Back in the 1996 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Kobe Bryant with the 13th overall pick. The Hornets then promptly traded Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers for center Vlade Divac, probably the most lopsided trade in NBA history. The Lakers win four NBA championships and get to see Bryant develop into one of the greatest players of all time. The Hornets? Well, at least they drafted Chris Paul.
Kobe Bryant is one of the most polarizing figures in sports. Earlier in his career, he was considered to be selfish and cocky. He didn’t respect veterans and became a vacuum on the offensive side of the ball – once the ball got to him, it wasn’t leaving. Then, in 2002, he was involved in a sex scandal that really tarnished his reputation. However, no one doubted his work ethic. He had an unparalleled desire to be the best. As he matured, he developed into a threat on both sides of the ball. But he still had his critics. They believed that without Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe couldn’t lead the Lakers to the championship. He silenced those critics with a convincing victory over the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals last spring. He has also become the most popular figure in the sport of basketball. Last year he had the top-selling jersey worldwide. His career has had a lot of up and downs, but there is no doubt that he is at the top of the game right now.
I believe last year’s championship by the Lakers put Kobe Bryant into the upper echelon of all-time NBA greats. To be more exact, I think he has firmly entrenched himself in the list of the top ten greatest players in history. It should not be a secret that Michael Jordan tops the list. His career resume speaks for itself: six-time NBA Champion, six-time NBA Finals MVP, five-time regular season MVP, 14-time All-Star, ten-time scoring champion, 1987-’88 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He mastered every facet of the game. He dominated games offensively and defensively and he was the leader of the only NBA dynasty that did not feature a dominant center. Quite simply, he was the greatest of all time. Following Jordan in the top five is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Wilt Chamberlain in no particular order. People may argue the rankings of these players in the top five, but most will agree that they are the five greatest players who have ever stepped onto the hardwood.
The next five consist of three active players and two retired legends. In order: 6) Tim Duncan, 7) Shaquille O’Neal, 8) Kobe Bryant, 9) Larry Bird, 10) Oscar Robertson. Oscar Robertson was one of the most complete players to every play this game. He is the only player to average a triple-double for a season: 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg. Those are insane numbers. If he were playing in today’s game with those numbers, he would be first in points and assists and second in rebounds to Dwight Howard who is six inches taller. The only argument against Robertson is the number of championships that he won. He won only one championship and he could only accomplish that with the help of another all-time great, Lew Alcindor.
Many people regard Larry Bird as a basketball god. He made up for his lack of athletic ability with instincts, intelligence, and work ethic. He was a legendary player, but Bryant is the better player. Period. According to John Hollinger from ESPN, Bryant has a higher player efficiency rating (PER) than Bird. The playoffs are no different. Bryant’s playoff PER average is 22.0, while Bird’s is only 21.4. Of course PER isn’t the only factor in determining who is the better player, but it does eliminate the idea that Bird is superior. To further compare the two, Bryant and Bird have both been selected to 12 All-Star games. Then look at All-NBA Team selections and Bryant leads Bird 11 to 10. Up to this point Bryant and Bird are very similar in career achievements. Where Bryant truly surpasses Bird is on the defensive end. Bryant is one of the greatest perimeter defenders to play the game. He has been selected to the All-Defensive Team nine times. There have been only five players to have more selections than Bryant. Bird is not one of them.
Everyone has to remember that Bryant is only 31 years old. Depending on his daily preparations and how well he treats his body, he may have seven more years left in his career. Duncan and O’Neal are on the downsides of their careers. They will continue to accumulate stats, but will not have the same impact they had in the prime of their careers. It is very possible that Bryant passes both players by the time his career is over. If he wins a fifth championship ring, he will no doubt throw his name into the discussion of best player ever. Air Jordan may soon have a challenger to his throne.