It should not be a surprise that Kobe Bryant has decided to hang it up after this season. Injuries and age have completely deteriorated his game. He played 6 and 35 games respectively in the previous two seasons. He clearly does not have his legs underneath him anymore. You can see it in his three point shots. In order to compensate for his lack of lift, he is trying to use his arms more. Instead of shooting the ball, he is pushing it more often which hurts his accuracy. Air balls have been a frequent occurrence. Moreover, he has no explosiveness and needs to settle for jump shots instead of attacking the rim. As Charles Barkley often reminds us, “Father Time is undefeated”. Nevertheless, he has had a legendary, Hall of Fame career. Although his decision to retire is not a shocker, there is a finality with his official announcement. Fans can appreciate him for one more season and give him the proper sendoff he has earned.
I am old enough to have the privilege of watching Michael Jordan in his prime and winning championships with the Chicago Bulls. While Lebron James is the best player since Jordan, Kobe is definitely the closest thing to Jordan in terms of the way they play and fierce competitiveness. Kobe idolized Jordan and copied most of his game. They also have a strong friendship with Jordan mentoring him over the years. Both men are prolific scorers and sit on the top of the All Time scoring list. They both feature a devastating fade away jumper. Of course, Jordan is the better player and arguably the greatest player of all time. On the surface, Jordan has 5 MVPs compared to 1 MVP for Kobe. Jordan has 6 NBA Championships and 6 NBA Finals MVPs compared to 5 and 2 respectively for Kobe. Jordan is also the only player to average over 30 points per game for an entire career and has 10 scoring titles [Kobe has 2]. Kobe definitely has the better three point shot since Jordan was never a great three point shooter. However, Jordan was better in the other aspects of scoring. He was better at posting up and getting deeper in the lane as well as attacking the rim off the dribble. He also arguably has the best mid-range jumper of all time. For these reasons, he was more efficient and had a higher field goal percentage. Both players were also great defensive players but I would give Jordan an edge in that category too. As Kobe has noted, Jordan had much bigger hands which helps in locking down opponents. On the court, both men wanted to kill their opponent. Their competitiveness is uncanny and an attribute that sets them above the rest of the field. I will say that Jordan was better at keeping that mentality on the court. Off the court, he was friends with a lot of the top players in the league in his time (e.g. Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley). Kobe appeared to be a bit of a loner at times. He was friendly with other players but did not appear to have many close friends on other teams. Of course, it is not an insult to say Jordan is better than Kobe. It is a great compliment to state that Kobe is the closest thing to Jordan. For this reason, he is the current generation’s Michael Jordan and it is sad to see him go.
Kobe’s career began with controversy. He entered the draft as a 17 year old and deterred teams from drafting him by threatening not to play for them. He has been a Los Angeles Lakers fan his entire life and wanted to play for the Lakers. It is a bratty move and he was rightfully criticized for it. As we know, the Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe with the 13th pick and traded him to the Lakers. When he arrived to the Lakers, he had to fight for playing time. The Lakers had just signed superstar center Shaquille O’Neal to team with other young stars and were hoping to be immediate title contenders. They already had Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, All-Star caliber perimeter players, as their starting backcourt. As a result, there was no reason to give a teenage rookie many minutes to develop. Moreover, his teammates did not respect his arrogance. In particular, Shaq would call him out for being a “Showboat”. There are video clips of it. Nevertheless, one of the defining moments of Kobe’s career occurred at the end of his rookie season. The Lakers faced the Utah Jazz, the eventual Western Conference champions, in the 1997 Conference semi-finals. In the deciding Game 5, Kobe shot 4 air balls in the final minutes of the game. However, he did not allow the embarrassment of coming up so short in a big moment hinder his career. He picked himself up and became an All Time Great. As we look back at his career, we remember him having the guts to take those pressure shots in that game while the established players on his team shied away from it. He rewrote history and will be remembered as clutch shooter instead of a choker. Everyone fails. The great ones are not afraid to fail and are able to use it as motivation to get better.
