Staturday: Where Does Kobe Bryant Rank All Time?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates in the final moments of the Lakers victory over the Boston Celtics in Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The obvious story around the NBA this week- so obvious that the ABC guys were talking about it at halftime of Game 7 of an NBA Finals. 

Kobe Bryant has won 5 Finals, one less than the unanimous G.O.A.T., who won 6. Team wins, as we've said here so many times in the past, are too often conflated with individual success. And so there will always be those who consider Kobe and Magic equal (they both have 5 rings!) and Kobe on the same level as Jordan. Honestly, I don't want to argue with those people. Team wins provide a method to rank players- a simplistic, lazy way to do it, in my opinion- but a method, all the same. "Scoreboard" is a retort that simply isn't about to go away any time soon.

As Neil Paine writes in this terrific discussion about the best Laker of all time at Basketball Reference, "Winning a ring is the ultimate team accomplishment, but we have much better ways to parse out player contributions than to lazily took at championship totals and blindly base our evaluations on them alone."

So how does Kobe Bryant rank in terms of the individual statistics that we know correlate well with winning? Is he a top 10 player of all time?

Let's start with a broad, cumulative statistic- Win Shares- and see how players rank across the board, before delving into component statistics. As always, a good statistical analysis is never one size or one stat fits all. 

This table is sorted for career Win Shares. Click on a column header to sort by that statistic. 

Player

PTS

WS

WS/82g

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*

38387

273.4

14.37103

Wilt Chamberlain*

31419

247.3

19.40536

Karl Malone*

36928

234.6

13.03333

Michael Jordan*

32292

214

16.3694

John Stockton*

19711

207.7

11.32407

Artis Gilmore

24941

189.7

11.70459

Oscar Robertson*

26710

189.2

14.91769

Julius Erving*

30026

181.1

11.94706

Moses Malone*

29580

179.2

10.09924

Shaquille O'Neal

28255

179

12.5453

David Robinson*

20790

178.7

14.8464

Charles Barkley*

23757

177.2

13.54185

Reggie Miller

25279

174.4

10.29575

Kevin Garnett

22267

165.7

12.08843

Bill Russell*

14522

163.5

13.92212

Hakeem Olajuwon*

26946

162.8

10.7832

Jerry West*

25192

162.6

14.30601

Tim Duncan

20641

162.3

13.6219

Dan Issel*

27482

157.8

10.62365

Magic Johnson*

17707

155.8

14.1011

Dirk Nowitzki

21111

150.2

13.38739

Robert Parish*

23334

147

7.482309

Kobe Bryant

25790

145.9

11.71773

Larry Bird*

21791

145.8

13.32843

Gary Payton

21813

145.5

8.937079

More than anything, this table reminds us just how great some past NBA HOF's were. It's easy to get caught up in Kobe's current greatness (in my mind, the greatest shot-maker in the history of the sport) and forget how awesome his predecessors were. 

The longevity of Kareem and Karl Malone is absurd. Sort by WS/season; Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain blast away their competition. It's plain to see that if Jordan hadn't decided to retire every other year to play golf/"play" baseball/make underwear commercials, he could have absolutely blown Kareem away. Jordan played more than 550 fewer games than Kareem, and many of those came in the prime of his career. Simply giving him a full 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 catapults him over Wilt for #2. Given the fact that he posted 15.8 WS in his final- and "bad" by his standards- year in Chicago (higher than Kobe Bryant's career best, for what it's worth), it's crazy what his total could have been. 

Of course, these tables don't tell the whole story. The goal of every team, every year is to win the NBA Finals. And while not every player is lucky enough to have great teammates season after season, most of these guys went to the playoffs quite a few times. 

