Tomorrow night, April 13, the Los Angeles Lakers are set to host the Utah Jazz in what will be the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious career. The Black Mamba is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, considered by many to be the greatest player since Michael Jordan. His career accolades include, but are not limited to, five NBA titles, seven Western Conference championships, two NBA Finals MVP honors, 18 all-star nods, two scoring titles, and an MVP award. Undoubtedly, Bryant’s legacy has been cemented as one of the greatest players to ever take the court.
That being said, Bryant’s proper placement among the game’s legends is very much contested. Bryant’s ranking among every player in NBA history has been oft-discussed, and his status as the greatest player of his generation has also been called into question. Traditional emphasis on winning championships would cause many to put Bryant no lower than about 15th on their all-time list, reflected by ESPN’s recent “NBArank” in which Bryant was declared to be the 12th best competitor in NBA history. ESPN ranked Bryant’s primary temporal challenger, Tim Duncan, at eighth, but popular wisdom has the men as approximate equals or perhaps sees Bryant as slightly leading the race. Their primary competition for greatest of their era, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett, lagged behind.
It is difficult to directly compare the accomplishments of any two players, but it is nonetheless an intriguing exercise. While Bryant’s ranking at 12th all-time and tie with Duncan as the greatest of his generation serve as benchmarks of public opinion, analytics reveal that popular wisdom does not match reality. Kobe’s statistical output, while impressive, was generally inferior to those who are mentioned as his equals, and certainly was not transcendent enough to net five championships without help.
Defense and efficiency are facets of the sport that are invaluable in measuring the quality of a player’s body of work, but are often overlooked when assessing players like Bryant and their achievements. In raw offensive counting stats, Bryant’s ranking of 12th may be more justifiable. However, counting stats paint an extremely incomplete picture of a player’s performance. This lofty status is especially unsurprising considering the importance placed by basketball traditionalists on championships as an individual metric. It can be debated whether team postseason performance should ever be taken into account when assessing individuals—most statisticians would assert that it should not. It then becomes impossible to credit one player for his championships while discounting another for his lack thereof, when the latter player has had more postseason production. By using “Win Shares” as a statistic that accounts for all facets of the game, we can see that Bryant’s performance in both the regular season and postseason does not compare favorably to his peers.
“Win Shares,” a metric developed by famed statistician Bill James, takes an extremely comprehensive approach to objectively evaluate player performance. “Win Shares per 48 minutes” (WS/48) takes the same approach while controlling for playing time, but is restricted to players with 15,000 career minutes played. To put that in context, this requirement is inclusive of Stephen Curry but excludes the slightly less experienced Blake Griffin. In both of these metrics, Bryant falls short of expectations. Another important aspect of the stat is that it controls for competition. The stat does not attempt the near-impossible feat of comparing Bryant’s raw talent to that of Julius Erving, given the entirely different eras in which they each competed, but instead simply compares each to their contemporary competition.
Bryant’s longevity and generally good health make it logical that his Win Share ranking would outpace his WS/48 ranking, but the extent to which that is true should come as a surprise to many, especially Lakers fans. In terms of Win Shares in career regular seasons, he ranks a respectable but slightly underwhelming 18th and is unlikely to leapfrog 17th ranked Reggie Miller in the few games remaining. Tellingly, this ranking is significantly worse than those of Duncan (sixth), Nowitzki (seventh), and Garnett (ninth). Additionally, it places him a disappointing fifth in Lakers history, and fourth if Karl Malone is excluded given his very brief tenure with the team. Even without controlling for Bryant’s huge number of minutes logged, this puts a dent in his claim for greatest of his generation as well as his claim for greatest Laker.
The results are even more damning when we focus on the Mamba’s WS/48. In this metric, Duncan ranks 13th, Nowitzki ranks 20th, Garnett ranks 35th, and other approximately concurrent players like Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade slot in the top 40. Bryant, meanwhile, is sandwiched in the 55th spot by Cliff Hagan and Larry Nance—elite players in their own right, but certainly not legends.
This evidence should be fairly troubling to those who see Bryant as a top-ten player. Longevity is of course valuable, but it is telling that 54 players, excluding those who have played insufficient minutes, have done more with their playing time. Even in his lone MVP season, Bryant ranked just fourth in win shares with Chris Paul blowing away the league. When controlling for minutes, his ranking falls to seventh, far worse than you would expect for someone that was supposedly more valuable than any of his peers.
Some of Bryant’s supporters acknowledge that his regular season performance has not always been flawless, but argue that come playoff time, he turns into one of the greatest players of all time. Judging solely by titles, this assertion would appear to be reasonable—excluding players from the unfairly dominant 1960s Celtics dynasty, only four players have won more rings than Vino. But as we know, basketball is a team sport, and Bryant has never played on a team without other all-star caliber players. His playoffs stats indicate that while he was undoubtedly a key contributor to his team’s titles, his performance was not enough to win without help.
Bryant has played the third-most playoff minutes of all-time, largely due to the Lakers qualifying for the postseason 15 times in his 19-year career. In playoff win shares though, he drops to eighth. This places him behind Duncan and his teammate Shaquille O’Neal, among others, and five of the seven above him have done so in fewer games played.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence is his playoff WS/48. At .1570, he ranks a respectable but somewhat unimpressive 53rd in playoff WS/48 minutes among qualified players—a mark that is .0137 wins lower than his regular season performance. If anything, the data suggests that Bryant may shrink a bit in the playoffs rather than elevate his game to godly status, as some have suggested. When considering the immense talent with which he has been surrounded throughout his entire career, it is almost surprising that Bryant’s teams haven’t managed to reach the conference finals more than eight times in his 19 years of playing.
Bryant will meritoriously go down as one of the greatest Lakers to ever don the purple and gold, as well as one of the greatest players of his generation. He should not, however, be seen as the best of either group. Bryant’s persona, his counting stats, and the success of his teams have outpaced his true personal performance, leading fans and analysts alike to grossly overrate him when comparing him to other all-time greats. The Mamba’s legend deserves its place in NBA lore, but he should not be treated as a transcendent talent in the vein of Jordan.