Greatest Players in NBA History: Kobe Bryant

In this blog I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments…in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week’s player is Kobe Bryant, an amazing player that is either battling Michael Jordan for the title of best player ever or may not even be one of the top-3 players of the 2000s...depending on who you ask.

Kobe is an electric basketball player, capable of hitting impossibly difficult shots regularly enough that we expect him to make them every time.  He is the closest thing that we've seen stylistically to Jordan, from the height  to the swagger to the athletic ability to the fadeaway jumper, Kobe's game (by design) is often a mirror image for his Airness.  And because Kobe has hit the memorable shot so many times he has earned a reputation as an assassin...a player that scares his opponents and makes his fans feel safe when he has the ball in his hands.  His game is aesthetically pleasing, and has a mano-a-mano component to it on both offense and defense that makes him feel something like a gunslinger...and he's won those shootouts often enough that his over-the-top "Black Mamba" nickname actually gained regular use without seeming ridiculous.

We know that Kobe is an all-history level the question is, where does he fit into the pantheon?  Is Kobe as good as Jordan?  Is Kobe one of the top-5 players in NBA history?  Is Kobe even a top-3 player of the 2000s?

My answers to those last three questions are: not as good as Jordan, not quite to the top-10 of All-time (more like top-15),, not a top-3 player of the 2000s.

Wait, what?

Yep, that's what I said.  I've written before that since Kobe looks so much like Jordan on the court, and we've become accustomed to the idea that Jordan was the best, we therefore translate that crown of "best" to Kobe almost subconsciously.  But when you really go in-depth with either the advanced box score stats or the impact-based +/- stats, Kobe wasn't quite as good as contemporaries Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.  And he also wasn't quite as good as former teammate Shaquille O'Neal, nor (preparing myself for the lightning storm) was he as good as LeBron James. 

This is no shame in my book, as all five of those players will end their careers firmly among the top-15 players of all-time in my view...but that is the range where I rank Kobe.  I hope you will weigh in with your opinion below.  But first, four interesting facts about the Mamba...

1) Kobe is one of the greatest scorers in history, and has been putting up crazy points for a long-time.  His 81-point effort is the second-highest single game point total of all time, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.  Kobe scored 2832 total points in 2006, and only Chamberlain and Jordan have ever scored more points in any one season.  And earlier this year Kobe passed Shaq to move into 5th place on the all-time scoring list.  At his current pace, he will pass Chamberlain and Jordan for third place all-time within the next two seasons.

2) Kobe has played on five NBA championship teams, and has won two Finals MVP awards.  The only other players in NBA history with at least five and two are Jordan (six and six), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six and two), and Magic Johnson (five and three).

3) Kobe and Jordan are the only two players in NBA history with 25,000 points, 5,000 assists and 500 made 3-pointers.  If we raise the criteria to include 1,000 made treys, Kobe would be on the list alone.

4) Kobe has shown the ability to play strong 1-on-1 defense when challenged, a reputation that has helped make him one of the most decorated defensive players in history with nine NBA All-Defensive 1st team selections (tied for most all-time, along with Garnett).

Here is his basketball-reference player card which includes career stats.


By: elsicilian
On: 3/23/2012 8:30:00 AM
My own anecdotal opinion aligns pretty closely with your more quantitative analysis, Professor. I have always loved Kobe as a player, and like Jordan it seems like the most noteworthy part of his brilliant all-around game is his sheer willfulness. However, unlike Jordan (on the court at least), Kobe sometimes seems to be his own worst enemy ... from his inability to coexist with Shaq to his recurring trust issues with admittedly less talented teammates, that selfsame pig-headedness has occasionally been a detriment to Kobe.

I feel bad dissing the guy (he really is one of the all-time greats); but despite his five titles, I can't help thinking of him as a slightly-defective version of Jordan, which is kind of a frustrating paradox in and of itself.
By: nayfel
On: 3/23/2012 10:50:00 AM
It is very obvious that you're not a Kobe guy. Not because you listed him as below LeBron and company but the any times when you mentioned that he has a reputation as something fantastic, which indicates that it isn't necessarily accurate. Anyway, that's irrelevant except that you were making his case but I think you did a fair job.

