Why Kobe Bryant could be the Greatest
Why can Kobe be considered the greatest?
Let’s get the elephant in the room… or GOAT in the room… out of the way. Michael Jordan is undefeated in 6 finals. But like all greats debates, people don’t truly analyze all the circumstances surrounding a respective career. One big factor in particular is the competition, of any giving era.
I’ll call the next segment “title time”, the period of a player winning their first and last titles. For MJ, this was 1991 thru ‘98. During this span, he went against prime Olajuwon, Ewing, Malone, Barkley, Mourning, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, David Robinson, Stockton, Mutombo, Chris Mullin, Dennis Rodman, Vlade Divac, Mark Jackson, and Clyde Drexler as well as old Bird, Isiah Thomas, Magic, Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone, and James Worthy. Again I’m focusing on “title time”, and this was generally a time of only one prime superstar per team (except for teams like the Jazz, Supersonics and I guess the Suns, with Barkley and Kevin Johnson)
Kobe’s “title time”, 2000 thru 2010, featured prime Iverson, Garnett, Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginoboli, Wade, LeBron, Nash, Carter, Tracy McGrady, Shawn Marion, Chris Bosh, Ron Artest, Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, Melo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Durant, Chris Paul, Dirk, David West, Iguodala, Pau Gasol, Chauncey Billups, Peja Stojaković, Marbury, Stackhouse, Gilbert Arenas, Elton Brand, Redd, any of the O’Neals or Wallaces plus old Mutombo, Malone, Payton, David Robinson, Ewing, Miller, Vlade Divac, Mark Jackson, and the one and only Mr. Michael Jordan.
I left out players whose primes cancelled out like Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Chris Webber. So considering the level of competition, I think there’s a solid GOAT argument there for Kobe based on quantity and quality. And not just that there was more quality competition, there were more teams with more quality competition.
People don’t seem to consider the specific defense that any particular player had to go up against during their title runs. Kobe faced a bunch of top tier perimeter defenders with size like Bruce Bowen, Shawn Marion, Tayshaun Prince, Artest, Iguodala, Doug Christie, Shane Battier, Josh Smith, Ariza, Andrei Kirilenko, Gerald Wallace, and LeBron... all in or around their primes. Nobody of note for MJ other than maybe Drexler (who doesn’t even have any defensive awards). And Jordan did face greats without size, like Stockton, Payton, and Mookie Blaylock, but Kobe faced just as many of those and more including Chris Paul, Iverson, Wade, Tony Allen, and Rondo. Not to mention all the interior stoppers like Garnett, Duncan, Theo Ratliff, Howard, Yao, and Detroit’s Wallace front court. MJ saw the absolute best bigs in Hakeem, Dikembe, and Robinson… but so did Kobe, for a very little bit.
Bleacher Report basically took my line when they said, “people tend to overlook an important thing when they look at finals performances—namely that they're going against a really good team.” It took an all-time defense in the Pistons and an all-time roster in the Celtics to beat Kobe in the only 2 finals he lost (in ‘04 and ‘08). If they were any other typical teams of the time, that’s 7 chips for Kobe. People also forget, or maybe just don’t know, that these two exact franchises kept MJ out of the finals several years each... and if they were both in the west, people wouldn’t have MJ’s flawless finals record to resort to. It’s like just because Jordan’s losses came before the finals, no one feels the need to mention them. Jordan lost from 1985-90 and did so as a starter who could actually affect the outcome. Why isn’t that part of the discussion ever brought up when mentioning how Jordan carried his teams? I could make another argument saying that at least Kobe had his losses after his prime, when his game was already declining. MJ was fresh and youthful when he did his losing in the playoffs, and he didn’t always lose to the eventual champion, either. Why can’t everybody be unbiased and tell a whole story? I can say objectively that Kobe was not efficient or easy to play with. I can even say that he was egotistical for letting Shaq get away. The greatest doesn’t mean flawless… whether you vote Michael or otherwise.
Stepping away from competition for a moment, let’s look deeper into Kobe and MJ’s own lineups. At coach we had Phil Jackson, for both squads. That’s a tie. MJ typically had a solid shooter on deck like Steve Kerr and Kobe had Derek Fisher. Pretty much a stalemate. MJ had fill-in role player guys like Horace Grant, Will Perdue and Luc Longley. Kobe had Tyronn Lue, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw. No particularly special names so I’ll say they all cancel out. Let’s look at the sidekicks. Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol were all decent help on Kobe’s Shaq-less squads, but none of them scream Hall of Fame. I think they all could’ve been number 1’s on a bum team (that’s right, they all actually were at one point, either before or after Kobe... proven when Gasol was on the Grizzlies, Odom on the Clippers, and Bynum playing zero games for pre-process Philly). Kobe managed a 65 and three 57 win years with these guys. Anyway, Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, that’s 3 of the league’s greatest defenders ever plus Toni Kukoč, one of the first, top European prospects in NBA history as well as a Sixth Man of the Year, as a bonus. So two NBA Hall of Famers and one internationally… that tells me the ‘95/96 Bulls had better won 72 games being that stacked.
