Kobe Bryant's 20-year NBA career is nearing its close. Although he has always been a player focused on the present, his pending retirement means it's time for Bryant to reflect on his two decade tenure as a Los Angeles Laker.
Bryant recently took part in a global media conference call organized by the NBA. The call included 146 reporters from 24 countries and territories, driving home the point that Kobe is a global icon. STACK found one question posed during the call particularly interesting: Who are the five best players Bryant has faced during his pro career?
"Top players, let's see: Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Clyde Drexler. I have to—players is a little tougher for me because I came in the league where there were so many great players playing, like John Stockton was still playing; Clyde Drexler was still playing. Gary Payton, Anfernee ["Penny" Hardaway]—I mean it was a lot of—so the top five players is a little tough for me," Bryant responded.
His indecision is understandable. When you play for as a long as he has, you run up against dozens of good players. But let's take a closer look at the initial five he named.
Hakeem Olajuwon was a versatile center whose footwork and technique are still praised today. He led the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995—right before Bryant landed in the NBA. "The Dream" was a two-time Finals MVP and 12-time All-Star who averaged 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game in his career. Bryant's Lakers bounced Olajuwon's Rockets in the 1999 playoffs, the first post-season in which Kobe was a starter. Bryant holds so much respect for Olajuwon that he spent a significant amount of time working on his post-up game under his tutelage.
As a teenager, Kobe Bryant watched Michael Jordan's Bulls dominate the league during the early 90s, and they were still running things when he was drafted into the NBA. During Bryant's first three NBA seasons, Jordan led the Bulls to three consecutive championships. Phil Jackson—the coach who guided the Bulls to six championships during Jordan's time in Chicago—left for the Lakers in 1999 and promptly led Los Angeles to three straight championships. I'm sure Jackson wasn't afraid to share Jordan's secrets to success with a young Bryant. In head-to-head match-ups, Air Jordan and the Black Mamba averaged stunningly similar numbers. If you're a fan of basketball, you're going to want to watch this highlight tape of their one-on-one battles.
Bryant has engaged in fantastic duels with Kevin Durant during his twilight years. The 2012 Western Conference Semifinals were Kobe's last playoff series, and although the Lakers lost four games to one, Bryant didn't go down easy, averaging 31.2 points per game to Durant's 26.8. A recent game between the Lakers and the Thunder featured Kobe and Durant battling back and forth, laughing, smiling and talking between possessions. At 27, Durant is the youngest player on Kobe's list, yet he has already earned five All-NBA First Team selections and an MVP trophy. Durant's recent expression of frustration with how the media has been treating Bryant shows that the respect is mutual.
We never got to see LeBron James battle Kobe Bryant in an NBA Finals, which is a shame. If Michael Jordan was the NBA star of the 1990s and Kobe was the star of the 2000s, James has been the star of the 2010s. LeBron has four MVP awards to Bryant's one, but Kobe holds the edge in NBA championships, five to two. Will King James catch Bryant before he retires?
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Clyde Drexler is the only player on Bryant's list without an NBA MVP trophy. But the Portland Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer and 10-time All-Star was certainly no slouch. "Clyde The Glide" is one of only four players in NBA history to record 20,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 6,000 assists over his career. He could also jam like no one's business.
Kobe's top five rivals earned a combined 11 MVP trophies and 11 NBA championships—numbers that could change before James and Durant hang up their sneakers.
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