Player

Playoff WS

G

WS/G

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*

35.6

237

0.150211

Wilt Chamberlain*

31.5

160

0.196875

Karl Malone*

23

193

0.119171

Michael Jordan*

39.8

179

0.222346

John Stockton*

21.4

182

0.117582

Artis Gilmore

13.2

100

0.132

Oscar Robertson*

13.6

86

0.15814

Julius Erving*

26.9

189

0.142328

Moses Malone*

14.8

100

0.148

Shaquille O'Neal

31.1

214

0.145327

David Robinson*

17.5

123

0.142276

Charles Barkley*

19.5

123

0.158537

Reggie Miller

19.9

144

0.138194

Kevin Garnett

12.1

96

0.126042

Bill Russell*

27.8

165

0.168485

Hakeem Olajuwon*

22.6

145

0.155862

Jerry West*

26.7

153

0.17451

Tim Duncan

28.6

170

0.168235

Dan Issel*

15.9

133

0.119549

Magic Johnson*

32.6

190

0.171579

Dirk Nowitzki

18.5

103

0.179612

Robert Parish*

15.6

184

0.084783

Kobe Bryant

26.1

198

0.131818

Larry Bird*

24.8

164

0.15122

Gary Payton

11.1

154

0.072078

 

 

So the greatest playoff player in league history is Jordan, despite the fact that he barely cracks the top 10 in total postseason games. That's pretty impressive. Magic Johnson and Jerry West were also really, really good playoff performers, which again, should come as absolutely no surprise. And it's interesting to see Utah's championship-less duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone way down on the WS/g list. 

Kobe Bryant does crack the top 10 in cumulative playoff win shares. But this is largely fueled by the fact that he's played in the third highest amount of postseason games ever, ranking behind two Lakers- Kareem and Shaq. WS/G shows that Bryant is nowhere near the Magic/Duncan/West range in per game production in the playoffs. He's simply been there a lot and been pretty good (relatively speaking, of course, because "pretty good" on this list essentially means Hall of Fame good). 

The above charts don't paint Kobe's career in the greatest of lights, relative to NBA Hall of Famers. But the fact that Kobe started his career at age 18 gives him a significant advantage. We can visualize this through cumulative WS charts. First up: Kobe vs. Jordan vs. Bird:


Kobebirdjordan_medium

This is a little surprising, to say the least. Kobe's very nearly Jordan's equal at this age and is significantly better than Bird. Obviously Jordan taking an entire year off, and playing 17 "meh" games the next year is what enables Kobe to reach him at all. But the fact that they're so close is rather interesting. Next up, Laker legends:

Lakers_medium

More good news for Bryant. The first thing that pops out in this chart is Kareem's career- the fact that he started so late is remarkable, and his late 30's are truly Bondsian (minus the steroids, hopefully). 

Also of note: Kobe is now the same age Magic was when he retired for the first time. He's essentially equal in Win Shares, he's equal in titles, and looks virtually a lock to pass Magic when all is said and done. To some, that will come as blasphemy. Magic was probably the most unique player in league history, but the length of his career doesn't help him. Finally, check out the Shaq vs. Kobe lines. Creepily similar, right?

Kobe vs. some of the all time bigs:


Bigmen_medium

Kobe and Duncan will go down as the two greatest players of their generation, and this graph lends credence to that. In my mind, Kobe has a better chance of aging gracefully than Duncan. He's shown again and again that he can reinvent parts of his game as his physical tools diminish. Some (most? all?) of Malone's late career dominance must be attributed to John Stockton. The fact that his point guard could routinely get him buckets as his individual scoring ability waned allowed Malone to thrive in his later years. 

And finally, Kobe vs. the next generation:


Cp_medium

Chris Paul has a one year disadvantage relative to LeBron and Howard, and a two year disadvantage relative to Kobe, but he's held his own. Obviously, this last chart is more frivolous than anything else, since Paul, Howard, and James still have a long, long way to go. Still, LBJ's dominance is absurd. He's hands down the greatest 25 year old in the history of the sport. Whether his game can hold up the way Kobe's has is debatable, obviously. 

Conclusions

Kobe Bryant-MJ comparisons are silly. Kobe Bryant-Greatest Laker Ever statements are silly too. The tables tell us that much. But the charts also tell us that those observations don't make sense for now. As it stands now, Kobe Bryant is a fringe top 20 player. And as much as it pains me to say it as a member of the International Society of Laker Haters, if Kobe can keep up his current pace into his 30's, he could easily finish as top 10 all time.

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