I think something that nobody mentions is that Kobe is the only perimeter player who's game held up from the late 1990s until the lat 2000 decade and into 2012. Obviously, the ability to age well is a talent and a gift in itself but I think there's more to it. The NBA was a very different sport statistically post Jordan and early 2000s than it is now. Back when Iverson, Carter, Marbury and others joined Kobe in the top rankings of perimeter players, high volume scorers generally host in the lower 40% range. Obviously we all know that AI's FG% routinely hovered around the 40% mark but in general, you rarely saw perimeter players shoot at a clip close to 50%, like we see a lot of now.I know that you can point to the quality of today's superstars for the increase in efficiency but it clearly goes beyond that. The game has changed from those first 5 post-MJ years; the game is more open, defenses are no longer allowed to pound players and defenders personally aren't allowed to use the old techniques to slow down offensive players. In addition, those post-MJ years seem to be the time when the 3-point shot became a part of every single team's offense, and players only then truly began taking more 3s than ever before. Even guys like R Allen have had their FG% increase dramatically from his peak years. Yes, a decrease in scoring and offensive creation responsibility factors in but it cannot account for the entire difference. The average player today, simply put, scores more efficiently than they did a decade ago.
So, what does this have to do with Kobe? Back to the point that he is the only p[layer to cross over from late 90s, early 2000s and into 2012. His FG% for the most part has climbed but its more about those early peak years that are worth discussing. He played at a time when efficiency in the league in terms of FG% was far worse than today. Unfortunately for him, his career peak isn't today like LeBron's is, as he would be putting up much stronger numbers today vs. his actual peak years. The era argument, that today's players have it easier than the players of yesteryear, is usually presented for the case of players who began in the 80s and finished in the early 90s. Pace though is the offset, as that era was played at a far quicker pace. But, the late 90s and early 2000s had the slowest pace in NBA history and the game was still played at a defensive level befitting those old Knicks teams. Kobe's stats from his peak years unfortunately reflect this and aren't jumping off the page as much as LeBron's are. The big men weren't as impacted by this, so that's why KG and Duncan don't reflect this half as much as Kobe. So, my point is that going strictly by numbers, even when you adjust for pace and whatever, doesn't necessarily do justice to Kobe. OI am, not saying that he is necessarily better than LeBron's peak but you need to take into account that Kobe made that transition and was the only perimeter player to do it. Forget that he played within the triangle offense, which works off of player and ball movement. Kobe only had 2 years or so before 2012 in which he actually created offense 30 feet from the basket every single player, like LeBron did in Cleveland for 7 years. His numbers never were going to reflect his actual ability because he played within a system that wins and doesn't necessarily produce big player statistics.
So, all in all, judging Kobe on his stats is very difficult. There's no question that if you rank peak ability, the LeBron probably surpasses Kobe and nearly everyone. But in terms of an actual career accomplishments, I doubt you can say that LeBron, or even KG, can match Kobe's.
By: nayfel
On: 3/23/2012 10:52:00 AM
Sorry for the long and rambling response but I was interrupted in the middle and it is very difficult to go back and re-read what you wrote etc.
Anyway, I don't think you could or should review Kobe vs. Duncan or Shaq in terms of who was better or accomplished more. I think they all stand by themselves, next to each other but not necessarily in front or in back.
By: The Professor
On: 3/23/2012 12:44:00 PM
I appreciate the well thought out post, even if I don't necessarily agree. I think that the tie that you were trying to draw for Kobe being the only one to last through the decade is pretty tenuous. TMac and Vince had obvious physical problems that pulled them down, AI and Marbury had attitude issues that dropped them from grace, and players like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were also high volume scoring wings around the turn of the decade that continued to be so in the newer NBA before age and differing roles slowed them down.

But more importantly, when +/- data is available I rarely depend so much on what the box scores tell me to make my cases. I don't find LeBron's or KG's impact more productive simply because they peaked with higher PER or Win Share valuations (though they did). I value them more highly because they very consistently provided more lift to their team's on-court results than Kobe did. To me, that's the most important thing that a player can do.

