Thursday, December 6, 2012

Kobe Bean Bryant: The Greatest Laker of All Time?



Having just eclipsed the 30,000 point mark and being only the 5th player in the NBA's 66 year existence to do so, Bean has been anointed by analysts as the greatest to ever don the purple and gold.

Even Magic Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard to have ever played the game, has given Bean the nod. But I believe Earvin is simply crediting a younger man, and by association, the present generation, over a past athlete. That's something I understand and respect, very admirable of him to step aside and hand the title over to Kobe. But since we are spectators, we don't have to honor such things. So to begin this argument, let's take a look at the franchise leaders for the Lakers.

Los Angeles Laker Franchise Records
All-Time Leader in Seasons Played: Kobe Bryant (17)
All-Time Leader in Games Played: Kobe Bryant (1,107)
All-Time Leader in Minutes Played: Kobe Bryant (42,888)
All-Time Leader in Points Scored: Kobe Bryant (30,016)
All-Time Leader in Rebounds: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10,279)
All-Time Leader in Assists: Magic Johnson (10,141)
All-Time Leader in Steals: Kobe Bryant (1,753)
All-Time Leader in Blocks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2,694)
All-Time Leader in Field Goal Percentage: Wilt Chamberlain (.604)
All-Time Leader in 3-Point Field Goal Percentage: Larry Drew (.404)
All-Time Leader in Free Throw Percentage: Cazzie Russell (.877)

All-Time Leader in Playoff Games Played: Kobe Bryant (220)
All-Time Leader In Playoff Minutes Played: Kobe Bryant (8,641)
All-Time Leader in Playoff Points Scored: Kobe Bryant (5,640)
All-Time Leader in Playoff Rebounds: Wilt Chamberlain (1,783)
All-Time Leader in Playoff Assists: Magic Johnson (2,436)
All-Time Leader in Playoff Steals: Magic Johnson (358)
All-Time Leader in Playoff Blocks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (437)

Kobe owns several Laker records and that's a strong argument for being the greatest Laker ever. But three other names make repeated appearances: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson. Wilt's contributions as a Laker were negligible, so I'm going to disregard him. Also, an honorable mention must be made for George Mikan, as he led the early Lakers to five titles. But the league was weak even in the wake of Mikan's stardom. So let's compare the work the other three did as Lakers:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kobe Bryant
Magic Johnson
8x NBA Finalist
7x NBA Finalist
9x NBA Finalist
5x NBA Champion
5x NBA Champion
5x NBA Champion
1x Finals MVP
2x Finals MVP
3x Finals MVP
3x NBA MVP
1x NBA MVP
1x NBA MVP
14x All-Star
14x All-Star
12x All-Star
0x All-Star MVP
4x All-Star MVP
2x All-Star MVP
6x All-NBA 1st Team
10x All-NBA 1st Team
9x All-NBA 1st Team
4x All NBA 2nd Team
2x All-NBA 2nd Team
1x All-NBA 2nd Team
2x All NBA 3rd Team
0x All NBA 3rd Team
0x All NBA 3rd Team
4x All-Defensive First Team
9x All-Defensive 1st Team
0x All-Defensive 1st Team
4x All-Defensive 2nd Team
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team
0x All-Defensive 2nd Team
0x Scoring Champion
2x Scoring Champion
0x Scoring Champion
0x Assist Leader
0x Assist Leader
4x Assist Leader
1x Rebounding Champ
0x Rebounding Champ
0x Rebounding Champ
4x Block Leader
0x Block Leader
0x Block Leader

Some of you may have read the Kareem column and found it to be off, but remember, we're only talking the Lakers franchise. Frankly, if Kareem had played the entirety of his careers with the Lakers, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. The fact of the matter is this: Kareem's 6 year tenure as a Milwaukee Buck is what opens the door for Bryant(and even Magic, for that matter). But since we're talking the undisputed King of all Lakerdom, I think we should try to break these stats down some more. So let's discuss their work in the regular season, the postseason and as ambassadors for the game of basketball.

