By the Numbers: Where Kobe Bryant Ranks Among MJ, Shaq, Other NBA Greats

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant looks on against the Denver Nuggets in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Kobe Bryant's game and legacy inspired a level of devotion from his fans that led to him having two unofficial days on the calendar. August 23 is his birthday. August 24 represents the two jersey numbers he wore during his Los Angeles Lakers career: Nos. 8 and 24.

So, internet browsers, brace yourselves. You could be in for loads of Kobe content over the next few days as these unofficial NBA holidays pass.

Here, we'll examine his place in NBA history. Is he top 10? Top 15?

There's no way to make those calls definitively. Even the argument for No. 1 all-time features plenty of strong points for both Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Heck, some might even throw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain up there.

In the end, it's almost impossible to leave out subjectivity. But that won't prevent the attempt here.

To try placing Kobe among the all-time greats, we'll use three catch-all metrics and their cumulative variants: box plus/minus (BPM), win shares per minute (WS/48) and game score per minute (GmSc/48). 

Each goes at least 35 seasons back, which leaves out a significant portion of NBA history but allows us to include more information for each individual player. All also have their own limitations and built-in biases. BPM tends to look favorably on unusual combinations of rebounding and assists. Win shares love big men. Game score has a thing for volume scorers.

But if we combine all those numbers, perhaps we can level off the biases to some degree.

The specific methodology winds up as follows: If you sort every NBA player with at least 5,000 regular-season minutes and 500 playoff minutes over the last 35 years by the average of their ranks in regular-season and playoff BPM, WS/48, GmSc/48 and their cumulative variants, you get the following top 35.

But before we jump to the list, a few more notes.

  • To qualify, players had to be in the top 500 for all 12 inputs. You can view the 215 qualified players here.
  • Kobe's five championships are a constant fixture in arguments regarding his all-time rank. He played with prime Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol, but he certainly deserves some credit for those titles, which is one of the reasons for the inclusion of postseason numbers. 
  • The difference between a rate statistic (BPM) and its cumulative variant (wins over replacement player) is the same as the difference between points per game (rate) and total points (cumulative).
  • The inclusion of cumulative numbers favors Bryant and other players who are either retired or nearing the ends of their careers. If only rate numbers were considered, Nikola Jokic would be near the very top. Including the cumulative numbers bumps him all the way down to 87th—fair since he's played only four seasons.
  • For that same reason, plenty of other active players are probably still a few years away from inclusion.

Now, let's dive into the top 35. And to maintain our Kobe theme, we'll try to explain why each of the players ranked ahead of him are placed where they are.

      

35. Jason Kidd (73.25 average rank)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28:  Jason Kidd #5 of the New Jersey Nets looks up court during the game against the Washington Wizards on December 28, 2007 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Nets won 109-106. NOTE TO USER: User express
David Dow/Getty Images

One of the greatest point guards of all time, Jason Kidd had a six-year stretch in the late '90s and early 2000s in which he averaged 16.2 points, 9.7 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals. He finished his career with 118 triple-doubles.

Had he discovered his jumper a few years earlier, he likely would've been even higher on this list.

     

34. Patrick Ewing (68.0)

In many ways, the '90s belonged to the big men. And from 1990 to 1998, Patrick Ewing averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in each of nine straight seasons.

      

33. Ray Allen (67.75)

One of the best shooters ever, Ray Allen is the clubhouse leader for career threes with 2,973. But he was much more than that.

Allen could also attack the rim and had a seven-year stretch in which he averaged over four assists per game.

       

32. Jeff Hornacek (64.33)

You may be surprised to see Jeff Hornacek above the likes of Kidd, Ewing and Allen. Maybe that's because his lasting impression comes from his years as more of a role player alongside Karl Malone and John Stockton with the Utah Jazz.

Before his move to Salt Lake City, though, he had a five-year stretch in which he averaged 17.5 points, 5.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 40.4 percent from three.

Several deep playoff runs helped Hornacek, as well. He's 36th in this sample for career playoff wins over replacement player.

