There’s some irony in Kobe Bryant having two(!) of his jerseys retired on a night the Lakers play the Golden State Warriors. The second-half, post-Shaq stage of Bryant’s career will be remember largely for his brooding. Even during his late championship years, Bryant was so maniacally driven to what he perceived to be greatness that the joy in his game was often missing. Bryant’s commitment to winning made him callous, a complicated teammate and an unapologetic chucker. Basically, Bryant’s unstoppable drive made him the antithesis of everything expected from a winner in the modern NBA, particularly the uber-efficient, superstar-laden Warriors.
Bryant will largely be remembered as a winner—someone so committed to Being Like Mike, that if you squint hard enough, you can see how he alllllllllmost pulled it off. Five championships to Michael’s six. The undeniable similarities in their games. Their questionable reputations as teammates. Bryant was so possessed with imitating the greatest player of a previous generation that he never quite prepared himself for the next one.
It’s unfair to say Bryant, if his career started 10 years later, wouldn’t have been as effective in the current era of basketball. But it is also hard to imagine how Kobe would have fit in the three-point, fast-paced NBA. In Bryant’s last Finals game, for example, he shot 6-of-24 in a game that ended 83-79. You wouldn’t be shocked to see a halftime score with those numbers in a game between the Warriors and Cavaliers.
While Bryant’s five rings are the go-to argument stopper for anyone daring to question his legacy, it’s remarkable to see how Bryant was essentially rewarded for his inefficiency. Forget his 60-points-on-50-shots walk-off game. In Bryant’s 2005–06 season, when he averaged 35.4 points per game, his true shooting percentage was 55.9%. This year’s MVP favorite, James Harden, is averaging 31.5 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 62.3%.
Kobe, in his determination to be the best, eschewed friends for shots. (Seriously, he spent years trying to trademark the phrase, “Friends Hang Sometimes, Banners Hang Forever.”) Friendships may not be the key to today’s NBA, but teamwork certainly is. The Warriors are successful in part because everyone embraces their role, and Stephen Curry was willing to give up some individual accolades to bring Kevin Durant into the fold. You can argue the Warriors maybe went too far in welcoming a postseason rival of equal superstar stature to their team; it wouldn’t surprise you if Bryant—in his prime—never even entertained the thought. (Though that’s not to say Kobe didn’t realize he needed help.)
So how will Bryant be remembered? Will it be as the unabashed shot taker who willed his teams to success with his singular drive? Or will it be as the unabashed shot taker who could have been even more successful had he cared even the slightest about efficiency?
However anyone chooses to remember Bryant, we’ll probably never see another superstar like him. The dissonance between Bryant’s flaws and his accomplishments seem too great for anyone to overcome in today’s NBA. Russell Westbrook, in terms of no-bleeps-given about percentages, may be the closest thing the NBA has to a Kobe in today’s game. He’s also having a tough time winning playing that style of basketball.
Perhaps that is Kobe’s greatest accomplishment, and what sets him apart from his contemporaries. Bryant’s style of play often flew in the face of what would conventionally be considered successful. After all, the greatest player of the NBA’s 2000s era, Tim Duncan, also won five championships, and did so across vastly different styles of basketball, with a sterling reputation as a teammate, never battling his coach. But Bryant was able to mesh his rough-around-the-edges personality with success anyway. It was enough for two championships without Shaq. It was enough for 81 points. It was enough for one of the most memorable careers in the history of the sport.
Time will tell how Kobe is remembered when his game is put into context with the NBA’s current crop of superstars. For now, Bryant will be remembered as one of the league’s very best, someone who willed himself to the mountaintop, doing so in such a manner that it often alienated those around him. Kobe was the last of his kind during his era of basketball. He got out just in time.