In a little under a week, Kobe Bryant will walk onto the floor of the Staples Center for the final time as a player. For good and ill, no player has come to define the post-Jordan, pre-LeBron generation more than Kobe. However, Kobe's off-floor notoriety hasn't always matched his on-the-court achievements. Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki all have more Win Shares than Kobe. Steve Nash has more MVP awards and Allen Iverson has spent more years leading the NBA in Points Per Game.
Yet it's Kobe who has come to be the face of the late 1990s and early 2000s in the NBA. He's proof of the adage that the opposite of love isn't hate, but indifference. Unlike Duncan, who never generated strong feelings, or Dirk, beloved but never feared or loathed, Kobe is a player who was fiercely debated and scrutinized. His game, and your feelings about it, say a lot about what you're looking for in a basketball player and where you see the NBA going.
So, as his career winds down, let's take a look back. I scoured the Basketball-Reference database and found 24 facts, in bold, that shed light on both sides and explain dig into Kobe's complicated, nuanced legacy as an NBA player.
We'll start with something you probably do know. Kobe scored. A lot. He'll finish 3rd all-time in points, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone.
Of course, Kobe's scoring comes with the caveat that he played a lot. Bryant is one of 5 players with 20 years in the NBA, one more than Malone and five more than Michael Jordan, who is in 4th in points. If you look at PPG, Kobe is 12th all-time, impressive but more in line with how he ranked as a scorer.
It's also notable because Kobe had fewer career PPG than his contemporary, newly-minted HoF Inductee Allen Iverson. AI also had 4 30-PPG seasons, as opposed to Kobe's 3. Iverson's scoring edge over Kobe, however, is also related to the fact that AI played so many more minutes than Kobe (he had a nearly Wilt-esque 11 seasons with 40 or more Minutes Per Game).
So, Iverson played more but Kobe played longer. Using the Player Comparison Finder, we can adjust for both. Here's what their per 36 minutes stats look like (along with Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, who are also part of this cohort) through 2009-10, AI's last season:
So, of the four, Kobe was the most proficient scorer on a per-minute basis, as well as the most efficient. But, AI was actually the best playmaker of the bunch (hold that thought on Kobe's playmaking). And, of course, T-Mac got boards.
So who was the best scoring 2-guard of his era, the true heir to Jordan? As much as I love Iverson, Kobe's case is quite strong.
Everyone knows, by heart, the most popular argument by Kobe's legion of fans: "Count the rings." And yet, if you dig a little deeper, Kobe's 23 wins in NBA Finals games are actually only good for a tie for 8th most since 1963. He doesn't even have the most Finals wins of players on those Lakers teams; Derek Fisher has 24, thanks to his stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What's more, Kobe never led any Championship team in Win Shares. It won't come as any surprise that the 1999-2000 Lakers, 2000-2001 Lakers, and 2001-2002 Lakers were all led by Shaq, however, Pau Gasol had the most Win Shares on both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Lakers. Perhaps just as much of a problem is Kobe did lead the 2003-04 Lakers and 2007-08 Lakers in Win Shares, both teams that ultimately lost in the Finals (although, technically Pau had more Win Shares per 48 Minutes than Kobe, suggesting he was actually their best player, and just didn't come over till around the trade deadline).
Kobe did lead the Lakers in playoff Win Shares in 2001 (barely) and 2009, but this still shades Kobe's case when it comes to the rings. For comparison's sake, Dwyane Wade made 5 Finals, 2 fewer than Kobe, but he had the most WS on the 2006 Heat, meaning he was the best player on a championship team more than Kobe was. Dirk made 2 NBA Finals as his team's WS leader, like Kobe, but he won one of those times. It's almost like basketball is a team sport and requires several very good players to win!
Of course, you're probably also familiar with the biggest knock on Kobe: He's selfish. It's an image that Kobe hasn't seemed particularly worried about, and has even played up by spending the last couple of years as an unrepentant gunner. But the stats don't back it up. By a lot of measures, Kobe is one of the best assisting 2-guards ever.
Among players listed at 6'6" or taller, Kobe has the 12th highest career Assist Percentage, better than famously generous distributors like Chris Webber and Grant Hill. His 86 10-assist games are 10 more than Michael Jordan had in his career.
