What measures “greatness” in a player? Is it stats? Skill? Toughness? Clutch shooting? There may never be a solid a true perfect measure of greatness since it can always be argued one way or another. But when it comes to Kobe Bryant, you cannot argue he’s had a phenomenal career that support his Hall of Fame induction on the first ballot. With his looming retirement at the end of this year, and with how the Lakers likely won’t make the playoff, it’s time to kick in high gear the discussion of where Kobe falls in ranking of all-time players.
I think few would question he’s the second greatest shooting guard behind Michael Jordan. That’s pretty standard across the board. Some analysts like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless that put him in their top 10 solidly yet others from ESPN don’t feel the same way. Now I want to preface this entire explanation by saying I am personally a fan of Kobe and like what he’s done for basketball. This is not a personal feeling against him in any nature, it’s simply analyzing stats and then trying to include intangibles later in the discussion. So let’s get back on point and show you why Kobe Bryant is not quite a top 10 all-time NBA player. (Hint, he still ranks pretty close though) Note: All the data numbers were gathered from basketball-reference.com as of 12/30/2015
What Was Analyzed
Kobe knows how to score. In fact, after his determination, most people would say Kobe is best known for scoring. In that case, scoring should be the basis around how we measure Kobe’s greatness right?! We took the data from the top 20 scorers of all time and analyzed Kobe against them in several key areas all focused on offense and scoring. When Kobe is compared to these greats in terms of numbers and efficiency, he ranks right in the middle. Where Kobe excels is his praise from fans and coaches in terms of voting. Kobe ranks at or near the top in every voting type category like All-Star appearance and All-NBA 1st Team voting. These all need to be factored in to see how Kobe can rank. We did not include a lot of defensive numbers. Kobe was considered a pretty good defender in his time, but that’s not our area of focus as we want to prove that in Kobe’s element of scoring, he still not quite a Top 10 player.
Kobe’s Scoring is Top Notch – But Not As Good As You Think
We all know that Kobe is currently ranked 3rd all-time in scoring with over 32,000 points. That’s pretty insane and you have to give credit where credit is due. However, Kobe’s scoring statistics may be more humbling than most Kobe fans want to admit. When you factor in his rank within offensive categories (PPG, FG%, 3PT%, FT%, TO) he barely cracks the top 10. Assists were not a big factor in this analysis because half of these players are power forwards and centers. It wouldn’t be fair to include assists because we’ve already left out many of the top assisters in the game like Magic and Stockton. When you measure PPG (point per game), Kobe ranks 6th out of 20 behind obvious guys like Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, but even some surprising players like LeBron James and Oscar Robertson . Now 6th isn’t bad by any stretch, but I wouldn’t expect LeBron or Robertson to top Kobe in “his element” of scoring PPG.
In terms of efficiency with field goal percentage, Kobe ranks near the bottom in overall FG%, he ranks 5th in 3-point %, and 4th in free-throw %. His rank of 18 out of 20 in FG% is rather striking and points to a factor than many have claimed about Kobe: he is a high-volume, lower-percentage shooter. Combine that with 20 years in the league and it becomes easier to see how he’s gotten 32,000 points. Again, credit must be given to the fact that Kobe has been extremely healthy throughout most of his career. That is a testament to his dedication, preparation, and maturity to keep his body on track all the time. Kobe is a much better free-throw shooter and 3PT shooter than the competition, but again I’ll remind everyone that half of the field is centers and power forwards who aren’t shooters. In fact, out of the 10 remaining players, Kobe ranks right in the middle and barely beats His Airness by 0.7%. Free throws are where Kobe ranks extremely well against a complete field. There’s no excuse for big men to be terrible free throw shooters like Shaq so Kobe goes against everyone in this stat. Ranking 4th is a huge boost for him and should be noted that way!
Another offensive category that is deemed relevant is turnovers. A crucial aspect of every game and can only be done on offense. Turnovers are not exclusive to smaller guards and can be an equal platform to measure all top 20 scorers. In the category of turnovers per game, Kobe ranks 16 out of 20 which is pretty bad. Kobe was the worst among guards and second worst to LeBron when small forwards are concerned also. This is a somewhat alarming stat as it showcases some level of recklessness with Kobe’s game. Now we have a high-volume shooter who shoots a decent 3PT%, a pretty bad FG% and has a high turnover percentage.
The final offensive stat to compare is one that again people consider Kobe to be “great” in, and that’s clutch shooting. Surprising as it is, Kobe ranks pretty poorly among some great shooters in hitting game tying or game winning shots. This picture below is from ESPN and I do not own the rights to it, but it showcases my point with Kobe compared to MJ and LeBron when the game is on the line. Most people think Kobe has that ice-in-his-veins quality, but ESPN showed otherwise. Kobe has shot the most clutch moment shots and made the least among the three players for an average of 23% successful. Even LeBron James, who has the reputation of choking, has a better percentage than Kobe. That’s saying something…
Good News For Kobe – He’s A Fan Favorite
Kobe Bryant may be one of the most fan-favorite players ever. He ranks either first or tied for first in several voting categories like All-Star appearances, All-NBA Team recognition and All-Defensive Team recognition. He has consistently been one of the top vote receivers in many categories regardless of if it’s fans, players, or coaches voting. Kobe also has a huge box-office number and draws massive number with him wherever he goes. These factors should have some weight in his “greatness” just like it does with other players like Magic and Bird. Those two don’t necessarily hold records in many categories, but they are well known, well respected, and well documented as being Top 10 players. So Kobe deserves that recognition also.
