Metrics 101: Was Kobe Bryant Better Wearing No. 8 or No. 24?
Nine retired jerseys of former Los Angeles Lakers players—along with a few other distinguished numbers and one tribute to a legendary broadcaster—adorn the rafters of Staples Center when the Purple and Gold are playing home games.
Now, Kobe Bryant makes it 10...and 11.
Unlike the legends who came before him, Bryant earned the unique honor of having two different numbers retired by the franchise with which he spent his entire professional career. No. 8 represents the younger version of himself who broke into the league and played with brash confidence, while No. 24 adorned his chest from the beginning of the 2006-07 season through the end of his unforgettable career.
The Lakers aren't picking between the two, but what if they had to? Would they side with Bryant himself (and, more recently, former teammate Derek Fisher) by selecting the bigger number, or would they go with the original?
Let's turn to his numbers and legacy, diving into different aspects of his career to figure out the superior choice. Neither is bad, but one has to be better.
No. 8: 23.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 2.9 turnovers
No. 24: 26.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 3.1 turnovers
Per-game numbers never tell the full story, but their limited nature doesn't prevent them from enjoying some lasting resonance. They're the most prominently displayed figures for basketball players, indicative of production in most major areas even while masking efficiency levels and ignoring how much time on the court led to their accumulation.
For example, Kobe Bryant never scored more during his average game than in 2005-06 while still wearing No. 8. But those 35.4 points per contest came while he played over 40 minutes each night and jacked up nearly four more shots in his typical appearance than during any other season. That league-leading scoring average is a crucial part of the Bryant story, though it's ultimately a bit misleading.
Interestingly, nearly all the future Hall of Famer's best marks came during the early portion of his career. That aforementioned figure in the points column leads the charge, but so too do his 6.9 rebounds per game in 2002-03, his 6.0 assists per outing in 2004-05 (excluding a six-game sample nine years later), his 2.2 steals per contest in 2002-03 and his 1.0 blocks per game as a third-year player.
And yet, the cumulative tallies still favor No. 24.
Not only do they exclude the numbers earned while he was competing with Eddie Jones for minutes early in his career, but they exist in an efficiency-free vacuum during this part of the analysis. His poor shooting figures just before retirement are currently irrelevant, allowing him to look the part of a more complete player.
In many ways, he was. His scoring game grew more diverse and consistent during the second half of his career, even if he didn't quite have that trademark explosion that highlighted his younger days. He became a more willing passer, averaging over five dimes on six separate occasions. His rebounding and defensive numbers remained fairly consistent.
But even if late-career Bryant had boasted lesser marks in five of the six listed categories, his scoring figures would supersede the other deficits. His career—in the box score, at least—was defined by his gaudy output in the points category, and his constant ability to light up the scoreboard never diminished.
Advantage: No. 24
Ultimately, only the last two listed numbers should matter.
Congratulations to No. 8 for better shooting percentages from the field and beyond the arc. Kudos to No. 24 for knocking down a higher share of his looks at the charity stripe. But without factoring in how frequently his shots fell into each category, those numbers carry far less weight.
That's why effective field-goal percentage is a preferable metric when looking at shooting that takes place during the flow of live action. It gives the necessary credit to three-point shooting, adjusting the overall mark from the field to account for the added benefit of that extra point.
And yet, it doesn't help us here, since Bryant posted identical marks during the two halves of his career. The first is driven up by his greater accuracy from all over the half-court set, which likely stems from superior athleticism and the ability to elevate over virtually any defender. The second receives a boost from his added affinity for the three-point shot; he took 1.6 more triples per game while wearing No. 24.
So we turn to true shooting percentage, which factors in free-throw shooting to become the ultimate measure of scoring efficiency. Get to the line frequently and connect on your attempts, and your score will go up.
That's exactly what Bryant did at a higher rate during the first stage of his professional tenure.
He averaged 23.9 points on 18.4 field-goal attempts, largely because he earned 7.3 trips per game to the charity stripe, where he converted 83.4 percent of his freebies. Technically, he made more journeys to the line (7.5 per game) after switching uniform numbers, but that's misleading because he was also more involved as a scorer. His free-throw rate—the number of free throws earned per field-goal attempt—actually dropped from 0.399 to 0.365.
This is perhaps the closest of all our categories, but No. 8 did enough to push No. 24 slightly behind.
Advantage: No. 8 by a nose
Unfortunately, the world doesn't yet have a perfect defensive metric, and all four of the ones listed above aren't the most telling measures without applying plenty of context. The first is a team-dependent score heavily influenced by interaction effects with teammates, while the latter three are based on the box score, which notoriously fails to capture so many important aspects of defense.