       

31. Larry Nance (63.0)

Long before his son was throwing down ferocious dunks for the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers, Larry Nance was a dominant force on both sides of the ball in the '80s and '90s.

He finished with career averages of 17.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks.

       

30. Paul Pierce (58.17)

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Paul Pierce was a steady fixture for the 2000s-era Boston Celtics and a key cog with Allen and Kevin Garnett during the 2008 championship run.

From 2001 through 2009, he averaged 23.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

      

29. Chauncey Billups (55.08)

The notion that the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons are the team that won a title without a star has always felt a little hollow. Richard Hamilton was one of the game's premier mid-range snipers. Ben Wallace was perhaps the NBA's most dominant defender. Rasheed Wallace gave plenty on both ends. And point guard Chauncey Billups was the glue in the middle of everything.

During his Pistons years, Billups averaged 16.5 points and 6.2 assists with a 39.7 three-point percentage.

       

28. Kawhi Leonard (54.58)

In 2017, CBS Sports named Kawhi Leonard its 50th-best player of all time, writing, "When his career is said and done, it's not hard to imagine him going down as a top-20 player in history."

Two years later, Kawhi still has just eight seasons of NBA experience to his name. Already being here is impressive.

It certainly helps that he appeared in the playoffs for seven of those seasons and already has two Finals wins and two Finals MVPs.

       

27. Kevin McHale (51.58)

Whether he was a sixth man or a starter, Kevin McHale was one of the most dominant post players in the NBA throughout his career. His craftiness was a big reason why.

"Everything happened with a pump fake," McHale told Garnett on Area 21 in 2016. 

That was a key to both his overall game and the legendary up-and-under move. Getting defenders off their feet helped McHale average 21.2 points from 1984 to 1991.

       

26. Dwight Howard (48.75)

The last couple years have been hard on Dwight Howard's legacy. He's posted below-average box plus/minuses in each of the last two seasons. In 2018-19 alone, he managed just 230 minutes. But once upon a time, he was seen as one of the most dominant big men ever.

On top of winning three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, Howard had five seasons in which he averaged at least 18 points and 13 rebounds.

        

25. Scottie Pippen (46.08)

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 23: Scottie Pippen #33 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball during the game against the Utah Jazz on November 23, 1996 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Andy Hayt/Getty Images

Michael Jordan understandably gets a boatload of the credit for the Chicago Bulls' six championships, but there's a good chance they don't happen without Scottie Pippen.

The do-it-all forward showed just how good he could be during the season Jordan spent playing baseball. In 1993-94, he averaged 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks while leading the Bulls to a 55-27 record.

       

24. Manu Ginobili (41.17)

Manu Ginobili came over to the NBA for his age-25 season, and it didn't take him long to establish himself as one of the game's best sixth men and top shooting guards.

His numbers were suppressed by his role, but they jump off the screen if you adjust for pace and playing time. He averaged 20.6 points, 5.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 steals per 75 possessions.

And his career BPM of 4.9 is significantly higher than Kobe's 3.9.

       

23. Reggie Miller (39.58)

Another all-time-great shooter, Reggie Miller is the historical leader in total seasons with at least 100 three-point attempts and a 60-plus true shooting percentage.

He hit those marks in a whopping 13 of his 18 NBA seasons.

       

22. Pau Gasol (37.92)

In 2018, Kobe told journalist Antonio Martin the following about Pau Gasol (h/t EuroHoops.net):

"There is no debate. When he retires, he will have his number in the rafters next month. The reality is I wouldn't win those two championships without Pau. L.A. wouldn't have those two championships without Pau Gasol. We know that. Everybody knows that. I really look forward to the day when he is there giving his speech at the center of the court in front of all the fans who have supported him over the years. It's going to be an awesome night."

It figures Kobe would know as well as anyone how good Gasol was. He had a front-row seat to one of the best stretches of Pau's career.

As a Laker, the big man averaged 17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.4 blocks. And he's sixth in the organization's storied history in career playoff wins over replacement player.

