The unfinished symphony of Kobe Bryant
As NBA fans for well over a decade, my older brother and I naturally have endless debates about the league, like all fans and friends do. But with the big bro, the discussions are slightly stranger. We argue less about the best players of moment or the favourite to win the title this season; we spend more time constantly reconstructing the bigger picture: Who are the Greatest of All Time? Which players – throughout NBA history – would make the most unstoppable offensive lineup? Who is your All Time ‘intimidating knucklehead’ starting five? And so on and so forth.
But how do you quantify and compare talents across different generations on the same platform? What measuring-stick do you use? Do you rank players by the number of championships they’ve won? Do you rank them by their MVP, Finals MVP, DPOY, All Star appearances and other individual accolades that they collected? Do you only focus on their stats? Do you worry about intangible things like what the player brought to the team’s chemistry, toughness, or that thing we sports writers like to call ‘heart’? How about theoretically matching up players against each other – in their peak years – to see who would do better? Do you take their loyalty to a franchise into account?
If you’re a true geek, you’ve had these conversations and pondered about these questions yourself. And many-a-times, you may have eased the debate by putting players in different categories (e.g.: Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James are the best statistical players, bit Bill Russell and Michael Jordan are the best winners). Do we focus on a player’s talent at its absolute peak or do we take their entire career’s body of work before deciding which one is better?
The answer perhaps lies somewhere between all those different questions. To rank, say, your top 10 greatest players of all time, you probably use a bit of everything. You count the rings, you count the stats, you rate their talent at their peak, you worry about the fuzzy definition of ‘a will to win’. The big bro and I have done this over and over again and it never gets boring. We drop names like Jordan, Magic, Russell, Kareem, Oscar, Shaq, and Wilt like we’re dropping names of our oldest friends. It’s addictive, it’s maddening, and as we change as fans, our lists are constantly changing too.
One of these days, I’ll freeze my list and write about it, justifying every position on the top 10 (Spoiler Alert: Number 1 is this guy). But today is not that day. Today is a day that we concern ourselves with a great who’s still getting greater before our very eyes, a legend whose legend is still unfinished, a name that can be as easily mentioned amongst the Jordans, the Magics, and the Russells as it is mentioned amongst the LeBrons, the Durants, and the Melos.
Today, we speak about Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers are an interesting bunch. Never has there been a team with so much talent that is battling not for a championship but for the 8th spot in the playoffs. It’s hilarious to watch them struggle and at the same time Kobe Bean Bryant has ensured that it’s absolutely necessary to watch them. Despite struggling around a .500 record, this team provides drama every night. Every game is an event. And recently, every event has been the Kobe Bryant Show.
Even past the age of 34, Kobe continues to play at an astonishingly high level, so high that he would’ve been a top three nominee for the MVP award if his Lakers were doing a little better. He’s been playing this game at the pro level for 17 years, so there’s a lot that we already know about him. We know that he’s one of the most technically gifted players of all time. We know he works his a** off. We know he’s a great shooter and a fantastic scorer. We know he’s won an MVP award, five Championships, two Finals MVPs, and is fifth in the NBA’s All Time scoring list (the only active player in the top 15). We know he once scored 81 points in a single game. We know that he has a reputation – earned or exaggerated – of being one of the greatest clutch performers in league’s history.
But this season, while his team struggles for respectability, Kobe has taken his game up yet another level. Here is a guy who forced his way into conversations of the NBA’s elite since the late 90s. A guy who has seen different eras pass and has been the league’s most successful and popular player for a decade and a half. He has played with and against everyone, from Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, and Tracy McGrady, down to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Dwight Howard. And yet, year after year, he keeps coming back for more, coming back for greatness. The only other players who have remained in the conversation as elites through the same (or longer) time period are Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
And as one era passes into the next, everything else changes, but Kobe remains elite. I have joked on numerous occasions that if the only certainties in life are death and taxes, then the only certainties in NBA basketball are the Spurs being great and Kobe being Kobe. Every year, we expect the Spurs to be too old and slow to contend, and every year, they keep coming back for more. Similarly, as Father Time fights to slow him down, we say annually that this season would be Kobe’s last as a top-shelf player, and every year, he proves us wrong. The mentality doesn’t change. The hunger doesn’t change. The Lakers could go from being championship contenders to lottery contenders. But Kobe stays Kobe-like.
