Hey! Been a while. Sorry about that, internet. I’m glad to see you held up nicely without me for a few weeks. Now that David Blatt’s firing in Cleveland is generating all types of internet chatter, it looks like you’re going to be just fine even after I abandoned you.
I might have some hoopservations about David Blatt one day, but it looks like just about all the angles are being covered. Today’s hoopservation is about Kobe Bryant, who announced his retirement recently. Since the announcement, I’ve heard lots of folks engaged in hoopservations about his legacy. His career is really a fascinating one, because it provides evidence for a wide range of opinions. Hate Kobe? You’ll be able to point to his lousy record without Phil Jackson, and hanging on for what now looks like about 3 years too long. Love Kobe? You’ll be able to point to the unparalleled (I think, but invite all 8 of you readers to correct me if I’m wrong) career path of winning 3 championships as the second-best-player, then emerging as the best player on 2 other championship teams. At the rate this season is going, the Lakers’ win percentage will fall below .150 somewhat soon, and Kobe’s career shooting percentage will fall below 35% shortly thereafter. Before either of those things happens, I submit a few guidelines for comparing great players:
Let’s be realistic about evaluating the teammates of a champion – I laugh when I hear people say “yeah, Kobe won two without Shaq, BUT LOOK WHO HE HAD! He had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.” Pau Gasol’s a nice player, but he hasn’t won anything significant without Kobe. And Andrew Bynum? C’mon. Kobe Bryant’s achievements are diminished because he was carried by Andrew Bynum?
The career arc matters – Kobe came into the league as a sort of phenom, with talent that was recognized as unique. He wasn’t selected at the top of the draft largely because there wasn’t precedent for a guard coming straight from high school and excelling. But, when he did excel, it wasn’t a shock. Thus, it can’t be diminished as the consequence of playing with great teammates, or for great coaches. It’s an important distinction between the great ones like Kobe, and guys who are drafted lower, wind up in a great situation, and excel. To name a few such guys, I’m thinking of Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Nobody compares those guys to Kobe, but the point is more general. Part of the analysis of a player’s career requires us to look at what he was expected to be, and also the situation he stepped into. Before we get carried away saying a second-round pick is better than a consistent All-Star, because the second round pick makes important contributions to a winning team, we should consider the career arc. The guys who we regard as the best in the league should be the ones who made a bad team competitive or a mediocre team great. Making a good team better is a meaningful achievement, but if nothing in the career arc points towards superstardom, we shouldn’t regard those guys as superstars. I think what Kawhi and Draymond are doing this season is remarkable, but before I rank them among guys who have shown the ability to be the best player on an otherwise mediocre team (Carmelo, CP3, Bosh), I need to see them join an otherwise mediocre team and make that team good.
The entire career matters – Kobe is now in his third season of not being an impact-making NBA player. It doesn’t erase his achievements over the rest of his career, but it’s not irrelevant, either. Every season a great player decided to play is part of his legacy. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are boosting their legacies by playing at a high level after so many years, while Kobe is hurting his. Kobe can’t be blamed for his injuries during the past two seasons, but at some point you’re simply playing past the point of being effective. Better to call it a career after 17 years and be judged on those achievements than to stay for 3 more ineffective years. At the same time, a short career is harder to view as a top-10-of-all-time career. Larry Bird, for example, played 13 seasons. Comparing Kobe to Bird, the fact that Kobe was in his 17th season before his production really declined is a feather in his cap. But, this is one of the hardest cross-era comparisons to make because the longevity enjoyed by modern athletes is the result of nutrition, training, and rehabilitation advancements that simply weren’t available previously.
The circumstances matter – All a player can be asked to do is win with the team he started with. If he doesn’t win, there are circumstances that might excuse coming up short. If, say, his teammates are always terrible, there’s room to speculate about what would have been accomplished with better teammates. If he wins, there might be factors that diminish the shine. If, say, he never won with his original team, and then went ring-chasing to a better team, the shine is diminished. Kobe’s career achievements are boosted by the fact that he stayed on one team for 20 years, through some great times, some challenges, and some disappointments. Most will respond “why would he leave? His team was awesome.” That’s valid, to a point. Yeah, he needed Shaq to win his first three titles. Then Shaq left. And Kobe stayed. Over 20 years, he battled whatever adversity was in front of him, with varying degrees of success. When the dust settles, it’ll be clear that he had some lousy years, fell just short a few times, and accumulated 5 rings along the way. Those circumstances matter, the same way it would matter to the legacy of a different all-time great if he – GASP! – quit on his team, signed with a team that already had, say – hypothetically of course, because nobody would ever do such a thing – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and then won two. Wanna be considered among the absolute best of the best? Then go earn it. Kobe certainly tried to.
Where he ranks on the list of all-time greats will be the subjection of conservations – ahem, hoopservations – for many years to come. But why wait? I hope to hear your thoughts in the comments.