And as far as career accomplishments, I guess it depends on how you mean it. I'm inferring that you are counting championships in there. While I know that championships are the ultimate team goal, they're won just that a team. When ranking individual players, I'm more concerned with how the player played than whether the team won titles. I DO care a lot about team impact, which is why I'm so into the +/- stats, but titles alone doesn't tell me all that much. And outside of those, yeah, I would say that both KG and LeBron both surpass Kobe in terms of career accomplishments.
By: The Professor
On: 3/23/2012 12:52:00 PM
Elsicilian, you raise an interesting point with your last sentence that I'd like to go into more, which is the thought that calling him an all-time great but not as good as Jordan or some of the other top-10 players of all time means that you are dissing Kobe. That is certainly the response of many Kobe fans on message boards, that if you don't agree that he's the very best then you must be a "Kobe hater". I don't necessarily agree.

I think that if you're evaluating the guy fairly, and just don't agree with someone else's valuation you can just have an honest difference of opinion. That's what sports debates are all about. Maybe in such a debate someone can make a very good case in change how I look at something...happens all the time. But having a contrary opinion doesn't, of itself, mean that you're dissing someone in my view. As long as you can support your case in the face of scrutiny, it's all good.
By: elsicilian
On: 3/24/2012 10:05:00 AM
Well said Professor, and a very good point; however, I think my characterization of him as a "slightly defective version of Jordan" actually is mildly insulting. Unfortunately, as we've both already noted, you can't really consider Kobe's game on its own terms (that is, outside the context of Jordan's game which it is so closely emulates), and it invariably suffers just a bit by the comparison.

I don't blame Lakers fans for being defensive in the face of that specific criticism ... I feel bad saying it. But that's the impossibly high standard he has set *for himself* throughout his career, and nobody can reasonably argue that he's surpassed Jordan. So despite Kobe's accolades, his career numbers, his MVPs and his five championships, "not as good as Jordan" will always be a significant part of his legacy.
By: nayfel
On: 3/25/2012 5:59:00 AM
Thanks for the response. I do think that championships matter when a player is the best player on a championship team. There is a distinction with being on a championship team and leading your team to the title. And, I don't think you're doing justice to how Kobe led his team to 2 titles as the clear best player in the league. That goes beyond any statistical analysis, as that's the ultimate goal for an all-time great player, no? I am not saying that it is the only thing but this is way more meaningful in basketball than any other sport simply because a top player can lead his team to a title if the right pieces are around him. So, in terms of careers, Kobe has to have the better career simply because he accomplished what they all set out to do. I am not one of those guys who think the MVP needs to be from the best team or that an all-star has to be from a winning team but when you are truly valuing the best of the best, this is an important factor that goes beyond the +- stats; who led their team to the title as the alpha dog and who didn't. Doesn't mean everything but it definitely means something.
By: nayfel
On: 3/25/2012 9:22:00 AM
Btw, thank heaven for the Professor's willingness to speak basketball on this site. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of NBA writers on Rotowire (Professor, McKeowns, Charlie and...). And when compared with the amount of stuff written about football, which is once a week and involves no real brain power but 80% luck, it really boggles my mind that there's 15-20 times the content for NFL over NBA. Was very sad and uncomfortable to read the NBA deadline blog by Mckeown that night as it was obvious that he was writing about something that while entertaining and had many things to report, didn't interest anyone on this site.
It isn't an indictment of Rotowire's hatred of NBA, it is obviously that the writers simply don't care as much about NBA. I think though that there is an appetite for NBA content on par with NFL but most of the NBA lovers unfortunately have gone to other sites which give over their main focus to NBA, like DR. A on Rotoworld toy name a big one.
You can win the NBA share back though. A magazine obviously would be a big sign to the rotisserie loving word that Rotowire is tackling the NBA now (no pun intended) and to expect content on par with MLB and NFL.

