For nearly two decades, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has been known as a competitor, an agitator and a winner. But now, with the end of his career looming, fans are seeing something else. Bryant is now decrepit and nowhere near close to the dominant player he once was.
On Sunday, Bryant announced that he will retire at the end of the season. Bryant’s announcement revived the discussion about where he ranks among the all-time greats and how he stacks up against those of his generation, essentially the post-Jordan/pre-LeBron era. That generation had amazing talents such as Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett. But there is only one man who can call himself the best player of this generation: Tim Duncan. Understandably, this is understandably a divisive topic, especially when one considers that both Bryant and Duncan have won five championships, earned 15 All-NBA selections and been named all-stars year after year. While the accolades may tell a story of consistent success, the numbers and recent history tilt the debate towards Duncan in a more lopsided way than one might think.
Yes, in a simple points-scored comparison, Kobe is the clear winner, but there is more to basketball than points scored. Looking at a more advanced level — through win shares — Duncan has been a better player over his career than Bryant by over 30 wins and that margin will continue to grow this season. Additionally, Duncan has been more than twice as valuable than Bryant has been on defense with a defensive win shares rating of 104 compared to Bryant’s 50.2.
Naturally, all of these statistics depend on context. Many believe Duncan benefited from the consistency of Spurs Head Coach Greg Popovich’s system and the Spurs organization as a whole, while Kobe has gone through several coaching changes and organizational turbulence after the death of longtime Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss in 2013. There is no question that the Lakers organization has been less effective since Dr. Buss’ passing; his son Jim Buss has proven ineffective and has failed to surround Kobe with the necessary pieces to be competitive. At the end of the day, however, Buss’ son can be blamed for the decline of the franchise, but he cannot be blamed for Bryant’s performance. This year Bryant is shooting a career-low 31 percent from the field and a morbid 22.2 percent from three-point range. Injuries happen and bodies age, but Bryant’s inability to consistently perform at even a respectable level is doing his team and himself more harm than good.
Although most Bryant supporters are quick to point out his turbulent path, few readily acknowledge that Bryant was, in part, responsible for the Lakers’ instability. By now it is well-known that he played a role in O’Neal’s departure from Los Angles in 2004. Furthermore, Bryant’s contract is limiting the Lakers’ spending. Currently, he is in the final year of a two-year, $48.5 million contract. This means that the Lakers are spending over one-third of their salary cap on Bryant — who has only played a quarter of the team’s games over the past two seasons. Due to maximum contract limitations and the salary cap as a whole, one could argue that Kobe is being overpaid now to compensate for being underpaid in his prime. That may be true, but there is no question that Bryant’s massive contract has hurt the Lakers’ ability to compete for marquee free agents.
Meanwhile, Duncan resigned for $5 million over the summer despite having a 9.6 win share rating and a 22.6 player efficiency rating — the league average is designed to be 15. But by taking this pay cut, the Spurs were able to sign LaMarcus Aldridge and resign Kawhi Leonard to max contracts. Duncan is surely being underpaid, but that is a choice he is making because the money is secondary to chasing a sixth championship.
While the Spurs are virtually a lock to make the playoffs, the Lakers are virtually a lock for a lottery pick. Even in the realm of the playoffs, the numbers make the case for Duncan. Last year, despite losing to the Clippers in the first round in an epic seven-game series, Duncan averaged nearly 18 points and 11 rebounds, including a vintage 27-point performance in the series’ final game. Because of his defensive ability, Duncan still brings immense value to San Antonio. While Kobe will still show flashes of brilliance as he did Wednesday at Verizon Center, it does not make up for his defensive deficiencies and inconsistency on offense.
For all of his faults and the errors of those around him, Kobe Bryant deserves better than this Lakers team. He will forever be a legend in the NBA, especially to those of us who grew up watching him. However, to see a proper culmination to a hall of fame career, turn away from L.A. and look toward the Alamo.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. This is the final appearance of The Water Cooler this semester.