It’s hard to fully process the terrible circumstances surrounding Kobe Bryant’s death last week. Yes, there are other tragedies in the world that are worthy of note (as well as eight other people, including young children who died with Kobe) but this was horrid on many levels. Rather than dwell on this terrible part of his story, I thought this would be a good time to do a detailed FAQ (as we have with a bunch NBA greats who have retired), remembering his story and some of the forgotten parts.
Kobe: The Beginning
The basics of Kobe’s ascent to the NBA are well-documented but let’s run through them. He was son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a decent forward in the NBA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Jellybean played two years at LaSalle and then was the 14th overall pick in the 1975 draft. Bryant played eight years in the NBA as role player. His final season was 1982-83, when he actually started 56 games and put up 10.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg for the Rockets. But that was less impressive than it seems. Jellybean’s PER was 10.4 (a career low) and the Rockets were a truly terrible (they tanked to 14-68, “earning” the top pick Ralph Sampson).
Jellybean moved to Europe to finish up his career with his kids, including Kobe, who was only about five years old at the time. Jellybean played in Europe through 1992, before returning to the United States for a coaching career and just in time for Kobe’s freshman year of high school. Kobe made the varsity as a freshman and, ultimately, led the team (Lower Merion, a suburban team) to a state title in 1995-96 (30.8 pp, 12 rpg, 6.5 apg, 4.0 spg, 3.8 bpg).
Bryant had scholarship offers from many big college basketball programs (he was reported to have beat Jerry Stackhouse when Stack was a rookie star for the 76ers, after which UNC offered a scholarship). Bryant had his eyes on a jump to the pros. This idea had to be fueled by Kevin Garnett, who in 1995-96, had been the first high schooler who went straight to the NBA since the mid-1970s.
Bryant’s forgoing college was met with a degree of shrugs and complaints. In an April 1996 story, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger covered Kobe’s press conference where he went pro and the reviews were mixed. Bamberger quoted Celtics’ front office director Jon Jennings as saying “I think it’s a total mistake. Kevin Garnett was the best high school player I ever saw, and I wouldn’t have advised him to jump to the NBA. And Kobe is no Kevin Garnett.” But Bryant signed a $10 million deal with Adidas a few days later and now the question was whether he was a good player or something more.
Bryant was considered a very good player but he was not nearly as hot a prospect as Garnett (who was picked fourth the year before. Before the draft, the Washington Post listed Bryant as a top shooting guard prospect but below top prospects Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles. Nor was Bryant even the only high school player in the draft that year, as Jermaine O’Neal also came out early. Instead, Bryant was a late lottery pick for the Hornets. Kobe was immediately traded by the Hornets to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Vlade was a good starting center at the time, so Kobe had some real value but it was not clear that Bryant was considered a star. Jerry West was a big fan but it was easier for the Lakers to trade Valde take a shot on Bryant because the Lakers were intentionally shedding salary to make room to sign Shaquille O’Neal that summer anyway.
As a rookie, Kobe played only about 15 minutes per game but was relatively effective for an 18-year old guard: He put up a 14.4 PER and scored 17.6 pts/36 min. Bryant actually had his best three-point shooting year as a rookie as well (51-136, .375% versus a career rate of .329%)
The year ended strangely for Bryant. Bryant played sporadically and was sitting behind two All-Stars in Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. Despite this, coach Del Harris abruptly gave Bryant’s minutes against the Utah Jazz in the second round of the playoffs. Kobe barely played in first two games at Utah (he shot 1-8 in 19 minutes), which the Jazz won. Kobe played a great Game 3 (19 points in 19 minutes, including 13-14 from the line) in a game the Lakers won. Harris then played Kobe even more the last two games of the series (both losses) but Kobe struggled, shooting 7-23 and barely getting to the line. Capping it off In the end of Game 5, Harris decided Kobe should take the game winner. He air balled that shot and then several more shots in overtime.
When did Kobe become a star?
