Culture of Hoops

Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century – #3 Kobe Bryant

Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!

(That third exclamation point was not necessary)

Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.

This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.

The Resume 
17 years, 14 quality, 17 All-Stars … 12 Top Ten MVP Finishes (’01-’04, ’06-’13), 14-time All-NBA (’00-’13), 12-time All-Defensive Team (’00-’04, ’06-’12), ’08 NBA MVP, 2-time NBA Finals MVP (’09-’10), 4-time All-Star Game MVP (’02, ’07, ’09, ’11) … Best player on two NBA Champions (’09-’10 Lakers), 2nd best player on three NBA Champions (’00-’02 Lakers), Best player on two runner-up’s (’04, ’08 Lakers) … Leader: Points Per Game (2x), Free Throws Made (2x) … Playoff Averages: 28-5-5, 2 steals, 45% FG, 34% 3PT, 82% FT (192 Games) … ’05-’06 Regular Season: 35-5-5, 45% FG, 35% 3PT, 85% FT, 27 games with 40+ points (80 games) … One of six players in 2000’s with a 60-point game (only player with multiple 60-point games)

Overall Averages: 27.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 38.0 minutes, 45% FG, 21.0 FGA, 33% 3PT, 4.4 3PA, 84% FT, 7.9 FTA, 1,146 Games Played

13-Year Regular Season Peak: 28.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 38.9 minutes, 45% FG, 21.6 FGA, 34% 3PT, 4.4 3PA, 84% FT, 8.4 FTA, 973 Games Played

April 13th, 2016 was to be one of the most momentous nights in the history of the National Basketball Association. On the last night of the 2015-16 regular season, a night that is annually unspectacular since most Playoff positioning is typically concluded, the league stumbled into a treasure chest of intrigue on the final night of the season.

In Oakland, California, the defending NBA Champions were closing in on what many believed was an unbreakable record. The Golden State Warriors entered the final night of the season with a 72-9 record; just one victory shy of besting the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and moving one step closer to “Greatest Team of All-Time” distinction. The Warriors had not only been one of the most entertaining and dominant regular season teams ever, they were the embodiment of the direction the NBA was heading. A wide-open, up-tempo, excitingly progressive brand of basketball that put emphasis on skill and space and shooting and on-court flexibility.

The supposed co-main event of the evening was taking place at the same time the Warriors were attempting to enter the NBA’s record book. Roughly 370 miles away in Los Angeles, California, Kobe Bryant would be playing the final game of an illustrious career against the Utah Jazz in a game that had no stakes in terms of Playoff positioning or anything that was remotely tangible. The season up to that point had been a truly bizarre appreciation parade for Kobe; an accomplished legend who deserved every bit of praise he was receiving, but a guy who never shied away from the fact he wasn’t ever going to try to buddy up with any opponents or even teammates. The outpouring of love seemed forced at times, and watching Kobe, now a shell of his former self, try to do things that peak Kobe did and failing miserably was a sad way to see one of the members of the NBA’s pantheon go out.

I’m going to be honest with you: heading into that night, the idea of Kobe’s farewell game getting co-main event status alongside the Warriors quest for history made me upset. It wasn’t a personal problem I had with Kobe or anything like that. It was just a feeling that this was yet another example of the NBA’s sad tendency to glorify the past at the expense of the present and future. This wasn’t supposed to be a night to celebrate the past. It was supposed to be a night to appreciate the present and ponder how bright the future could be.

For damn near two decades Kobe dominated the NBA’s present and its future. He came into the league hyped as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan‘s throne. He was an All-Star before he even entered the Lakers starting line-up, the future of the league before he had a chance to shine in a meaningful NBA moment. As the Lakers started winning titles in the early ’00’s on the back of the Kobe/Shaquille O’Neal partnership, it was clear that the present AND future of the NBA was in the City of Angels. Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant athlete alive and Kobe was cut from the same cloth MJ had been. In his early 20’s Kobe had already turned himself into the best two-way perimeter player alive; the same sort of sense of the moment, knack for scoring and defensive upside MJ once possessed. By the time the Lakers won their third straight title in 2002 the conversation needed to be had: how high was Kobe’s ceiling, and could he win without Shaq?

Kobe’s chance to show whether or not he could win without O’Neal would come sooner rather than later. Knowing what we know now about what went on behind the scenes (and publicly too … those two lobbed enough grenades at each other through the media to supply a special ops team), it’s easy to understand why the Kobe/Shaq relationship deteriorated. Even still, nearly 15 years later, it’s amazing to think that a team that three-peated as NBA Champions actually underachieved. The Lakers employed two of the four best basketball players in the world and if they both were able to behave like adults they could have (and should have) won at least two more titles moving forward. Instead it ended prematurely with an ugly divorce, and fans would get an answer to the hypothetical questions there were asking while things were at their best.

