Pro basketball careers before 1995 had a symmetry to them. Highly recruited high school players attended powerhouse collegiate programs like North Carolina or Kansas, became All Americans, reached Final Fours, and were household names by the time they were drafted into the NBA. Collegiate stars became NBA stars with few exceptions.
The most dominant of players would leave after their junior season. The mega stars like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Chris Webber left after their sophomore years, but it was rare. Blue chippers drafted as lottery picks were instantly given the keys to their franchises. Most became All Stars by their second or third season and their teams improved into contenders by their mid to late 20′s. It was predictable and provided a semblance of hope to frustrated fan bases.
Then came 1995.
Kevin Garnett declared for the draft out of high school. He was clearly the best high school player in America. A near 7 footer with off the charts athleticism and skill. He was the kind of talent the NBA gambled on, like Moses Malone and Shawn Kemp before him. In that draft, 4 sophomores and Garnett were taken with the first five picks and the league was never the same.
Enter Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant has amassed the best career the NBA has ever witnessed. Yet his entire body of work is never properly gauged against the improbability of it happening. No historical player has ever overcome as many obstacles to greatness as him.
Bryant was the National High School Player of the Year in 1996. Under the traditional template, he would have been heralded in college and eventually selected as a top 3 pick in the draft . He would have been the star of his franchise and gotten to do whatever he wanted on the court. As he entered the 1996 draft, arguably the greatest and deepest in league history, what normally would be a can’t miss prospect now became a 17 year old question mark.
With can’t miss prospects like Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Antoine Walker, Ray Allen, and Stephon Marbury available, Bryant fell to 13th. While his handlers scared some teams off, no one was quite sure how quickly he’d develop. He was drafted to a Lakers team loaded with young talent. If he was going to thrive, he’d have to earn it.
Its easy now to scoff at the idea of Kobe Bryant being stuck on the bench behind Eddie Jones, but in 1996, Eddie Jones was one of the rising stars in the league. He was a versatile two way player and budding All Star. The Lakers didn’t need to play Bryant and it showed during his rookie year, as his role and minutes fluctuated throughout the year.
Jones and Bryant had a relationship from their Philadelphia years that mitigated an awkward situation. The Lakers tried Bryant at backup point guard and small forward as a way to utilize both players, but they were similar and in the long run they would need to be separated.
Of the great players in history only George Gervin and Jermaine O’Neal had the experience of sitting behind a young star player, biding their time to let their talents blossom. In his second season, Bryant became an All Star starter and finished as runner up for Sixth Man of the Year.
His personality was beginning to overtake Jones, but again Jones’ presence affected Bryant’s statistics. He only averaged 15.4 ppg for the season. Had Jones never been a Laker, Bryant would have reached superstardom sooner.
1993 to 1999
NBA Drafts from 1993 to 1999 produced the greatest influx of elite wing talent the league has ever seen. The shooting guard/small forward position became a murderer’s row of star players and tough matchups.
Grant Hill, Eddie Jones, Jerry Stackhouse, Penny Hardaway, Michael Finley, Allan Houston, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Manu Ginobili, and Metta World Peace all became All Stars. Kerry Kittles, Michael Dickerson, Isaiah Rider, Cuttino Mobley, Corey Maggette, and Larry Hughes became very good starters each averaging near 20 points a season.
The instant stardom of numerous perimeter players of a similar size and playing style blunted the cultural force an ascending Bryant could claim. Most teams had young wing players that could do many of the same things Bryant could, making separation difficult.
Michael Jordan never had to face such depth and talent at his position, leaving him unquestioned status as the best of his era.
Consider the 2000-2001 season when Bryant took the leap to Superstardom:
Kobe Bryant: .464 fg%, 28.5 ppg, 5.9 rebs, 5.0 assists, 1.7 stls
Allen Iverson: .420 fg%, 31.1 ppg, 3.8 rebs, 4.6 assists, 2.5 stls
Vince Carter: .460 fg%, 27.6 ppg, 5.5 rebs, 3.9 assists, 1.5 stls
Tracy McGrady: .457%, 26.8 ppg, 7.5 rebs, 4.6 assists, 1.5 stls
Paul Pierce: .454 fg%, 25.3 ppg, 6.4 rebs, 3.1 assists, 1.7 stls
Jerry Stackhouse: .402 fg% 29.8 ppg, 3.9 rebs, 5.1 assists, 1.2 stls
Ray Allen: .480 fg%, 22.0 ppg, 5.2 rebs, 4.6 assists, 1.5 stls
Michael Finley: .458%, 21.5 ppg, 5.2 rebs, 4.4 assists, 1.4 stls
Imagine that, one quarter of the league having a perimeter star they could claim was the best in the league. Was it Kobe? Was it Iverson, Tracy, or Vince? Kobe was in the midst of winning championships, but his standing was questioned most during this time, because of the success other players were having individually on lesser teams. When measuring Kobe against Jordan, this is where he falls short.