After that rookie season, it was fair to say that Kobe had a following. He had a flair for the big moment (and he won the dunk contest) and was a bundle of energy. These facts, got Kobe voted as an All-Star starter for the 1997-98 season, despite the fact that Kobe didn’t actually start for the Lakers. The other factor that got Kobe noticed was the similarity in mannerism and moves to Michael Jordan. In “The Show,” Roland Lazenby wrote that Kobe “had just about all of Jordan’s moves down pat, even the famous post-up gyrations where Jordan would twitch and fake his opponents into madness.”
Kobe would battle out with MJ in Jordan’s last season with the Bulls. Even in this showcase, Bryant annoyed some players. Lazenby wrote that “Bryant left Karl Malone fussing by motioning him off when the Utah veteran stepped up to set a screen.” In addition, All-Star coach George Karl benched Kobe for the whole fourth quarter, apparently because he did not like Kobe’s flair that much. Lazenby quoted Karl as saying that the benching was because “I thought we [as in Kobe] tried to be too entertaining.”
Near the end of the 1997-98 season, Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote an article examining whether Kobe was a real star or “merely a creature of hype.” Thomsen wrote that “Bryant’s second NBA season has been one long, inconclusive argument.” After examining the evidence of Bryant’s talent and selfishness, Thomsen concluded that “should Bryant be more aggressive or more of a team player?—is going to define his career.”
But the answer was a fait accompli. Bryant’s talent was scoring in large volumes. That was why he was in the NBA. Of course, he was always going to shoot. The real question was whether he could score efficiently enough to be a superstar or would he be just another very good scorer like Stackhouse. Bryant steadily improved but it took until 2000-01 (age-22) for Bryant to put up otherworldly scoring numbers (28.5 ppg) and Kobe coupled that with his best advanced stats to that point. So, it took about four or five years for the hype and reality to merge on Kobe.
Kobe, Perceived Star?
What about MVP voting? How did the MVP voters view Kobe over that span? Here’s a breakdown:
–1996-97: 0 votes
-1997-98: 0 votes
-1998-99: 0 votes
-1999-00: 3 points (12th in voting)
-2000-01: 11 points (9th in voting)
-2001-02: 98 points (5th in voting)
Kobe’s vote totals were actually slower to grow than they should have been. He was MVP caliber earlier than the voters gave him credit. Part of this was due to the fact that Shaq was the better Laker and he absorbed most of the Laker votes.
A quick Showtime aside
This is not really relevant to Bryant’s career but Kobe (and Shaq) played with two key members of the old Showtime Lakers, Byron Scott (in his final season 1996-97) and A.C. Green in 1999-00 (Green actually won a title with them). Magic Johnson’s second retirement came after the 1995-96 season, leaving open the chance that he could’ve played with Shaq and Kobe for a year or two. Would’ve been fun to see for posterity.
Should Kobe be blamed for the breakup with Shaq?
At the time, the Kobe-Shaq feud seemed to lie more with Kobe’s refusal to defer to his better, older teammate. This was reinforced by Phil Jackson, who wrote a whole book basically confirming that take. In retrospect, the issues were a bit more complicated. Shaq was not an easy personality either and, though he was better on a per game basis than Kobe, O’Neal missed games and was slowing down, partly due to poor conditioning. Here’s how they compared in advanced stats in Shaq’s final season in L.A. in 2003-04:
-Kobe: In 3,401 minutes, 26.2 PER, 14.9 WS (.210 WS/48), 6.4 BPM, 7.1 VORP
-Shaq: In 2,535 minutes, 29.5 PER, 13.2 WS (.250 WS/48), 6.3 BPM, 5.3 VORP
The numbers show Kobe was worth about as much as Shaq. So, Kobe was close to eclipsing Shaq as the best player on the team (and arguably already had). This fact does not excuse Kobe from feuding but Shaq also was not easy to deal with. In the end, when forced to choose between their two stars, the Lakers correctly figured a young healthy Kobe was worth more than a rapidly aging Shaq.
Ultimately, the Shaq trade worked out well for the Lakers. A few months ago, we looked back at how many titles the Lakers might’ve had if they kept Shaq. The quick answer: the Lakers might’ve won one more title if they kept Shaq. The assets they used to get Shaq did get the Lakers two titles (and almost a third). Trading Shaq seemed bad to me at the time but the Lakers were vindicated.
