When it comes to the conversation about the greatest ever to play the game, the late Kobe Bryant is the name that brings out the most varied opinions. Michael Jordan is the GOAT for most sports media, and LeBron James is second, while Kobe seems to be somewhere between the 5th and 7th behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russel, and perhaps Magic Johnson. Amongst NBA players, they rank The Black Mamba somewhere in the top three alongside MJ and LeBron, citing their personal experiences as the reason for the ranking given.
Now, this isn’t the first time that the opinions of media pundits and players have differed. It happens all the time as these two groups view the game through different lenses. Still, when speaking about a player of Kobe Bryant’s stature, the disparity in opinions is somewhat surprising. Why is that the case? Well, the difference may lie in the perception of one of the most difficult NBA awards to attain, the NBA Finals MVP.
In 20 NBA seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant won 5 NBA titles and 2 NBA Finals MVPs (2009 & 2010), giving him one more ring than LeBron, while LeBron has twice as many Finals MVPs as Mamba with four Finals MVPs in The King’s 4 NBA titles. If the argument for Jordan’s resume is his six rings and that rings matter, then this logic should suggest that Kobe should always be above LeBron, but this rarely seems to be the case. So perhaps, the real measuring stick that everyone looks at but never wishes to acknowledge is the number of Bill Russell trophies to a player’s name. Kobe has two of those, and often when the topic of Bryant’s greatness comes up, many will argue that for Kobe’s first three championships, he was riding the coattails of Shaquille O’Neal. Well, in celebration of Kobe’s 43rd Birthday, let us examine whether this claim is valid or not, one Finals series at a time.
2000 NBA Finals: The Los Angeles Lakers vs. The Indiana Pacers
Result: Lakers win (4-2)
Kobe’s Averages: 15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.4 bpg
Shaq’s Averages: 38 ppg, 16.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.7 bpg
In 2000, Shaq averaged more than 2x Kobe’s points and nearly 4x Kobe’s rebounding output. The Pacers had nothing they could throw at Shaq to make him think about them, or in Shaq’s words, they were “Barbecue Chicken.” Bryant’s numbers were rather underwhelming for his first NBA Finals appearance, but it is worth noting that Kobe hurt his ankle badly in the series and even sat out one game due to the severity of the injury. Bryant did have a memorable Game 4 where he scored 28 points and carried the Lakers in overtime after Shaquille O’Neal fouled out; this win gave LA the often crucial 3-1 lead in the series. A loss for the Lakers would have made it a virtual best of 3, but instead, Bryant’s heroics gave the Lakers a commanding series lead. It was a fantastic display of heart and will by Bryant, but even if they had lost that game, the Lakers were never going to lose that series. Shaq should be the undisputed Finals MVP of this series despite him sitting out that pivotal game, especially when he averaged 38 and 16 for the series on 61% from the field.
2001 NBA Finals: The Los Angeles Lakers vs. The Philadelphia 76ers
Result: Lakers win (4-1)
Kobe’s averages: 24.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg
Shaq’s averages: 33 ppg, 15.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, 0.4 spg, 3.4 bpg
Now, these are numbers we are more accustomed to seeing from Bryant. Not only did Kobe average nearly ten more points from the previous year, but he did it by shooting at 41% from the field, eight percentage points more than in the 2000 NBA Finals. Bryant also had the unenviable task of chasing Allen Iverson around for five games, a task which Kobe relished knowing it would be a fun challenge to try and overcome. Still, Iverson averaged 35.6 points for the series, but Kobe certainly did make it more difficult than usual for The Answer, with Allen only shooting 28% from the three and 40.7% from the field. Iverson led both teams in scoring in that series, but Shaq’s 33 and 16 with three blocks per game left no doubt at that time as to who deserved the Bill Russell trophy.
