By Sean Sendall
The unenviable role of a clock: constantly working to remind us all what little power we truly have over it. Steadily ticking, the clock will move past 12:45 EDT Wednesday morning, unfazed.
Unbeknownst to time and, quite probably, unviewed by a majority here on the East Coast, when the clock steadily ticks toward 1:00 a.m. Kobe Bryant will walk off an NBA court as a professional athlete for the final time.
Kobe will be given his due. Transcending generations to break into the conversation of being one of the all-time greats. His final years were less than illustrious, but, like so many of the greats, he is not alone in playing his final year in forgettable fashion -think of Hakeem Olajuwon with the Raptors, or rather, please forget it ever happened. Yet, as has happened in recent history when greats retire, they are immediately placed on a pedestal in which they may not belong. Hearken back to 2010 when Brett Favre retired, for the last time. The national conversation revolved around his performance as a top-five all-time quarterback. As time past and the chatter died down, his statistics and performances are impressive, but many debates now circle around whether or not he even belongs in the top-ten.
George Santayana, educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard College, once penned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If I may amend the quote, “Those who choose to ignore the past are also condemned to repeat it.”
Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, but he is not a top-ten all-time player. He isn’t even in the top two all-time for his franchise!
The son of a former NBA player -a mediocre player at best, Jellybean Bryant, better known for his biological seed than anything else- and 13th overall pick certainly did well for himself, arguably usurping ‘The Logo’ on the Mount Rushmore of Lakers. However, an argument can be made that Jerry West still deserves his rightful place ahead of Kobe in this debate.
A conversation of greatness is never intended to knock a player, but to specifically highlight the reasons he does not deserve to be in the pantheon. Unfortunately, splitting hairs is not an exact science when debating the all-time greats. Statistics for each player will be astonishing and cannot be the only argument. The old fashioned ‘eye-test’ and historical facts must also be included to properly steer an honest debate.
Kobe Bryant is a five-time champion. From 2000-2002, Bryant paired with Shaquille O’Neal to dominate the NBA in a way that we hadn’t seen since Michael Jordan’s Bulls a few years earlier. At the time, Shaq was the most dominating force the NBA had seen since Wilt Chamberlain. A gifted athlete with freakish size, and a personality to match. During that stretch there was no debate, O’Neal was the superstar for the Lakers with Kobe playing the complimentary role. Years later, as we watched Bryant win his fifth ring and now, as he hangs up his sneakers, people seem to forget that he played second fiddle to Shaq during that stretch. Kobe was extremely talented and a prolific scorer, but he played the Scottie Pippen role on those teams.
Don’t remember it that way? Let me ask you this: Why did Kobe force Shaq out of Los Angeles?
There are only two possible reasons, which lead to the same conclusion: 1) Kobe knew Shaq was coming out of his prime and, as a professional athlete, it is hard to recognize when to hand over the reins to the next generation. Since Shaq wouldn’t do it himself, Kobe had to take control and force him out. Thus, admitting he was not the ‘top dog’ during the years they played together. 2) Kobe was simply sick of being number two. He knew he had the skills to be the top player on the team, but no one would see it if O’Neal were still around. Thus, admitting he was not the ‘top dog’ during the years they played together.
There’s nothing wrong with being Scottie Pippen, nor is there anything wrong with seeing the future for what it is. In either light, Kobe is still not the all-time dominant player that Shaquille O’Neal was.
So, Kobe wasn’t even the best player on more than half of his Championships. Not a knock, but a simple view of history that isn’t skewed by the power and influence of the moment.
Was Kobe Bryant even the best player of his generation?
Deciphering when generations begin and end is a project unto itself. For argument sake, let’s splice it into Shaq’s generation was slightly before, despite the clear overlap, and LeBron’s was after, despite the overlap. Really, it’s a distinction of prime.
Kobe’s prime overlaps with two other generational superstars: Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Unfortunately, Celtics fans, Garnett’s legacy with just one ring gets knocked to the bottom of this short list. Now, between Duncan and Kobe, Duncan was the number one option for four of his five Championships -truly, one could argue he was still the reason San Antonio won their most recent title. Duncan led San Antonio without berating teammates, as Kobe has done, and played a style that bridged the old big-man to the new, with the ability to play in the post and stretch the floor a bit -we can all picture a Duncan 19′ shot off-the-glass. Mr. Fundamental, it can be argued, is the true top-ten player of all-time in this generation.
In short, Kobe was not the best player of his generation.
Finally, who are the top players to ever play for the Lakers franchise?
There is some debate between who is truly number one, but Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are firmly set as the two best Lakers of all-time. Who fills in the next three slots, for a top-five, is up for debate.
The candidates: Bryant, West, Elgin Baylor, Shaq, Chamberlain, and George Mikan.
We have established that Shaq was the leader of the three-peat teams in the early 2000’s. He will sit ahead of Kobe. Elgin Baylor changed the game and may be one of the most underrated players in the history of the NBA; however, Elgin is also the best player to never win a Championship, so he slips below Kobe. When I think Chamberlain, I think Warriors or Sixers, not Lakers, despite one of his two Championships being in L.A.; he slips below Kobe as an all-time Laker, but not as an all-time player. Mikan was a five-time Champion in a seven-year career -think about that for a second, Mikan’s team was the last one standing in all but two of the seasons he played- and defined the game for the future of big men. However, given he had such a short career, he will be bumped below Kobe as well.
That leaves the debate of Kobe Bryant or ‘The Logo.’ Jerry West was an exceptional player with a storied career for the Lakers. There are two things that West is best known for, though: 1) Being the NBA logo and 2) Winning the 1969 NBA Finals MVP, despite losing the Championship to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. Kobe gets the nod ahead of West, which places him as the fourth best Laker of all-time
In summation, Kobe Bryant, while a transcendent player, does not rank all-time ahead of Magic, Kareem, Duncan, or Shaq. These are just a few of the players that Kobe falls behind. Before ranking Kobe think where you would rank these four first. The first three are top-ten all-time players in my book, O’Neal is not. The debate for Kobe, and Shaq for that matter, is not if they are top-ten all-time players, but if they are top-15 all-time. I’m not quite sure they both are, but it’s close and it’s an honest debate that takes history into account.