Full disclosure, I was a member of the committee of writers and analysts that contributed to ESPN’s NBA Rank project. What I, and everyone else that participated, was tasked with was giving a numerical score of 1-10 (with 10 being best) for every NBA player in the league. The only criteria we were asked to use was the “current quality of the player”. That’s it. For each voter that could mean a variety of things. But, for me, it meant I was judging every players’ place in the league and using every variable – tangible and intangible – that I knew of about that player to then give a score.
It was a tedious task and one that I tried to execute with as much fairness that I could. I looked up stats, watched video of the players, and did everything I could to inform myself of the players I was going to score. As you know, the results are in and they’ve caused quite a stir across the blogosphere and other media outlets. Some people agree with how the rankings played out, some disagree, and some people likely think we’re all crazy.
In any event, I thought I’d lay this out before I go into any real thoughts on where the Lakers’ players ended up.
From a Lakers’ fan perspective, the thing that jumps out right away was Kobe’s placement at #7. Personally, this “rank” doesn’t offend or upset me. In fact, it seems fair based off the criteria we used.
Kobe’s always going to be an interesting player to evaluate because he’s both a supreme talent that can still put his imprint on and dominate a game as few others can. Few players are as feared when possessing a basketball and I can’t name a single player that possesses the variety of skills in a single package that Kobe does. However, he’s also a player that preserves his energy by taking defensive plays off and doesn’t always conform to the team structure put forth by his coach. As glorious at it can be to watch him break his man down in isolation and make the most remarkable moves look polished, it can be just as frustrating to watch him force a shot over a defender (or two, or three).
Kobe’s will to win is legendary and his skill set is elite. He’s the best post-up wing in the league and could rival even the elite big men in terms of back-to-the-basket effectiveness. His jumper is still streaky from beyond the three point line but there aren’t many mid-range shooters better than #24. His feel for the game remains one of the best for any player in the game, reading defenses like an elite quarterback and making the right play more often than he gets credit for. Watching him every night is special soley for these reasons. When you add in the ability to make the spectacular play seem routine or turn a random mid-March game into his canvas to paint another masterpiece of basketball art, his place among the elite is deserved.
However, he’s aged now. He does more pointing and standing on defensive possessions than he used to. His ball handling has suffered from mangled digits and his turnover rate has jumped. His usage rate remains too high for a player with as many capable teammates as he possesses. He’ll force the action – whether out of perceived or real necessity – too often and the game can become weighted too heavily in his direction even when his effectiveness doesn’t warrant it. This is the balancing act of watching Kobe play and while I’d want him on my side when walking into any battle it doesn’t change the fact that he’s not the perfect player.
Which is nothing to be ashamed of. Kobe’s played the 16th most minutes all-time. He’s entering his 16th season as a pro and has missed the playoffs only once in his career. The wear and tear on his body is tremendous, yet he continues to be one of the handful of players who can instantly lend championship credibility to a roster. Kevin Garnett was drafted the year before Kobe and Tim Duncan the year after. Their rankings of #22 and #19 (respectively) show players in steady decline while Kobe continues to stay at elite level in terms of real production and stature in the league. Continuing to stand among the league’s special talents at this advanced stage of his career is so rare that there are few players throughout the history of the game that he can even be compared to in these terms.
So, rather than get worked up about Kobe’s place in the league, I embrace it. He’s still one of the game’s very best even as his body shouldn’t allow him to be. For that, I’m grateful. As a Laker fan, you should be too.