Now that Kobe Bryant has finished his career in dramatic fashion, we shift to consider his legacy as one of the NBA's greats.
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Now that Kobe Bryant has played his final NBA game, the time to consider the Lakers star's legacy is here. Bryant, a five-time champion, has a convincing case as one of the game's best scorers and toughest competitors. This gene was on display when Bryant went out in a blaze of glory Wednesday, providing the ultimate Kobe finale with his first 60-point game since 2007.
With Bryant's last performance still fresh, SI.com's writers took a shot at projecting where his 20-year career rates among the greatest to pick up a basketball. The burning question now is this: Is Bryant one of the NBA's top 10 players ever?
Where does Kobe Bryant rank all time?
Ben Golliver: I have Bryant in the top 10—barely. First, the easy part: his five rings and individual accomplishments (18 All-Stars, 15 All-NBA selections and 12 All-Defensive selections) give him an unimpeachable case as the second-best shooting guard behind Michael Jordan. From there, it gets trickier. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the greatest icons of the modern game, but he has serious competition when it comes to even being the best player of his own era. LeBron James is stuck on two rings, but he produced better overall statistics, never missed the playoffs during his prime, and consistently made his teammates better. Tim Duncan might have lacked Bryant’s magnetic star power, but he won five titles, his defensive impact was greater, his teams won 50+ games rain or shine, and he’s managed to remain a productive player at an older age.
I have three big hang-ups with Bryant’s all-time ranking. First: Bryant was a spectacular individual talent and he proved that he could play championship basketball with two different sets of teammates, but would you really pick him over guys like Duncan, James, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird if you were starting a franchise from scratch? Second: Bryant enjoyed great longevity and a very high peak, but was he as dominant during his best years, relative to his competition, as guys like Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal? Third: Bryant had a great work ethic and a legendary drive, but did his competitiveness and single-mindedness work against him to a meaningful degree? Shouldn’t there be some penalty when Phil Jackson calls you “uncoachable” and when your final years are spent in frustration generated by your own unwillingness to adapt your game or role?
I’m left with the following nine players (in some order) above Bryant: Jordan (more efficient, more dominant, better numbers, one more title), Bill Russell (more titles, better leader, more consistent team success), Johnson (better leader, more unselfish), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (better numbers, greater individual accomplishments, more consistent team success), Duncan (better leader, better all-around game, more consistent team success), James (better all-around game, better numbers, more unselfish, more consistent team success), Chamberlain and O’Neal (more dominant), and Bird (better leader, more unselfish, better all-around game).
Rob Mahoney: I tend to be fickle on his exact ranking, though generally I find Kobe landing somewhere just outside the top 10. The volume of Bryant’s accomplishments in those first 17 years of his career (prior to his Achilles injury) is truly remarkable—a blend of heightened individual production and striking team success. What held Bryant back relative to some of the alltime greats was the extent to which he was uncompromising. It matters that Kobe decided to go about the latter half of his career playing defense on his terms while adhering to no scheme or responsibility whatsoever. It matters that the way he operated offensively both alienated teammates and limited the kinds of teams Los Angeles could build around him. It matters that Kobe refused to transition into a slighter role, therefore setting up his body’s inevitable breakdown as the only reasonable ending to his career.
These are blemishes on an otherwise stellar career. But how else can one differentiate Kobe’s candidacy from his closest among all-timers? And, for that matter: How soon might players like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant give the Bryant legacy a legitimate challenge? There are already 10 players I see as having definitively better careers than Bryant. Some days I sway toward including a few more—many legends (Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Moses Malone, etc.) who played in earlier eras difficult to reconcile with Bryant’s own. It’s not a slight to Bryant to make that a conversation, nor to engage earnestly with the idea that players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett have a decent claim to challenge Kobe’s spot.
Ultimately, Bryant was a jaw-dropping scorer who could be a high-level playmaker whenever he decided to be. He was quick and physical to the point of controlling any defensive matchup he chose. His technique was so refined that he could (and often did) manufacture a makeable shot despite pressure from multiple defenders. His will refused to let him settle, just as it refused to let him change.
Andrew Sharp: I'm not good at rankings because I don't have strong opinions on any of this, but... 10? Let's say 10. He was incredible on both ends of the floor. His frame is basically the prototype for what you'd want from a shooting guard. He was dominant as a sidekick to Shaq on some of the best teams ever, legendary as a doomed gunner in the loaded West, and then returned as the best player on (another) back-to-back title-winning Lakers team. It's easy to poke holes in the myth, but at some point, there are too many accomplishments to ignore.
Compare our memories of D-Wade as one of the best shooting guards ever, and then remember that Kobe's added on an additional 4 or 5 seasons at an All-NBA level. He also won multiple gold medals, and is the biggest reason Team USA survived Spain in 2008. He was also a pain in the ass to play with, but clearly, it didn't hold him back. The most pervasive critique of Kobe's place in history is that he landed in the perfect situation to win big next to Shaq, then got lucky all over again with the Pau trade, and it all distorts his value. That's all true, but luck and circumstance are intertwined with greatness in any field. Penalizing Kobe for luck—as opposed to Jordan, who played with Pippen and Phil, or Magic, who played with Kareem and Worthy, or Bird, who played with five great players—is missing the point in these discussions. Luck, or fate, is part of the legend.
Those details are important when comparing Bryant to his peers, who include Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki. The sheer amount of team and individual success Bryant experienced, as Ben Golliver noted above, puts him ahead of players like Garnett and Nowitzki. It's Duncan and James who are on the list above him, along with alltime greats like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bryant's talent and determination help him sneak in near the back end of the top 10.
Jeremy Woo: Second-best shooting guard ever. In terms of singular scoring ability, particularly on the perimeter, Kobe Bryant's way up there. Five rings are five rings. I see the mid-career leadership adjustment as a positive, rather than holding some bad Lakers seasons against him. One overarching theme of his career was the constant growth, and we should value that when coupled with the consistent dominance. I'm probably a little too young to stick my foot in the ground especially hard over all-time rankings. But Kobe defined a decade or so of basketball, and I think back end top 10 all time suits him fine.