But those are the numbers we have, as the rest don't date back far enough to evaluate Bryant's entire career or require even more context.
ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus gives Bryant one of the 10 worst scores during his final season and isn't much more generous during the two preceding campaigns, but we don't have an early-career baseline against which we can compare those marks.
On/off splits, meanwhile, are subject to plenty of statistical noise—logging minutes alongside certain running mates, playing against lesser competition, garbage-time scenarios and more. They also only date back to 2000-01, so the most they can show is that the Lakers were better defensively in two of the six available seasons with No. 8 on the court (2000-01, 2002-03) and five of 10 with No. 24 playing (2006-07, 2007-08, 2009-10, 2011-12, 2013-14). That's ultimately not too helpful, especially since he played only 177 minutes in 2013-14.
Numbers have always indicated that Bryant's defensive reputation was a bit overblown. He was a phenomenal on-ball stopper when locked in and motivated to win an individual matchup, but he routinely conserved energy in off-ball situations and tended to lose track of his assignments. Those same stats don't, however, help us differentiate between early- and late-career Bryant, since they indicate he might have been slightly superior individually as No. 8 while also benefiting from playing for better teams.
And that's where the eye test comes into play.
Bryant enjoyed moments of defensive brilliance throughout his career, but the bad showed up more prominently during the latter stages. He was a distinct liability in his last few seasons, only showing up to stop isolation plays every once in a while. Contrast that with his introduction into the NBA, when he was still learning the nuances of professional schemes but had the athleticism and desire necessary to compete on every play.
Though the numbers all come with significant caveats, they're largely in favor of No. 8. So too is the tape, even if distinguishing between the middle portions of his career is a difficult task.
Advantage: No. 8
Essentially, Bryant enjoyed two fantastic careers.
Wearing No. 8 only, he would've finished No. 27 in career player efficiency rating among all players in NBA history with at least 1,000 minutes under their respective belts. Only 87 men would have earned more win shares—not too shabby for a 10-season segment. Using the same qualifiers employed for PER, just 37 contributors would prove superior in win shares per 48 minutes and 32 in box plus/minus.
Perhaps most impressively, he'd rank No. 44 in career total points added, per NBA Math. Do note that only players since 1973 are eligible, but that's still an inordinately impressive finish for half a career, leaving him sandwiched between Eddie Jones and Alvin Robertson.
In a No. 24 uniform, he'd sit at No. 35 on the same PER leaderboard. Just 163 men would beat him in win shares, which is hard to criticize when you remember we're talking about an injury-affected 10-season period beginning at 28 years old. Only 111 would top his WS/48, and just 60 his BPM.
Looking at NBA Math's career TPA, he'd place No. 72, directly in the middle of Kevin McHale and Sam Lacey.
Perhaps you're disappointed by all these numbers. The world is used to thinking about Bryant as a top-10 lock—or, at the very least, on the cusp of joining that ultra-exclusive club, as I had him when ranking the top 100 players in league history back in 2015.
But think about what we're doing. He's showing up as (conservatively) a top-75 player during each isolated half of his career, and those scores are weighed down by either his early seasons after having made the prep-to-pro jump or the injuries and extreme role with a poor supporting cast before he pulled the plug on his playing days. That's incredible.
Of course, we're supposed to be comparing No. 8 to No. 24, and that's far less interesting here. After all, you've already seen that the former earns a clean sweep in all mentioned numbers.
Advantage: No. 8 by a lot
No. 8 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 2.8 turnovers
No. 24 Per-Game Stats: 29.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 3.1 turnovers
Apologies for the information overload above, but the wealth of numbers should make it even easier to see how clearly one side gains the advantage here. We're not breaking down the nuances of Bryant's game in the postseason at nearly the same level that we did for his regular-season numbers, and compiling them all in one place allows for an obvious answer to emerge.
Just compare sets of data, and you'll quickly see finding victories for No. 8 is a difficult task.
He proved No. 24's superior only in the defensive metrics—the same story holds true when discussing his defense in more depth—while averaging 0.1 more blocks and 0.3 fewer turnovers. But that's it. The per-game numbers aren't particularly close, and the comparison grows more lopsided when factoring in his universally improved shooting percentages while taking a larger slice of his field-goal attempts from downtown and upping his free-throw rate.
