ESPN’s annual #NBArank project, which counts down the NBA’s top players for the upcoming season, was released last week. Kobe Bryant, the man who has arguably been the face of NBA basketball over the course of the last 16 years, was ranked as the 93rd best player out of a possible 400.
For diehard Bryant and Lakers fans, this was a hard one to swallow. Bryant himself obviously was not happy, claiming that the rankings were “silly” and thus continuing the ongoing animosity between himself and the ESPN reporters whom he called “a bunch of idiots” last year after being ranked 40th. To a degree, he has a point – the rankings are entirely based on the opinions of 100 reporters, and have notoriously been controversial every year. Yet the sad reality is that, as someone who is fast approaching the end of a legendary career, Kobe Bryant cannot and should not be viewed as an elite, high-performing basketball player any more.
First of all, in order to be one, you actually have to play on a regular basis. In the last two injury-plagued seasons, Bryant only managed to play in 41 out of a possible 164 games. For someone who’s played almost 20 years of professional basketball, this should perhaps be expected, but it should not be disregarded when estimating what Bryant can actually contribute this year. The same principle applies to stars such as Derrick Rose and Dwayne Wade, who have both also dealt with nagging injuries in recent years, but the difference is that Bryant is now 37, preparing to play what he himself has acknowledged to be his swan-song season.
Because of age and injuries, Bryant’s once superhuman abilities have deteriorated. Last season, before going down with a severe shoulder injury, Bryant averaged a respectable 22.3 points per game but shot at a rate of 37.3 per cent, well below the league average. This resulted in him only being in the 30th percentile in player efficiency. Sure, he’s playing on a really bad team plagued by inexperience, unjustified swagger (Google Nick Young) and hilariously-outdated coaching – anyone who still believes that basketball games can be won without three-point shooting, like head coach Byron Scott, counts as a bad coach and needs to be rescued from the 70s. But this is where Bryant’s own legacy haunts him, as he’s shown that he can dominate games on bad teams before – the man averaged just over 35 points a game on a team that started notorious scrubs and consequent folklore heroes Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
This isn’t to say that he can and should do better, given that he is roughly ten years past his peak, as any 37-year-old basketball player would be. But it is an indication that Bryant just can’t do it anymore, which makes this next season all the more daunting for any fan of the NBA. Regardless of whether you’re an admirer or a hater, Kobe Bryant deserves the respect of being the top-ten player in NBA history that he is, and to watch him score eighteen or so meaningless points per game, whilst being evidently frustrated by the lack of success that has defined his last years in the league, will be disappointing.
Bryant chose to take the 93rd ranking as an insult. Perhaps he would be better off seeing it as a wake-up call.