I write this with love!
By: Chris Liss
On: 3/25/2012 1:37:00 PM
Nayfel - thanks for the feedback. I'm going to agree and disagree with you. We definitely put more resources into NFL as there are 10 times as many NFL fantasy guys as NBA ones - it's just what the market demands of us. So you're right about that. But we certainly don't neglect NBA in the sense that our player notes our every bit as rigorous, and we do have Value Meter, Waiver WIre, Barometer, Hoops Lab, Nerd Alert, a dedicated NBA Injury Column and Under the Radar. That's seven NBA columns per week plus Dre and Zegers' blogs. What we lack a little bit is a bigger NBA community on the blogs and columns - and we should be better about encouraging the writers to comment on each other's and starting debates. We also need more Nayfels - hardcore NBA readers to stir things up. It's something for us to work on - to create a bigger community around the NBA content the way we do with NFL. But NFL really does sustain itself as we have so many people subscribing for it.
By: The Professor
On: 3/25/2012 8:58:00 PM
Nayfel, you're point of view re: championships as the best player is a traditional one, it's just not one that I agree with. A player can only work with what they have. Had the Bulls never brought in Scottie Pippen or Phil Jackson and thus never won a title, Michael Jordan would have been just as good at playing basketball without rings as he was with rings. It makes his narrative and storyline more compelling to say that he persevered and wont he rings, but to me that didn't make him a better player. So no, I don't think winning a ring as your team's best player all of a sudden makes you a better player than someone who might be playing better but just doesn't have the same resources and luck.

And that's what I appreciate about the development of the +/- stats. They help to quantify just how much a player had to lift his team to get the results that he got. And even in the Lakers' two recent titles, Kobe never had to lift his team as much as, say, Dirk was lifting the Mavs last year or Duncan was lifting the Spurs in '03. And in fact, in the years that Kobe wasn't surrounded with the level of talent that he enjoyed for much of his career, the +/- stats indicated that he wasn't ABLE to lift teams by as much as some of his contemporaries. He was lifting teams a of the best marks around...but not as good as Duncan, KG or LeBron.

Until players start getting to walk miles exactly in others' shoes, judging by championships won to me will always be a flawed approach. And while +/- isn't perfect, to me it's a lot more objective, logical, and ...well...reasonable, I guess, to weight the individual's contributions more strongly than doing a ring count in the overall analysis.
By: nayfel
On: 3/26/2012 8:32:00 AM
Professor - I agree that championships aren't everything but circumstances or not, when someone wins them, they accomplished more than guys who didn't win them. You can blame any number of reasons, luck of life being a major reason, however Duncan's titles do mean something when comparing Duncan to Malone. It doesn't mean everything but the fact that he accomplished something like being the best player and MVP on a Finals winner, means he accomplished more than Malone. What you're saying is that its a subjective element, in terms of circumstance and whether the compared player could have accomplished similar achievements. But, my retort is that everything they did was a matter of circumstance, even the +- is a circumstance based on the players who played with Malone during his minutes. This is a team game, trying to eliminate personal accomplishments that fall within team accomplishments are impossible because the very nature of the game is fluid. You happen to be saying championships don't matter because of a team but what if I said that points don't necessarily matter. Hey, Duncan didn't have Stockton to set him up with perfect pass after perfect pass. Without Stockton, Malone's +- and scoring numbers aren't there so we should discount that level, because it wouldn't be apples to apples with Duncan. That is an appropriate argument if the championship argument works.
I am not a titles trump everything card, to the contrary, I don't think being on a good team should mean being the MVP or an all-star. But, to say that the accomplishments of doing those things shouldn't be part of the conversation is not fair but more importantly, logical. As, the main counter point is that championships are a matter of circumstance and yet so is everything that happens on the court. That's why we can discount anything but to review everything. Fundamental difference on logic.
By: nayfel
On: 3/26/2012 8:39:00 AM
Btw, this sort of also happens in baseball when guys use BABIP or xFIP to say who had a better year, in terms of past results. yes BABIP and xFIP are important indicators of performance but when are they useful? IN trying to predict future performance. Otherwise, you can say the reasons were defense or luck or whatever, as its completely subjective yet what matters is what was accomplished. So, you can't say Austin jackson 2 years ago was a bad hitter but had a high average because of luck. He WAS a good hitter that year, regardless of the reasons and circumstance. When BABIP comes into play though is when we try and predict how we will perform in the coming years. So, while his BABIP was sky-high, it doesn't discount what he accomplished one bit as he achieved a high average two years ago BUT it helps you predict whether it will happen again.

