved his value by carrying this team on his back like he did.
But even with that, he wasn’t the best player that season. He was the second best, behind LeBron James.
James led his team to 50 wins. His team wasn’t that different from Bryant’s. In fact, I believe Bryant had a better team. Bryant had a valuable coach in Jackson and a valuable teammate in Odom. James had a rookie coach in Mike Brown and his best teammate was Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
I know the Western Conference was tougher than the Eastern Conference, but this is not a strong argument. The Cavs were 16-14 against West teams, while the Lakers were 27-25 against those same teams. The Lakers’ record against the East isn’t impressive either, since they went 18-12 against them, while the Cavs went 34-18 against the East.
James’ stats were also better than Bryant’s. James had one of the greatest all-around seasons in NBA history. He averaged 31.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.6 APG, and shot 48.0 percent from the field. He became the fourth player to average 30 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a single season. James averaged more rebounds and assists while shooting a better percentage from the field than Bryant. He was clearly the best.
James was not only best in the 2006 season. He’s the best today, period. The title for “best player in the league” belongs to James since 2006. He could’ve easily won every MVP award since 2006, but he didn’t for the same reason Jordan didn’t win more MVP awards: Voters don’t like to see the same winner every season.
In 2007, James again led his not-so-talented team to 50 wins. He had another great all-around season when he averaged 27.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 6.0 APG, while shooting 47.6 percent from the field. On the other hand, Bryant’s team won just 42 games. That’s three games worse from the season before, despite having the same team. Bryant did miss five games while Odom missed 26 games in 2007, but the Lakers were 39-38 with Bryant in the lineup, which is worse than 2006 when they were 45-35 with him in the lineup. He again averaged more points than James, but James wins in rebounds, assists and FG percentage, and he also wins in value to the team. And to refute the "West being tougher" argument, Cavs also finished 19-11 against the West, which is better than Lakers’ record against the East (14-16).
The 2007-08 season saw Bryant win his only MVP award, but he wasn’t the MVP this season. Chris Paul and James were more valuable than Bryant. James had yet another great all-around season with averages of 30.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 7.2 APG, while shooting 48.4 percent from the field. He’s the third player to average 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a single season.
So how come he didn’t win?
It’s easy. His team won 45 games that season and that’s unacceptable for voters. But they failed to see that, not only did James miss seven games that season, but he and Ilgauskas (who missed nine games, by the way) were the only Cavs rotation players that played 60 games in the regular season.
Paul had one of the greatest seasons ever for a point guard. He averaged 21.1 PPG, four RPG, 11.6 APG, 2.7 SPG while shooting 48.8 percent from the field. He led the league in assists and steals.
So why did Bryant win over Paul? He did have good stats to backup his award over Paul, but Paul was the league leader in two major categories. The problem was that the Lakers won the West, not the Hornets. And that’s what matters to the voters, despite the fact that the two teams were separated by just one game.
By the time we got to the 2008-09 season, it has become more evident that James is the best player in the league today. Somehow, he led his team to the best record in the league with 66 wins. Granted, he had Mo Williams, but he is not the teammate you would choose to help you win 66 games. James again had some great stats: 28.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 7.2 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.1 BPG, with a 48.9 FG percent.
Statistically, James completely dominated Bryant. He averaged more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks! He also shot a better FG percentage. And for those still trying to use the “West being tougher” argument, the Cavs were 26-4 against the West, pretty impressive if you ask me.
But James was not the only player better than Bryant this season. Paul and Dwyane Wade were also better. Paul continued to have one of the greatest seasons ever for a point guard when he averaged 22.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 11.0 APG, 2.8 SPG while shooting 50.3 percent from the field. Interestingly, he averaged more rebounds than Bryant. And for the second straight season he was the league leader in assists and steals.
Wade had a case to win the award over James. He had one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. He averaged 30.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 7.5 APG, 2.2 SPG, 1.3 BPG while shooting 49.1 percent from the field. Those are Jordan-like numbers.
James’ 2009-10 season speaks for itself. With stats like 29.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, one BPG on 50.3 FG percent shooting, James posted the best individual season since Jordan’s 1989 season. For the second straight season, he led his team to the best record in the league with 61 wins. Wade again proved to be better than Bryant.
Kevin Durant was also better.
Now we are currently in the 2010-11 season and Bryant is not the best. James is having yet another impressive season. He’s averaging 26.6 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.5 SPG and shooting 50.8 percent from the field, a career high. He's second in scoring average, despite the fact that Wade is his teammate. We’ve seen that Bryant has never being the best player in one season.
These are the best players since 2000:
2000-2002 – Shaquille O’Neal
2003 – Tim Duncan
2004 – Kevin Garnett
2005 – Shaquille O’Neal
2006-present – LeBron James
Paul has a strong case to be the best in 2008 and 2009, while Wade has it in 2009, but James was also so good that I have to give him the title in those seasons.
Bryant is not even the fourth-best player since 1998. O’Neal, Duncan, Garnett and James are better than him.
So why do people say Bryant is the best of this generation when he has never been the best in one season and four other players are better than him? Sometimes he was not even the third best player in a season. Sometimes he was not even the best of his own team. Sometimes he was not even the best at his own position. He’s a scorer, yet he doesn’t have the most scoring titles of this era. He hasn’t won the most MVP awards or the most finals MVP awards of this era. His stats are not the best. What is it then?
They always say that Bryant has won five rings. This is not a good argument, since championships are a team success, not an individual success. They say James is not the best because he has not won a championship. These are the same fans that say Bryant was the best in 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008, despite the fact that he didn’t win the championship.
Another reason why this is not a good argument is the MVP awards. The fact that Bryant has only two Finals MVP awards in five finals victories with no league MVP award in any of those seasons says a lot about the help he has had throughout his career. But this brings another argument. Fans ask themselves how it is possible for Bryant to have five rings but no league MVP in those five seasons, and only one his entire career.
Since when does winning a championship will automatically make a player the MVP? Just because he has five rings doesn’t mean he had to be the MVP in those seasons. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have 11 championships between them but only three league MVP awards in those seasons. What happened in the other championship seasons? It’s simple. They weren’t the best, just like Bryant hasn’t being the best in one season.
An NBA MVP award is different from an NBA Championship.
Now let’s go back to the “Championship” argument. Bryant is probably the luckiest player in NBA history. He has been blessed since his rookie season with multiple talented players, probably more than any other player in NBA history. Even in the mediocre years (2005-2007), he still had Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Phil Jackson. Of course, you need help to win. I don’t have any problem with the talent he’s had, but using the “Championship” argument to prove Bryant is better than, say, James, is weak because prior to the 2011 season, James has never being blessed with the talent Bryant has enjoyed since his rookie season.
Can you imagine James with O’Neal or Pau Gasol in their primes AND Jackson as coach for multiple seasons?
Bryant certainly is one of the greatest players in NBA history, but he’s not a top 10 player of all-time for the reasons I just explained, and he’s not the best since Jordan. That title belongs to O’Neal and James.