At some point in the near future, Kobe Bryant will retire and leave basketball fans around the world with a multitude of memories that will leave us collectively shaking our heads. On that front, the Lakers superstar may not exactly be on the same level as Michael Jackson; but his body of work reminds me of the King of Pop.
For instance, Jacko gave fans moments such as the moonwalk, Thriller, the Smooth Criminal lean and the Beat It choreography that are now immortalized on Youtube. In the same breath, few players can match Bryant’s incomparable feats down the stretch of big games; that much like Michael Jackson, will live seemingly forever thanks in large part to today’s social media (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc…).
Indeed, moments such as the lob pass to Shaq in the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Game 4 masterpiece finish against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals, the 3-point shot to send Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals to overtime and the contortionist shot against Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Finals are just a handful of the amazingly spectacular plays in Kobe Bryant’s career.
The two-time Finals MVP is sure to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame based on his achievements and his teams’ ability to deliver championships.
And yet, if we wanted to nitpick his career, it would be impossible to avoid his overall performances in the Finals; especially in comparison to some other greats.
Bryant has shown a high propensity to deliver in big games for the Lakers, however when presenting his basketball résumé; one cannot avoid the fact that he has had some subpar performances in the championship round throughout his career.
The best evidence to offer on this topic would be Bryant’s play during the 2004 NBA Finals. Indeed, Kobe spent the entire season balancing court dates with basketball games and played brilliantly. Mind you, his performance in the championship series led to Tayshaun Prince being crowned as the proverbial “Kobe stopper” because he held the superstar to a rather pedestrian 22.6 points per game on 38.1 percent field goal shooting.
Further compounding the issue, Shaquille O’Neal had a terrific series offensively, as evidenced by his 26.6 points per game on 63.1 percent field goal shooting; however he only shot the ball 84 times in comparison to his star teammate who attempted 113 field goals during the 2004 Finals.
Granted, one poor showing in the Finals in a decorated career is hardly worth mentioning; but a multitude of them has to be characterized as a trend. Have a look at Kobe Bryant’s statistical output in the NBA Finals throughout his career:
For the most part, Kobe’s production has been great however his shooting percentages leave much to be desired. His two worst Finals showings occurred in the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers (in which the Lakers were victorious) and the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons (where they were defeated in five games).
In addition, other than the 2004 Pistons and maybe the 2001 76ers (with Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and Raja Bell), none of the teams that the Lakers star guard faced in the title round had the Bruce Bowen-type defenders to throw at Kobe to essentially sit on his every move and limit his effectiveness.
And for better or worse, this is where Bryant has earned the reputation of a selfish gunner in the minds of many.
With rings on the line and basketball being played in front of an international audience on television, Kobe Bryant has showed the propensity to often take low percentage shots and consequently conclude games with an unimpressive shooting mark (the six-for-24 game is often cited as evidence of this).
Consequently, Kobe’s statistical output in championship series is on par with the playoff averages of one of the league’s most famous gunners: Allen Iverson.
Oddly enough, Iverson will always carry the reputation of the toughest little big man that did anything and everything possible to carry his team to victory (insert practice joke here); and yet, the former people’s champ (most saw the crossover king as such after he rocked Jordan to sleep) lacks the sustained playoff success to be mentioned in the same conversation as Kobe. Indeed, in 14 NBA seasons, Iverson appeared in 71 playoff games while Kobe Bryant has played in 208 games in 15 seasons.
Save for the 50-point games against the Toronto Raptors and the 48 points scored in a Finals game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 playoffs, one struggles to recall any truly dominant playoff performance by The Answer. Mind you, players can be effective in many ways; whether it’s by playing excellent defense or coming up big down the stretch of games. But on that front, Iverson is not close to being in the same realm as Kobe Bryant.
Thus, when discussing the Black Mamba, it’s important to do so with a hint of perspective. If we look purely at his numbers, many players have performed better than Kobe on the big stage; but not many have often delivered at the end of ball games to help either steal or secure a win at the expense of their opponent like Bryant has.
Consequently, Bryant’s slot in the pyramid of great players is relatively tough to evaluate given that the likes of Magic, Bird and Jordan all played their best in the Finals all the while piercing the heart of their opponents with a myriad of daggers to close out games.
The former league MVP is clearly one of the all time greats, but one has to wonder if his performances in the NBA Finals will eventually be swept under the rug or if they will be the one deciding factor that keeps him from being mentioned as the greatest Laker of all, as well as the greatest player of all time.
Only a matter of time before we find out…