Why Kobe was Never a Top Five Player

Why do people think Kobe is a top five player?

For nearly all of my NBA blogging career, I've been a Kobe "hater." Of course, my "hate" comes from the fact I find Kobe to be overrated. Yes, I think he's been a great player with an impressive career, but he doesn't belong in the discussion for all-time NBA greats (I already wrote a piece on this), but I think there's a bigger point. You see, while Kobe Bryant frequently shows up in the "top five All-Time" discussion, the reality in his NBA career he was never a top five player in the NBA!


When I found twenty plus players with better careers than Kobe, one thing I did was to limit my search criteria to players with mainstream accolades (e.g. winning awards, titles, etc.) I decided to do the same thing for Kobe. During his career, Kobe was voted top ten in MVP voting every year from 2000 to 2013. I looked at players that made the All-NBA teams in those years, to see if I could find five players that were "star player" (Wins per 48 of 0.200+, or twice as good as an average NBA player) that had ten plus Wins Produced and more Wins Produced than Kobe. I also looked for players that were top five in MVP voting or won the Defensive Player of the Year. It turns out all of these players made the All-NBA team. In short, out of a crop of the top fifteen (usually fourteen, as Kobe regularly made the All-NBA team) players as decided by NBA voters, could I always find five better than Kobe? Of course! And with few exceptions, it wasn't even close. Let's go through the eras of Kobe's careers and how no matter the circumstances, how he wasn't on the same level as the rest of the NBA's elite.

The Shaq-Kobe Lakers Era: 2000-2004

Shaq who?

Season Player Wins WP48 MVP Top 5 DPOY Wins over Kobe
2000 Shaquille O'Neal 21.4 0.325 Y   11.6
2000 Gary Payton 15.8 0.221     6
2000 Jason Kidd 13.7 0.251     3.9
2000 David Robinson 13.4 0.252     3.6
2000 Tim Duncan 13.2 0.221 Y   3.4
2000 Alonzo Mourning 12.9 0.225 Y Y 3.1
2001 Dikembe Mutombo 17 0.316   Y 9.7
2001 Shaquille O'Neal 16.4 0.269 Y   9.1
2001 Ray Allen 15.3 0.235     8
2001 Jason Kidd 14.6 0.228     7.3
2001 David Robinson 13.3 0.269     6
2001 Dirk Nowitzki 13.2 0.203     5.9
2002 Ben Wallace 23.4 0.384   Y 13.5
2002 Tim Duncan 18 0.26 Y   8.1
2002 Jason Kidd 15.5 0.243 Y   5.6
2002 Shaquille O'Neal 13.8 0.274 Y   3.9
2002 Dikembe Mutombo 13.1 0.216     3.2
2002 Dirk Nowitzki 12.4 0.206     2.5
2003 Ben Wallace 22.4 0.374   Y 10.1
2003 Kevin Garnett 19.7 0.284 Y   7.4
2003 Tim Duncan 17.5 0.265 Y   5.2
2003 Jason Kidd 16.4 0.263     4.1
2003 Tracy McGrady 15.5 0.251 Y   3.2
2003 Shaquille O'Neal 14.1 0.267 Y   1.8
2003 Steve Nash 12.6 0.222     0.3
2004 Kevin Garnett 19.3 0.286 Y   9.7
2004 Ben Wallace 17.2 0.271     7.6
2004 Peja Stojakovic 14 0.206 Y   4.4
2004 Tim Duncan 13.3 0.253 Y   3.7
2004 Shaquille O'Neal 12 0.233     2.4
2004 Jason Kidd 10.9 0.213     1.3

It's fair to say without Shaq there is no Kobe. In fact, every "Kobe is an all-time great" seems odd to me, as Kobe's first three titles were next to Shaq, who got all three Finals MVPs. It would be like a bizarro-world where Pippen got more credit than Jordan. Shaq is important because of my central point -- it's tough to be a top five NBA player, in large part because the elite players tend to be elite for a while. During the Kobe/Shaq era in LA, Kobe was never a better player than Shaq, locking at least one spot in the top five.

2000-2004 also had several elite bigs. Next to Shaq was Tim Duncan (more MVPs and Finals MVPs than Kobe), Kevin Garnett, and Ben Wallace. While Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan did dip out of our "star level" a few seasons, they were both better than Kobe for every season, and easily kicked Kobe out of the top five in several seasons. Ben Wallace was star level every year over Kobe, although it took until 2002 to get the mainstream recognition. Regardless, those four bigs on their own were almost enough to keep Kobe out of the top five from 2000-2004 on their own. Jason Kidd, the old model of the triple-double machine, was also better than Kobe every single year in this era. Finally tack on some other names like Dirk Nowitzki, David Robinson, and Dikembe Mutombo, and our job is done.