Those first few post-Shaq Kobe seasons were as entertaining and confounding as any in the 21st century. Surrounded with inept teammates and given the licence to shoot as much as any basketball player could want to, the Kobe experience from 2005 through 2007 was one that felt totally surreal. There really was nothing like it; watching such a blood-thirsty competitor, someone so consumed with the game of basketball and succeeding at the highest level on his terms remaining totally detached from the teammates he was begrudgingly sharing the floor with. It was almost as captivating as it was watching him go on those unprecedented scoring binges.

Kobe’s 81-point game against Toronto has been well-documented and for good reason. In some respect though, that one number, 81, has clouded what it was like almost every night during those peak years. “81” is the go-to for any Kobe fan when questioned about Kobe’s scoring chops, but some examples of Kobe’s scoring ability seem more significant than that.

-During the 2002-03 season with Shaq on the sideline, Kobe averaged 43 points per game over the course of fourteen games in the month of February. That included a nine game stretch with at least 40 in each. More impressive? He did so on 47-43-85 shooting splits. Even more impressive than that? The Lakers went 11-3 that month.

-During that same 2002-03 season Kobe had 19 games with 40+ points, a downright ridiculous number.

-During Kobe’s fabled 2005-06 season, he had 27 game with 40+ points (that’s more than one-third of the games he played, and that’s an even more downright ridiculous number). He also had six 50+ point games, and that included his 81 point explosion against Toronto, and his 62-points-through-three-quarters decimation of the Dallas Mavericks.

-Kobe’s 122 games with 40+ points from 2000 through 2016 are 51 more than Allen Iverson‘s 71 games. Iverson is second on that list. Kobe has two fewer 40+ point games than LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade do combined.

Despite a once in a generation ability to score the basketball, Kobe’s reputation started taking hits. He’s selfish. He can’t win on his own. He’s not MJ. To varying degrees, all of these critiques were warranted. With dudes like Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Sasha Vujacic getting major minutes at various points during those first three post-Shaq years, the deck was stacked against Kobe. Winning big with that group would be a near impossibility, and finding the generosity to get scrubs like them involved when the far better option would be to shoot the ball yourself, it’s at least a little understandable why Kobe jacked 24 shots per game those three seasons and carried himself like someone who loathed everyone who was around him.

The narrative began changing once the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol and the Lakers made their way back to the NBA Finals in 2008. Even though Kobe was still moody and single-minded and bitter and probably not a ton of fun to play with, he was winning and it turns out that this was the one thing that Kobe could do so everyone would forgive all of his sins. We forgot about the mistreatment of teammates and the trade demands and the way he’d fluctuate between telling you exactly what was on his mind and being a passive-aggressive asshole who would go entire halves without shooting. Kobe won back to back titles in 2009 and 2010, and even if most fans agreed he wasn’t MJ, there was at least the understanding that this was the closest MJ impersonation anyone had ever done throughout their entire career, and we loved him for it.

The things Kobe was critiqued for before the 4th and 5th rings became the stuff of legends. The stories of his tormenting of lousy teammates like Smush Parker and his disregard for connecting on a human level with anyone during his career only added to the Kobe’s legacy; a legacy that was built on championship rings and stone-cold daggers and bewildering scoring/shot-making. Kobe’s assertion that “Friends come and go but banners hang forever,” began to symbolize Kobe’s cutthroat nature, even though it said just as much about those frustrating three years when the Lakers were stuck in mediocrity as Kobe was figuring out how to win on his own. With the help of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest and others, Kobe did indeed figure out how to win on his own.

Maybe more interesting, and definitely more sad, was watching Kobe figure out how to lose as his body broke down and his skills diminished and he was no longer able to do the marvelous things he once was able to do. And this brings us back to April 13th, 2016.

All season long on Kobe’s farewell tour we watched as Kobe attempted time and time again to will himself to do something his body would no longer allow. Every so often Kobe would elevate for a dunk or hit an impossibly tough jumper over great defense and it was a reminder of what was so great, so polarizing in the past. More often than not Kobe wouldn’t be able to string together a series of impressive buckets. He’d follow up a jumper in traffic with two airballs and a brick. We wanted him to be vintage Kobe but not a fraction as much as Kobe wanted to be vintage Kobe. He remained fearless and dubious to criticism. In his mind he was surely the same guy he was 15 years earlier. Only the on-court result was never, ever the same.

And that’s what made the Kobe finale so frustrating for me, someone who wanted to see the league looking forward, not backward. It was to be expected that Kobe would shoot an absurd amount of shots in his final game, and if the present told us anything it was that he’d miss the vast majority of them. Nothing about that felt celebratory. It was depressing.

But in that final game Kobe Bryant improbably made his past the NBA’s present for one more night. Clearly running on empty, Kobe saved his most memorable performance for last. Yes, more memorable than the 81-point game. More memorable than any postseason or NBA Finals gem. More memorable than when he knocked down two free throws with a torn achilles tendon. Kobe’s final game will always be the most memorable one for me. It was a gutty display of single-minded dominance, sense of the moment, sheer will to win and an unbridled love for the game of basketball. It served as a reminder that sometimes the past means much more than the present. And as if we needed it, Kobe reminded us that he’s one of the very best to ever do it.

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