Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is ranked the sixth best player overally by a EPSN. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
The fractured wrist Kobe Bryant played with continued to throb. But that didn't stop him from playing.
Not when he'd compete against the Phoenix Suns, a team he still hates for beating the Lakers in the 2006 and 2007 NBA playoffs. Not when he has the wrist still attached to his body. Not when he has another opportunity to showcase his drive. Not when he still can score at a prolific rate. Not when he could prove an off-shooting night the previous week against Denver would simply become an anomaly.
So after dropping 48 points in a regular-season game last season against the Suns, Bryant sat at the news conference table expressing amusement at the ranking a panel of ESPN writers gave him the previous off-season.
"Not bad for the seventh best player in the league," Bryant said sarcastically with an amused grin.
Well, it looks like Bryant might have fresh motivation entering the 2012-13 campaign for reasons beyond having a chance to win his sixth NBA championship. This time, ESPN ranked him sixth overall after he averaged 27.9 points per game last season, second-best in the NBA behind Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant (28 points per game). He's not even considered the Lakers' best player since center Dwight Howard is guaranteed to rest somewhere in the Top 5.
The mob you hear outside your window might be the stream of Bryant supporters with pitchforks and torches convinced this marks the latest example of the media denigrating his body of work. But when you delve further into the rankings, that's hardly the case. A panel of 104 members of ESPN ranked each NBA player on a 1 to 10 scale in evaluating "the current quality of player." With Bryant resting at an 8.8, it's fair to suggest his evaluation from person to person stayed pretty high.
Some supporters will lament the media exaggerating Bryant's decline. After all, Bryant's compiled five NBA championships, a fifth-place mark on the league's all-time scoring list, the Lakers' all-time leading scorer (29,484 points), four All-Star MVPS, two Finals MVPS and one regular-season MVP. But the current ranking actually reflects well on Bryant's ability to stay among the league's elite despite playing 16 taxing NBA seasons -- that's 1,381 games (including regular season and playoffs) and 59,658 total minutes.
Bryant managed to jump up a spot in the player rankings from last year after having an innovative procedure on both his right knee and left ankle in Germany. Last season, Bryant looked more explosive. He attacked the ball with more aggression. Bryant proved effective enough to increase his usage rate to 35.67%, which nearly mirrored his league-leading 38.74% clip during the 2005-06 season. Bryant strung together six 40-point-plus performances and posted at least 30 points each in 23 other games. And Bryant did this while nursing a torn ligament in his right wrist and recovering from a concussion at various points throughout the season.
Still, Bryant showed some weaknesses.
Bryant's 43% mark from the field represented his lowest shooting percentage since his second NBA season in the 1997-98 campaign. He averaged 3.52 turnovers. Bryant's hero-ball mentality and the Lakers' front-line passiveness both contributed to the team not fully maximizing its offensive talent.
There's a chance for Bryant to climb again in the ranking this season. Bryant told reporters this off-season he lost 16 pounds before the Olympics so he'd stay more mobile. Steve Nash's presence should relieve Bryant's ball handling duties. The Lakers' acquisition of backup shooting guard Jodie Meeks could lower Bryant's minutes. With this less-is-more approach, Bryant could prove more efficient and productive without the heavy baggage.
It remains unclear how that dynamic will play out. But one thing seems certain: Regardless of whether Bryant's current ESPN ranking is fair, it'll surely help fuel his insatiable competitive motor to further his greatness.
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