As I look back at the early part of Kobe’s career, a few moments always stand out. In his second season, he was the Sixth Man of the Year and coming off the bench for the Lakers. Nevertheless, he was voted into the All-Star Game as a starter. It was Michael Jordan’s last season [second retirement] and the fans wanted to see Kobe go head to head against Jordan. The beginning of the game was electric as the master faced the apprentice one on one and the matchup delivered. It served as a passing of the torch from Jordan to Kobe. Eventually, the Lakers traded Van Exel and Eddie Jones to build the team around Kobe and Shaq. Of course, the dynamic duo anchored a threepeat and dynasty. The iconic moments that spring boarded the threepeat occurred in the playoffs of the first championship. The Western Conference Finals went the distance to a Game 7. The Lakers trailed by 16 points late in the game. At this point, I assumed the game was over and the Trailblazers would go on to the Finals. However, the Lakers launched a furious comeback to win the game. The highlight that is shown to symbolize the comeback is the alley oop that Kobe threw to Shaq to cap the comeback. In the NBA Finals, Kobe signaled his arrival as a big game player in Game 4. The Lakers jumped up 2-0 game lead to start the series against the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers won Game 3 to cut it to 2-1. Game 4 went into overtime. When Shaq fouled out in overtime, Kobe embraced the moment and took over to win the game for the Lakers and put them in a commanding 3-1 lead in the series that the Lakers eventually won 4 Games to 2. Without a doubt, Shaq was the most dominant player in the NBA during the Lakers’ string of three straight titles which was the reason he won the NBA Finals MVP all three times. Nevertheless, he needed Kobe to win those championships. As we know, Shaq was a terrible free throw shooter. Consequently, he needed Kobe to take the big shots at the end of games because the Lakers could not throw the ball down to him. Of course, the symbiotic relationship worked both ways. The dominant presence of Shaq allowed the best one on one player in the NBA, Kobe, to play one on one all the time.
On the other hand, Kobe did not have always have a great image. The love and hate relationship with Shaq is well documented. Naturally, they were both top players who were jealous of each other. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were a clear 1-2 punch. However, Shaq and Kobe were 1 and 1a. Both players demanded the spotlight. Of course, most people outside of the team knew that the two did not fully appreciate the great situation they were in. In retrospect, Shaq and Kobe understand how great they were together and that it is a shame they could not work out their differences to win more championships together. The 2003-2004 season was a tumultuous one. Their string of consecutive championships was snapped the year before. They signed aging Hall of Famers, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, to reload and win another title. Unfortunately, Kobe became engulfed by scandal when a woman in Colorado accused him of rape. He claimed their sexual relationship was consensual. At best, Kobe committed adultery. At worst, he raped a women and should be sent to prison. The case was eventually settled but it severely damaged his image at that time.
His relationship with Shaq also continued to deteriorate. Kobe was a pending free agent so it was speculated that he would force the Lakers to trade Shaq so that he could be the man in Los Angeles. Kobe was much younger than Shaq so it made sense for the Lakers to move forward with the player who could sell out the arena for a long time. In reality, both players needed to be less selfish and control their egos. However, I definitely blamed Kobe at the time. First, Shaq was the most dominant player in the game. As a result, I put more fault with Kobe because I thought he was sacrificing opportunities to win more championships to chase individual accolades and prove he was better than Shaq. I did not like that he could not find the patience to win as long as possible then prove himself later because he had a long career ahead of him. Moreover, Shaq’s game works better in the team concept and had proven year after year that he made his teammates better. Kobe’s flashy and one on one style made him look like a selfish ball hog. In addition, Shaq had a colorful personality while Kobe had a frosty one. Consequently, it was easier to take Shaq’s side since he was more likeable. Finally, Phil Jackson left the team after that season and wrote a tell-all book that blamed Kobe. As a result, it appeared Kobe drove Shaq and Jackson out of Los Angeles. In the ensuing three seasons, I respected but was not a fan of Kobe. He got his chance to show he was the man and score a lot of points. He had a career high of 35.4 points per game and an 81 point game in the 2005-2006 season. It was definitely impressive. The 81 points was mind boggling and second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game. However, his teams were not serious title contenders. Whenever the Lakers fell behind, he would also chuck up a ton of shots and not have any trust in his teammates. All those reasons played into my perception of him as a ball hog who destroyed a dynasty because of his arrogance.
