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Feb 12 2012

Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce Break Records

Yes, this post is about sports. If that doesn’t interest you, don’t read it. This was a big week for Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce. Bryant passed Shaquille O’Neal for #5 on the all-time NBA scoring list and now has more than 28,600 points for his career. And Pierce passed Larry Bird for #2 on the all-time Boston Celtics scoring list and now has almost 22,000 points for his career.

But these are very different achievements. Paul Pierce is a nice player and he’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday, but Kobe is all-time great. I saw a guy the other day who argued, in fact, that Kobe is actually underrated on a career scale because he’s rarely mentioned in the truly elite all-time category as one of the top 5 or 6 players to ever play the game. And I think he at least belongs in that discussion, though I wouldn’t put him in my top 5.

Kobe will almost certainly end up no worse than #3 on the all-time scoring list, passing Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. He needs less than 3,000 points to pass Wilt and less than 4,000 points to pass Michael, which he should do easily. If he plays long enough, he has a shot at Karl Malone (he needs about 9,000 points) and a long shot at Kareem Abdul Jabbar (he needs almost 10,000 points). But he’s more than a scorer. Like Jordan, he’s also a great defender. He’s been on the NBA all-defensive team 11 times in his career. And of course, he has 5 championships.

So where would I put him on my all-time list of NBA players? I think there are 5 players who are all but untouchable at this point: Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell and Chamberlain. I think they’re the top 5 players ever to play the game and I find it hard to believe that anyone will ever crack that list. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who should be in the conversation, at least. Kareem and Oscar Robertson certainly have to be in the discussion and I think Kobe is right there with both of them. I’d put him somewhere between 6-9.

Larry Bird was interviewed the other day and he was asked who he would rather have on his team, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant and he said it was an easy choice for Kobe because he wins championships. Lebron shrinks under the pressure; Kobe thrives on it, just like Jordan, Magic and Bird did. All they cared about was winning championships. And that’s what Kobe said when he hit #5 on the list this week, that all he wants is a 6th ring. And he means it.

Paul Pierce will make the hall of fame, but I don’t think anyone would seriously list him among the top 5 Celtics of all time, much less the top 10 players of all time. He’s a great player, but he’s not a legendary player. I wouldn’t put him in the top 50 of all time. But Kobe belongs in the top ten.

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  1. 1
    Brandon

    The “Kobe is great under pressure” school of thought has gained a lot of traction without having a ton of supporting evidence. Henry Abbott did this a couple years ago that I found pretty convincing – http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/24200/the-truth-about-kobe-bryant-in-crunch-time

    The reality is that Kobe tends to rely on low percentage clearouts at the end of games, but we tend to forget all the failures because everyone fails at a pretty high percentage on that play design. Also, recall that Kobe shot 6 of 24 in their clinching Finals win most recently.

    None of this, of course, should be taken to mean that Kobe isn’t a great player or that he shouldn’t be considered a top ten guy. I do think he’s a tad historically overrated, owing to him being the second best guy on three title teams and having those treated historically as if he was as valuable as Shaq in those years. Additionally, people place too much emphasis on volume scoring, which Kobe’s done on a relatively low shooting percentage relative to the people that accompany him among the all-time elite scorers.

    Really, all this makes me do is bump him down about two slots relative to where others put him, historically. I mostly ascent to your top 5, although I think Kareem was clearly greater than Wilt; Wilt benefits from some odd historical effects and extremely high shot volume while Kareem was excellent for longer and won far more titles. Also, I think Duncan needs to be in the conversation – he won 4 titles without anyone better than an aging David Robinson, a young Parker, and Ginobili. Granted, those guys aren’t chopped liver, but they’re not Pippen, Shaq, Magic, Kareem or any of the other amazing second fiddles that everyone else with 4 rings had.

    I don’t have as much to say about Pierce. He’s just quietly excellent, maybe one of the forty or so best players ever.

    While I’m sure a lot of people would disagree, I’d love if you gave your thoughts on sports more often Ed!

  2. 2
    dingojack

    How many games have they played each? What is their average score per game? How many ponits per hoop?
    This will kind of resonate more for me.

    Cheers
    Dingo

  3. 3
    Brandon

    @Dingo – Kobe’s currently 9th in career points per game average (http://www.basketball-reference.com/leaders/pts_per_g_career.html ) and will likely stay there, barring him hanging on a long time after he stops being effective. He ranks 134th in career True Shooting percentage, which accounts for 3s proportionately and shot opportunities used for free throws. That’s neither bad or great from a TS% standpoint, but it drives home that he shoots a LOT. For comparison sake, a couple other volume scoring two guards, Jordan and Gervin, rank 77th and 69th respectively. I’ve got to run, so I can’t check Pierce, but if you’re interested, browsing around the basketball-reference site will get you a lot of data. Hoopdata is also an amazing site for the last few years of in depth data.