The Shaq-less Lakers: 2005-2008

Kobe's performance got smushed!

Season Player Wins WP48 MVP Top 5 DPOY Wins over Kobe
2005 Kevin Garnett 20.2 0.311     13
2005 LeBron James 16.8 0.238     9.6
2005 Steve Nash 15.6 0.291 Y   8.4
2005 Ben Wallace 14.7 0.265   Y 7.5
2005 Shawn Marion 14.1 0.215     6.9
2005 Tim Duncan 12.3 0.268 Y   5.1
2005 Shaquille O'Neal 12.1 0.234 Y   4.9
2006 Ben Wallace 19.1 0.339   Y 11.1
2006 Shawn Marion 18.5 0.289     10.5
2006 Steve Nash 17.2 0.314 Y   9.2
2006 Chauncey Billups 15.5 0.273 Y   7.5
2006 LeBron James 15.5 0.237 Y   7.5
2006 Elton Brand 14.2 0.226     6.2
2006 Dwyane Wade 14 0.25     6
2006 Dwight Howard 12.4 0.211     4.4
2006 Dirk Nowitzki 12.1 0.2 Y   4.1
2006 Tim Duncan 11 0.204     3
2007 Steve Nash 17.6 0.323 Y   7.3
2007 Dwight Howard 15.8 0.258     5.5
2007 Tim Duncan 14.9 0.269 Y   4.6
2007 Marcus Camby 13.6 0.285   Y 3.3
2007 LeBron James 13.5 0.208 Y   3.2
2007 Dirk Nowitzki 13.3 0.236 Y   3
2007 Kevin Garnett 12.3 0.202     2
2007 Chauncey Billups 12.1 0.24     1.8
2008 Chris Paul 22 0.351 Y   9.9
2008 Dwight Howard 18.2 0.283 Y   6.1
2008 LeBron James 16.4 0.26 Y   4.3
2008 Steve Nash 14.6 0.256     2.5
2008 Kevin Garnett 13.9 0.287 Y Y 1.8
2008 Deron Williams 13.5 0.212     1.4
2008 Amare Stoudemire 13.4 0.243     1.3
2008 Tim Duncan 12.7 0.231     0.6
2008 Manu Ginobili 12.7 0.264     0.6

After the Lakers failed to win the 2004 NBA Finals, and the Lakers couldn't reach an agreement with Shaq, Kobe ended up on the Lakers on his own. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 and lost in the first round in 2006 and 2007. In 2008 Pau Gasol joined the Lakers, but not for a full season. We'll talk 2008 in a second, but this era is one of the easiest periods to knock Kobe out of top-five contention. In 2005 and 2006 he was much worse than his usual self. In 2007 and 2008 he did return to being a ten win player, but not quite up to star level. Regardless, let's run down some more reasons Kobe wasn't a top five player.

LeBron James was drafted in 2003. After learning the ropes as a rookie, LeBron James turned into a star his sophomore season, and as of this writing, he hasn't looked back. From 2005 on, Kobe Bryant was never a better player in any NBA season than LeBron. I hope this isn't controversial. Dwight Howard was similar. In his sophomore season (2006), he turned into a star and was much better than Kobe until Kobe stopped being MVP level. Steve Nash was given the reigns in Phoenix and was a better player all four years than Kobe. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett didn't go anywhere either (although Garnett's exclusion from the All-NBA in 2006 is criminal!) And we're easily locked into five names. Dirk Nowitzki and Chauncey Billups are among the other names to keep Kobe down. That said, let's talk 2008.

2008 was Kobe's "best" season factoring in total wins and performance. And he was legitimately a top twenty NBA player. That said, the gap between him and Chris Paul was so large, it's damned criminal CP3 didn't take home MVP. Of course, the big reasons the Lakers saw a significant jump in 2008 were Andrew Bynum's breakout early season and Pau Gasol landing in the Lakers' laps for next to nothing. Of course, voters are bad at giving partial credit, so Kobe won the MVP. That said, this is the second closest came to being top five (if we limit ourselves to All-NBA players).

The Finale: 2009-2013

Kobe somehow returned to championship form. Somehow ...

