For once, we don’t know what to make of Kobe Bryant.
Of all qualified players in the 2012-13 season, Bryant’s Win Shares per 48 minutes ranked him 21st in the NBA. By at least one measure, Bryant was a borderline top-20 player last year; given that metric, his top-25 ranking in this year’s #NBArank seems rather appropriate. And that assumes that he returns to form after a torn Achilles tendon, a rather devastating injury for a basketball player.
There’s variance in that measure, though. Win Shares and its derivatives are obviously an imperfect stat; after all, King JaVale Pierre McGee, His Royal Eminence of the Fourth Court of Spaceketball, was 27th in WS/48. Even the biggest McGee apologist would be hard-pressed to argue that he was in the same league (…you know what I mean…) as Kobe last year. And Bryant himself was only one one-hundredth away from the top-15. Given the brouhaha in Los Angeles last year, one might even venture that such an adjustment continues to undervalue how well he played last year. If you wanted to argue that Kobe Bryant was a top-10 player last year, I wouldn’t protest too vociferously — mostly in fear that you might cause me bodily harm if I did.
Regardless, the Kobe Bryant baseline, independent of injury, seems to be somewhere around the top-15. In the coldest, darkest vacuum of space, accounting for a slight decline due to age and the continued development of the young All-Stars who ranked just behind him, Kobe would likely have clocked in right around that mark this season after coming in at number six in last year’s rankings. It would have been a perfectly fair ranking given his production the previous season, which was one of the best of his career.
Of course, Bryant’s Achilles tendon decided to complicate things by severing its ties from the rest of his body in some sort of anatomical Civil War. Though Bryant is a superhuman warrior whose capacity for healing can be called into question by Wolverine alone, a torn Achilles casts a shadow of doubt over his 2013-14 season. For one, we don’t know when he’ll be back. We’re six months out from the initial injury, which is about the minimum amount of time needed to recover from such an injury. Though Mike D’Antoni doesn’t think we’ll see Kobe back for opening night, he knows better than to completely slam that door shut. So Bryant might be able to shatter the accepted timetable for his recovery and don a Lakers jersey before Thanksgiving. On the other hand, KOBE BRYANT TORE HIS ACHILLES TENDON. That’s not a minor injury; he might be sidelined until December.*It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know when he’ll be back.
Beyond that, we simply don’t know which Kobe Bryant we’ll be getting when he does come back. I’m not going to bet against a return to form by Bryant, but that’s not to say that he’ll be 100% of the player that he was last year. A good season for Bryant might see him playing at 90% of his non-injured capacity. 90% of Kobe Bryant is still better than the vast majority of the league, but it might not be top-25 material.
And therein lies the rub. The members of ESPN’s Forecast panel that voted on #NBArank were asked to come up with a ranking of a player’s production in the upcoming season, factoring in both quality and quantity of play. Said ranking was made on a scale of 1-10. The scores were tallied, and players were ranked accordingly.
For Bryant, I’d imagine there was a fairly large gap between his highest and lowest rankings; after all, there are huge questions about how well he’ll play upon his return and how much he’ll be able to play. When those rankings were averaged out, #NBArank came to a perfectly defensible conclusion — on the aggregate, Kobe Bryant will be a top-25 player this year. If one were to play out the 2013-14 season 10,000 times, Bryant might produce a season akin to Dion Waiters 1,000 times. He might aggravate the injury and be a shell of his former self 500 times. He might show everyone just who the &%^* they’re messing with 5,000 times and make us all wonder why we ever doubted him in the first place. And the other 3,500 instances would fall somewhere in the middle. There’s a huge amount of variance to account for with Bryant this season. By ranking Bryant 25th, we’ve accounted for all of that.
It seems fair to say that Kobe Bryant will not be the 25th best player in the NBA this year. He might be better. He might be worse. I’m honestly not sure which is likelier at this point; we’re all throwing blades of grass into the air and trying to judge the winds halfway around the world. But ranking Bryant 25th is a perfect embodiment of that uncertainty. We’ll all be wrong in the end. And that’s largely the point.