Thursday, June 4, 2009
Where Will Kobe Rank All-Time If He Can Win This Title?
I've heard that he's top-15 with a chance to crack the top-8. I've heard that he's top-10 with a chance to break the top-5. Many have their opinion about where Kobe Bryant ranks historically right now, and where Kobe Bryant will rank if he can secure a fourth championship ring this month.
In the modest estimation of this writer, as we speak only eight players sit ahead of Bryant all-time: Michael Jordan (man among men); Wilt Chamberlain (man among boys); Bill Russell (11 rings); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (most underrated); Magic Johnson (transcended a position, could do anything on a basketball court); Larry Bird (raw, master basketball player).
Bryant was a better end-to-end player than the latter two legends, but they were the best two players on five and three championship teams, respectively.
I'd put Shaq O'neal and Timmothy Duncan before him, too, for they also were the best players on multiple title winning squadrons. I wouldn't put Jerry West ahead of him: he only won one championship, near the tail-end of his career, on the legendary 1971-72 Lakers, when he was pretty much equals with fellow Hall-of-Famers Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich (sort of a precursor to the KG-P2-Ray thing that happened 36 years later), and, in admittedly one of the great injustices in the history of the sport, never won a (regular season) MVP. Oscar Robertson was a statistical marvel, but fact is he never won a title on his own - he had to wait until the latter portion of his run, when he was second fiddle to a young Lew Alcindor on the 1970-71 Bucks.
Consider this: This season, Bryant became only the third member of what I consider to be a pretty exclusive club: the "first team All-NBA and all-defense team seven times each" club, joining Jordan and Duncan. I fairness, the all-defense team did not come into existence until the 1968-69 season. This was Russell's final campaign, and obviously many of the stars of the '60s were greatly precluded from inclusion, so its not the fairest list. Still though, that's 40 years of hoop right there, and for Bryant to be in such rare company, with the greatest player of all-time and, in my opinion, the best all-around big man of all-time, is a testament to the sweat of his career and the completeness of his game.
Bryant scores more purely than anyone ever, rebounds and passes as well as any two-guard could be asked, handles better than any non-point guard in history, and to top it off, competes with a nightly zeal on defense not often seen from such great offensive players. And he has the accolades to back it up.
I was tempted to move Bryant to the very top of the list while watching him carve up the Magic Thursday night in Game 1 of the Finals, specifically his 17-point third quarter performance. It didn't surpass MJ's best work in that round, but it was a show to be remembered, for the level of superiority and sheer intensity on display. We already knew Kobe was a magician on the court, and we knew he was dead serious, but Thursday night he appeared to be on the verge of madness. I mean, not even MJ ever wanted a championship so badly he was turning visibly feral in its pursuit.
But I don't think he'll have to wait much longer, it really looks like in the next week he is going to get the prize he pines for. Orlando just didn't look like they belonged in Game 1; I'd almost say they looked scared. They'll play better - Howard won't have another game where he makes only one field goal, for one, and Orlando's 30 percent shooting from the floor indicates that more than giving credit to the Lakers defense (which was excellent), we must recognize that the Magic simply had one of those games.
But I have come up with this rule of thumb: In a match-up between the Lakers and another relatively equally talented team, if Kobe shoots about 40 percent, La La will very likely taste defeat. If he hovers around 45 percent, they will probably win. If he shoots 50 percent? The opponent has no chance. In L.A.'s two previous trips to the Finals, Bryant shot a respective 39 and 40 percent, and the Lakers lost both times.
But those failures came against the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics, two historically stout defensive clubs that made thwarting him their predicate to success. Not only do the Magic have no such defense or, apparently, game-plan, but Bryant is simply unstoppable now. He became a better shooter over the summer, adding more arc to his release in an effort to make himself more effective against the Boston-type defense that builds a fortress around the paint and forces him to get his points on long jumpers. He also sets up and plays more in the post now than ever before. He officially has an answer for everything. So, I see him shooting at least 47-48 percent in this series. Which means it's highly probable that the only remaining question is who is he about to leap-frog in the all-time rankings.
I don't know if one championship will shift him above anyone on my imaginary list, but something tells me he's got more than a single ring left in him. This dude is not nearly done playing basketball at a transcendent level. So we'll have this discussion now, and then we'll do the same a in a year or so, when he may be ready to make a real move up the ladder.