SPECIAL: Defining Kobe Bryant

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
(Photo credit: Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
(Originally published in 2012)
Kobe Bryant has been in the NBA for 14 seasons and has consistently been one of the best, if not the best, players in the league.  His accomplishments are clear: 5 NBA Titles in 7 appearances, 2 time Finals MVP, 1 time NBA MVP, 14 time NBA All-Star, 9 time All-NBA First Team, 2 time All-NBA Second Team, 2 time All-NBA Third Team (1999, 2005), 9 time All-NBA Defensive First Team, 2 time All-NBA Defensive Second Team, and 4 time All-Star Game MVP.   His accomplishments are that of legends and he will undoubtedly go down as one of the top 10 greatest players in NBA history.  But two questions remain:  How do you define Kobe Bryant and what is his place in history?

In my opinion, these two questions go hand-in-hand.  You can’t separate who Kobe Bryant is from where he will be in NBA history.   Kobe Bryant’s main goal is to be the greatest player not in only the NBA today, but of all-time.  He wants to surpass Michael Jordan and take the title as the greatest in history.In my opinion, this isn’t in play anymore.  Kobe is what he is.  And to be the greatest of all-time don’t you need to win more than one MVP?  Jordan had 5. (Side note: Jordan should’ve had 7. Eventually they grew tired of voting for Jordan and gave one to Barkley and Malone.  Barkley was deserving that  year, but Malone?  Please.)  To be the greatest player of all-time, don’t you have to be the best player in the league and voted as such?  I think you do.  There’s even rational debate that Lebron is a better player than Kobe Bryant.  (Note: That’s not my opinion, but some think that.) How can that be?  How can anyone, who is simply one of the greatest players in the game, be considered second best to someone else?  It never happened to Jordan, who was simply the best.  The best comparison would be Bird and Magic and their rivalry, but Kobe and Lebron don’t have that.  It’s been simply a debate because these two couldn’t be elite at the same time and these two never faced each other in the Finals.  I almost feel like we have been robbed of a great rivalry.  How can we even begin to explain how Lebron can be better than Kobe, yet wilt in the big moments like a flower?  How we can reason that Lebron is better than Kobe, yet deferred to him in the 2008 Olympics (as did everyone else who was supposedly his “equal.”)?  Kobe seems to be better, but no one is quite sure like they were with MJ.  Everyone could visibly see and believe that Jordan was better than anyone he came up against.  Remember in the 91-92 Finals when the media tried to fabricate a story that Clyde Drexler was at least equal with Jordan because he shot three’s better?  How ridiculous was that?  Poor Clyde was never the same.  Jordan came out the first game of the Finals and had the famous “Shrug Game” and completely humiliated Drexler by scoring 35 points in the first half, hitting the most three’s in a half in Finals history, and destroying Clyde’s confidence while running Portland out of Chicago Stadium.  Jordan made the ultimate statement, “You think this guy can shoot better than me, you think he’s my equal?  Let’s see him match this.” And Clyde couldn’t.  We knew it, Clyde knew it, and Michael knew it.  I don’t think we ever have reached that level with Kobe Bryant.  He’s always mentioned as “one” of the best in the NBA, not the best.  Someone always seems to overshadow him.

Kobe’s career is something of an enigma.  The first several years of Kobe’s career he was considered a sidekick to Shaquille O’Neal.  Who wouldn’t be?  Shaq was dominant in those years and easily the best player in the NBA.  Kobe was the perfect complement to Shaq.  He was athletic, a dangerous scorer that teams couldn’t leave open to double team Shaq, a superstar in every aspect of the word and would have typically been the alpha dog on virtually any other NBA team.  Kobe was explosive and could demolish you at the rim or drain a three on you at any given time.   Kobe was dangerous and was definitely one of the brightest stars in the league, but he always seemed to have Shaq’s shadow looming over him.

And maybe that’s the problem with Kobe’s context in history.  He’s always been in the shadow: In the shadow of being the next Michael Jordan, in the shadow of Shaq as his sidekick, then Shaq left and Lebron entered the NBA to unprecedented fanfare and took his star.  Kobe has always been in the backdrop, the silent assassin.  In his early career until he finally won his first championship as “the guy” in 2009, he was always shouldering the blame.  From his rape scandal, to his legendary 81 point game, which was awkward because his teammates didn’t seem to enjoy it and he was deemed selfish by the media.  Perhaps it was the defining moment of his career – dropping an unreal number of points, shooting as much as humanly possible, and being the live version of “Teen Wolf.”  It was one of the most polarizing performances I have ever watched.  Even in his separation from Shaq he was the culprit.  “How could the lovable, goofy ‘Big Aristotle’ be responsible for the breakup of a dynasty?”  It HAD to be Kobe’s fault right?  That’s how it played out, but what about when Shaq had a nasty breakup with Dwayne Wade?  Was that Wade’s fault?  I felt like Kobe was treated unfairly in that scenario.  Was it really Kobe’s fault?  Kobe was a killer competitor and Shaq was a fun loving big man, who played basketball for his job.  Winning?  That just came with it.  To Kobe, winning was everything and basketball was and is Kobe Bryant.  I can’t imagine what he will do after he retires.  I can’t see him being an executive or a coach.  Will he come back for a two year stint on a crappy team like Jordan did?  Will he keep playing painfully past his prime and tarnish his legacy?  I’m simply not sure.  The fact of the matter is that Kobe NEEDED to win and be relevant, Shaq didn’t really care.  He was just playing basketball to earn his living.  Kobe wanted to cement his legacy.