It's not that Kobe didn't chuck, it's that the Lakers got them a man who can do both. Kobe had 13 seasons with a Usage Rate over 30% and an Assist Rate over 20%, the most by any player since 1973, the first year we have those stats. LeBron seems likely to surpass that, but it's not a sure thing. And D-Wade, the only other player in double-digits, almost certainly won't.
That even includes 2005-06, the year when Kobe had the highest USG% of all-time. Even then, he still managed to have a 24.1% Assist Rate, diming to Smush Parker and Kwame Brown
It's no surprise that a 6'6" man who spent 20 years in the NBA has the 3rd most career rebounds by a G, G-F, or F-G, however Kobe's rebounding ability goes beyond just raw counting stats. His rebounding percentage from 1997-2012 is 15th among G and G-F with at least 10,000 MP in that time period. To put it in perspective, his TRB% of 8.2 was just one point of off Rajon Rondo in that time span, and ahead of both Wade and Russell Westbrook (though Westbrook didn't really become a the menace on the boards he is now until 2013).
Efficiency isn't a word that we'd associate with Kobe, the NBA's leader in career missed Field Goals, but, in his own way, Kobe was about as efficient as you could want from someone with his level of scoring responsibility (at least, if you exclude whatever alien race Stephen Curry belongs to).
Of the 24 players who took at least 15,000 FGAs in their career, Kobe's True Shooting Percentage ranks a respectable 10th, one spot ahead of Jerry West, and his Effective Field Goal Percentage is 8th among players who averaged 19 or more Field Goal Attempts per game
Efficiency is a bit of a moving target depending on volume. The bar for a creator like Kobe to be a good scorer is different from what we'd expect from someone like Shane Battier.
It was also a different time. Even with all the shooting, Kobe's eFG% was better than the NBA average 5 times in his career, and it was within .01 7 more:
Lastly, Kobe was great at drawing the most efficient shot there is: Free Throws. No wing took more Free Throw Attempts in their career than Kobe.
The focus on his championships means that Kobe's peak, oddly, is underrated. His peak mostly fell during the barren post-Shaq, pre-Pau era, but we shouldn't ignore how dominant Kobe was in that era because he didn't win it all.
Kobe's age 27-29 seasons combined rank 14th in WS and 12th in Player Efficiency Rating among players that age, much higher than his career rankings of 18th in WS and 25th in PER.
Expanding it out to ages 21-34, Kobe ranks just as strong. He's 12th in WS, 14th in PER, and 12th in Value Over Replacement Player.
Again, this contradicts the narrative. We think of Kobe as sticking around the NBA to pad his career stats (and make an absurd amount of money). But, while his counting stats have gone up, it's also watered down some of his numbers with below-average seasons.
Kobe in the Playoffs
While the Rings argument is somewhat specious, there's no denying Kobe's greatness in the playoffs. Kobe is 8th all-time in Playoff WS and, from 2000, our first year of plus/minus, to 2012, his last playoff appearance, Kobe has 105 playoff games with a positive plus/minus, trailing only Derek Fisher in that period of time (and, notably, leading Duncan).
You also might have heard that Kobe's not afraid to take the big shot. Since 2000, he's taken 122 Field Goal Attempts in the last 2:00 of the 4th quarter or OT when the game was within 5 points. In other words, that's 122 crunch time shots. Since 2000, only LeBron has taken more.
Not only that, but you might have noticed Kobe's Field Goal Percentage of .418 on those shots. You have to scroll all the way down to KD or Ray Allen, who've taken half as many clutch shots as Kobe, to find a better FG%. LeBron has a claim, especially considering that he likely has several more playoff runs ahead of him, but for now, Kobe has an excellent argument for the best clutch shooter of the 2000s.
Kobe's Advanced Stats
Maybe you aren't impressed by traditional stats and want to see what Basketball-Reference's play-by-play data says. Well, since 2000, Kobe's teams have been 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. The Lakers' eFG% is 20 points higher, and, despite Kobe's poor defensive reputation in recent years, their Defensive Rating is basically unchanged. Oh, and in the playoffs, that plus/minus figure goes up to 8.1 points per 100 when Kobe's on the floor.
The debate over Kobe's legacy seems to have cooled off in recent months. This can't be how Kobe wanted to go out, adulated but not feared, celebrated because he poses no real threat anymore. As a competitor and a person, Kobe seemed to thrive off the hate. We may disagree about the breadth and reach of Kobe's legacy, but as these stats show, the fact of that legacy can't be debated.