He was supposed to be done by now. When Dwight Howard joined the Lakers, I had predicted that Kobe would take a secondary role in the team, playing as the closer and seeing his scoring averages fall to around 22-23 ppg. I had compared the Dwight-Kobe duo to the Garnett-Pierce duo for the Celtics in 2008: Garnett was the team’s MVP, but Pierce was the x-factor and the one who stepped up in the championship series to take the Finals MVP award. I’d expected Kobe to be like 2008 Paul Pierce.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Howard’s taken way too long to find his confidence and his health (which might still be an issue) and has struggled for most of this season. Kobe on the other hand, has been fantastic. This season, Kobe is averaging his career-high field-goal percentage (47.5 percent), and his highest assists output in eight years (5.7 apg). He is still a top three scorer in the league (27.8 ppg). He is still dunking on folks like it’s 1998. He briefly transformed into ‘facilitator Kobe’ before switching to ‘scorer Kobe’ and then putting all the good Kobes together on the floor. And since the All Star break, he has become even better, averaging 32.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 7.1 apg on an incredible 53.1 percent shooting in the last ten games. In the same stretch, the Lakers have gone 8-2 and finally cracked the top eight of the West. Of qualified players this season, Kobe’s efficiency rating is only third below the league’s current most transcendent talents: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Even with the Lakers written off by many, Kobe guaranteed a playoff finish for them, and now, he is doing everything to ensure that his season doesn’t end too early. He’s playing injured, he’s playing with ‘old-man cramps’, he’s dominating like it’s 2006 all over again, he’s snatching victory from jaws of defeat, he’s making bit shots like they’re practice free throws, and he’s absolutely refusing to give up.
Kobe has an impossible-to-quench thirst for success, and one thing is for certain: no matter how the Lakers do this season, no one in their right mind would proclaim that the Mamba is anywhere close to being done. At this point, it looks like he has several more elite years left in him.
All of this got me wondering: where would I rank Kobe in my pantheon of greatest ever players? It’s tricky because unlike many others in the pantheon, he’s still putting in work and still rising. When it’s all said and done, how will we judge Kobe?
Will we count his Championships? He won five, but three of them came playing a secondary role to one of the greatest players of all time, Shaquille O’Neal.
Will we count his points? He has scored a lot of them. He’ll be one of the greatest scorers of all time. But these days, scoring isn’t enough. You have to rebound. You have to assist. You have to have a higher shooting percentage. LeBron James has raised everyone’s standards of statistical expectations.
Will we count his individual awards? Kobe is an All Star and NBA First Team regular, which means that he’s always amongst the top five players in the league. But he has only one regular season MVP award to his name, that too which was given to him more of a ‘career recognition’ award than for actually being best player in 2008 (when I felt that Kevin Garnett should’ve won it; my brother felt it should’ve been LeBron). Despite the long span of his dominance, Kobe has rarely been the absolute number 1 best player in the world. I’d say he probably was the clear best in the world from 2005-2007.
Will we measure him for his absolute peak? That peak was perhaps the 2005-06 season, when, surrounded by a bunch of ragtags in Laker uniforms around him, Kobe went berserk. He averaged 35.4 points per game, his career high. He scored 81 points in a game. He scored 62 points in three quarters against the Mavericks. He averaged 43.4 points through an entire month of January. Struggling in a mid-table side, he was not named MVP (Steve Nash was), but this was his finest year. How does his peak rank against the peaks of other greats? Of Michael Jordan’s many dominant seasons between 1987-1993, of Shaquille O’ Neal in 2000, of Tim Duncan in the early 2000s, of LeBron James the last few years, etc?
Because of his transcendent, era-defying career, Kobe is becoming harder and harder to place. In many ways, he has played a secondary role to other players: being second to Shaq for most of his Championships, finishing second to Nash and LeBron in many MVP races, being second only to the greatest player of the game Michael Jordan in his approach to the game, collecting five Championships, ‘only’ two so far as the team’s best player (I say ‘only’ when relative to the likes of Jordan, Magic, Bird, etc.). Being second to LeBron in statistical dominance. So what does he do – and what does he keep doing – that makes him one of the greatest players of all time?
The answer dawned upon me when the Lakers faced the Thunder last week. The surge of Kobe’s ever-improving performances and his never-say-die attitude was adding up. The legacy was being padded, game after game after game. Early in this contest, Kobe hurt his elbow and had to take a trip to the locker room to get it checked out. Minutes later, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, he came back on the court to dominate the game. This wasn’t even that serious of an injury, but it marked just another day in the life of the NBA’s finest warrior. We had seen him do this before: seen him play through injury more than any other player of his time, seen him come back and finish games, seen him turn defeat into victory, seen him keep taking the hit and stay standing. The Lakers lost to the unstoppable Thunder that day but Kobe still finished with 30 points. A few games later, he had 42 points and 12 assists in a mesmerizing comeback win over the Hornets. A game later, he had 41 points and 12 assists in an equally memorable comeback win over the Raptors.
But it was that night against the Thunder that I realized that, when we make our ‘greatest ever’ lists and discuss Kobe, we won’t just talk about his Championships, his scoring records, or his individual accolades. We’ll talk about what truly makes him great: his drive to keep coming back, keep reaching higher, of staying hungry to get better, and better, and better; believing that – no matter his age or his health – he can defeat any given foe on any given night.
I feel like I’ve written the obituary of a career completed; but of course, Kobe isn’t close to being done yet.
When it’s all said and done, we won’t just count Kobe’s rings or his points. We’ll count the number of times he’s refused to back down.
And in Kobe Bryant’s unfinished basketball symphony, we’re still counting.