After Shaq left, Kobe was left to be the guy for the Lakers.  In that time, he nearly signed with a different team, quit on his team in the infamous playoff game against Phoenix, had Spike Lee create a documentary called “Kobe Bryant: Doin’ Work” in which he showed that he could have a career in Hollywood after his playing career by the way he acted like he liked his teammates, Smush Parker and Brian Cook, he had the polarizing 81 point game,  and nearly demanded a trade while Laker fans seemed nonchalant about it.  Then Pau Gasol came to be his “Pippen” and they made the NBA Finals in 2008.  Here’s where his career becomes MORE polarizing.  He made the Finals without Shaq and what happens?  They lose in 6 games, with game 6 being a 39 point blowout in Boston and Kobe having only 22 points, going 7 for 22 from the field, 3 rebounds, only 1 assist, and 4 turnovers.  Again, this was an elimination game in the NBA Finals!  He came up short.  Of course, the Lakers rebounded by winning the championship in 2009 and 2010, but that game just rings in my mind.  Would Jordan have been blown out in an elimination game like that in the Finals?  I can’t remember an NBA Finals game where they were beaten that soundly.  And worse, Kobe seemed to just give up when the Celtics started charging.  What was that?  The most competitive player in the NBA at that point just giving up?  I can’t figure it out.  And to come up THAT short in this game?  It wasn’t a one-time aberration.  Remember against that same Boston team in 2010, Kobe went 6 for 24 inGame 7 of the NBA Finals.  6 for 24? In the biggest game of the year on the biggest stage and for the championship?!  Again, does MJ do that?  Is it fair to judge Kobe by those standards?  I think it is because that’s what Kobe wants to be: The Greatest of All-Time.  How can he be when it’s arguable that he’s not even the best player of his generation?  You could make the argument that Tim Duncan is.  Tim Duncan has ALWAYS been the guy in San Antonio and everyone they brought in from Tony Parker to Roger Mason Jr. fit around Duncan and his talent.  You can’t say the same for Kobe from 1996-2004.  He was secondary.  How can one be the greatest of all-time and be considered “secondary” at any point in their career?  Jordan wasn’t.  It’s simply polarizing.

One of the qualities that cements a player as “great” is his ability to raise his game in the big moments.  We already discussed his abysmal NBA Finals games, but in 2011 Henry Abbott of ESPN wrote an article detailing Kobe Bryant’s clutch statistics.  Look at some of the names that he was below at the time:  Damon Stoudamire? Steve Francis?  Shawn Marion?!  Jalen Rose?!?!?!  Eddie freakin’ Jones!?!?! RAYMOND FELTON?  How in the world does Kobe rank below these guys?  Yes, he has more attempts and more opportunities, but shouldn’t he be making them if he’s going to put that responsibility on himself?  At that time, he was 31.3% in the clutch. 31.3%!  That’s only 2% above the league average of 29% at the time.  That’s abysmal.  The one merit I will give to Kobe is that, unlike Lebron, he’s willing to take the shot in the clutch.  It’s just staggering that a player of Kobe’s talent performs so badly at the “heroic” moments.  Maybe he tries too hard.  Maybe there’s just that hint of schoolyard basketball in him that is counting the clock down in his head and he wants to perform his “MJ” impersonation and fails.  Maybe he just isn’t clutch.   I don’t have the answer, but the numbers tell the story.  Kobe misses a lot of game-winners.

So, where does Kobe “rank?”  Well, Jordan is obviously the greatest, I think Russell has to be second just by his dominance in his era, Kareem should be third because of his long-term dominance, Magic should be fourth.  Can we give Kobe the fifth spot?  I don’t think we can.  I still think Duncan, the greatest power forward ever, who has four rings and a similar resume to Kobe’s should get the fifth spot, even over Larry Bird.  I think Duncan goes fifth, Bird goes sixth, and right now I have Kobe at seventh.  Could Kobe leapfrog Bird and Duncan for that fifth spot, but he would have to win another ring.  He might even have to surpass Kareem (or come close) to breaking the NBA all-time leading scoring record (which, by the way, is HIGHLY unlikely that he will.)

Look, I’m not a Kobe hater, just the opposite: I love watching Kobe Bryant play basketball.  Whether or not it’s fair is irrelevant, but his attitude, his actions off the court, and his failures will likely hinder his recognition historically.   When Kobe retires, it will be intriguing to see how fans remember him.  Will they remember the selfish young gunner, who ran Shaq out of town and awkwardly performed one of the greatest scoring feats I have ever seen or will they remember the aging winner, whose explosiveness was robbed from him and even sought treatment in a foreign country in an attempt to prolong his dominance, all the while mastering the game he not only loved, but needed?  I like to believe that we will remember Kobe as the latter and even if the rest is true, forgive him.  He truly is one of the most enigmatic, polarizing, and simply great players to ever play the game of basketball.  He deserves the recognition for all the hard work and determination that he’s grinded out through his 14 year career in the league.  He deserves to be treated as a future first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the top 10 basketball players that will ever play this game.  He’s not the next Michael Jordan, he may not even be the defining player of his generation, but he is the first and only, Kobe Bryant.  And that’s okay.