My opinion of Kobe changed for good when Phil Jackson returned to the Lakers and they completed their rebuilding of the Lakers into a championship team. In his one season without Jackson, the Lakers failed to make the playoffs. There is a certain amount of humility that is learned from losing. In addition, it demonstrated maturity that Kobe could forgive Jackson for his disparaging comments about him and build a great player, coach relationship with him. Of course, they still had to build the team and lost in the first round back to back years to the Phoenix Suns. The trade for Pau Gasol was the big piece of the puzzle that helped Kobe win more championships. Gasol teamed with Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom to form the best frontcourt in the NBA to complement Kobe’s brilliance. Gasol was also the clear second option which allowed Kobe to be the alpha dog. They made three straight NBA finals and won the latter two Finals. During the run, Kobe fully bought into Jackson’s system and learned to trust his teammates. Specifically, Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics in 2010 was the best example. Kobe was playing terribly in the game. He ended the game shooting 6-24. Moreover, the Lakers fell behind double digits in the second quarter: 13. In the past, Kobe would try to win the game by himself and keep on shooting. However, this adverse situation in the sport’s highest pressure situation, a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, demonstrated how he had evolved as a player. He trusted his teammates and allowed them to help him rally against the Celtics. In particular, Pau Gasol (19 points and 18 rebounds) and Ron Artest (20 points including a clutch 3 pointer in the final minute, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals) played tremendously in the game. Kobe’s toughness and confidence also never wavered as he scored 10 big points in the fourth quarter of the game. Without a doubt, it was the most difficult NBA Finals that Kobe won and at the top of the list of defining moments in his career. The two championships were also important because it proved he did not need Shaq to win championships and gave him one more title than Shaq. Again, I loved seeing some humility when Kobe played on average teams as well as his evolution into a real team player. Moreover, he never had another off the court incident after the allegations earlier in his career. For all those reasons, I was able to fully appreciate and root for Kobe from that point on.
The fortunes of the Lakers steadily declined since Kobe’s fifth championship. Unfortunately, Kobe is ending his career without the opportunity to play for a good team in recent years. GM Mitch Kupchak pulled off a great trade to acquire superstar point guard Chris Paul and clear payroll. If the trade was not vetoed, the Lakers would still have been factors the last three seasons. Kobe may have also stayed healthy if Paul was there to help shoulder the burden. While it was a bad break that the trade was vetoed, the Lakers simply made poor decisions since then. I cannot criticize them too much for trading for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Howard was a great talent at center so it made perfect sense to acquire a superstar. They could not have known how soft he was until they put him in the spotlight of Los Angeles. Moreover, it is clear that he has lost some athleticism in recent seasons. Nash was still playing great for the Phoenix Suns when he was acquired so they could not have known he would decline so rapidly as a player. However, I definitely blame them for messing up the coaching situation. It seemed like they were about to sign Phil Jackson again to be the coach after they quickly fired Mike Brown at the beginning of the season. Adding Howard and Nash to Bryant and Gasol created a star studded circus that would be difficult to coach. Handling egos and winning with great talent was something Jackson has mastered over his career. Instead, Jim Buss messed up the negotiations and eventually went with Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni had tremendous success with the Suns but was average for the New York Knicks. With the Lakers, he also showed no ability to adjust and deviate from his system. He turned Pau Gasol into a three point shooter. Considering Gasol’s greatness in the post before and after D’Antoni, it was an idiotic idea. Furthermore, D’Antoni played Kobe ridiculous amount of minutes that eventually led to the first of many crippling injuries at the end of the 2012-2013 NBA season. From my point of view, D’Antoni is a major reason Kobe has completely broken down the last three seasons. If I were a Laker fan, I would also be seriously concerned about the future of the team with Jim Buss making basketball decisions going forward. In terms of the present, it is a shame that Kobe could not go out on a better note with a better team. However, there are rumors that Kobe is hoping to play in the Olympics. It would be a much better ending if he can play alongside the current stars of the game to win another Gold Medal.
