Retiring a number is the ultimate recognition of a former player’s contribution and legacy to a franchise. But for Kobe Bryant, one number apparently doesn’t do his years with the Los Angeles Lakers justice: Tonight, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to have two different numbers lifted to the rafters by the same team. It’s a fitting honor for a man who played more than 1,300 games, scored more than 33,500 points and won five titles for Los Angeles — yet couldn’t settle on one number to wear.
But if there’s one thing we end up remembering the Laker legend for, it should be that he went out as arguably the NBA’s last true gunslinger.
Bryant, the son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, modeled his game after Michael Jordan and came closer to replicating His Airness’s silky offensive style than anyone we’ve seen. He finished his 20-year career with more points than MJ and stood apart by managing to hit impossible shots from all over the floor, despite having defenses draped over him.
What Michael was to Kobe, Kobe became to the next generation of players. One possible sign: The number of guys wearing No. 8, which Bryant wore for the first 10 years of his NBA career, has more than tripled — from seven in 1995-96, the year before Bryant’s rookie season, to 231 this season. (In the second half of this career, Bryant wore No. 24, which was more popular than No. 8 before Bryant donned it. Bryant’s adoption of it doesn’t seem to have had much influence leaguewide.)
But even though younger NBA players adopted Bryant’s number, few players have adopted his style of play — a ball-dominant one that involved taking tough contested shots inside the arc — as some offenses around the league have become more free-flowing and hyper-efficient.
The current players who draw perhaps the most frequent comparisons to Kobe, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan (both of whom are from the L.A. area and played there collegiately), each count Bryant as a mentor of sorts and possess a handful of the same skills and flaws that he had.
In Westbrook’s case, he’s so talented that he sometimes can dominate the ball too much — even when he has another superstar, or two, on the court with him. And much like Bryant did, DeRozan makes a living from midrange, a shot that goes against the grain of today’s league, where most star wing players have developed a respectable shot from 3-point range.
Translation: On any given night, both guys are capable of shooting it less efficiently than other stars because they’re taking far tougher shots than just about everyone else. (DeRozan, in particular, has the highest degree of shot difficulty in the NBA among those who’ve taken at least 200 attempts, according to data from Second Spectrum, which uses high-level tracking equipment in NBA arenas to compile data.) That willingness to launch (miss) scores of contested shots is vintage Kobe.
“I don’t care about that crap, and I’m sure he doesn’t either,” said then-Lakers coach Byron Scott after Bryant broke a record for the most missed shot attempts in NBA history. “I don’t mean to cut you off, but to me, it speaks of his aggressiveness and longevity.” It also speaks to his being wired far differently than many other players, who refuse to take shots that have little chance of going down for fear of hurting their field-goal percentages, which factor into future contracts and potential earnings.
During the 2015-16 campaign, his farewell season, Bryant attempted more fadeaway jumpers than any guard in the league despite missing 16 games that year. And during the final three-season span of his career, Bryant ranked dead-last among 357 players2 in Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quality metric, which estimates the odds of a shot going in by tracking shot and defender distance. Put another way, this means he took the hardest collection of the shots in the NBA in that window. (He also shot worse than expected on those attempts.)
It’s worth mentioning a couple of things here. First, it’s not really fair to focus more on Bryant’s misses3 than his makes — he was an absolutely devastating scorer in his prime — and defensive accomplishments. Secondly, even his missed shots often turned out to be a good thing. Kirk Goldsberry, then of Grantland, created the “Kobe Assist,” a metric that highlighted how Bryant’s shot attempts attracted so much defensive attention that they opened up easy putback opportunities for his teammates.
There’s no telling how much more productive Bryant could have been in this era, one in which coaches, teams and even the league itself are more aggressive about resting their players in hopes of safeguarding them from injury. Bryant, of course, famously pushed himself to play through pain, especially during the final days of the 2012-13 season, in which he tore his Achilles tendon while playing enormous minutes during a playoff push.
Both the increased focus on efficiency and the new-age strategy of holding players out for rest make it less likely that we’ll see another star with such a devil-may-care attitude on scoring and health. On some level, that’s what made Bryant’s finale — in which he scored 60 points on 50 shots, both NBA records for a player’s last game — so fitting. Having the courage to fire up tough shots from all over the floor, and worrying about the statistical consequences later, if at all, doesn’t happen much anymore. In fact, it’s an attitude that might’ve gone extinct with Bryant’s exit from the league.
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