  4. 4
    Ed Brayton

    I think you definitely can make a case for Kareem over Wilt. The thing that puts Wilt ahead, in my view, is that he was so much more athletic and dominant than Kareem. Part of that had to do with just being bigger than everyone else at the time, and incredibly agile for his size. But he could do anything. He actually led the league in assists one year. But Kareem played longer and more consistently, of course, and won more championships. And I’ve always wondered why no other big man has learned to do his sky hook. It’s a virtually unblockable shot and he used it to score 42,000 points. You’d think a high school coach who had an elite big man would teach him that shot, at least once in a while. But no one has.

    Shaq has to be in that discussion as well. And yes, Tim Duncan would be in my top 10 as well. If I had to rank 6-10 it would go something like this: Oscar, Kareem, Kobe, Duncan, Shaq.

    At that point, you’ve got a whole bunch of guys who are all in the next category of all-time greats: Havlicek (who really belongs in the top ten, but who do you take out?), Cousy, Stockton, Malone, Barkley, Jerry West, Kevin Garnett, Isiah Thomas, Dr. J (geez, I almost left him out; he probably belongs in the top 10 too, but again, who do you replace him with?).

  5. 5
    jamessweet

    Yes, this post is about sports. If that doesn’t interest you, don’t read it.

    Hey, I thought this was science blogs! Oh wait, we can’t say that anymore can we… d’oh…

  6. 6
    Ed Brayton

    Oh yeah, I forgot Gervin too. Man, that guy was smooth.

  7. 7
    slc1

    I think that Mr. Bird is underestimating Lebron James who is probably the most all around physically talented player to ever play the game. He is still relatively young, even though one gets the impression that he’s been around forever, because he entered the league right out of high school. Barring injury, I would predict that Mr. James will end up winning his share of NBA championships before he’s done.

  8. 8
    slc1

    Re Ed Brayton

    Mr. Brayton is too young to have ever seen Elgin Baylor in action but he too deserves consideration in any evaluation of great NBA players.

  9. 9
    carlsonjok

    More importantly: 6 days until pitchers and catchers report*.

    * Unless you are in the Mariners battery, in which case it is today.

  10. 10
    Ed Brayton

    Oh yeah, Elgin Baylor absolutely deserves to be in that discussion. And I agree that Lebron James is probably the most physically talented player the game has ever seen. But until he wins some championships, and stops shrinking under pressure, he just doesn’t belong up there with the others. He certainly has time to do it and I think he’ll probably do it this year. But his performance in the finals last year was absolutely horrible and he has to show he’s overcome those problems to even be considered. It’s all about the mental game for him; physically, he’s just a freak, capable of doing anything he wants on the court.

  11. 11
    helenaconstantine

    Aren’t you going to get in trouble with PZ for supporting a rapist?

    In any case, professional sports were developed in the nineteenth century as a means of the rich separating the working class from apt of their paychecks, so I can’t imagine why you would have the slightest interest in it.

  12. 12
    slc1

    Re helenaconstitantine @ #11

    I am getting supremely tired of the accusation that Kobe Bryant is a rapist, just because he was accused of the crime (as were the Duke lacrosse players). The fact of the matter is that his accuser, Kate Faber, was proven to be a liar in a hearing in the judge’s chambers when she claimed that she had not had a sexual encounter in between the time of her encounter with Mr. Bryant and her examination by the SANE nurses the following afternoon. It was testified by a DNA expert, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, that motile sperm not contributed by Mr. Bryant was present on her body and that sperm only remains motile for some 10 to 15 hours after ejaculation, indicating a sexual encounter within that time period.

    It should be noted that the prosecutor had two of his own experts present during this proceeding, Dr. Henry Lee and Dr. Michael Baden and did not put either of them on the stand to refute Dr. Johnson’s testimony, indicating that they were not in disagreement with it. Actions speak louder then words. The buzz in Colorado at the time indicates that subsequent to the hearing, the prosecutor was having a hard time finding any expert willing to get on the witness stand to dispute Dr. Johnson’s testimony.

  13. 13
    tylerdipietrantonio

    “In any case, professional sports were developed in the nineteenth century as a means of the rich separating the working class from apt of their paychecks, so I can’t imagine why you would have the slightest interest in it.”