       

21. Russell Westbrook (36.0)

The legacy of Russell Westbrook's career may be how he desensitized us to triple-doubles. Not long ago, most fans lit up when their favorite player pulled one off.

Now, after Westbrook averaged a triple-double each of the last three seasons, the once-lauded achievement is just sort of ho-hum.

Some of the criticism about number-hunting may be fair, but Westbrook deserves credit for an achievement that simply was not foreseeable even five years ago.

        

20. Clyde Drexler (28.5)

HOUSTON - 1990: Clyde Drexler #22 of the Portland Trail Blazers dunks circa 1990 at the Summitt in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

From 1987 to 1992, Clyde Drexler averaged 24.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.8 blocks.

Had he risen to prominence during an era in which he wasn't going head-to-head with Michael Jordan, there's a good chance Drexler would find his way into a lot more all-time-great shooting guard conversations.

        

T18. Kevin Garnett (27.5)

In a lot of ways, Kevin Garnett was the pioneer who led the way for skilled bigs like Pau and Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

When he entered the league, a 6'11" player guarding most positions, bringing the ball up the floor and averaging five-plus assists was almost unheard of. Garnett combined all that into one package that also included traditional big-man skills.

        

T18. Dwyane Wade (27.5)

As far as peaks go, few were as good as Dwyane Wade's. From 2006 to 2010, Wade won a title and averaged 27.4 points, 7.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks.

He then went on to join forces with LeBron James and win two more championships.

Like Howard, Wade's last few seasons paled in comparison to his prime, but a quick look at those numbers provide a nice reminder.

        

17. John Stockton (26.0)

Very few players in NBA history can top John Stockton in a battle of longevity. He submitted 17 total seasons in which he played at least 1,000 minutes and posted an above-average BPM. Tim Duncan, Kidd, Allen, Garnett, Malone, Miller and Dirk Nowitzki are the only players with more.

Plus, Stockton is also the all-time leader in both assists and steals.

For assists, the gap between Stockton and second-place Kidd is about the same as the gap between Kidd and 11th-place Andre Miller. For steals, the gap between Stockton and second-place Kidd is about the same as the gap between Kidd and 10th-place Alvin Robertson.

        

16. Dirk Nowitzki (23.83)

Dirk Nowitzki was truly a revolutionary.

When you look back on the history of the game, he's one of a handful you can say legitimately changed basketball.

       

15. Karl Malone (22.58)

Like his longtime point guard, Stockton, Malone's sustained excellence might be the most impressive part of his all-time resume.

He posted 17 total seasons with at least 1,000 minutes and a 20-plus scoring average, tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most all-time (LeBron has 16, and Kobe has 15).

      

14. Kobe Bryant (22.25)

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

We have arrived at the placement for which you've all been waiting. Yes, Kobe is just outside the top 10. No, that's not an insult to one of the best players of all time.

Just think for a minute about how many basketball players never even made it to the NBA. Then consider the nearly 3,000 who logged any time in the league during the time frame at which we're looking here. Being among the top 15—or even the top 35—is an incredible accomplishment.

Might he rise a little bit higher if we focused only on peaks? That's certainly in play. During his five-year peak, Bryant averaged 30.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

His 10-year peak might be even more impressive due to sustained excellence over an entire decade. From 2000 to 2009, he averaged 28.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists.

"Was Kobe the next Michael Jordan?" ESPN's Adam Reisinger wrote in a piece that ranked Kobe as the second-best shooting guard ever. "Not quite, but he came as close as anyone who tried and created a legend of his own in the process."

The other side of this, of course, goes back to the limited sample with which we're working.

A handful of players from earlier eras (including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Jerry West) may have an argument to rank ahead of Kobe.

Still, even if he were behind all those legends, Kobe should be pretty firmly in the 10-30 range. That may seem pretty wide, but again, this isn't an exact science. And when you get this high, the differences from one player to another can be razor-thin.

