Latest News, NBA / Sep 17, 2012 / 12:45 pm

Where Does Kobe Rank Among The Best Players Of All Time?

Dime #71: Kobe Bryant

Where does Kobe rank among the best players of all time? Answer this question in the comments below and you could find yourself featured in the next issue of Dime Magazine…

Don’t get it twisted. When Kobe Bryant let it slip earlier this summer that he may retire in two years, it created quite a stir. Bean is no longer the best player in the league (and that’s not really a negative considering LeBron is in his prime and playing like one of the greatest to ever do it), and seems like a guy who would probably quit before the wheels fell off. But I don’t believe him for a second when he says he’ll retire at 36 years old.

Let’s go over a few facts:

1) Kobe is intensely competitive
2) Kobe wants to be known as one of the best – if not THE best – player ever
3) Kobe is intensely competitive
4) Kobe knows the game’s history too well
5) Kobe is intensely competitive
6) Kobe is flanked by three potential Hall of Famers, one of them being the best big man in the NBA
And 7) Kobe is intensely competitive

Add all that up, and there’s no way Bryant isn’t aware of this: he’s 8,904 points away from passing Kareem, one championship away from passing Magic (and two away from doing the same to MJ), he’s only 348 points away from also becoming the greatest playoff scorer ever, he’s five All-Star Games away from tying Kareem for the most ever, and he’s 25 postseason games away from breaking Robert Horry‘s record. Once the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard to complete the NBA’s greatest Punk’d episode this summer, it probably took all of .0035 seconds for Bryant to realize, “Oh damn. Look at this team I suddenly have. I played with Shaq in his prime, and now I’m going to play with Dwight Howard in his prime. Do I really want to throw this away?”

No, Kobe. I don’t believe you really want to.

What makes Bryant’s place in history so unique has little to do with his current standing as the game’s most popular player (at least worldwide). Yes, that factors into it for basketball fans who watch the Finals, write KOBE RULEZZ! on YouTube, and generally couldn’t name which team upset the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs last year. But for the basketball people out there – the ones who live and breath ball, argue about things like PER, the best teams to never win championships, and Allen Iverson‘s legacy – Kobe represents a singular case.

It’s been a while since a player lived through and succeeded on so many different levels (in that sense, Kobe is eerily like a second coming of Magic Johnson, which on the surface seems like the most preposterous comparison you could ever make). He’s the ultimate survivor. Think about it. Kobe was a sixth man, a sidekick, the best and second-best player on championship teams in different eras; he played a Scottie Pippen role, as well as a Michael Jordan role, and even the Microwave role early in his career; he played for three or four distinctly different offensive systems; he’s altered both his body and his game seemingly every summer since he came into the league, one season deciding he’ll throw on 20 pounds and start banging threes like he’s Michael Redd (2002-03), the next making it through a year looking like a malnourished battle survivor (’03-04), the next adding a post game and basically attempting to be the first guard to ever post up every player in the entire NBA (’09-10). Basically, Kobe does whatever he must to succeed.

Then, there’s this: Bryant never had a hold on the game as strong as someone like Michael Jordan did. During his early years, Bryant wasn’t even the best player on his team. During his absolute apex as a player, the Lakers weren’t winning playoff series. By the time he finally started collecting chips as an alpha dog, there were statisticians everywhere saying LeBron James was the best player in the league. We’re calling him the “Player of the Century” and yet, there are fans everywhere saying Tim Duncan would be the more appropriate choice. At every point in his career, Bryant’s status as the game’s preeminent alpha dog had detractors.

But what we’ll remember Kobe for more than anything else was his dogged determination to extend his longevity. By and large, he reached his current level by the time he was 22. Now he’s closing in on 15 years at the top of the game. Fifteen consecutive seasons. A few more years, and he’ll be there. Jordan never did that. Magic and Larry Bird didn’t either.

How much does that count for? Do 15 seasons of spectacular play from Kobe outweigh a dozen phenomenal years from Magic? Or a decade of Larry Bird? These are all difficult questions, and even if Bryant retires in two seasons, conclusions will be hard to come by. People can tell us, “Why don’t we just wait until he retires?” But what fun is that?

For now, Kobe has five rings, two Finals MVPs, one regular season MVP, 29,484 career points, career averages of 25.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists; he’s made 14 All-Star Games (and won the MVP four times), 10 All-NBA First Teams, and nine All-Defensive First Teams. His place in the top 10 ever is completely secure. But that’s where it gets fuzzy.

Should he be rated higher than Shaq, who had a three-year run that was as dominant as anything we’ve ever seen but was never as consistent late in his career? Duncan, who was so good for so long? The Big O or the Logo, who were statistically better but never won as much? Because Bryant was probably a better defender, does that mean he should be above Bird? It’s so hard to pinpoint Bryant’s place when there’s still the debate about whether he was even the greatest Laker ever.

The NBA is entering a new age sure to be ruled by players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and (hopefully) Derrick Rose. But they’re all trying to get what Kobe has.

Where does Kobe rank among the best players of all time? Answer this question in the comments below and you could find yourself featured in the next issue of Dime Magazine…

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