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Where Does Kobe Bryant Really Rank?

2010 October 19

• dEDGE Post Scriptum •

Michael Jordan, arguable the greatest ever, was recently asked where he would rank Kobe Bryant amongst the all-time greats. Jordan responded with, ”If you are talking about guards, I would say he (Kobe) has got to be in the top 10.” Now, whereas most Lakers fans first reaction was probably, “Are you effing kidding me?” MJ’s answer may not actually be that far off. First, calm down and take a few deep breaths to cleanse your mind. Now, think logically and forget about the current crop of NBA players.

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The comparisons may be unfair, but they cannot be avoided. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Think back to the glory years of the early Celtics, the Knickerbockers of the 70s, Showtime, the Bad Boys, the original Dream Team, now, do you get the picture? Narrow down the aforementioned to strictly guards and names like Cousy, Frazier, Monroe, Johnson, Thomas, Dumars, Stockton and Drexler immediately pop into your head. Throw in some very obvious omissions like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Nate Archibald, George Gervin and Pistol Pete Maravich and the list of all-time guard greats suddenly gets really crowded. And remember, I haven’t even spliced in today’s current crop of stars such as Steve Nash, Jason Kidd or Dwayne Wade.

Michael Jordan entered the scene as a “good” College Player of the Year and as the 3rd pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Selected ahead of him were centers, Hakeem Olajuwan and Sam Bowie. Little did anyone realize was that Jordan would soon change the entire NBA landscape from how the game was played all the way to how it was marketed. MJ entered the NBA with a sonic boom, immediately becoming a scoring sensation that was utterly unstoppable. When he came sailing in for a thunderous dunk, his tongue wagging would become the first of his many brand signatures.

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An early photo of vintage Air Jordan. Notice the N. Carolina practice shorts peeking out from under his Bulls uniform. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Michael brought a new meaning to “hang time.” He floated effortlessly and appeared to be walking in air, twisting away, under and through a line of defenders that fell prey to gravity as he continued to rise higher and higher. The culmination would be an astounding slam dunk, cocked from behind his ear and thrown down with both ferocity and authority. MJ embarrassed all that tried to stop him, to the point that players in the league conspired against him. But his Chicago Bulls remained a cast of nobodies and the strategy that most teams employed were to let Jordan get his 30+ points and limit everyone else from scoring. But as his teams got better, so did he.

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MJ, sporting his 6 championship rings remains 1-up on Kobe. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

No other player has ever transcended the game outside of the game as Jordan has. From his Air Jordan line with Nike to his gleaming shaved head, to his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls jersey, to the victory cigar after each championship, these images are iconic of MJ, the standard of which all others are compared. Statistically, Michael Jordan averaged 31.8 points per game (stats comprised from 11 complete seasons, excluding 17 games in an injury shortened 1985 and 26 games upon his return in 1994) with the Chicago Bulls to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per contest. He is a career 49.7% from the field and 83.5% from the line. MJ is a 10-time All-NBA First Team selection, 9-time All-Defensive First Team, 5-time NBA regular season MVP, 3-time All Star Game MVP, and 6-time NBA Finals MVP. And, he is by far, the NBA’s most celebrated and recognizable figure to this day.

There are a number of star guards who found unfathomable fame and success during their careers. But Jordan clearly defined the term greatness and thus comprising a Top Ten list becomes increasingly difficult. The separation between great and greatest is a fairly wide chasm. But everything below that is were things get really blurry. Those excluded are Hall of Famers, 50 Greatest Players of All-Time, perennial All-Stars, scoring champs, Finals MVPs, league MVPs, and otherwise superstars in every meaning of the word. One could questionably argue that at his peak, no other guard could match up with (fill in the blank) and come out on top. Surely, the early Celtics could not have won without the ball handling and passing wizardry of Bob Cousy. Who could forget the stylish Walt “Clyde” Frazier and the flashy Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. It was All-Defense teamed with All-Playground. Out on the West Coast, Mr. Logo (Jerry West) and the diminutive Gail Goodrich were teamed together to form one of the highest scoring backcourts.

Kobe taking on MJ in the All-Star game giving the fans exactly what they wanted. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Kobe taking MJ 1-on-1 in the All-Star game gave the fans exactly what they had asked. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

How about averaging a triple-double for an entire season? The Big O did just that by putting up 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game. In his 14-year career, the O-Train would compile averages of 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game. Compare that with Magic Johnson’s career stat lines of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game and you begin to see just how dominant Oscar Robertson was. Some may say that the level of competition was lower and to some degree, that’s true. But the defense was far more liberal back in the day; hand-checking was allowed thus providing the defender the ability to steer an offensive player into the teeth of the help defense. Players were much more physical; you had to be in order to compete against the brute force of a hard-nosed defensive specialist such as Jerry Sloan or Dave DeBusschere. And if you took the rock to the rack, be prepared to get knocked on your ass, because that was the big man’s domain. Think Steph Curry could get to the rim with Wes Unseld or Moses Malone occupying the paint? I think not…

