Last season, the dander of many Lakers fans was elevated like the calorie count of a Bloomin' Onion when Kobe Bryant finished seventh in ESPN.com's NBA Rank project. They weren't alone. No stranger to finding motivation in every nook and cranny of his universe, Bryant referenced the results after torching the Phoenix Suns for 48 points, 16 of which came in the fourth, in early January.
"Not bad for the seventh-best player in the league," he said.
This year, should Kobe look to the rankings for a little extra somethin'-somethin', he'll have to recalibrate his indignation at least slightly, because he finished sixth. This after a season in which, at age 33, he finished a 10th of a point away from a scoring title and posted very solid rebound and assist numbers, but also his lowest shooting percentage since '97-'98 and suffered relative to career norms in other efficiency metrics. So is sixth the right number? Should he have been higher? Lower? It's been our Twitter question du jour.
My answer this year is similar to what it was a season ago: sounds about right.
While I'm not all that into ranking players -- it's fun debate fodder but has little practical meaning -- my top four in the NBA are, in order, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, a healthy Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul. Kobe fits somewhere just behind that group. Is he better than, say, Derrick Rose (in the top five) or Dwyane Wade (finished eighth)? Depends on your personal definition of "better." Different people value different things. Healthy, I'd take both over Kobe. Wade, for example, is a more productive player on both sides of the ball. But Rose is coming off major surgery and Wade -- who also had the benefit of playing with LeBron -- has had his own trouble staying on the floor. That should matter. So maybe big picture Kobe is fourth or fifth, maybe he's sixth, maybe he's eighth. Little picture, that number (for Bryant and everyone else in the league) changes. Game-to-game, week-to-week, month-to-month.
What counts is which elite players -- and their teammates -- are at their best come springtime.
James, for example, was the Best Player in the Game when his Heat met the Mavs in the 2011 Finals. Nobody would have started a team with Dirk Nowitzki before him, yet Dirk was the best player in that series and Dallas won a title. No franchise starts games with extra points or home-court advantage for having its guys highly ranked. Kobe is still very much an elite player and, given the talent surrounding him, is plenty capable of being the leader on a championship team.
That's really all that matters.
The most zealous Kobe fans cry Haterade whenever he's not topping these types of lists. The less partisan don't get as worked up. Clearly I'm in the latter group. What's remarkable is the debate can even be had with a 34-year old player entering his 17th season, with nearly 20 years of NBA wear on his body, including postseason. To play at the level he has for as long as he has is stunning. That stands as the most significant takeaway, far more than parsing whether Kobe should be two spots higher or lower.
(Note: This year and last I was a member of the voting panel. And no, I don't remember what number I gave Kobe relative to other players. Just that it was really high.)
(Update: Upon further review, I'd still put Wade ahead of Kobe, but particularly given the criteria -- where guys stand right now -- not Rose. He missed a ton of time last year, and isn't healthy going into this season (to go with some holes to fill in his game, particularly with the jumper). I would draft Rose ahead of Bryant if starting a team from scratch today based on age, talent, and upside -- basically what I was thinking -- but that's not the question. Kudos to those who pointed out the faulty logic on Twitter over the last day or so.
But my basic point is the same. I don't really care if Kobe is fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, or whatever. I really don't. He's an elite player, still one of the game's great talents. And in practice these lists are fluid. "Who's best?" changes daily, weekly, monthly, and none of it has any bearing on who wins a title this year.)