Regular Season Dominance:
Kareem: 3 MVP awards, 1 rebounding title, 4 block titles, 10 All-NBA selections, 8 All-Defense selections
Magic: 2 MVP awards, 4 assist titles, 10 All-NBA selections
Kobe: 1 MVP award, 2 scoring titles, 14 All-NBA selections, 12 All Defense selections

Magic was an offensive player of the highest caliber, having been recognized as the best in the league twice. His 10 All-NBA selections and his 4 assist titles cement his status as an elite offensive talent. But where he falls out of contention in this discussion is on the defensive end. Magic has never been thought of as a top tier defender(zero All-Defensive selections). Kareem however, had an explosive dominance on both ends of the court in his first decade as an NBA player, but into his second, his prowess as a defender and scorer waned(his effectiveness remained intact though).

Kobe however, is putting up some of the best numbers of his career in this, his 17th season. It's safe to say that Kobe is easily best two-way player of the three, making his presence felt on both offense and defense in two different decades. Kobe's durability has allowed him to not only stand the test of time, but also to improve as he got older, winning the scoring title in his later seasons. But for all his celebrity as an elite offensive player, he has only been recognized as the best in the league once.

Of the three, Kareem is easily the most decorated regular season basketball player. His elite stature as an offensive player is obvious via his rebounding title(defensive rebounds begin the offensive play) and his 10 All-NBA selections(less than Kobe but equaling Magic). But where I give Kareem separation is here: He was thrice acknowledged as the best offensive talent in the league, once more than Magic and twice more than Kobe. Bryant has more defensive team selections than Abdul-Jabbar. Why? Kobe has been effective at shutting down the person he's been assigned to guard and Kareem was never a great 1-on-1 defender. But if we inspect a little closer, a lot of that is because Kobe has spent most of his career only defending the other team's weakest perimeter player.

Traditionally, players like Fisher, Rick Fox, Radmonovic, Ariza and World Peace were assigned to guard the best perimeter player on the other team, helping to preserve Kobe's energy for the offensive end. In the Boston series in '08, Bryant defended Rondo most of the time, the weakest perimeter player the Celtics had to offer. But Kareem was always assigned to guard the best post player the other team had to offer. Kareem was outmatched by players like Sampson and Olajuwon in his later years and had to rely on help from Rambis, but he remained an effective defender and was able to rack up four block titles because of his prowess as a help defender. Kobe's All-Defensive selections are a bit inflated, but I won't and can't take anything away from the man. I just have a healthy respect for Kareem's contributions to the Lakers as a defender.

Regular Season Edge: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


Championship Pedigree:
Magic Johnson: 9 Western Conference titles, 5 NBA titles, 3 Finals MVP awards.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 8 Western Conference titles, 5 NBA titles, 1 Finals MVP award.
Kobe Bryant: 7 Western Conference titles, 5 NBA titles, 2 Finals MVP awards.

In the Finals, Kobe is 5-2, Kareem is 5-3 and Magic is 5-4. Kobe's record may appear to be the best, but both Kobe's Finals losses came as a result of a near sweep and embarrassing blowouts. Magic and Kareem were embarrassed in two of their Finals losses together(Dr. J swept them in '83, Dumars swept them in '89). Magic's 4th Finals loss came against Jordan in embarrassing fashion, as Jordan's Bulls sent him home after 5 games in '91. But Kareem and Magic managed one respectable loss, coming in a very competitive 7 game series against Bird's Celtics in '84.

The Kareem-led Lakers('75-'79) never made the Finals. It wasn't until Magic Johnson debuted that Kareem was able to see the Finals as a Laker. And in that series, rookie Magic Johnson was named the MVP. In fact, including that first title, Magic would win the Finals MVP award three times with Abdul-Jabbar on his team. Kareem won the Finals MVP award once in '85, but it was clear: While Kareem was captain of the team, he was only the anchor to Showtime, Magic was the engine. Magic was able to win Western Conference championship in '91 even without Kareem, something Kareem was incapable of without Magic. So I will give Magic's championship pedigree the nod over Abdul-Jabbar's.