Early in his career, Bryant was a tremendous postseason threat who helped the Lakers win a trio of titles alongside Shaquille O'Neal. But he was either an equal partner or a Robin to O'Neal's Batman (likely the latter, which shouldn't be viewed as a denigrating statement).
He was downright legendary when the Purple and Gold became his team.
Sure, Pau Gasol helped immensely along the road to back-to-back titles, and the Lake Show might not have overcome its foes without key figures such as Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher. It just would've been hopeless without a certain shooting guard.
During Los Angeles' three-peat in the early 2000s, Bryant averaged 25.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists while slashing 44.7/35.3/78.0. When steering his team to two more championships nearly a decade later, the veteran 2-guard posted 29.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.5 dimes per game with a slash line of 45.7/36.3/86.3.
He was a different player, comfortable leading the charge as the unquestioned alpha. And that rather easily takes the cake in this portion of the Bryant vs. Bryant competition.
Advantage: No. 24 by a ton
No. 8: Three-time champion, 1.064 MVP Shares, Eight-time All-Star, 16-time Player of the Week, Six-time Player of the Month, All-Rookie Second Team, Four-time All-NBA First Team, Two-time All-NBA Second Team, Two-time All-NBA Third Team, Four-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team
No. 24: Two-time champion, MVP, 3.138 MVP Shares, Two-time Finals MVP, 10-time All-Star, 17-time Player of the Week, 10-time Player of the Month, Seven-time All-NBA First Team, Five-time All-Defensive First Team, All-Defensive Second Team
In terms of the sheer number of accolades, where does No. 8 have an advantage?
Sure, younger Bryant won an additional title, but he also had the luxury of playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal. He didn't win MVP or Finals MVP, and his MVP shares paled in comparison to those his aged counterpart earned.
Though some All-Star nods were gained out of respect and weren't deserved, No. 24's double-digit tally outpaced No. 8's eight inclusions. He was the Player of the Week and Player of the Month more frequently. He made the All-NBA squad one time fewer, but he was a mainstay on the First Team—a story that also applies to his All-Defensive selections.
Accolades are inherently subjective measuring sticks, though, and I'm disinclined to give too much credit to All-Whatever selections when late-career Bryant earned so much love through sheer reputation. He represented the Western Conference at 2014's midseason festivities, for example, despite playing just six games all season.
But the 2-guard's career started impressively.
As a teenager, Bryant left little doubt he'd become a star, to the point that Los Angeles shipped away Eddie Jones to grant the younger guard more playing time. He almost immediately established himself as one of the best players at his position, putting the world on notice with his afro-boasting athleticism, show-stopping dunks and fervent passion on both ends.
Later in his career, he left no doubt he'd become the toast of all shooting guards. First came the MVP one year after back-to-back scoring titles. Then came a pair of titles, earned—and this is crucial—while widely viewed as the team's best player. At this point, the unspoken competition with Jordan became more legitimized, though he'd never quite reach that rarefied air.
Of course, this is all saying nothing of what he meant to the Lakers.
His loyalty to the organization—a trade request in 2007 notwithstanding—turned him into a physical manifestation of the Purple and Gold. His willingness to grind through injuries endeared him to a new generation of fans. The NBA literally stopped a game when he surpassed Jordan in points. Closing out his career with 60 points provided one last indelible memory.
Bryant the basketball player might have been slightly superior while wearing No. 8. But Bryant the Los Angeles Laker was more important and more successful after changing numbers.
Advantage: No. 24 by a significant margin
First, let's recap:
- Per-Game Stats: No. 24
- Shooting Efficiency: No. 8 by a nose
- Defense: No. 8
- Catch-All Metrics: No. 8 by a lot
- Playoff Performance: No. 24 by a ton
- Legacy: No. 24 by a significant margin
Good luck making a decision.
That's three victories for each jersey number, though the margins and the importance of each category vary drastically. This competition can't be boiled down to adding up scores or seeing which jersey took home the most trophies.
And yet, we have to make a decision. Bryant will have two numbers hanging from the rafters of the Staples Center, but we have no such luxury.
No. 8's superiority during the regular season matters. He was the better defender, the more efficient offensive juggernaut and dominated in the catch-all metrics. But he also failed to measure up against No. 24's playoff dominance and couldn't match the legacy earned after the jersey change.
Even though this is largely an article about numbers, they often fail to tell the whole story. Context must be taken into account, and certain elements of an NBA star's resume can't be distilled into combinations of digits. As such, the legacy portion of our analysis matters in ways we can't possibly quantify, and it pushes older Bryant into the pole position.
Final Verdict: No. 24 wins