According to our #NBArank panel, Kobe Bryant, who is still recovering from an Achilles injury, will be the 25th-best player in the NBA this season. Too low? Our experts weigh in.
1. Is Kobe's rank fair?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Based on last season's performance, 25th is too low. Bryant finished 10th in the NBA in player efficiency rating. Though defense is of purely recreational interest to him at this point, he was one of the 15 best players in the game. If we're projecting forward to a point after he recovers from a surgically repaired Achilles tendon, 25th isn't unreasonable.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Considering Kobe's age and the severity of his injury, 25th is very fair and might even be generous. At some point, we have to accept that 2006 Kobe ain't walking through that door.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Yes. It might seem like a precipitous drop to go from No. 6 last season -- which turned out to be pretty spot-on as he finished fifth in MVP voting when the player who finished sixth, Tony Parker, may have been more deserving -- but this is more appropriate than blasphemous. Bryant is 35 and coming off an Achilles tear. That said, Bryant fell too far.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Los Angeles: I don't like it. I know he's injured and we have no idea what level he's going to play at when he returns to the court, but this is Kobe Bryant we're talking about. Before he ruptured his Achilles at the end of last season, Kobe was having one of the finer seasons of his Hall of Fame career at age 34. People were calling him "Vino" -- OK, he was calling himself that first -- because he seemed to have aged so well. Even with some loss of explosiveness, he's still one of the top 10 players in the NBA.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Tack on an asterisk. It's obviously that low because of the injury and because tearing an Achilles is regarded as one of those setbacks that hurts your game irreparably. Of course, now I, like pretty much everyone else, can't wait to see how mad this makes him and what Kobe does in response.
2. Where would a healthy Kobe rank?
Arnovitz: Somewhere in the 10-to-12 range. Kobe put together a nice season before he went down. His true shooting percentage of 57 percent was his highest since 2007-08, and his assist rate was a career high. Would he have sustained that next season had he not torn the Achilles? Hard to say, but he had been incredibly resilient until his Achilles tore.
Elhassan: Healthy Kobe might be the hardest player to appraise, as he's reached the point in his career where his team wins some games because of his individual exploits and others despite his individual exploits. Still, at 100 percent, he remains a tremendous offensive weapon, so he would place somewhere between 6 and 10.
McMenamin: Somewhere in the 10-15 range. He proved last season that his offense wasn't going to suddenly fall off a cliff, but basketball is a two-way game and Bryant's defense had really started to suffer. To that point, two-way players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo (if healthy), as well as elite talents in or entering their prime like Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and Parker could reasonably be ranked above Bryant even if he wasn't coming off the Achilles injury.
Shelburne: Easily top 10. That sounds a little crazy for a 35-year-old, but that's how good of a season Kobe had last year. He averaged 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds and shot 46.3 percent from the field -- all above his career averages. Over the years, Bryant has developed into one of the best post players in the game, much the same way Michael Jordan did later in his career. Those skills generally age well, and that's exactly what Kobe has done.
Stein: I was going to say top 10, but then I remembered he was as high as No. 4 in April when we rolled out an in-season edition of #NBArank and No. 6 at the start of last season. So it's conceivable he would still be a top-five selection, which tells you what sort of stigma is attached to the impact of a torn Achilles.
3. When do you expect Kobe to be at full strength?
Arnovitz: Not being a nanobot inside Kobe's leg nor a medical professional, it's impossible to say. But the dates being thrown around (first month of the season, Christmas, etc.) are ambitious for a 35-year-old who's been a high-usage scorer in the NBA for half his life. If by "full strength" we mean with the same physical capacity he had before he went down, he might never be there again.
Elhassan: If "full strength" means "equal or better health than pre-injury," then the answer is never. If it means "as healthy as he's ever going to be from here on out," I'd say mid-February at the earliest.
McMenamin: Sometime around the All-Star break. Now, I fully expect Bryant back in the lineup before that -- looks like mid-to-late November is feasible still -- but after not picking up a basketball for six months, it's going to take Bryant some time to get his conditioning, timing and rhythm back while also adjusting to new teammates. It's reasonable to expect that process to take a couple of months.
Shelburne: Early in 2014. I think he'll be back on the court sooner, around Thanksgiving I'd say. But full strength is going to take some time, as Kobe hasn't been able to condition like he usually does in the offseason. The injury was serious enough to scare him to his core. He is not taking this recovery lightly. If he needs another week or two to feel right, he'll take it. If he needs a month or two to ease back into shape, he'll take it.