There are plenty of players who never even get mentioned, but you could swear that they belong on this list. I admit, I don’t know much about players from the 60s or anything prior to that. I’m biased to the players I grew up with or watch today. I know nothing of Hal Greer, Sam Jones, or Lenny Wilkens but I can already hear the argument that starts with, “Back in the day…” I vaguely recall Dave Bing, Lou Hudson or Don Chaney but I do know all were standout defensive specialists with equally impressive offensive skills. I recall other equally great players such as Austin Carr, Jojo White and Calvin Murphy. Who could ever forget the bald head and trademark headband of Slick Watts, the lightening quickness of Gus Williams, or the play-making ability of Lionel Hollins? When the ABA got sucked into the NBA, a whole new slew of high scorers joined the Association. David “Skywalker” Thompson and George “Iceman” Gervin brought dazzling offensive skills that the conservative NBA had never seen before. As the NBA enjoyed their newfound growth and expansion, the level of the competition ramped up. Teams could no longer afford to carry a “goon” or a “hatchet-man” as the league began to clean up play. Don’t get me wrong, the NBA was still a man’s game, and it was also a few decades away from evolving into the powder-puff rules of today.

The similarities were uncanny, from the tone of their voice to the tongue wagging. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

The similarities were uncanny, from the tenor of their voices to the unrivaled desire to be the absolute best. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

In 1979, Earvin Johnson brought a unorthodox skillset to the NBA that no one had ever seen before. He was a 6’9″ point forward with the court awareness of a visionary. His game transformed guard play from a small man’s role into one that he could fully exploit with his huge size advantage. The 80s saw big guards with extraordinary ball handling and shooting skills take center stage. Walter Davis, Dennis Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and Reggie Theus led the new breed of NBA guards. But that didn’t stop smaller guards from trying to take advantage of their larger adversaries that now ruled the NBA. Relying on speed, quickness and the ability to penetrate and dish off, giant killers such as Calvin Murphy, Ernie DiGregorio, Spud Webb and Maurice Cheeks continued to put a dent into NBA defenses even though the trend towards bigger guards had firmly implanted itself into the minds of GMs across the league. Scouts everywhere were now in a constant search for the next Magic Johnson.

With Magic and the Lakers dominating the decade, teams tried desperately to devise a plan to unseat the 5-time World Champions. The 80s saw every team taking their best shot at the champs, and although they might win a game or two during the regular season, Los Angeles made a habit of disposing of them in the playoffs. That’s not to say that the Lakers had a cakewalk into the NBA Finals every season. They were met with superb guard play from the likes of Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Johnnie Moore, Paul Westphal and Rolando Blackman. The emergence of a 6’0″ point guard out of Indiana University created a nostalgic return to the traditional point guard in the form of Isiah Thomas. He was a dribbling demon and a quicker version of the speedy Nate Archibald. He could also score at will and often had defenses spinning their heads in disbelief.

Meanwhile, a new crop of super talented guards had emerged and were quickly gaining momentum while the Lakers continued to collect titles. Clyde Drexler, Lafayette “Fat” Lever, Alvin Robertson, John Stockton, Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin and a kid named Michael Jordan splashed onto the scene in the mid-80s. Others would soon follow suit, such as Ron Harper, Jeff Hornacek, Terry Porter, Dale Ellis, Kevin Johnson, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond and Mark Price but it would be a few years before any would reach the stardom that Magic had attained.

It wasn’t until the 1990-91 season that a team other than the Lakers, Celtics or Sixers had won the NBA title. That was also the year Michael Jordan hit the megastar level where he stood alone and above all others. MJ shone the brightest of any star and he gladly ascended the throne that Magic had previously occupied, knocking off the Lakers in 5 games in the NBA Finals. Jordan would remain an untouchable from that point on. He had already established himself as a unstoppable offensive force, easily outdistancing himself from the runners-up of the league. What had eluded him through his early years culminated in a string of championship runs that no other present day guard since can claim.

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A familiar scene for Chicago fans with MJ and PJ hoisting the hardware. Victory cigars would follow shortly thereafter. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dominated the 90s. With Magic’s abrupt retirement, the mantle belonged solely to Air Jordan. Not even Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys or Pat Riley’s thuggish Knicks could slow down Jordan and the Bulls. He would instead amass 6 titles, accomplished through two 3Peats separated by a short period when he decided to try pro baseball. Had he not left basketball when he did, Jordan most likely would have captured 8 consecutive titles. Everyone was second fiddle to the Bulls and Jordan. Each challenger would enter the fray with the utmost momentum and confidence, only to fall shattered in defeat at the hands of Jordan himself. He is the only player that I can recall who could turn his opponent into a bumbling, useless pile of broken nerves. He not only defeated his opponents, he left them doubting their own basketball skills, or lack there of. If Jordan was the measuring stick, no one even deserved to be mentioned in the same breath.

The stars that MJ left in his wake were a who’s who of the NBA. Clyde Drexler and his Portland Blazers were his next victims, followed by Kevin Johnson and his Phoenix Suns. Clyde would eventually get two rings with Houston while His Airness was busy shagging fly balls, but after Jordan’s short hiatus, Gary Payton and the Seattle Sonics faced a similar fate, then it was John Stockton and his Utah Jazz in the next two seasons giving Jordan his fifth and sixth rings. Facing the break-up of his team, and the stunning murder of his father, Jordan abruptly announced his retirement.