       

13. Stephen Curry (21.83)

Alright, everyone. Let the cyber-screaming begin. Stephen Curry is one of five active players who wound up ahead of Kobe in this exercise.

Some could slowly slide down the rankings with late-career regressions, but those are probably a few years off for each of the active guys. The more likely scenario actually involves those players shoring up their positions or even moving further up.

For Curry specifically, his placement ahead of Bryant shouldn't be that surprising. The greatest three-point shooter of all time has played 10 seasons and holds significant advantages over Kobe's first 10 years in BPM, WS/48 and relative true shooting percentage (the player's true shooting percentage minus the league average).

And if we just look at the last six seasons, Curry has averaged 28.1 points, 7.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds per 75 possessions with a dizzying plus-9.4 relative true shooting percentage. During that stretch, the Golden State Warriors' net rating has been 17.2 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the floor.

During Kobe's six-year peak, he averaged 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per 75 possessions with a plus-3.2 relative true shooting percentage. His net-rating swing in those years was plus-7.6, a great number that, frankly, pales in comparison to Curry's.

       

12. James Harden (21.58)

You can find a more complete breakdown of James Harden vs. Kobe here, and the pro-Kobe conclusion in that piece factored in non-statistical factors such as All-Star selections, All-NBA teams and titles won.

If we're just looking purely at numbers, it's a lot easier to see how Harden has already surpassed Kobe despite playing only 10 seasons. In a blind poll pitting Harden's five-year peak against Kobe's, the former secured 85 percent of the vote.

Healthy advantages in assists and efficiency are key for the Beard.

        

11. Larry Bird (21.25)

Larry Bird finishing this high on the list is even more impressive when you consider that the sample cut off the first few seasons of his career.

During the years that aren't included, Bird averaged 22.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.9 steals. In a study of the league's entire history, there may be an argument to have Bird even higher.

"Bird's feathery jumper remains one of the smoothest strokes in the history of the game," Slam's Yaron Weitzman wrote. "The cliche eyes in the back of his head might as well have been invented just to describe his unbelievable passing and court vision."

Along with his rebounding, those two skills are a big part of why Bird is ranked ahead of Kobe.

         

10. Kevin Durant (14.33)

CLEVELAND, CA - JUN 8:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors looks on against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals won 108-85 by the Golden State Warriors over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Quicken Loans Arena on June 6, 2
Chris Elise/Getty Images

It'll be interesting to see how Kevin Durant's ruptured Achilles affects the remainder of his career. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projection system was already forecasting a somewhat precipitous decline without factoring in the injury.

If he struggles with this for the remainder of his career, there's a chance he falls back to Kobe's range.

But Durant's game is one you can imagine coming most of the way back from this devastating injury. Yes, his explosiveness, both laterally and vertically, was key, but outside shooting could extend his career.

Just remember how long Nowitzki was able to remain a positive player on the basis of his smarts and shooting. And with all due respect to the legendary Dirk, even a slowed-down Durant probably still moves better.

         

9. Chris Paul (14.25)

Here are a few of Chris Paul's all-time ranks, regardless of time period.

He may not have an NBA title to his name, but CP3's impact has been remarkably high throughout his career. He has a positive net-rating swing in 13 of his 14 seasons. And in a ridiculous stretch from 2009 to 2017, his net-rating swing was a wild plus-14.5.

Kobe's best single-season net-rating swing was plus-12.5.

        

8. David Robinson (13.92)

David Robinson may be one of the game's most underrated players. He rarely seems to come up in discussions about the best players ever, though his numbers suggest he should.

Through the first seven years of his career, the Admiral made seven All-Star teams and averaged 25.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals.

No, there are no typos there.

        

7. Magic Johnson (13.58)

Like Bird, some of Magic Johnson's best seasons were cut off by the time restraints used for this exercise. That didn't stop him from comfortably making the top 10.

In addition to averaging 12.4 assists from 1984 to 1991, Magic has three titles, a Finals MVP and three league MVPs in the last 35 years.

