Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball, but he is not currently one of the best players in the NBA. And that’s not a shot at the Mamba, it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that he’s not just past his prime; he’s passed his playing days.
That doesn’t mean I bemoan him this season, though. He’s certainly earned the right to one last hurrah. And please, mythical basketball deities, let it be an uninjured one. I wouldn’t begrudge him playing this out or even getting to the All-Star Game on sheer career accomplishment.
The world needs this chance to say goodbye. But it needs to be final.
When ESPN released their player rankings, fans of Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers went bananas, wondering how on earth he could be rated only 93rd. But the fact of the matter is that if anything, the ranking was generous considering that Bryant was 301st in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and 260th in Wins Above Replacement. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he was 387th in Win Shares, 125th in Box Plus-Minus and 145th in VORP.
Even in the extremely friendly (to Bryant) stat, Player Efficiency Rating, he was only 75th and nearly had a USG percentage twice his PER, one of the worst ratios in the history of the game, so it’s not like that number doesn’t have an asterisk attached as well.
I don’t say this to “hate,” but to temper with the cruel fire of reality.
It’s much easier to make the case that the 93rd ranking from ESPN is more friendly than not. But the reaction drawn from the fans makes the second story about Bryant, which also came out from ESPN, all the more intriguing.
Baxter Holmes writes that the Lakers are secretly terrified that the Mamba won’t retire at season’s end:
Such a turn of events would be a godsend for some Lakers fans, many of whom worship at the altar of Bryant. Numerous people around the NBA, however, say Bryant deciding to play beyond this upcoming season would be the Lakers’ worst nightmare.
However, there was considerable skepticism among those interviewed that the Lakers would cut ties with Bryant after next season or in the years to come for various reasons: financial, fear of backlash from fans, or simply that he holds too much power over the organization.
“They’ve created a monster there,” one executive said, “and it’s hard to get out of it until he actually goes away.”
And the reaction to Bryant’s ranking compared to the reality of his recent service vindicate that fear. Fans are simply unaware of the fact that he’s not still the same player. The skill remains, but there’s no explosion or lift.
Those went to the wayside when he blew his Achilles, and they’re never coming back. Tendons dry out with age. That’s just a biological reality that no “will to win” can change.
His most earnest fans can’t see that, though. There are just too many great memories of him doing magical things in the Purple and Gold for them to recognize it.
We made much of the same “mistake” during Jordan’s Wizard years, but truth be told, his 19.9 PER as a Wizard was significantly better than the 16.8 Bryant has sported the last two years. The only difference is Jordan was wearing a different uniform, so we could recognize he was no longer the same player.
And as I was considering this, it got me to thinking of one of the great years in basketball history. It was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final season, and he announced it would be so at the beginning of the year. As he traveled the country, each stadium gave him going away gifts; fans gave him rousing send-offs. It was glorious.
Let’s put away these fantasies about how this young squad is somehow going to magically make the postseason with an otherwise neophyte, untested team in the ridiculously competitive West. It’s just not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be something magical about the Lakers season.
Kobe should play and play sparingly. Let him make it through the season so our last images of him are on the court. He doesn’t need to play big minutes. He just needs to play in every stadium, get gifts, applause and showered with roses.
He needs to let his fans say goodbye. He needs to the let the Lakers say goodbye. And he needs to let himself say goodbye.