Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is now 3rd all-time in career points scored in the N.B.A., having just passed basketball’s diety Michael Jordan.
In approaching and passing this milestone, opinions on where Bryant stands in the hierarchy of basketball’s greatest players and on the significance of his career abound.
As Bryant approached the threshold of the career scoring mark held by the icon to whom he has been most compared throughout his career, Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, a leader in basketball commentary locally in Toronto and nationally in Canada, asserted on Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Tim and Sid show that if Kobe had not played for a foundational franchise like the Lakers and piggybacked on Shaquille O’Neal to claim three of his N.B.A. championships, his career and standing would be analogous to the increasingly maligned and denigrated New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.
Grange, author of a recent biography on two-time N.B.A. M.V.P. Steve Nash, is commonly a thoughtful and nuanced journalist on basketball matters.
His characterization of Kobe’s career, however, grotesquely misses the mark.
To be fair, Grange framed his cursory opinion with the caveat that he disliked Bryant generally. Still, he proceeded with his claim that, on the merits, Bryant was in effect a high-volume, low percentage shooter whose career has been overvalued and propped up by association to his club and an all-time 50 Greatest player (O’Neal).
Only an adulterated lens could view Kobe’s career this way.
On first principles, for teams with multiple stars, obtaining championships involves mutally beneficial symbiosis not parasitism. No forceful argument exists to claim that Shaq did not benefit from Kobe as much as Kobe did from Shaq. Equally notable, after the disintegration of the O’Neal-Bryant alliance and Shaq’s departure to join the Miami Heat, Bryant reached three N.B.A. Championship Finals and secured two additional N.B.A. Championships without the Big Aristotle`s help.
In 21st century terms, Kobe, coming straight out of high school, was a relatively low, UnMelo-like 13th overall pick in the draft. He had to bide his time a little before getting significant minutes in contrast to Carmelo Anthony, a freshman N.C.A.A. champ with Syracuse University and part of the heralded Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and…(gulp), Darko Milicic 2003 draft class.
But also unlike Melo, Kobe’s reputation for physical and mental preparation combined with elite in-game focus and effort is unassailable. Recall his platinum-level performances while facing sexual assault allegations. Presently, his rapid return from a torn achilles tendon and his subsequent speedy re-return from, arguably, the consequential injury arising from such a rapid return the first time, is weighty evidence of the Mamba’s effort and discipline even while past his prime.
When skill sets are scrutinized, Kobe has truly been multi-dimensional. He`s been able to devastate with the short, mid or long-range game. He`s been fast and quick. He could get north but anihilated competitors by moving east-west. He could go vertical but was probably more of a danger going horizontal.
Where the reckless comparison to Anthony (or to similar formidable scorers) also implodes is when defensive prowess is added to the mix.
Defence, that consistently neglected element in assessing individual greatness, has been as fundamental to Bryant`s game as his offence. As a 12-time N.B.A. All-Defensive Team selection (9 of those being selections to the First Team), only Tim Duncan has been chosen more often (14) and no one, not even Dennis Rodman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Jordan, has been selected more often to the All-Defensive First Team. Frankly, a more comparable counterpart to Anthony on the defensive side might actually be Steve Nash as both players combine for zero All-Defensive Team selections.
Sure, this season Kobe seems to be shooting a lot and missing, proportionately, more often than he has in the past. Yes, his body in the most recent seasons has started to let him down. And of course, onery episodes seem to fit neatly into the hackneyed sports reporters` narrative of the aging superstar marring his “legacy“ in violent death roll to cling to greatness.
If those cursed with tunnelvision merely see the set backs of the last year or two, or simply latch on to any foible or grating personality trait to feed a confirmation bias, then Kobe`s greatness will always seem more apparent than real to them.
But make no mistake. The same Bryant whose career upon which many commentators are rushing to place a gravestone has this season, when they least expected it, turned around and compiled a triple-double in a winning effort.
He`s the same guy that Dirk Nowitzki recently described as “… probably the greatest player in my generation that I played against…Obviously Shaq was very dominant, Tim Duncan was great, but I just loved watching Kobe. I don’t think there will ever be another MJ, but he’s definitely as close as it gets that we’ll ever see.”
If the point needed coroboration, Nowitzki’s evidence confirms Kobe’s career identity as a generational cold-blooded competitor who has been a big shot taker, a big shot maker, and a fourth-quarter killer.
Yes, the greats decline because god-like moments do not change the fundamental humanity of the performers.
But declining play after almost two decades of superlative N.B.A. basketball does not obliterate the factual record. And for anyone able to see Kobe Bryant’s career without bias or blindspots, the facts speak for themselves.