Kobe Alone, the Pre-Gasol Years
The Shaq trade would eventually work out but for three years the Lakers were painful to watch. They were a mediocre team built around Kobe chucking from 2004-05 to 2006-07. Kobe scored a lot (maxing out at 35.4 ppg in 2005-06). His raw scoring numbers were crazy, though he started to go negative defensively in his BPM, which left him with overall effectiveness on par with his earlier Laker seasons.
Kobe’s 2005-06 scoring fest was a usage bonanza. He had a 38.7% usage that year, third most ever behind Russell Westbrook 2016-17 and James Harden last year. When adjusting for more modern usage patterns, Kobe’s 2005-06 ball domination is even more impressive than those of Harden and Westbrook.
Kobe/Shaq v. Kobe/Pau
At first blush, it seems pretty clear that the Lakers with Kobe and Shaq from 1999-2002 were better than title teams that Kobe and Pau Gasol put together later. Shaq was possibly the best player ever during that peak and they won three titles instead of the two that Kobe won with Pau. Putting all that aside, here’s how the numbers play out:
-1999-00 Lakers: 67-15, 8.41 SRS (won title)
-2000-01 Lakers: 56-26, 3.74 SRS (won title)
-2001-02 Lakers, 58-24, 7.15 SRS (won title)
-2007-08 Lakers, 57-25, 7.34 SRS (lost in Finals)
-2008-09 Lakers, 65-17, 7.11 SRS (won title)
-2009-10 Lakers, 57-25, 4.78 SRS (won title)
Hands down, the 1999-00 Lakers are the best of the bunch but the best Pau/Kobe teams are in the same ballpark with the rest of the Shaq title squads. True, the 2000-01 Lakers floundered for strange reasons before putting on the best postseason run of any team but, collectively, the Pau teams were pretty close.
Old Kobe, going down shooting
After Kobe tore his Achilles in 2012-13, he was not the same player. He played parts of three seasons but could not make shots efficiently anymore. Nevertheless, Kobe did not stop shooting. We reviewed this at the time but it was a spectacle of bad shots. In 2015-16, Kobe shot .358% from the field and .285% from three for an anemic .469 TS%. Was this worst TS% ever?
With Basketball-Reference.com’s awesome season finder, we looked for the worst TS% for player who played as many minutes as Kobe (1,800) and shot as much as Kobe (1,000 shots) during the three-point era. Surprisingly, Kobe’s final season could have been much worse. With the search parameters noted above, Kobe was “only” 14th worst shooter (the worst being young Trey Burke followed by rookie Mookie Blaylock). Perhaps fittingly, Kobe’s TS% was a tick better than that of MJ for the 2001-02 Wizards, when Jordan was long-in-the-tooth and still firing away.
In the end, Kobe will be remembered for being the closest thing we will ever see to the next Michael Jordan in ability and style. While the stats are just a hair off of peak Jordan, Kobe had a similar personality on the court and, at least, as much confidence. This fact is well summed up by Lazenby in a book about Kobe’s ascent back in 2000 called “Mad Game.” At the time, Lazenby interviewed Kobe about his basketball study habits (which were impressive, particularly for a teenager) and they had the following exchange that sums up Kobe perfectly:
Kobe: I’ve watched tape of everybody. I’ve watched Hakeem, I’ve watched Magic, I’ve watched Malone. I’ve watched everybody. I’ve watched Pistol Pete. Earl the Pearl. Nate Archibald. I’ve watched all of them.
Lazenby: What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen in all that tape?
Kobe: The most amazing thing I’ve seen?
Lazenby: Yeah. Of all those great player and great moments on tape, of all those great moves, is there one that really stands out, that blows you away?
Kobe: Not really because I think I can do it all. When I was growing up, nothing really impressed me that much because I thought I could do it. You know what I mean?
Lazenby: You think you could beat Michael Jordan in one-on-one, don’t you?
Kobe: (smiling) I’d love to play him.