MJ had prime Pippen on all and Rodman on some of his title squads. Kobe had Shaq for 3 and won 2 rings with zero “sure shot” Hall of Famers. MJ and most champions (maybe all champions) can’t say they won without other Hall of Famers on deck. And maybe most impressive of all, Kobe had to overcome having 2 of the biggest busts in NBA history on his teams, Adam Morrison and Kwame Brown. Morrison was drafted 3rd overall in 2006 by the Bobcats and Brown was drafted 1st overall in 2001 by the Wizards (he actually left before Kobe’s solo titles). Funny enough, these two underachievers were both drafted by the great overachieving Michael Jordan. I don’t know if that means anything, but whoever agreed to sign them to LA kinda sabotaged Kobe, in my opinion. I feel that there has to be some stat or metric that can account for a player’s teammates and calibrate championship difficulty, something like “true” rings earned or adjusted championships or whatever... because in my mind it’s two rings to zero, Kobe... and I’m simply subtracting the Shaq rings and all 6 Hall of Fame-help MJ rings. Or give MJ 3 and Kobe 5 if you want to allow one Hall of Famer per team. Regardless, I think Kobe’s rings have more value and don’t forget all the competition I that I listed earlier versus Kobe.
Some more general facts in Kobe’s favor... He won a championship in his second year as a starter (fourth overall), MJ took seven years to get his first. And don’t sleep on the fact that Kobe skipped the training grounds of the NCAA; zero years of incubating for “the league”, going straight from high school teenagers to grown men playing for their livelihood and retirement plans. In Kobe’s first 8 seasons, his teams finished no less than 4th place in the conference. MJ’s teams finished 6th or worse 4 times in that same span for him. Yea, Kobe needed a few years to warm up and eventually become a starter, but again, Jordan had a three year head start out of college.
Kobe was the first guard in NBA history to play at least 20 seasons... and that's not really an argument point, but I just wanted to acknowledge the span of his relevance. You can’t disregard Kobe’s longevity and how much of a grind that entails. Imagine how taxing it had to be as a top offensive and defensive player for about two decades. I think people ride for Jordan in a “what he would’ve also done” kind of way, (considering that he first left basketball during his prime), but you can only judge what people actually do.
One big credit that I do give to Jordan is playing in a time where defensive tricks like hand checking and forearm use were looked at more leniently. That indicates he had to battle grittier defenses. But I'd take that same argument to say what Jordan and his teammates could also get away with on defense. Plus keep in mind, again, he had a few of the best all-time on that side of the ball to help him. Kobe didn't really have anyone excellent D’ing up with him until Ariza in 09 and then the artist formerly known as Ron Artest in 2010, and look what happened... Kobe won chips both years. And it seems to go unnoticed that Kobe was also an all-time defensive player, himself, which was needed for him to even win five finals.
Some throw-away facts for further consideration: MJ played years where the 3-point line was closer than the standard 23.75 feet, there was a brief period where the “restricted” area was smaller (as in being optimal for more aggressive drives and less charges called), and lastly, “illegal defense” was called backcourt (which likely meant facing less full court presses). This won’t change an MJ-voter’s mind much and may be looked at as a stretch, but those guidelines all support an offensive player, and if you’re already considered the greatest ever, you don’t need more leeway in the rules.
Kobe had to deal with larger team salaries and revenue (that allowed for more superstars on one team and mediocre players wanting star money). He had to counter and adapt to a significantly changed NBA style (mainly one that’s heavier on analytics and three point shooting) and Kobe also had to compete against more athletic talent. I can’t quantify athleticism; I’m just using my sight. Of course athletic players existed in the past, too, but who are all the athletic freaks you remember before 1999? Off top, I can think of MJ, Pippen, Wilt, Magic, Shaq, Darryl Dawkins, Spud, Dominique, Dr. J, David Thompson, Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, Drexler, Kenny Smith, Isaiah Rider, Pete Maravich, and I guess Harold Minor. For me that’s the whole history of all NBA, plus or minus a few. There are dozens just in Kobe’s “title time” alone, but I’m not doing another list. Again, just throw-away points I wanted to make; I already made my case.
So that's a bit of why Kobe can be considered the GOAT and I didn't even need to rely on stats, the main thing people use when talking about MJ (rings, points, steals, assists, rebounds). But Kobe had some lofty stats himself, like being an 18-time all-star, 15-time all NBA, 12-time all-defense and scoring the 2nd most points ever in a game while only needing about 42 minutes to do so. If he was given the full 48 I’m sure he would’ve passed Wilt’s record. People talk about Michael’s heart and killer instinct too, but how is any of that bigger or better than Kobe’s? Check his legacy again and don’t be so quick to dismiss it.
I don’t mean to seem like I’m undermining or nitpicking MJ. I know he’s one of the greatest. I’m a native New Yorker that inherited Knick fandom and experienced suffering from his greatness, firsthand. I just wanted to give what I feel is a more complete and valid perspective on Kobe’s behalf. Understand that I was never even a Kobe “stan”, but just like in the case of Michael, I always respected his game. After recently dying, I could already hear the lack of appreciation and jokes on the way like “that’s the only time I remember him passing”. I started feeling that people were paying respect to Kobe’s highlights and losing sight of his full NBA history and credentials.
I also need people to stop with all the shortcut crowning that’s happening with LeBron James. He left pressure to win, he doesn’t have 5 rings (not even 4), and his most memorable moments are passes and a block… not things you think of first for “clutch”. After his first ring, people instantly pushed him ahead of Kobe like his career never happened and I’m still trying to figure out why. Is it because he’s a better passer? He’s taller? Bigger? In the words of James about the words of Bryant “Mamba out, but never forgotten”.