In reality, he was playing in a drastically more competitive league than Jordan did. He would have to prove his greatness another way.
These two have been discussed repeatedly so the narrative is well known. Bryant was O’Neal’s sidekick so goes the conventional thinking. What’s often overlooked is that they were the two best players in the game at that time.
The Lakers weren’t constructed like the powerhouses of the 1980′s that were loaded with stars and good players. They were surrounded by good role players but not scorers. They did the heavy lifting. Bryant was the team’s de facto point guard, its secondary rebounder, best defender, ballhandler and passer. He was the crunch time scorer not Shaq.
Yet critics like to diminish Kobe’s three titles with Shaq as not as significant as other stars’ because he didnt win a Finals MVP with Shaq. But look at this:
Regular Season Playoffs
1999-2000: Shaq (29.7 ppg) Kobe (22.5 ppg) Shaq (30.7 ppg) Kobe (21.1 ppg)
2000-2001: Shaq (28.7 ppg) Kobe (28.5 ppg) Shaq (30.4 ppg, 15 r) Kobe (29.4 ppg)
2001- 2002: Shaq (27.2 ppg) Kobe (25.2 ppg) Shaq (28.5 ppg, 12 r) Kobe (26.6 ppg)
2002-2003: Kobe (30.0 ppg) Shaq (27.5 ppg) Kobe (32.1 ppg) Shaq (27.0 ppg)
2003-2004: Kobe (24.5 ppg) Shaq (21.5 ppg) Kobe (24.5 ppg) Shaq (21.5 ppg)
In 2001 O’Neal called Bryant “the best player in the world, and its not even close.” Was he joking? With the exception of the Phil Jackson’s first season, its clear Bryant was no one’s sidekick. Shaq’s first title came exactly as Bryant began to rise to greatness. That is not coincidental.
Kobe Bryant’s greatest obstacle in perceiving his career properly was, is, and will always be Jordan. Bryant came into the league while Jordan was still winning championships and at the height of his legend. He didn’t back away from the comparisons. He carried some of Jordan’s mannerisms and had many of his moves. The hype culminated in the 1998 All Star Game.
Ultimately this comparison created a straightjacket for Bryant where every success or failure was judged in comparison to Jordan. The mythology of Jordan was airbrushed to ignore his early struggles, playoff failures, and personality defects. Meanwhile Bryant’s growing pains were magnified and the backlash sullied his image. It didnt matter if the perception wasn’t the truth.
When Bryant scored 81 points, he was called a ball hog. Never mind that Jordan led the league in shot attempts 9 times to Bryant’s 5.
And so it goes with the two. Kobe never reached Jordan’s ceiling not because of his lack of ability, but because of the quality of the league they competed in. Yet another avenue was denied him. To prove his place in history he would have to do what no other has done.
This is where Kobe Bryant rules the roost. No player has been dominant longer. The sheer volume and consistency of the numbers and accolades he is compiling, has begun to separate himself from the other legends. Youngest All Star ever, Oldest player to score 40 in three consecutive games. Most 1st Team All NBA’s ever. Most All Star MVP’s ever. Top 5 in the MVP voting in his 17th season.
Bryant will retire with such a staggering level of accomplishment, that the total of his career will be too substantial to deny.
His detractors have argued for years, why he falls short. With each passing year it becomes impossible to refute his body of work. You can argue whether other players were better at their peak, but you can’t debate Bryant’s longevity, his consistency, and his resume. It stands up to every player that has ever played.
If in fact he continues his career for another 3 years and wins one more title, it will be impossible to deny who is the greatest player ever. And he will sit back and say “I told you so”.