As for Kobe... Well, first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that Magic always had a more talented team behind him. Worthy, Wilkes and Abdul-Jabbar helped composed a more effective starting five than any starting five Kobe has played with to this point(the floundering 2012-13 squad included). But with that said, let's not give Kobe too much leeway simply because Magic's Lakers were better. The level of competition that Magic played against in the Finals was also much higher. Dr. J's 6ers, Bird's Celtics and Zeke's Pistons were all of a higher caliber than any team Bryant played against in his 7 Finals appearances, save the 2008 Celtics.

So while Magic's Laker rosters were better than Bryant's, the teams Magic conquered were also better than any Bryant faced. Kareem couldn't even lead his rosters to the Finals, so I can't even put him in the conversation. Magic led his Lakers to more Finals appearances and won the most Finals MVPs of the three, so I give him the nod.

Edge: Magic Johnson


Impact:

Let's be honest. Fans don't watch the game to see big men. And this was worsened by the fact that the Kareem that most fans saw wasn't the Kareem that deserved the attention. 80s-era Kareem was not the explosive scorer nor the dominant player that the 70s Kareem was. But even for all his dominance in the 70s, Kareem brought no real fanfare to a struggling league. Kobe, however, has been one of the greatest forces in the sports entertainment industry. With his high flying acrobatics, sensational dunks and a Slam Dunk Championship to boot, Kobe electrified fans in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s. His masterful footwork has confounded defenses and enthralled newer fans in the early years of this new decade. Bean has been touted as the best player of his generation and rightfully so, he has entertained the masses expertly.

But only one Laker legend can be said to have rebuilt the league. He and his Celtic counterpart saved a league that was circling the drain. An impact that changed the nature of professional basketball altogether, there is no denying who is the most important and most dynamic Laker of all time.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

With his stellar no look passes driving an up-tempo, exciting style of basketball, Magic Johnson reinvigorated the passion of a disinterested fan base. People didn't tune into games to see Kareem work in the low post. They tuned in to see Magic Johnson whip a pass past a defender's head and into a teammate's seemingly unsuspecting hands. The only rival for Magic's creativity as a passer was the Pistol, but Maravich came a decade too early for proper exposure. Magic's rivalry with Bird drove viewership to unprecedented levels, a feat no player but Jordan can lay claim to. As much as one may want to say that there would have been no Magic without Bird(double entendre? lol), the fact is that Magic was the celebrity that revived the league. Playing in what was arguably the league's biggest market, Magic's infectious smile and his room warming laughter coupled with his reliable scoring and unbelievably flashy passing abilities sold him to the masses. Bird on the other hand, though equally as confident(arrogant? lol) in his abilities, was indifferent. Bird was cold, he was cerebral, he played with grit and not flash. But all that said, Bird was indeed vital to the resurgence of the NBA. Bird's basketball acumen was off the charts, his shooting abilities among the best the league had ever and has ever seen. Bird's nonathletic play and icy demeanor were the perfect foil to the flamboyance of Johnson, which made their rivalry all the more palpable. The NBA of today is the house that Magic Johnson built(and the home that Michael Jordan renovated into a mansion lol).

Edge: Magic Johnson


Summary: Kobe owns most of the Laker franchise records, but Magic changed the course of not only Laker history, but also NBA history with his play. Kareem is statistically the best player of the three, but his stint as a Buck rob him of an undisputed title as the greatest Laker ever. If Kobe wins one more title as a Finals MVP(something that is not unfeasible), I will be able to both acknowledge and respect the opinion of Kobe being the greatest Laker ever. But since he is tied with Kareem and Magic, I cannot respect that claim as I have to hold him to their standard. Both Magic and Bean played their entire careers as Lakers, but Kobe's story pales in comparison to Magic's legend. Magic is a top 5 player of all time, the greatest point guard the league has ever seen. Kobe is, at best, a top 10 player of all time and the second greatest shooting guard in league history. Magic was  the engine that drove the Lakers to 9 Western Conference championships and 5 NBA championships between 1979-80 and 1990-91. Seven of Earvin's nine WC titles were chiefly driven by his play at point guard, whereas four of Kobe's seven WC titles were driven chiefly by Shaquille O'Neal(though by 2003-04, the scales were tipping toward Kobe). And since championships are our biggest measuring stick for all-time greatness, I tip my hat to the Magic man.

The Greatest Laker of all Time: 
Earvin "Magic" Johnson*
*for now. lol

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