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Was Kobe Bryant’s #NBARank Spot Fair?

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Tom Westerholm in response to Kobe Bryant being ranked #25 on ESPN’s NBA Rank. You can find him writing about basketball on many sites across the internet, from ESPN True Hoop’s Celtics Hub and Hoop Chalk, to Howlin T-Wolf. He is also a host of the Hein-Sight Podcast for Truth on Causeway. You can also follow him on Twitter dot com (@Tom_NBA) for #hottakes about basketball and other things. 

Let me start by discrediting myself completely: I unabashedly hate Kobe Bryant.

Anyone who is familiar with my online writing knows my basketball loyalties. I have been a Celtics fan since I could walk, and in the past, I have written for Celtics Hub, Celtics Town and ESPN Boston. A lifelong Iowa resident (unfortunately), I adopted Minnesota as my secondary team. The Timberwolves, rather famously, have a 20+ game losing streak to the Lakers, the longest losing streak by one team to another in NBA history. So I understand why anyone with half a brain would take my opinions on Kobe Bryant with a grain of salt.

But I also like to believe myself a realistic fan. For example: Although I love the Celtics, I recognize that they are going to be awful. Awful. Awful. My reasoning has less to do with the departure of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (although that didn’t help, to be sure) and more to do with the fact that the Celtics for years have been one of the worst teams in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and their go-to scorer this year (Jeff Green, presumably) has never faced opposing defenses that focus on him. Their defense and offense will struggle, which, all things considered, doesn’t bode particularly well for this season.

Oct 8, 2013; Ontario, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Citizens Business Bank Arena. The Lakers defeated the Nuggest 90-88. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Likewise, I both recognize and readily admit that Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players in NBA history. Whether or not he cracks the top 10 at the end of his career (and he might already) is kind of irrelevant. He has been an iconic member of an iconic franchise for more than a decade, and that alone guarantees him first-ballot Hall of Fame status. He was the 1B to Shaq’s 1A superstar in Los Angeles’ three-peat between 2000-02. To the people who argue that Shaq was the best player on those teams: You might be right, but Kevin Garnett was probably the best player on the Celtics in 2008. And yet, Paul Pierce was deservedly the Finals MVP. Good teams need multiple great players, and playing with elite teammates doesn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) diminish one’s own greatness. Kobe was the primary superstar on a back-to-back champion squad that reached the Finals three consecutive years between 2008-10. He has had an elite career. He has earned any career achievement awards you want to give him.

So please understand: I hate Kobe Bryant. But also understand that I’m reasonable, and that I pride myself on my ability to be reasonable about the game. And I feel very comfortable saying that Kobe Bryant’s ranking in ESPN’s NBA Rank (#25) is eminently reasonable.

What annoys me most about the whole situation is the way writers who participated in the rankings, rather than defending themselves, hedged harder than Garnett in a pick-and-roll. There was plenty of finger-pointing, and although some of it was funny and good-spirited, it still led the online Lakers community to focus their anger on a few writers who stood by the ranking as opposed to the collective. Some of that focus is inevitable, but the visible finger-pointing made the rankings seem flawed. It made it seem like the hedgers gave Kobe a perfect score (and maybe they did) while Amin Elhassan (for example) gave Kobe the same ranking as Royce White (I doubt he did). It made it seem like Kobe’s ranking was unreasonable because of a few select haters, an impression Kobe’s legion of fans feasted on harder than a bulldog at a Texas Road House buffet.

This idea that Bryant is still a top-10 player is simply ridiculous. Rather, Kobe was ranked 25th for a few VERY REASONABLE REASONS:

1. He’s 35.

2. He ripped his achilles tendon to shreds, an injury that — if aggravated — could lead to permanent disability.

3. He didn’t play defense last year.

4. HE’S 35 RECOVERING FROM AN INJURY THAT FELLED A GREEK WARRIOR-DEMIGOD.

A quick note about the third point: Kobe avoiding tough defensive situations last season was actually the right move for his team. They needed his offense, and  Dwight Howard was supposed to lighten Kobe’s load. I’m not “hating” on Kobe here; his lack of defense was within the confines of the team’s plan, and it saved his aging body.

But the fact remains that Bryant’s game was clearly in decline. Once, he was a lock-down perimeter defender, but last season he was forced to allow a defensive big man to make up for his shortcomings (which didn’t work). Again: This is not a knock on Bryant. He’s 35. He has earned the right to some help. But when someone’s game needs help where it didn’t before, are we supposed to turn a blind eye? Of course not. His defense was bad. It didn’t used to be. That inarguably matters.

Bryant could be a top 10 player this year. The point of these rankings isn’t that they are definitive, it’s that they are projections of what is most likely to happen. Bryant COULD come back from Germany with a new achilles cure and he COULD be elite again. He COULD lead the Lakers to a playoff berth where they COULD…get slaughtered in the first round by a far superior Western Conference opponent. But that’s not the point.

The smart money says Bryant won’t be a top-10 player. The smart money says a 35-year-old recovering from a devastating achilles injury, even a once-elite 35-year-old who forces a longtime fan/writer/blogger of the Boston Celtics to grudgingly admit his greatness in the face of his hatred, will not return at full strength. With all of the incredible talent in the NBA at the moment — and when you take a look around, it’s pretty incredible — being ranked 25th at age 35 after a major injury is honestly a pretty significant sign of respect for a player’s accomplishments thus far.

But what do I know? I’m nothing but a h8r.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

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