    Oh for craps sake, does one of these people have to show up in EVERY thread about sports?

    In any case, it pains me to admit it as a Celtics fan, but we really don’t have any players that can match Kobe. Kobe would be in GOAT territory if not for Jordan and Russell. There is also the fact that the Pierce, as well as Ray Allen and KG, are obviously showing their age this year and may not even get the Celts to the playoffs, while Kobe could very well win number six before his career is over.

  14. 14
    tylerdipietrantonio

    Sorry SLC, but it appears you have forgotten the first rule of feminism: if accused of rape, men are guilty until absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be innocent. And even then they still did it, fucking patriarchs.

  15. 15
    Ed Brayton

    I have no idea whether Kobe Bryant raped that girl in Colorado. I wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else. And there was never a full trial to determine guilt or innocence. And for all I know, Kobe is a massive asshole. But this post is not about whether he’s a good person, it’s about the best basketball players of all time and where he ranks. It evaluates only that issue. People who are supremely talented at something can also be vile human beings; that doesn’t mean that anyone who enjoys what they’re talented at supports them being vile. Magic Johnson cheated on his wife with literally hundreds of women (I saw it myself, him handing out hotel room keys to a dozen women at a time at the clubs in Lansing); does that mean his inclusion in this last as one of the best basketball players of all time means I’m supporting what he did? Jackson Browne beat up Darryl Hannah once; am I supporting violence against women if I have a few of his songs on my iPod? What Ted Kennedy did at Chappaquiddick was reprehensible and unconscionable; does that mean one can’t evaluate, or even praise, his work as a senator without supporting what he did? Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; does that mean if I praise him for his leadership in separating church and state, I’m supporting slavery? Christopher Hitchens supported the Iraq war, which killed hundreds of thousands of people; does that mean everyone who praised him when he died, or before that, is supporting his actions in support of the war? It’s an argument that quickly becomes absurd.

  16. 16
    tylerdipietrantonio

    I really have no idea whether Kobe is actually guilty of rape either, I’m more or less protesting the idea that a man is guilty of rape more or less automatically when a woman elects to accuse him of such. I also personally find the evidence against Kobe pretty shaky, but that’s really another matter altogether.

    It’s also worth pointing out that I will make jokes about other professional athletes who have been accused of rape. The case against Ben Roethlisberger is equally shaky in both cases, IMO, but it’s just too damn fun to call him “Rapistberger” or “Ruthlessraper”.

  17. 17
    slc1

    Re Ed Brayton @ #15

    And Magic Johnson payed for his fun by becoming HIV positive, which materially shortened his career.

    As for Kobe Bryant and the criminal trial in Colorado that never took place, the reason why it never happened is that Kate Faber refused to testify without a grant of immunity from the prosecutor for her perjured testimony at the hearing conducted in the judge’s chambers. In all probability, this was because of the sage advice of her attorney, Lin Wood of Atlanta, Ga., who is regarded as one of the top litigators in that state. Being caught in a perjury indictment would have had an adverse affect on the subsequent civil suit which was filed on her behalf. The suit was settled before trial through which Mr. Wood extorted several hundred thousand dollars from Mr. Bryant on behalf of his client.

    Thus, Mr. Bryant paid for his fun not only because of the settlement but through his loss of endorsements, which probably ran to several times the amount of the settlement.

  18. 18
    Ed Brayton

    I don’t want to turn this into a debate over rape accusations. It has nothing to do with it. But I think false accusations of rape are pretty rare. What we put women through when they accuse someone of rape is a pretty strong deterrent, I think. That doesn’t mean they never happen, nor does it diminish the need to prove someone guilty in a court of law, but I don’t think anyone should believe that false accusations are a common occurrence. I just don’t think they are. We have a far bigger problem with rape going unreported and unprosecuted, mostly because of the brutality of the process, than we have with false accusations of rape. And while it may be true that when false accusations do occur, they are most likely to occur against a rich, powerful man, it’s also the case that we have a serious problem with prominent athletes getting away with the most vile actions precisely because of their wealth, fame or, at the high school and college level, their importance to a sports program. I’ve seen that first hand. So while I think it’s absurd to claim that I’m supporting rape by talking about Kobe Bryant’s athletic achievements, I think it’s even more absurd to launch into diatribes about the evils of false rape accusations and insults aimed at feminists.

  19. 19
    Reginald Selkirk

    Bunch of has-beens. The future is Jeremy Lin.