Season Player Wins WP48 MVP Top 5 DPOY Wins over Kobe
2009 Chris Paul 23.4 0.374 Y   13.2
2009 LeBron James 22 0.345 Y   11.8
2009 Dwight Howard 19.6 0.333 Y Y 9.4
2009 Dwyane Wade 16.7 0.264 Y   6.5
2009 Pau Gasol 16.1 0.258     5.9
2009 Brandon Roy 13.3 0.221     3.1
2009 Tim Duncan 11 0.209     0.8
2010 LeBron James 21.2 0.344 Y   14.5
2010 Dwight Howard 18.8 0.318 Y Y 12.1
2010 Kevin Durant 15.9 0.235 Y   9.2
2010 Pau Gasol 14.1 0.282     7.4
2010 Steve Nash 14 0.254     7.3
2010 Dwyane Wade 13.7 0.235 Y   7
2010 Tim Duncan 12.8 0.251     6.1
2010 Deron Williams 12.6 0.215     5.9
2011 Dwight Howard 19.7 0.322 Y Y 13.1
2011 Chris Paul 18.5 0.311     11.9
2011 LeBron James 17.6 0.275 Y   11.0
2011 Pau Gasol 15.6 0.247     9
2011 Dwyane Wade 13.7 0.233     7.1
2011 Al Horford 12.1 0.215     5.5
2011 Zach Randolph 11.7 0.206     5.1
2011 Manu Ginobili 10.3 0.204     3.7
2012 LeBron James 16.6 0.342 Y   15.0
2012 Chris Paul 14.8 0.326 Y   13.2
2012 Tyson Chandler 13.9 0.325   Y 12.3
2012 Kevin Durant 11.2 0.211 Y   9.6
2012 Dwight Howard 11.1 0.257     9.5
2012 Kawhi Leonard 9.5 0.298     7.9
2012 Rajon Rondo 9.1 0.223     7.5
2012 Kevin Love 9.0 0.200     7.4
2013 Kevin Durant 19.8 0.305 Y   11.1
2013 LeBron James 18.6 0.310 Y   9.9
2013 Chris Paul 17.5 0.360 Y   8.8
2013 James Harden 12.6 0.203     3.9
2013 Dwyane Wade 10.4 0.209     1.7

Thanks to Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant returned to the NBA Finals, winning back to back Finals MVPs (maybe a topic for another day). He stayed in the top five MVP discussion until 2013. That said, it's still relatively easy to keep Kobe out of the top five each year. In 2010 Kevin Durant matured into a star player and has been a better player than Kobe ever since. Chris Paul, the rightful 2008 MVP also stayed better than Kobe. Of course, LeBron didn't go anywhere either. Dwyane Wade had a relatively healthy stretch of his career and was better than Kobe almost every year. Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan stayed relevant too. In short, the field of great players better than Kobe easily kept him out of the top five. Note that just like the Shaq era, Pau Gasol was a better player than Kobe and kept the Lakers relevant. Of course, many fans of Kobe will have a giant blind spot for both Shaq and Gasol.

As a funny note, 2013 was Kobe's second "closest" season to arguably being a top five. Admittedly his 2013 season was a surprise snap back season given his age and injury in 2012. That said, the All-NBA voters left some good names off including Steph Curry and Jimmy Butler. Hindsight huh?

Final Thoughts

Close, not close enough.

Wow, that took a while huh? To reiterate, I think Kobe was a great player and a vital part of some fantastic squads. However, I do feel he's overrated in NBA history. It's not easy to be a top player in the NBA. And what's more, often top players "keep their spot." Kobe had a long career and was a great player. He just never cracked into the echelon of players like Shaq, Tim Duncan, KG, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, etc.

Kobe's "skill" most of his career was volume. He played many games, played many minutes (he cracked 40 minutes a game five seasons), and took a lot of shots. And while that's impressive, the problem was he was never efficient enough to be as good as other top players. Of course, perception often trumps reality in discussions like these. 

One final topic I'd like to bring up is Kobe's defense. Players like Steve Nash will invariably have this thrown as the "tie-breaker." First, when a player's offense is so much better than Kobe, it is doubtful defense not captured in the box score will make up the difference. That said, it should be noted Kobe's teams were all over the place in regards to defense. Yes in four of the five seasons Kobe won a title he played on a top 7 NBA defense, but in 2001 the Lakers ranked 21st in the NBA in defense! After Kobe lost Shaq (and Gary Payton and Karl Malone ...), the Lakers ranked dead last in the NBA in defense and didn't crack top five until Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol joined the squad. Fun note, in 2003 when both Dirk Nowitzki and Nash placed in front of Kobe by my numbers, the Mavericks had a top ten NBA defense (to the Lakers 19th). I'm not trying to argue Kobe wasn't a good defender. I'm saying it's not as easy to measure as people would like, and I am skeptical any difference in Kobe's defense to another player would gain him enough ground.

In the end, Kobe Bryant was a great but overrated player that benefited from playing in a large market next to some of the best bigs in the NBA. I have no problem with him as a first ballot Hall of Famer. I have no problem with him considered an all-time great NBA player. But as a reminder, he's nowhere close to a top five all-time player in NBA history because even while he was active, he was never a top five player.