So, I only mention this to say that sometimes, again in my very humble opinion, that people tend to look at underlying reasons for why something happened, which is fantastic, however it is used for the incorrect reason. Underlying reasons aren't reviewed so we can dispute whether something was accomplished but whether we can use that information to help predict FUTURE accomplishments.

So, Duncan won his titles and vaulted himself into a top tier of all-time player and Austin Jackson WAS a good hitter 2 years ago, even better than he is right now.
By: nayfel
On: 3/26/2012 8:42:00 AM
Btw, Me. C Liss, I agree with what you're saying. I am more disappointed that more people don't follow NBA on this site than anything. And, I just feel like if you push your 'on the surface" materials showing an emphasis on NBA, more NBA followers will join the site, like having a magazine.

Anyway, the fact that we are talking right now on a blog is indicative of the following you guys had win general so you're obviously well prepared and 'accomplished' in rottiserie analysis.
By: The Professor
On: 3/26/2012 11:42:00 AM
If we're trying to say who's the best basketball player then no, who won a championship doesn't really change that answer. And no, I'm not saying that championships are subjective. I'm saying that they are too much of a team accomplishment for them to be any kind of determining factor on individuals when we have more specific information to work with.

One big difference between our stances right now is that I think you're more focused on listing accomplishments than I am. I list accomplishments on these posts because they are kind of like...the opening act, if you will. If a player doesn't have a certain level of accomplishment then it's not worth discussing him in comparison with another. Like his pass to get in the door, if you will. But once players have past a certain level, things like number of rings are too easy of a crutch without much payoff, IMO. Similar with only counting accolades (many of which ARE subjective). I won't say that you have to ignore those things, but there are IMO much better ways of really digging into how good a player is than just counting rings and accolades.

Take Russell, for example. He gets in GOAT conversations because of his 11 rings, when the box score stats suggest that he wasn't anywhere near as good as Wilt. And if rings was all that Russell had in his ledger, he wouldn't be nearly as high on my list. But when I looked further into it, and saw that the REASON for those rings was almost purely the defense (the offense was often well below league average), and that the defense could be attributed almost solely to Russell, that makes Russell a MUCH more impressive player to me.

In other words, it's not THAT he won the rings that matters as much to me, as the HOW and WHY of him winning the rings.

I think you miss the mark with your BAPIP analogy, because they are actually the exact opposite of what the +/- stat family measures. BAPIP is more like true shooting percentage...a way to measure a certain skill that someone (probably through some type of historical regression) has determined to be usually a good thing. Then, based on that, they make the case that someone that has a high average under certain circumstances is more or less valuable in general (or, analogously, someone scoring efficiently is usually more valuable). But that's NOT what +/- does.

+/- completely ignores individual components of someone's game...all it does is look at how that player's presence causes the team to perform. It's potentially a much more powerful way to look at things, because it doesn't require that we subjectively choose a particular aspect of the game (like scoring, or shooting, or rebounding) and make it the most important. It also doesn't require that we give one player some arbitrary amount of extra credit for things like their teammates, or that players on the main competition got injured (like with Duncan in '03), or that that one player happened to play with arguably the best passing point guard of all time and how do you account for it (like Malone). And by no means am I saying that +/- stats are perfect (their strengths and weaknesses have been and could be blog posts in and of themselves).

I think you're putting +/- stats and box-score stats into one group, when in reality they aren't measuring the same things (like when you say that Malone's +/- wouldn't be there without Stockton, when in fact the whole purpose of +/- stats would be to separate them from each other). And the fact that they are 2 different ways to measure the game actually makes them more powerful analysis tools, because each has the capacity to check the weaknesses of the other.

Even though Duncan and Kobe both have a lot of rings, I rank Duncan as better because of how much he contributed to his team. Jordan has 6 rings and Malone had 0, but I'd rank Jordan better with a similar quantitative approach that covers (to the extent of information we have available) the ways that Jordan was just a better, more impactful player. Honestly, I think that a Kobe/Malone comparison is a lot closer on my score sheet than a Kobe/Jordan comp, because Kobe's level of impact is a lot closer to the Mailman's than Jordan's. No matter how many rings Kobe ends up with in his career, he'll never surpass (or even approach, really) Jordan until his level of impact goes up to where Jordan's was. And this late in his career, that seems unlikely.

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