         

6. Hakeem Olajuwon (13.17)

As NBA.com wrote of the Dream: 

"During his 18-year career, Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon staked his claim as one of the greatest players in NBA history. Long considered a physical marvel since his days at the University of Houston, his aesthetic and productive play -- highlighted by his Houston Rockets' back-to-back NBA titles -- earned him a place among the game's best."

The aesthetics alluded to were truly one of a kind. Hakeem's "Dream Shake" is a post move few bigs have been able to recreate in the years since his retirement. He could also hit a mid-range jumper and had a handful of seasons with an assist average over three.

And despite Olajuwon's dominance on the offensive end, most of his value may have come from defense.

From 1989 to 1996, he averaged 25.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.8 blocks, 3.0 assists and 1.9 steals.

       

5. Shaquille O'Neal (12.08)

2000:  Kobe Bryant #8 and Shaquille O''Neal#34 of the Los Angeles Lakers pose for a portrait with the Championship Trophy, and  the MVP Trophy respectivly after defeating the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles,
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Kobe's teammate for his first three titles, Shaq may have been the most physically dominant player the game had ever seen through the end of his career. LeBron may be the only player who can challenge him on that level now.

From the start of Shaq's career through his third title with the Lakers (10 years), he averaged 27.6 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.6 blocks.

His playoff numbers over those three title runs were even more impressive: 29.9 points, 14.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.4 blocks.

        

4. Tim Duncan (11.33)

Because they both won five titles and reached their peaks around the same time, Tim Duncan and Kobe have often been compared to one another despite being radically different kinds of players.

Offensively, Bryant's peak was almost certainly better than Duncan's. From 2000 to 2009, he averaged 28.2 points and 5.2 assists. From 1998 to 2007, Duncan averaged 21.8 point and 3.2 assists.

But Duncan more than made up that gap on the other end, where he's one of the greatest players of all time.

In addition to winning three Finals MVPs and two league MVPs, Duncan's career net-rating swing was plus-7.7. Kobe's was plus-5.6. And the San Antonio Spurs' defensive rating was better than the league average in each of Duncan's 19 seasons.

Over the course of his career, San Antonio allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions. The distance between that number and the second-place Indiana Pacers was about the same as the gap between Indiana and the 19th-place Memphis Grizzlies.

        

3. Charles Barkley (10.33)

Charles Barkley's disdain for analytics has always been a little funnier when juxtaposed against how much the numbers love him.

He's third all-time in career BPM and 11th in career WS/48. And one of the biggest byproducts of the analytics revolution, more threes, was something Barkley embraced decades ago.

Despite a career three-point percentage of just 26.6, Barkley took 12.9 percent of his total shot attempts from downtown. The league-average three-point-attempt rate over the course of Barkley's career was 11.4.

In terms of a comparison to Kobe, Barkley's BPM nearly doubles Bryant's. His rebounding percentage more than doubles Bryant's. And his lead in relative true shooting percentage is massive.

Though he never won a title, Barkley's advanced playoff numbers dwarfed Kobe's, as well. He certainly had his chances, but reaching his peak at the same time as MJ and never having a teammate quite like Shaq are things that shouldn't be held against Barkley.

        

T1. Michael Jordan and LeBron James (2.17)

It seems absolutely perfect that Jordan and LeBron somehow wound up tied. There's obviously still a chance for some movement over the last few years of LeBron's career, but he's pretty firmly entrenched in most of his ranks.

Passing Malone in win shares or cumulative game score, which could happen in the next couple of years, could break the tie.

For now, it's fitting that this remains a 1A/1B proposition. Strong points can be made for both Jordan and LeBron in the GOAT debate. Do you take LeBron's all-around game and unreal longevity or Jordan's titles, peak and unmatched drive to win?

Kobe may have possessed elements of both players, especially that competitive drive. But in some ways, that drive may actually have hindered him. It often felt like Kobe against the world.

Perhaps it's fitting that on his 41st birthday, it's Kobe's legacy vs. the NBA world.

      

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference

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