Not Good News – Kobe Isn’t Much Better In Playoffs
One final area to showcase that Kobe isn’t truly a Top 10 player, but rather a 10-15 player is in playoff performance. We don’t need to get into the Shaq vs. Kobe debate of those first 3 rings. Every great player had a good team around them and that shouldn’t be held against Kobe because his GM was fantastic at attracting talent. Kobe has 5 championships which rank 4th in our system, but only one NBA MVP which ranks 8th. MVP aren’t everything but they are a factor. In some playoff categories like PPG, FG% and turnovers, Kobe actually improves one spot on the list, but that’s only one spot. Kobe’s still shooting just under 45% from the field which is still 17th in the list. In other categories like 3PT% and FT% he either stays the same or worsens.
Here’s the last factor with the playoffs – percent of the seasons played he led his team to the playoffs. Now this is a tough category to rank because make Kobe fans would blast that injuries hurt Kobe here.
But injuries or other factors hurt several of these key players. So let’s try to be fair about this. Excluding this current season, Kobe will have missed the playoffs a total of 4 times in his career. Three of those can certainly be blamed on the injury in early 2013 when he popped his Achilles when the Lakers were in the hunt for the 8th seed in the West. The Lakers were nothing without Kobe the next 2 seasons and that’s not his fault. So realistically, Kobe only missed the playoffs once in the prime of his career. That goes right along with several other players when you do their due diligence. Karl Malone never missed the playoffs in his career. That is incredible to say the least, but also another story. Technically, Tim Duncan’s team never missed the playoffs either. In the 1999-2000 season, the Spurs got into the playoffs, but Duncan got hurt the last month of the season and never played in the playoffs. The Spurs were swept in the first round, but they still made it. So technically, Duncan and Malone are perfect in leading their teams to the playoffs. Shaquille O’Neal missed the playoffs twice in his career; once as a rookie and once with the Phoenix Suns when he was 37 years old. The rookie year, Shaq deserves a pass because the year prior to his draft, Orlando went 21-61 and the year he was drafted Orlando went 41-41. He basically doubled their wins immediately but Orlando was just so pathetic they needed one more year. That’s not Shaq’s fault. The exact same case can be made for LeBron James who technically missed the playoffs his first two years. LeBron’s rookie year was the same as Shaq’s in that they came to awful teams and doubled their wins immediately but it wasn’t enough for how bad that team was. LeBron’s second year shouldn’t be a pass though so he should have one miss marked against him. Michael Jordan technically missed two years of the playoffs, but both were with the Washington Wizards when MJ was 40 years old. Let me repeat….40 years old. Jordan did lead his team to the playoffs every year in Chicago so I would count that as 100%. Everyone else has some legitimate amount of misses on the playoffs so Kobe gets a tie for 4th (after Malone, Duncan and Jordan) along with 5 other players. However, I have no problem putting him at the bottom of that tie (aka 7th place) since his team still didn’t make the playoffs the year he got hurt. Like it or not, that doesn’t help his case since he needed to be a leader and get the team in a better position throughout the season and he failed to do that.
Final Analysis: Kobe’s Out of Top 10
So here we are and let’s summarize the rankings for Kobe so far.
Career Points: 3rd
Career PPG: 6th
Career FG%: 18th
Career FT%: 4th
Career 3PT%: 5th
Career TO: 16th
Playoff PPG: 5th
Playoff FG%: 17th
Playoff FT%: 9th
Playoff 3PT%: 5th
Playoff TO: 15th
All-Star Appearance: 2nd
All-NBA 1st Team: Tie 1st
NBA MVP: Tie 8th
NBA Championships: Tie 4th
Overall % of Seasons In Playoffs: 13th
Now I’ve averaged all these numbers except the career points, because I feel like this isn’t a true testament to greatness. Nobody would argue Kobe is greater than Michael Jordan because Kobe passed him on the all-time scoring list, so why should Kobe get credit for that now? When that is removed, Kobe’s average rank is exactly 10. So he ranks exactly in the middle of the 20 greatest scorers of all time. Definitely not a bad place to rank, but is that Top 10 Greatest of All Time worthy?
My answer is no, and here’s why. This list does not include 2 absolute Top 10 players of all time in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Those two never cracked the top 10 in scoring but everyone agrees they deserve a place somewhere in the top 10. Another potential top 10 player is Bill Russell who is also noticeably absent from the top 20 scorers. Scoring wasn’t Russell’s forte, but winning was! Not everyone would agree he’s Top 10 Ever worthy, but he should still be in consideration and could potentially rank higher than Kobe in some books. But regardless of Russell, there are about 15 players who could rank for the Top 10 ever and it depends on who you talk to. We’ve only just proven that in Kobe’s most prolific aspect of scoring, he barely squeaks into the Top 10, and then you factor in the obvious players that need to rank above him and it becomes a no-brainer. Kobe should rank somewhere in the 11-15 spot, but that is what you can determine.