Posted by Neil Paine on June 17, 2010
There's been a lot of talk about how Kobe Bryant's legacy is "on the line" tonight. Win, and he could become the Greatest Laker Ever™ (Bryant would have 5 championships in Forum Blue & Gold, tying him with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan as the franchise's winningest winner); lose, and it would be his 3rd Finals loss (clearly a blemish from which his reputation could never recover). In short, Bryant supposedly won't be the same caliber basketball player tomorrow morning if the Lakers don't win tonight.
In case you can't tell, I think that's an extremely flawed and childish way to look at the question of who the greatest Laker was/is. Kobe winning a ring tonight adds to his resume in some ways, but it's not like getting to 5 titles automatically ties his career with Magic Johnson's, nor is it true that he could never surpass Magic if L.A. loses tonight. 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.
Kobe vs. Mikan
The numbers are extremely limited for Mikan's era, so I'm going to leave this one alone for now... For instance, Mikan was 27 when the NBA first tracked minutes played; by that age, Kobe had already logged 21,962 MP. There's really just no valid way to compare the two players.
Kobe vs. Elgin & Jerry
It's much easier to compare Kobe to Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Laker stalwarts of the 1960s. They didn't keep turnovers or various defensive stats in those days, but we can look at what information we do have to make an informed comparison. Using Justin's estimated turnovers and assuming 30% of TRB are offensive, we can make an educated guess as to what the Offensive Rating of a pre-1974 player was. Here are Baylor and West's career Basketball on Paper stats (glossary):
|Elgin Baylor's Career Stats|
|Jerry West's Career Stats|
If we adjust those numbers to the 2010 environment of 107.6 points per 100 possessions, we end up with these translated stats for Baylor/West:
Compare those to Kobe Bryant's translated numbers:
As you can see, Bryant at his offensive peak was capable of a 115-116 ORtg on 32% of team possessions when on the floor; Baylor at his best was capable of a 114-115 ORtg on only 29% of team possessions. There can be little doubt, then, that Bryant was a better offensive player than Elgin Baylor. On defense, Bryant has been named 1st team All-Defense 8 times, although some were suspect picks (L.A.'s defenses were wildly inconsistent and featured one of the worst in recent memory in 2005; after 2002, they didn't become elite again until 2009-10). They didn't give out All-D awards when Baylor was in his prime, but he was top 10 in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares from 1960-63 on the strength of his rebounding. However, the Laker defenses he oversaw were just as inconsistent as Bryant's, and on average were slightly worse. That means Bryant is, at worst, even defensively with Baylor, and better offensively, making Bryant a Greater Laker™ overall.
West is a different story, though. His prime saw him post an ORtg of 124-125 on 26% of possessions, which even puts him above Dantley territory offensively. If we assume a 1-point ORtg tradeoff for West when taking on more possessions, he could easily maintain a 32% rate with more efficiency than Bryant. So I'm going to give West the slight offensive edge over Kobe. Defensively, West won All-D honors the first 5 years they existed and appears to have been every bit Bryant's equal reputation-wise. His teams were worse defensively on average than Kobe's, though, and played their best when he was in the twilight of his career. Bryant gets the slight edge on D, so it looks like it's probably 50-50 as to whether West or Bryant was better. If you need a high-volume scorer, go with Kobe... if you need a more willing distributor, go with The Logo.
Kobe vs. Magic & Kareem
Here are the same numbers for Kobe Bryant:
Jabbar was a big man who didn't arrive in Los Angeles until later in his career, so it's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but his Laker peak saw him put up a 120 ORtg on 25% of possessions. Bryant used 7% more possessions, and it's safe to say that an older Kareem would not have been capable of a 115.5 ORtg on 32 %Poss... Bryant was superior offensively to Jabbar as a Laker. Defensively, the stats say it's no contest, Kareem in a landslide. Jabbar was also a 7-time All-D selection in L.A., so I think the choice of Kareem is obvious on defense. In other words, it comes down to a choice: do you want a high-scoring guard who's good defensively, or a center who's slightly inferior on offense but makes a much larger defensive impact? Conventional wisdom says you take the center, right?
Magic's Laker peak saw him post a 121-122 ORtg on 25% of possessions, and asking him to take on 32% like Kobe would likely drag his ORtg lower than Bryant's 115.5. (Although Johnson did increase his usage to 29% in 1987 and still maintained a 123 ORtg, so who's to say?) Still, give the offensive edge to Bryant for the sake of the argument. Defensively, Magic's individual numbers are better, but his teams were basically even with Bryant's and he had none of the All-Defense accolades that Kobe has. Given this evidence, it seems that Bryant actually should be considered a Greater Laker™ than Magic Johnson, as heretical as that sounds.
Kobe vs. Shaq
Ah, yes, the granddaddy of them all... It might seem obvious that Shaq wins this battle, since he was the best player on a team with Bryant for the better part of a decade, but that was an unfair matchup: prime Shaq vs. young, pre-prime Kobe. Let's take them head-to-head, prime-vs-prime:
Shaq's stay in L.A. was relatively short, and this lack of longevity could work against him. Still, his L.A. prime was a beastly 120 ORtg on 31% of possessions, clearly making him the better offensive option than a prime Kobe. Defensively, Shaq was actually a 3-time All-Defensive pick as a Laker, and his numbers are better than Bryant's -- it's generally assumed that a center has more control over team defensive performance than a perimeter player, and L.A.'s total defensive collapse after O'Neal departure seems to back this theory up. Even if we consider Kobe first among equals defensively, Shaq's offense puts him over the top. During their respective primes, Shaq was the Greater Laker™.
- Tonight's outcome should have little bearing on the "Greatest Laker" conversation, because Bryant will be the exact same player tomorrow morning that he is right now.
- Bryant is probably a Greater Laker™ than Elgin Baylor & Magic Johnson.
- Bryant is probably not a Greater Laker™ than Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Shaquille O'Neal -- although you could still argue that he surpasses Shaq on longevity alone.