From the start of his basketball career, Kobe Bryant has been the subject of much-scrutinized challenges and rivalries. Whether it was competing against the backdrop of Michael Jordan’s illustrious career, behind-the-scenes quarrels with Shaquille O’Neal, being brashly guarded by defensive specialists like Ruben Patterson or Raja Bell, or leading his team against the supremely organized and ageless San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers star has dealt with each nemesis that has come his way, and often found a way to come out on top.
With the 2014-2015 NBA season a week away, Bryant may be facing the biggest test of his career: the doubters. A recent player ranking by ESPN and a survey conducted by NBA general managers appear to be knocking Bryant off his mantle as an NBA superstar, with ESPN ranking Bryant at No. 40 of all players, and GMs voting him the third-best shooting guard behind James Harden and Klay Thompson.
There is some justified degree of skepticism about Bryant due to his age and injury history. The 36-year-old played in just six games in 2013-2014, and is coming back from a knee injury. Bryant has also been dogged by criticism of poor shot selection and selfishness that some believe holds back the Lakers postseason aspirations.
However, much of the talk about Bryant’s demise appears to be overblown. In his last three preseason games, Bryant has averaged over 26 points per game, a rather clear indication that his knee is no longer a significant hindrance. In Bryant’s last full season (2012-2013), he averaged 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 5. 6 rebounds – numbers that were comparable to LeBron James. Bryant has also proven to be a top defender, with nine NBA’s All-Defensive First Team selections, and three Second Team selections on his resume.
In full disclosure about ESPN’s list, the rankings are based on expected contributions for the upcoming season, and there were other questionable rankings such as former Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose at No. 28. Like Bryant, Rose was sidelined for much of the 2013-2014 season.
But some may scratch their heads about Harden and Thompson, both in their mid-20s, making both ESPN’s rankings and the GMs’ survey ahead of a five-time NBA champion. Bryant received just 7.4 percent of votes from the 30 GMs on the best shooting guard in the NBA. Though a great scorer, Harden has been criticized for his poor defense, and Thompson has a career scoring average of 16 points per game, and has never appeared in an All-Star game.
“When Klay Thompson gets 19 years in the league, he better hope he’s as good as Kobe is,” said Gene Tormohlen, who served as a top scout for the Lakers for more than 20 years, in a phone interview.
Tormohlen conceded that Bryant might not be where he was 10 years ago, but is still an elite player, and described him as one of the all-time greatest players. He also described much of the criticism of Bryant as “jealousy.”
Bryant might be in need of such defense after a tough week. Aside from the ESPN rankings and GM poll, he also received negative attention from an ESPN the Magazine article. Reporter Henry Abbott cited anonymous sources who claimed Bryant alienated teammates and was a detriment in luring prominent free agents.
Lakers president Jeanie Buss appeared on “SportsCenter” on Thursday morning and also used the “J” word to describe Bryant’s detractors. But there might be more that just jealousy of Bryant in play, as fellow NBA players have been perceived to not compete at Bryant’s high level of intensity, as may have been the case with former teammate Dwight Howard.
"Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser, and I'm glad they wouldn't come to the team," Buss said.
"I have no doubt that Kobe will make people regret ever saying those comments,” Buss would later add.
To Bryant’s credit, he has not let the negative press get to him.
"Stay focused on the bigger picture and things are never as bleak as they seem at the time," Bryant said this week. "I just kind of roll with it."
Bryant may have to “roll with it” for at least two more seasons. He signed a two-year extension in Nov. 2013 worth $48.5 million, a contract that some believe prevents the Lakers of salary cap flexibility to add free agents. The next two seasons may be rocky ones for Bryant, with the Lakers not expected to be contenders in the deep Western Conference this season, and few top free agent available next summer. Critics may point the finger at "The Black Mamba" should the Lakers come up short. Bryant, who might be in the final two seasons of his career, has been down this road before.
His first round of criticism came as a teenager when his four air balls against the Utah Jazz helped sink the Lakers in the 1997 NBA Playoffs. It was followed by a well-publicized feud with O’Neal at about the same time as he faced sexual assault charges in Colorado. Bryant would later be booed by home fans at Staples Center after demanding a trade when the Lakers didn’t have the cast around him to advance out of the first round of the playoffs.
While his reputation took a significant hit, Bryant moved on. Unrealistic expectations, as well as slights coming from NBA GMs, rankings, players, outspoken fans, and damaging articles, don’t faze him.
“It’s not the first one, it’s not going to be the last one,” Bryant said in response to the ESPN the Magazine article.
“The one thing I’ve come to understand over the years is that you’ll have a bad story that comes out on a Monday and it seems like it’s the end of the world. It seems like everybody is taking shots at you.”