Kobe Bryant

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By btails     10/24/2020
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Is Kobe one of the 5 greatest players in NBA history?

By:  | April 13, 2016 8:25 am 

Kobe Bryant will play his final NBA game this evening against the Utah Jazz (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET). Faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to Bryant the player, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bryant’s legacy, and his place in the history of the league.

Yesterday, I wrote that Bryant was one of the five greatest players to ever play in the NBA. My colleague Charles Curtis asked me to expand on that — where in the top five? Who else is there?

So let’s get into it. To kick off, this is my ranking of the ten best to ever play the game:

1. Michael Jordan
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3. Magic Johnson
4. Larry Bird
5. Kobe Bryant
6. Bill Russell
7. Wilt Chamberlain
8. Tim Duncan
9. Oscar Robertson
10. LeBron James

Now, for some explanations.

As someone who grew up in New England, it pains me both to have three Lakers in the top five and Bill Russell behind Bryant. For Russell and Chamberlain, though, it’s hard for me to vault them into the top five because of the eras they played in. There were eight other teams in the league. Russell and Chamberlain were dominant, and still two of the best seven players ever, but it’s hard for me to put them above Bryant because of his sustained greatness as a scorer and the number of titles he won in a league with so many other teams.

As for dropping Tim Duncan to eight, that one stings, because he and Bryant have had such similarly excellent (if not similar in style) careers. Duncan was the better teammate, the more coachable of the two, the guy I’d rather play with. Bryant was an assassin, though, and this list has to factor individual greatness. Bryant is the second greatest scorer the league has ever seen after Jordan. Duncan may have been more well-rounded, and I’m telling you, the difference between No. 2 and No. 8 on this list is hair thin. You could flip No. 2 through No. 8 and convince me you had the right order. It’d be a tougher sell, but I’d buy it. That’s how close all these players are.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Oscar Robertson and LeBron James were docked slight points for era he played in (Oscar) and not-yet-done-with-careerness (LeBron). Is it unfair? Of course. Lists like these are impossible. Again, the differences between these players are minuscule, they played in different eras, and it’s not like I got to watch Robertson play in person. This is a flawed list. Any and all lists like this are flawed.

So let’s continue on with the list! I rank Bird and Magic ahead of Bryant barely because of their overall play. Bird was the greatest shooter in the history of the league (until Stephen Curry came along) but he was also one of the ten or so best passers who ever played and was amazing at rebounding the basketball. He did everything. Magic could play any position on the court, was the greatest passer to ever play the game, could score and rebound beautifully. Bryant was an underrated passer and a good rebounder, but he never approached their level of overall mastery of the game.

(Photo byNeil Leifer/NBAE via Getty Images)

(Photo byNeil Leifer/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for 19 years, reinvented his game a few times, saw the league change around him, and never stopped dominating. His 273 career win shares, as calculated by Basketball Reference, is the most ever by a hefty amount and sort of flabbergasting when you think about it.

Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. The GOAT. Make all the crying memes you want (seriously, keep making them, they make me laugh), no one will ever top him.

So that’s my list. I’m sure you think it’s horrible because that’s what people think of lists.

Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY staff

Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY staff

I have Kobe Bryant as the fifth greatest basketball player of all time, the second-greatest scorer to ever play the game. His stats speak for themselves, his five titles and 11x first-team All-NBA a guaranteed ticket to the Hall of Fame. He came in the league at 18, reinvented himself a few times, and was — outside of Jordan — the most ruthless competitor to ever play the game. He earned that spot.