Once upon a time, it was common practice to wait for players to retire before we truly broke down their NBA careers. Today, however, with constant media awareness and user-friendly forums at everybody’s fingertips, we’ve all become analysts, and no one player has received more praise—and more scrutiny—throughout the years than Kobe Bryant.
Bryant’s playing days may not be over, but it’s safe to say at this juncture that he is arguably the most dominant player to ever lace up in the NBA.
Before we dive into this notion too deeply, let’s get one thing straight: Bryant’s legacy is not the Greatest of All Time. That subjective, yet prestigious, title belongs to Michael Jordan in the eyes of many, and Bryant is more than a few accomplishments away from taking that title.
Dominance, however, is not defined simply by looking at someone’s accomplishments—it’s about longevity.
In 2012, Bryant posted the second-most points of any player in the league (27.9) at age 33, and he boosted that number to 30.0 throughout the postseason. Now, at age 34, he is playing at an insanely high level, just as he has been for the past 15 or so seasons.
In his 17th year, his efficiency is up, he is leading the league in scoring and he looks like the freshest member of a Los Angeles Lakers squad that has been faced with adversity throughout the 2012-13 season.
Bryant has played more than 51,000 minutes between the regular season and the playoffs, and while his body has been banged up year after year, you’d never know it by the way he performs and the way he approaches the game.
Despite losing a step or two since the days of being crowned the Slam Dunk Champion, he is still willing to attack the paint, he can still score from deep and he will seemingly never lose the mid-range game that has become a staple of his game.
But what’s maybe even more impressive than his physical aptitude is his ability to stay driven. Bryant has a hunger and a competitive drive unmatched by most in the league, and even at age 34—with five championships to claim—he remains one of the most intense players in the league.
When he wins, he’s visibly ready for the next opponent. When he loses, he’s noticeably distraught. The long-time Laker is never satisfied, and he always seems to play with a chip on his shoulder despite being one of the best.
Bryant is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, as made clear by his 81-point performance in 2006 and his becoming just the second player ever to score at least 50 points in four straight games in 2007.
The Laker legend has a laundry list of accomplishments—you can see them here—but statistics only tell part of the story.
From a statistical standpoint, Jordan wins almost every time. He averaged more points, he shot a better percentage and yes, he has that coveted sixth ring that Bryant has yet to achieve.
But wasn’t the argument when Jordan entered the league that he was one of a kind? It's true that he played during an era where defenses were allowed to bully him on the perimeter and knock him down when he entered the paint, but his athleticism was superior to his competition in almost every way.
He literally did things we’d never seen before.
By the time Bryant entered the league, and more specifically entered his prime, he was competing against some of the best athletes we’d ever seen in the Association. This, of course, isn’t to say that Jordan didn’t play against good competition, but the game was different, and the players have certainly evolved to a certain extent.
When it comes to Bryant’s legacy versus Jordan’s legacy, Jordan has the edge all day long, and he probably will long after Bryant retires. But when it comes to longevity and durability throughout a dominant career, Bryant earns himself top recognition.
He’s never taken a break from the game, he’s never strayed from his own path and he's always been one of the deadliest players to go up against on any given night—especially in crunch time.
None of this is to say that Bryant's dominance will last forever. A day will come where he leaves the game, and the question at that point will be: Where does he truly rank among the all-time greats?
Year after year we expect the veteran to begin his downward spiral, and year after year we’re somehow surprised when he comes back looking better than ever. We all know that Bryant loves a challenge, and with more records and more milestones to add to his resume, you have to believe that his stretch of greatness will continue developing into one of the most astonishing runs in NBA history.