Stein: Full strength? That might take a while. I expect him back by Thanksgiving-ish at the latest, but there is going to be an adjustment period. Even for Kobe. Yet I do think people forget that Dominique Wilkins came back from this injury at a pretty high level in his 30s. And I think even Nique would say that Kobe The Maniacal will come back stronger than he did.
4. Where will the Lakers rank in the West this season?
Arnovitz: It's not going to be pretty until Kobe returns and can perform at a near-maximum output. The Lakers don't have one player on the roster who is a top-line NBA starter in his prime. With the exception of Denver -- and it's still probably safe -- the rest of last season's playoff field should return to the postseason. Minnesota should be interesting, Portland and New Orleans are better, and Dallas will be respectable. Even if the Lakers are better than three of those five teams, that still leaves them ninth or 10th.
Elhassan: I'm in an "optimistic" minority in that I think the Lakers will be in the same position they were last season: fighting for a seventh or eighth seed. The difference is this season the competition for those final two spots will be much fiercer, as Portland, Minnesota, New Orleans and Dallas have all improved and will be in the hunt.
McMenamin: If Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash can all give L.A. 65 games or more at a level closely approximating what they've each established so far in their Hall of Fame careers, then the Lakers will be a playoff team. I thought ESPN's Summer Forecast pitting them as 12th in the West was far too low (even though Las Vegas seems to agree, predicting L.A. to finish in the range of 33.5 wins). If things break right for them, they'll finish seventh or eighth.
Shelburne: I have them with 48 wins, or about seventh or eighth in the West. Yes, the Lakers lost a massive talent when Dwight Howard left for Houston. There's no replacing a talent like that. But the Lakers still have three future Hall of Famers in Bryant, Nash and Gasol. Oh, and two of them are in contract years with plenty to prove. The last time Gasol was in a contract year was 2009, when he outplayed Howard in the NBA Finals.
Stein: I was nowhere near as incredulous about their rank of No. 12 in the West in ESPN's Summer Forecast as Kobe was, because I don't have them as a playoff team as we enter the regular season. But I have to admit that all the happy talk emanating from Lakerland these days about how harmonious they are post-Dwight does have me second-guessing myself a little.
Common sense says there just isn't enough around a recovering Kobe, Gasol and a 39-year-old Nash to make the playoffs in a Western Conference that's still as deep as ever if not as daunting at the top as we've grown accustomed to seeing for the past decade-plus. But I can confess that it leaves me feeling uneasy to flat-out write the Lakers off, especially knowing how seething Kobe will be when he sees No. 25.
5. Where does Kobe rank all time?
Arnovitz: Isn't it hazardous to tackle this question in 65 words? Taking inventory of every player in history who can be generally classified as dominant and wildly efficient, I count about 10 players who can be comfortably ranked ahead of Kobe. If longevity weighs heavily in the criteria, then Kobe should quickly follow. If you prefer a metric like win shares per 48, he's farther down the list.
Elhassan: It's tough to compare players who play different positions (bigs versus guards), and even tougher from different eras. It would be hard for me to rank Kobe above (in no order) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jordan, Bill Russell, Duncan or Shaq, and when it's all said and done, LeBron will also leapfrog him. I'm comfortable calling Kobe "top 10 of all time" and leaving it at that.
McMenamin: As the second-best shooting guard to ever play, behind only Jordan. That's an incredible distinction and one that should stand for a long, long time. As for his all-time ranking overall, comparing him against big men too? No matter how Kobe finishes out his career, it is difficult to imagine him ever being considered straight out "better" than Jordan, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Duncan and James. So I guess I'm saying he's No. 9 all time.
Shelburne: Top 10. I'm not one of those who have my top 10 committed to memory, but Kobe is easily a part of it. The man has five NBA titles, has a trajectory that has him on course to be one of the top two or three scorers in NBA history and is the closest thing we may ever get to Jordan again. I always find it hard to compare players from Bryant's era to those of the past, especially when I never saw those folks play in person, but Kobe is easily up on that first tier of guys on basketball's Mount Rushmore.
Stein: Firmly in the top 10 all time. Not quite in the top five all time. Co-player of his generation with Duncan.
Marc Stein is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Amin Elhassan writes for ESPN Insider. Dave McMenamin and Ramona Shelburne write for ESPN LA.
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