For the last few weeks, ESPN.com's hoops folk have rolled out the results of our #NBARank project in which every NBA player is placed in order from 500 to 1, based on the evaluations of 91 hoops experts (or 89, depending on what you think of Andy and me). For the most part, Lakers players formed the bread of an average player sandwich, with only one player -- Metta World Peace at 97 -- appearing between free agent Shannon Brown (181) and Lamar Odom at 44. But while there's a discussion to be had regarding Andrew Bynum at 30 or Pau Gasol at 11, the number most Lakers fans want to see is the one assigned to Kobe Bryant.
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Kobe Bryant didn't blow past Dwyane Wade in ESPN.com's #NBARank project.
Wait no longer. He finished seventh.Keeping in mind the rankings are meant to reflect current effectiveness as opposed to career achievement (Kobe is easily the most accomplished player in the league), are the results fair? More or less, yes.
Looking at the remaining players ahead of Kobe in no particular order, even factoring in his fourth-quarter failures in last year's Finals, LeBron James is, in my opinion, the best player in the league. He has led the league in win shares in each of the last three seasons and in PER in each of the last four. The question of James' buddy, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe and which is NBA's top shooting guard came up in a 5-on-5 panel on ESPN.com this past summer. I chose Wade then, and still would.
Mamba versus Dwight Howard isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it's difficult to stridently complain about Bryant finishing behind a freakish athlete boasting his third straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year trophy. Howard's unquestioned status as the NBA's most dominant big man makes him at least one of the league's six best players, regardless of where you think Kobe ranks. And while I wouldn't have started the 2010-11 season saying Dirk Nowitzki is better than Bryant, given what he did through the season and playoffs, his elevated status is justifiable.
If comparing wings to centers is tough, comparing wings to 1s isn't much easier. But a healthy Chris Paul is the best point guard in a point guard's league coming off a great playoff series against the Lakers.
My only real complaint would be putting Kevin Durant ahead of Kobe. OKC's star is the best scorer in the league and at 23 still oozes potential, but Kobe is a better distributor and defender, and at his position is a better rebounder. Perhaps Durant was given too much credit for future growth and Kobe knocked too much for his mileage. Still, the results hardly qualify as a crime against humanity.
It's all fun debate fodder, but getting bogged down in the numbers distracts from the more important issue: When it comes to measuring the Lakers' title hopes this season, what exactly does it mean that Kobe is, at least by one count, not a top-five guy?
The important question isn't whether he's the best player in the game -- undoubtedly a point of pride among his biggest fans -- but whether Kobe is good enough to front a championship squad. He is. Those believing otherwise, and I'm not sure how many there actually are, are wrong. Obviously he needs help from the supporting cast, but the same holds true for each of the six guys ahead of him on the list. Durant doesn't win without Russell Westbrook, James Harden and support in the middle. Dirk, heroic as he was in the postseason, didn't do it alone. Howard doesn't have enough help.
The James/Wade combo proves a couple of points. First, pure talent isn't in and of itself an automatic path to victory. The parts have to work well together. Second, the best player in broad terms isn't always the best player from game to game and moment to moment. Nowitzki isn't the NBA's top talent overall but played better than anyone in the postseason. The gap between the players at the top of the rankings isn't nearly large enough to negate questions of team and timing.
Not even close.
Kobe Bryant is still an elite-level NBA player. There's no harm in debating exactly how elite relative to the competition. As it relates to the odds of winning hardware, the answers may create some distinction, but practically speaking, not much difference.