A young Kobe Bryant takes on His Airness. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

A young Kobe Bryant takes on His Airness. Check out MJ's Nike Air Jordans and Kobe's Adidas Crazy Eights. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Through his days with the Bulls, no one came close to challenging Jordan’s aura until a brash, young teenager was selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft. Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, it would be a few seasons before Kobe Bryant would be allowed to display his full arsenal. But there were glimpses of what was to come. Unafraid and eager to make a name for himself, Kobe drew rave comparisons to Michael, from his mature demeanor down to his killer-like instinct. Favoring seasoned veterans, then Lakers coach, Del Harris, used Bryant sparingly as the young phenom fidgeted on the bench. The influx of high school aged kids making the jump directly to the pros bypassing college altogether was just starting to ramp up. And those that did attend college were leaving earlier and earlier, hungry for the huge payday of the big leagues.

Jordan could score on anybody, and I mean anybody. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Jordan could score on anybody, and I mean anybody. No one defender could stop or even come close to denying him from getting to the rim. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Jason Kidd was a standout point guard out of Cal that evoked images of a young Magic Johnson. His pass first attitude was a welcome respite in a league that had turned into all flash and little substance. The NBA had become a playground for the young, wealthy and famous. The players were getting more and more physically gifted, yet were untested and often failed to live up to their huge billings. Penny Hardaway and Steve Smith, both 6’8″ point guards found following in the footsteps of Magic and Michael an unbearable weight and burden. Other talented big guards tried to fill the void left by Jordan, but were also unable to become the next heir apparent. Latrell Sprewell, Michael Finley and Jason Rose all arrived highly touted and highly skilled, but didn’t come close to the bar that MJ had established. All Stars such as Stephon Marbury, Alan Houston, Allen Iverson and John Starks all reached a high level of success but were never, ever mentioned in the same breath as Jordan. Quietly, a young Kobe Bryant continued to practice and hone his game, up to the point that he could no longer be overlooked.

It wasn’t until the 1999-2000 season when Kobe Bryant also won his first ring did talk begin to arise anew of a possible heir apparent. Kobe has since gone on to attain his own megastar status and in the process, climb to within a single title of catching the ever elusive Jordan. His 81-point outburst is second only to Wilt’s 100-point game. Not even MJ himself ever scored more than 69-points in a single contest. No one has ever been mentioned in the same conversation as Jordan except for Kobe. He currently ranks 12th all-time in points scored with Shaquille O’Neal the only active player ahead of him in 5th position. At his current pace, Kobe looks to leapfrog John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwan, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone, all within the next season.

Teacher and student. Antoine Walker is the drop-out. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Teacher and eager student. (And Antoine Walker playing the part as the delinquent drop-out.) Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Some have said that MJ had it relatively easy in the 90s, unlike Magic who had to battle tougher opposition on a nightly basis. Others claim Jordan could not win it on his own until management surrounded him with the talent that he needed. The same has been said about Kobe, that he could not account for his first three titles without a dominant Shaquille O’Neal. Convincing cases could be built for all of the above. But we’re not talking about greatest teams, greatest centers or greatest eras. We are talking about the greatest guards ever to play the game. Jordan and Magic have proven how they changed the game and reigned supreme. Kobe has, and is currently doing the same.

Just as MJ was wrapping up his career, Kobe's was getting ready to blast off. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Just as MJ was wrapping up his storied career, Kobe's was getting ready to blast off. Copyrights may apply. All rights reserved.

Kobe is now entering his 15th season and appears far from slowing down. He trails only one guard on the all-time scoring list and also trails this same individual five titles to six. Kobe would have to average a tick over 22-points per game over the next three seasons to surpass Wilt Chamberlain for third place on the scoring list. For reference, Kobe averaged 27-points per game this past season. Barring serious injury, Kobe is on a pace to overtake MJ in both scoring and titles won. He is currently tied with Magic Johnson with 5 rings apiece. If Kobe gets number six, he moves into second place in my evaluation of the all-time greatest guards. Anything after that is left to your own interpretation and a separate article dedicated to the Kobe-Michael debate.

lakers-EDGE Top 5 All-Time Greatest Guards
1. Michael Jordan
2. Magic Johnson
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Jerry West
5. Oscar Robertson

5 Responses
  1. Purple_Reign permalink
    October 21, 2010

    It pains me to agree, but MJ was the best 2 guard. Magic was the best 1 and Kobe’s the runner-up.

  2. Mike_R permalink
    October 21, 2010

    Hey Mars, “Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?”

    • STEVE-O permalink*
      October 23, 2010

      Money, it’s gotta be the shoes…

  3. Lake_Show permalink
    October 19, 2010

    Who says Laker fans are biased…?

  4. Lakers4Life permalink
    October 19, 2010

    MJ, West, Magic and Kobe are all the greatest of their respective eras but I believe Jordan is the greatest ever with Kobe a very close second.

Comments are closed.