Obviously, Kobe Bryant is an All Time great and a sure Hall of Famer. The remaining question is where he ranks among the very best players in NBA history. Without a doubt, he is a top 20 players which is an extraordinary accomplishment. He is probably in the top 15. It is debatable whether he is in the top 10. In no particular order [although I would personally put Michael Jordan on top because he is most favorite athlete ever], my top 5 is Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Oscar Robertson. The next players I have on my list are Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Tim Duncan, and Lebron James. Magic and Bird are better overall players and won three MVPs each. Today, Jerry West is known more as a great executive that built the great Laker teams in the 80s and early 2000s. In general, the current generation does not understand how great of a player West was. He was a modern day guard and well ahead of his time. He was great inside and outside: “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside”. He was a complete player who averaged 27 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.7 assists. He is one of the greatest shooters of all time. His career field goal percentage of 47% is tremendous for a guard. He was also a top defender. Moreover, he is one of the best clutch players of all-time. He won the 1969 NBA Finals MVP for a losing team as the Lakers eventually fell in 7 games to the juggernaut Boston Celtics teams which were the greatest dynasty in NBA history. It is a testament on how amazingly he played despite his team losing. In addition, West led the Lakers to 9 NBA Finals. He lost 6 of those NBA Finals in his prime against that same Celtics dynasty. In the 1970 NBA Finals, the Lakers also lost in 7 games. In Game 3 that the Knicks eventually won, West hit a buzzer beating 60 foot shot to force overtime. If there was a 3 point line at the time, it would have won the game. Of course, the 1970 NBA Finals is mostly known for Willis Reed suiting up in Game 7, despite being injured, and inspiring his team to victory. West played great in the series but the Lakers loss was more of an indictment of Wilt Chamberlain’s tendency to disappear in some big games. West and the Lakers eventually won a title in 1972 against the Knicks in the Finals on the 69-13 team that also won 33 games in a row. The Lakers would return to the Finals again in 1973 against the Knicks and lose. However, West was injured and near the end of his career at age 35 by that Finals. For anyone that does not know it, the NBA logo was designed based on West’s silhouette. For all those reasons, I would never take West out of my top 10.
Next, I have Tim Duncan and Lebron James ahead of Kobe. Without a doubt, Kobe is the more flashy and entertaining player to watch when compared to Duncan. However, Duncan’s consistent greatness, perfect demeanor that allowed him to be coachable and team oriented for his entire career, and dominance in the post on both sides of the ball give him the edge over Kobe. He makes his teammates better and his team has won 50 games every year of his career [except for the strike shortened 50 game season in 1999]. They both have 5 NBA Championships. Duncan has one extra MVP. Although Lebron James has not completed his career, I already have him in the top 10. He and Michael Jordan are the most complete players I have ever seen play. I have also never seen anyone play as well defensively as I have seen Lebron play. It is ridiculous that he can play and shut down anyone from a 7 footer to the best, quickest point guards in the NBA. He already has 4 MVP awards. He might be the most physically gifted basketball player to ever play the game. When his career is over, he could very well rank in the top 5. As such, I feel comfortable already putting him ahead of Kobe. I would also rank Hakeem Olajuwon ahead of Kobe. Olajuwon was a guard playing center. His post moves were amazing. His footwork is arguably the best ever (watch video of the “Dream Shake”). He was also a tremendous defensive player. He ended his career blocking the most shots in NBA history. He also had a ridiculous ability to steal the basketball as a center. He is the only player to ever register more than 200 blocks and 200 steals in a single season. He is the only center to rank in the top 10 all time in blocks and steals.
Consequently, I have Kobe ranked somewhere between 12 to 15 among the top 15 players of all time. Nevertheless, I would not argue too hard if someone adamantly wants to put him in the top 10. No matter how you slice it, he has had a legendary career and is an All Time great. It is time to celebrate his greatness and say goodbye.