Bryant among the most selfish, stubborn ever

DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey discuss their appreciation for Kobe Bryant's legendary career, and how surreal it will be to have a league without him.

TORONTO – On his way to the Hall of Fame, Kobe Bryant has become a Rorschach test.

Some people look at everything the Los Angeles Lakers star has accomplished, combined with his unbending will and five championship rings and think: There goes one of the best who ever was.

Others – and I am one – look at him and think: There goes one of the most selfish, stubborn and egocentric basketball players of all time.

Obviously with a career as long and storied as Bryant’s there is room for a range of opinion.

You can argue with how he plays and still agree that that he was an awesome player. I have him somewhere in my top-25 players of all time, a list that begins with Michael Jordan and doesn’t have Bryant in the top 15.

The obstacle to Bryant being higher on my list are twofold.

One is that he’s always been an inefficient player who seemed to confuse scoring a lot with playing well.

Even his single greatest season – 2005-06 when he averaged 35.4 points per game and famously dropped 81 points on the hapless Toronto Raptors – Bryant shot 45 per cent from the field, the same number he’s shot for his career. The year he scored the most was merely the year he shot the most, which is saying something.

Bryant’s most prolific high point was him turning the screw even tighter rather than finding some kind of new tool to use that was better than what he had before. It was like he’d discovered that a little salt would make dinner taste better, and decided even more salt would make it taste better still.

How is it possible that Bryant has never shot better than 47 per cent from the field, even once, in 20 seasons?

Given the quality of teammates he’s had, and how much ink has been spilled and video footage has been compiled aimed at illustrating how carefully he’s fine-tuned his skills over his career, you’d think at some point there would be some statistical evidence.

Bryant’s best shooting year was 46.9 per cent when he was 23. He never improved his efficiency after that. His best year as a three-point shooter came when he was 24 when he shot 38.3 per cent from deep, a mark he never approached again. His next best was when he was 18.

The other aspect of Bryant’s performance that holds him back from being a top-five or top-10 player is that Bryant’s greatness is really a story about staying power. He played at near peak performance for an incredible 15 seasons beginning when he became a starter at age 20. In contrast, Larry Bird’s best years were condensed into just eight years beginning at age 23.

But what Bryant never had was a period where he so clearly separated himself from his peers and put together seasons that are among the greatest ever.

Just using Basketball-Reference’s WinShares formula – a catch-all measurement that is handy for the always-awkward task of comparing players of different eras and positions – Bryant’s best years were only really good, not transcendent.

For all his great years, Bryant’s best year generated 15.3 WinShares. In contrast, Michael Jordan’s average for his 13 years with the Chicago Bulls was 15.7 and he had three seasons with more than 20, a threshold achieved by only five players ever.

Karl Malone’s best seasons were better than Bryant’s best, as were the best by Oscar Robertson, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and a lot of other players.

Bryant’s best-ever season doesn’t crack the top-100.

All of which isn’t to say Bryant shouldn’t be admitted to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.

He’s been an 11-time first-team all-NBA player, will retire as the league’s third all-time leading scorer and was a foundation piece of five NBA championship teams. He was first-team all-defence eight times, even though his career defensive rating of 105.24 is 41st among active players, but whatever.

My arguments are with those who look at the rings and look at the accumulation of numbers and figure he’s a top-five or top-10 player. It confuses quantity over quality.

My arguments are with those that look at his unwillingness to adapt his game and think that’s a strength, rather than proof that the only part of Bryant’s game that was truly at the top of the heap in the NBA was his ego.

It’s that same ego that’s undoing him now.

His farewell tour comes to Toronto with Bryant in the midst of one of the worst seasons by any NBA player ever.

He’s shooting 29 per cent from the floor and 22 per cent from the three-point line. No one has ever shot that poorly over the course of an NBA season while averaging at least 10 shots and four threes a game. Kobe is taking 20 and nine, respectively.

It’s not just his numbers.

It’s that he’s so determined to keep playing the same way he always has, despite coming off three seasons ended, in order, by a torn Achilles tendon, a fractured knee cap and a torn rotator cuff.

He’s had plenty of time to read the writing on the wall, and it says, in big bold letters, ‘Your time is done. Your body can’t be bent by your will any longer.’

Which is different than quit.

There is no objection here to Bryant playing out his last season. He’s under contract for $24 million. If he retires now he won’t get the rest of his money. If he wants to enjoy a farewell tour, so be it.

The question I have is why is he insisting on going out this way?

Why is a player all about winning spending his last season on a 3-17 team playing in a way that’s almost certainly going to facilitate losing – unless of course his plan is to play so badly that the Lakers are assured of keeping their first-round draft pick this summer (they need to finish no worse than third-last or else the pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers.)

There are obvious things Bryant could be doing in his last go around that would put a better shine on a season as miserable as this one.

The Lakers are a young team with at least two young players who are being counted on to be part of the storied franchise’s turnaround that can only truly begin when Bryant finally retires.

There are obvious ways that Bryant could be helping the development of budding star Julius Randle and rookie D’Angelo Russell.

He could demonstrate to them that it’s important to adapt your game to the circumstances that you’re in, rather than keep forcing a round peg into a square hole.

He could show them the difference between a good shot and a bad shot.

He could show them that the most important thing when the ball goes up is winning the game, not imposing your own agenda.

He could be showing them that a winning team is never about one individual standing above the rest.

Any and all of those lessons could be Bryant’s final gift to the franchise that has given him so much.

But it appears that for all his greatness, that’s one job he’s not qualified for.

Kobe’s going down gun’s blazing. He doesn’t know anything different.

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