L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant formally announced today that he will retire at the end of this season, according to ESPN. Since the beginning of his career, comparisons to the NBA great Michael Jordan have persisted, with many calling Bryant the greatest Laker of all time. The topic is certainly polarizing amongst the NBA faithful, but now that the sun is officially setting on Bryant’s 20-year career, the question has to be asked: is Kobe Bryant the greatest basketball player of all time?
Those who dismiss the notion of Bryant as perhaps the greatest NBA player of all time generally fall into one of two categories: they either jump too quickly in knee-jerk style to defend an era/player/team that they hold dear to them while misremembering “their era” as “The Golden Era” of basketball, or they are quite simply hating on Bryant himself.
Factually, the level of competition and athleticism across the NBA has intensified greatly over the years since Bryant’s debut. New fitness technologies emerge and contracts get bigger. Fine tuning one’s NBA game and relentlessly pushing one’s body to its maximum ability, as has become Bryant’s trademark, has become ever increasingly prioritized. While each era has certainly featured its greats, players that would transcend any era, today’s NBA player, as a whole and when looked at in comparison to the base level talent and game, has far surpassed his predecessors, as tends to happen with each passing generation.
Whether NBA legends like Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, or Jerry West could compete against the modern NBA elite is largely unquestioned. Their talent and skill level transcend eras and indeed most NBA fans could easily see these greats, in their prime, excelling in a contemporary NBA setting, but would they be AS dominant?
Kobe Bryant was dominant for the majority of those 20 years, all spent with the Los Angeles Lakers. Up until just a couple of years ago when a ruptured Achilles tendon sidelined Bryant for over a year and the recurring injuries that would ensue, Bryant was still well within any discussion of NBA elite alongside names like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul. Up until that time, Bryant was still capable of taking a middling team with largely underperforming players onto his back and seemingly single-handedly willing them into the playoffs. In doing so, Bryant ushered the NBA from one era, an era of the potent one-two punch of a dominant center along with a nimble scorer, to an era of the Superteam. Bryant, who played against and sometimes alongside the likes of Jordan, Malone, LeBron, and Wade, helped elevate the NBA to an even more exciting style of play than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ushered in during the mid-80’s.
This is all to say that Bryant arguably dominated a league in which the overall level of play was more competitive and generally excellent than that of eras past.
Kobe Bryant pic.twitter.com/SHpGlmZ16M
— HooperShooter (@HooperShooter) November 21, 2015
Similarly to Jordan, Bryant was not an easily likeable personality and did little to endear himself to the media. Perhaps this is due to each NBA great’s unmatched level of focus and intensity, perhaps due to Bryant’s easily bruised sensitivity. Certainly, much of Bryant’s overall perception changed in 2003 when Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. Regardless, somewhere along the way, admiration for Bryant’s level of basketball excellence was replaced by scorn and criticism of him personally. Still, in the face of all of this, Bryant remained steadfast in his grind to perform on the court, leading the Lakers to two more NBA Championships following the departure of Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, with whom Bryant was instrumental in winning three consecutive championships at the start of the 2000’s.
Players of size have always enjoyed a heightened stature, both on and off the court. It is easy to surmise that a skilled, athletic player who tops seven feet tall would be indomitable in an era. Thus, when the discussion of the greatest NBA player of all time is had, the mention of names Chamberlain and Jabbar is inevitable. Certainly, Jabbar’s legendary sky hook, modeled after Chamberlain’s own hook shot, would be hard to defend even today. But with NBA players as a whole placing more emphasis on running and gunning, it is a big question as to the longevity of these NBA legends. They might be able to dominate as they did in their era, but would it be sustainable outside of a video game? Would their domination, in a more athletic era, be consistent?
The biggest comparison of Bryant’s career, one that he has both welcomed and that has plagued him to a degree, is to Jordan, Bryant’s basketball hero. Displaying a similar will and ability to deliver in the clutch, it has seemed that Jordan and Kobe’s compositional make up came from similar basketball DNA. Each player was coached to greatness by Phil Jackson with Jordan leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA Championships to Bryant’s five. Each player enjoyed runs with talented supporting casts, but it’s possible that the talent level, certainly between the teams in the NBA Eastern and Western conferences, makes a difference in the degree of difficulty. It is also possible that had Jordan not retired for three seasons to attempt to play professional baseball, that he surpasses Bill Russell in the number of NBA Championships won.
But talk of championship rings is largely overblown in the NBA in terms of assessing a single player’s place in history, as overall winning requires a team effort. Bryant has missed most of the last three seasons due to injury, so it is fair to compare his statistics to that of Jordan’s. Currently, Bryant’s 32,670 points scored lands him third all-time behind only Jabbar and Malone and just above Jordan. Bryant has been elected to 17 all-star games to Jordan’s 14, though three of Bryant’s are largely thought to be in tribute, making both even. Jordan was a five-time NBA MVP to Bryant’s one, and won the NBA Finals MVP each of the six seasons that he led the Bulls to the NBA Championship. Bryant won two NBA Finals MVP’s of his five championship wins. Each were selected to the NBA All-Defensive Team nine times, and Jordan won the NBA scoring title 10 seasons to Bryant’s two.
However, narrowing the field down to one of these two when attempting to name a single NBA all-time great is a mistake. There are arguments to be made for similarly talented players such as Malone, who never won an NBA championship, or game changers like Bird. Certainly, a most reasonable argument can be made for fellow L.A. Laker great Magic Johnson, who, like Bryant, won five NBA titles as an L.A. Laker, but spent most of career as a distributor and one of NBA’s all time assist leaders.
— For The Win (@ForTheWin) November 30, 2015
It is increasingly difficult to compare players across generations. One thing is for certain: Kobe Bryant, for nearly two decades, was the greatest player on any basketball court, and, as Sports Illustrated aptly points out, is a shoe in for the NBA Hall of Fame.
[Photo by Harry How/Getty Images]