  20. 20
    tacitus

    I’m not particularly interested in ranking basketball players, but what I do find interesting is what seems to be a uniquely American trait of creating this type of meta-discussion around the sports they follow.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t happen elsewhere. As a fan of cricket, I have seen a number of “all-time” team lineups in my time, and scoring records and milestones certainly do get a mention when they happen. (At this very moment, hundreds of millions of Indian are waiting for news that their most beloved batsman has scored his 100th century (100 runs) in international cricket). But, in my experience, only Americans take that interest to the level of obsession, as exemplified by the endless hours of debates over who exactly deserves to be in their sport’s Hall of Fame.

    And, of course, debates over worthiness of careers further metastasize into endless discussions over moral fitness (Rose, McGwire), debates over juiced balls and muscles, and even what should be done to highlight past social injustices (Negro League inductees).

    Not that there is anything particularly wrong with all that–no doubt much of the discussion is fodder for the endless hours of sports talk radio, and thousands of articles and blog posts each year–it just strikes many non-Americans as being a curious obsession.

    I do wonder about the whole Hall of Fame concept though. No doubt, it’s a great publicity and marketing tool for the sports who run one (which is probably why we have them in the first place), but in some ways they’re not really necessary (all-time greats in the sport will always be remembered no matter what) and in other ways they can be quite divisive, perhaps even personally harmful to those who don’t quite make it there.

    After all, for every player that scrapes in by a few votes, there’s at least two or three who do not, and really what’s to say they are any less worthy? At that level it becomes little more than a popularity contest, not much better than American Idol, and I suspect that more than a few ex-players have turned their failure to make their Hall of Fame into a critique on their career and potential unfulfilled, even if the processes of election is an unreliable guide to career success.

    Certainly from the amount of time and effort Pete Rose has put into overturning his ban over the years is testament to how important this entirely artificial construct has become to American sportsmen and women.

    Mind you, sporting halls of fame would have nothing on a Hall of Fame for Politics. I can just imagine the millions of hours of heated, but utterly pointless debate that concept would undoubtedly generate.

  21. 21
    Michael Heath

    I don’t put Kobe in with the top group because I don’t see him making those around him better like the others in your list do. This was the key to Michael Jordan going from a great player to a great player who won championships, where Jordan didn’t have the talent surrounding him that Bryant’s enjoyed (though the Lakers other guard in the Bryant years has been less than stellar). I also think Bryant’s not as consistently great in crunch-time as the others either.

    slc1:

    I think that Mr. Bird is underestimating Lebron James who is probably the most all around physically talented player to ever play the game. He is still relatively young, even though one gets the impression that he’s been around forever, because he entered the league right out of high school. Barring injury, I would predict that Mr. James will end up winning his share of NBA championships before he’s done.

    Larry Bird is currently correct. Perhaps someday Mr. James will win championships but “perhaps someday” doesn’t cut it when you’re a winner like Bird or his peers. I was a huge fan of James when he came out who has no problem with his going to Miami. But the fact is that James has not played well in the play-offs so the shine has worn off. I have no animosity for James and would be happy to see him overcome this current weakness, especially since I’m fan of Dwayne Wade. But first James has to prove himself over the course of three or four years before he deserves the same oxygen as Ed’s list of the best.

    What I like best about Paul Pierce is how he’s matured into a player that competes at a far higher level then when he came into the league. In a way that also rubs off on his teammates. I wonder if he learned that from Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Pierce doesn’t have the talent the best players do but he’s went from under-utilizing his talent to maximizing it.

  22. 22
    Michael Heath

    tylerdipietrantonio writes:

    There is also the fact that the Pierce, as well as Ray Allen and KG, are obviously showing their age this year and may not even get the Celts to the playoffs, while Kobe could very well win number six before his career is over.

    I think Allen and Garnett have been showing their age for at least a couple of years. Which makes their effort all the more impressive. I am so impressed at how they’ve replaced a marginal loss of quickness and athleticism with a marginal increase of effort and intensity. They’re not as effective as they once were, but they’re still better than most.

  23. 23
    davem

    I think they’re the top 5 players ever to play the game and I find it hard to believe that anyone will ever crack that list.

    I don’t. Assuming that basketball continues to exist for a couple of hundred years more, there’ll be plenty more where they came from, and the 5 you mention will be long forgotten.

  24. 24
    slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #21

    1. Hey, Scotty Pippen wasn’t chopped liver.

    2. Shorter Heath re Lebron James: As the late George Allen put it, talent doesn’t win games, character wins games.

    Mr. James needs some character in the playoffs. Given his level of talent, I have no reason to doubt that he will attain it, barring injuries of course. However, his teams have reached the championship game twice so far, once in Cleveland and once in Miami so he hasn’t been entirely chopped liver in the playoffs.

