Since NBA surefire Hall of Famer and iconoclast Kobe Bryant retired last week, his place among the pro basketball greats has been a point of major contention. A good portion of the general population believes that Bryant’s playing style was one of the closest things we got to seeing a modern-day Michael Jordan.
From their positions as shooting guards, to his trademark low post and mid-range fadeaways and his status as a multiple-time NBA champion and shooting guard, Bryant’s recognizable aesthetic in style of play certainly garners some comparisons to Jordan on the surface.
Look a little deeper though, and you’ll realize a lot of Bryant’s legacy comes from unquantifiable things, like his “clutch” reputation - or even worse, the #RINGZ argument. This is not to discredit Bryant as an all-time great, but rather to offer a level of honesty and objectivity to how we remember him over the long run.
The Championship Fallacy
To be fair to Bryant, this isn’t entirely his fault or something exclusive to him. It’s what several sports fans fall for: the deceptiveness of team accomplishments being used to bolster individuals. Think about all the obnoxious Patriots fans (I speak only for myself) that called Tom Brady the best quarterback ever after New England won their fourth title. Now increase their annoyingness even more and you have what a lot of Bryant’s fanboys sound like.
Just use common sense: does it make any sense to judge a player by the championships their team won? For example, no one is going to seriously argue that Robert Horry is among the greatest NBA players ever because of his seven rings. Nor will they argue that Brian Scalabrine’s ring as a member of the 2008 Boston Celtics somehow invalidates Patrick Ewing’s whole career.
Even if you want to narrow the field down to just franchise players and assume that rings are the only thing that matter, Bryant has only won two championships as the hands down best player on his team. The Lakers’ first three titles came when Bryant played with Shaquille O’Neal, who might have one of the best primes ever for an NBA player.
That’s not to say that we should totally take credit away from Bryant, who played an integral role in helping the Lakers win, but it’s important to keep perspective. For example, are we going to really compare Bryant’s roles on the early 00s Lakers dynasty to Kevin Garnett’s franchise player role on the incompetent Minnesota Timberwolves?
Bryant’s defensive reputation is entirely unwarranted
While Bryant has always been a lockdown isolation and man defender, he’s never been good off the ball or on switches in the half-court. In fact, he was downright dreadful in transition defense, often giving up costly threes just as often as he himself would hit them.
Bryant frequently won All-Defensive awards and has strong anecdotal evidence to how solid he was as a man defender, but watch any tape of him post 2006 or so and you’ll notice a guy that simply didn’t care much outside of late-game isolation situations. It’s backed by numbers that show his on and off the court impact: per a collection of old Real Plus Minus data from 1997 to 2014, Bryant’s defensive RPM actually ranks in the negatives, at -0.53. This adjusts for opposing lineups and teammates too.
If you don’t believe in numbers, here’s some anecdotal evidence for you: watch Game seven of the 2006 Western Conference first-round playoffs, when Leandro Barbosa, Eddie House, Raja Bell and James Jones torched the Lakers’ backcourt. You can also watch how Chauncey Billups dismantled him during the 2004 NBA Finals or how the Lakers had to sometimes hide Bryant on Rajon Rondo during the 2008 NBA Finals because of how badly both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were torching him off screens.
Either way, the value of a guard’s defense isn’t necessarily as high as his offense, due to how a wing player, barring being a force of nature like LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, is essentially limited in what he can do on defense in comparison to a big man such as Tim Duncan or Draymond Green. In a way, whether Bryant was great or not on defense doesn’t really matter too much, the same way a player like Steve Nash doesn’t have a team ride on his defensive abilities.
Conversely, a guard like Bryant has incredible offensive value. That said, the last thing you have to consider with Bryant’s legacy is something that’s probably closer to an absolute truth than you might want to admit.
There was never a time when Bryant was unquestionably No. 1 in the league
It seems ludicrous to ask, but when was Bryant ever unquestionably the best player in the NBA? He didn’t even have an argument for best player on his own team when O’Neal led the Lakers to three straight titles - and even O’Neal might not have been better than Duncan or Garnett from 2003 to 2005.
What about Bryant’s 2006 season, where he led the league in scoring at over 35 points per game and score 81 points in one of the most dominant games in NBA history? He certainly has an argument based on the volume of minutes he played alone, along with his gaudy box score totals, but in terms of impact on an NBA team or efficiency, Bryant’s 2006 season wasn’t earth-shattering.
When it comes to Real Adjusted Plus Minus, an earlier form of statistician Jeremias Engelmann’s now ESPN-sponsored RPM (which only goes back to 2014 for individual seasons) that adjusts only for lineup variance and +/- numbers on and off the court, Bryant scored highly, but still beneath players like Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki in his 2006 season.
Bryant’s Player Efficiency Rating that year, which takes into account pretty much every box score statistic possible and highly favors ball-dominant scorers, isn’t even that impressive either. In that season, Nowitzki and LeBron James outranked him, showing that they could put up similarly big numbers over a whole season and be more efficient. If you think this is just a regular season thing, check their playoff numbers also.
Neither of these statistics necessarily show that Bryant was never the top dog in the league. In fact, I’d argue that from 2006 to 2008, Bryant has a good case for being both its best and most consistent player. Yet, there’s a difference between “probably” and unquestionably.
Bryant’s relative prime pales in comparison to multiple year reigns we’ve seen from players like James from 2009 to 2014, O’Neal from 1998-2002 and Stephen Curry for the last two years. This holds true whether it’s proven through a look at metric statistics or just watching them play. Bryant’s prime is closer to a guy like Russell Westbrook than it is to Jordan or James.
Forget the advanced statistics for a moment and just think about how otherworldly you have to be to gain recognition for historical dominance. If Bryant really was on the level of Jordan or other top-level talent, wouldn’t he have won more than one MVP during his close to 20 years in the NBA?
Like Bryant’s All-Defensive team recognitions, MVPs aren’t a perfect measure of evaluation (Allen Iverson won one over O’Neal, for crying out loud), but they certainly show a more skeptical look at Bryant’s comparisons with being thought of as the best player ever, along with the numbers.
You could argue that a weak supporting cast through his prime held him back, but guys like James and Jordan still won MVPs while on relatively weak teams. If the standard is going to be so high for Bryant, you have to be equally tough on him for not being convincing enough and losing MVPs to Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.
This piece isn’t meant to convince you that Bryant’s not a basketball immortal. It’s true that he had moments, like his 81-point night, that dazzled everyone that saw them. Hell, I still get goosebumps when I think about when he dismantled the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets in his 2009 playoff run. But it’s also not fair to ignore the misses he had before his makes.
Ultimately, Bryant is one of the most selfish, but fearless and well-rounded offensive players ever (don’t forget that he was a pretty good playmaker and could play off-the-ball in the Triangle offense). Moreover, despite being frequently lazy with playing off-the-ball defense, he had a cutthroat edge in late-game situations and would never back down from any isolation assignment.
While he pretty much has no real argument to be considered a god of the game like Jordan, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar or even someone like James or Duncan, Bryant should be remembered as a Top 15-20 player ever; a ruthlessly determined assassin that wanted to win his way: by locking down the opposing team’s best scorer in do-or-die moments and taking all the shots he saw for himself on the court.