However, Shaq was going up against a much smaller team in Philadelphia who only had an aging Dikembe Mutombo starting at Center as their hope to try and slow down the Diesel. Mutombo is no slouch, but at this point in their careers, I would be surprised if Shaq didn’t finish the series with the numbers he did. Plus, in the Pacers series, he had to defend against Rik Smits on the perimeter at times and deal with more offensive weapons venturing into the paint. With Philadelphia, it was the Iverson show, and despite his immense skill, there was no way A.I. could consistently score over Shaq even with the quickness advantage. Simply put, Shaq only had to play hard on one side of the ball, whereas Bryant gave the Lakers elite effort on both offense and defense. Given the dominant numbers from O’Neal, it’s easy to brush this off, so here is a stat that might help shine a light on Bryant’s massive impact on the series.
Kobe Bryant led the 2001 NBA Finals in Win Shares, a stat that aims to provide a numerical coefficient to each player’s impact on winning; Kobe not only led the series but led the entire playoffs with his 3.8 win shares. Kobe also played 46.8 minutes per game in the series, nearly two more minutes than Shaq.
One could argue that the Finals MVP should go to the player who performed the best in the series, but isn’t the best performer the player who contributes to winning the most? For example, LeBron James led the league with 4.7 win shares and won the 2016 NBA Finals MVP after leading the greatest Finals comeback in league history. Kyrie hit the biggest shot, but LeBron James’s overall play contributed to their winning the most and won the award. Perhaps in 2001, Kobe could have at least shared the Finals MVP with Shaq.
2002 NBA Finals: The Los Angeles Lakers vs. The New Jersey Nets
Result: Lakers win (4-0)
Kobe’s Averages: 26.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.8 bpg
Shaq’s Averages: 36.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 0.5 spg, 2.8 bpg
Kobe’s scoring jumps slightly in 2002 as the recognition of his growing talents led to increased responsibility for Bryant in the Lakers’ third straight title campaign. Still, Shaq’s unbelievable numbers earn him the Finals MVP; how can you possibly say that someone was more valuable than the guy who gave his team 36 and 12 along with nearly three blocks a game in the Finals? O’Neal also edged Bryant in win shares in 2002, this time posting 3.8 WS himself, complete and utter dominance by “The Big Aristotle.”
However, Kobe was also elite, shooting 51.4% from the field and 54.5% from three to get his nearly 27 points per game in a highly efficient fashion. The New Jersey Nets also boasted a backcourt of Jason Kidd and Kerry Kittles with Keith Van Horn at the wing, while its frontcourt was very thin compared to the Lakers’ past Finals opponents. Aaron Williams and Todd MacCulloch were nowhere in the league of Rik Smits and Dikembe Mutombo. Overall, this was a lighter assignment for the Lakers, but looking at the match-ups, Kobe seemed to have more to handle than Shaq this time around. For NBA superstars, a better match-up usually means better numbers; this was true for Shaq vs. Kobe in the 2002 Finals. There is an outside chance for Kobe in this one, but overall, it seems like he isn’t touching Shaq’s third Finals MVP award.
As we remember The Black Mamba following his birthday, perhaps it is time to begin zeroing in on the narrative of his career. Yes, it seems like he benefitted greatly by being drafted to a team with Shaquille O’Neal, but he should not be penalized for this occurrence either. Except for the Lakers’ first title, Kobe’s stats rival some of the Finals MVPs of the past, so shouldn’t he get credit for that as well?
Kobe Bryant’s career is one of the greatest we have ever seen, with 20 seasons with one team and 5 NBA championships to show for it. Careers don’t get much better than that. The infamous GOAT debate is primarily a harmless one, but instances such as these highlight its futility. If we go by the number of championships as the team star, Bill Russell should be the GOAT, not Michael Jordan. If we give LeBron the edge over Kobe because of his four Finals MVPs, then that means a player with one ring is automatically better than a player without one.
We say basketball is a team game but judge individuals based on their accomplishments with their teams and, in the process, undervalue the contributions less heralded players made to a championship team. Perhaps Kobe should have one more Finals MVP to his name, but does the absence of that one award make him any less memorable to us? If the answer is no, we better stop evaluating a player’s greatness based on championships or MVPs alone and start appreciating what we see on the floor versus the record books.