    3. Hey, winning a championship isn’t everything. Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone never won a championship and they were pretty fair country basketball players.

    Re Ed Brayton @ #18

    I only brought it up because of the comment by Ms. Constantine which I felt could not be allowed to stand without rebuttal. I agree that the number of cases of unreported rape greatly exceed the number of false charges. However, as the case of the Duke lacrosse players shows, the latter are not insignificant.

  25. 25
    Michael Heath

    slc1:

    Hey, Scotty Pippen wasn’t chopped liver.

    Scotty Pippen won because he was on the same team as Michael Jordan. He was ineffective against the Pistons in the tournaments. The Bulls finally got through the Pistons when Jordan toughened up and the Pistons showed their age. Pippen was a great player, especially on paper, but his talent and Jordan alone didn’t win championships, instead it was Jordan toughening up while also learning how to make this teammates better.

    Besides Jordan, the Bulls won for two other reasons IMO. Phil Jackson was a great coach who knew how to exploit role players. While all championship teams have some great role players, I always found the Bulls role players especially valuable because I perceived the Bulls starters beyond Jordan to be middling to weak (except for Pippen). Horace Grant was a great role player but not a key player, and their centers were always mediocre. The second reason was the Bulls won championships at a time where I found the whole league diluted to the point of mediocrity, they expanded the league beyond the available talent pool. I highly doubt the Bulls could have beaten the best Pistons, Celtics, and Laker teams of the 80s, all of which would have revealed that Jordan and Jackson were the only deserving champions on the Bulls teams.

  26. 26
    PhiloKGB

    I don’t agree that Kobe has consistently been surrounded by better talent than had Jordan (stipulating the first three titles, as Shaq is probably one of the five best centers ever). Other than Gasol, who may end up in the same conversation with Pippen when all is said and done, who’s going to look back fondly on Fisher, Ariza, Odom, Brown, and a has-been Artest?

  27. 27
    slc1

    Re PhiloKGB @ #26

    Actually, Lamar Odom, who was traded away at the start of the season, is a very talented player who, because of attitude and multiple injuries has failed to reach his potential. Another example of a player who lacks character.

  28. 28
    nyarlathotep

    I don’t like getting into the “best player” discussions. Russell has the most rings and possibly the best defensive stats, Chamberlain has more rebounds per game and the highest single game point total, Robertson has the only regular season triple double, Olajuwan shouldn’t be underestimated (one of seven players with a quadruple double), and we can’t forget backboard shatterers like Darryl Dawkins if only for showmanship, which I think does count for something, and blah blah blah.

    However, I do love seeing sports, especially basketball (my favorite sport, I like the way they dribble up and down the court) discussed on atheist/skeptic/progressive blogs and websites. It’s an important humanizing aspect to the general public, and I hate feeling like the lone sports fan so it’s personally comforting.

  29. 29
    stace

    Horace Grant was a great role player but not a key player, and their centers were always mediocre.

    Luc Longley,Bill Cartwright, and Will Perdue mediocre? Holy cow, what do you have to do to be considered good?

    Just kidding.

    who’s going to look back fondly on Fisher, Ariza, Odom, Brown, and a has-been Artest

    That would be a has-been Meta World Peace, I believe.

  30. 30
    jws1

    Gotta weigh in as a Pacers fan: Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie!

    “Boom, Baby!”

  31. 31
    Paul Neubauer

    nyarlathotep commented:

    Robertson has the only regular season triple double

    Actually, Robertson averaged a triple double over a five-year period. It’s usually noteworthy these days when a player scores a triple-double in a single game, but Oscar averaged more than 30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per game for his first 5 seasons. Ed had Wilt over Kareem due to dominance, but I can’t help but be impressed with Oscar’s dominance there. I’m not sure who I’d bump to promote him into the top 5 though.

  32. 32
    Reginald Selkirk

    This is disappointing:
    Jeremy Lin says his storybook run with NY Knicks is ‘a miracle from God’

    “Anytime something like this happens, a lot of stuff has to be put into place, and a lot of it is out of my control,” the Knicks phenom point guard said on Tuesday. “If you look back at my story, doesn’t matter where you look, but God’s fingerprints are all over the place where there have been a lot of things that had to happen that I couldn’t control.
    “You can try to call it coincidence,” Lin continued, “but at the end of the day, there are 20, 30 things when you combine them all that had to happen at the right time in order for me to be here. That’s why I call it a miracle.”

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