Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant is an institution unto himself, arguably the most famous player in the NBA and someone whose every movement earns media attention. However, the Achilles tendon tear he suffered last April and his subsequent rehabilitation have raised various questions his ability to maintain that lofty position among the league's elite for the rest of his career. There's a growing consensus that, at 35 years old, Kobe may finally be entering the twilight of his career.
That opinion has proven somewhat controversial, particularly among Lakers fans accustomed to considering Kobe as a demi-god. It began last week, when ESPN.com's #NBARank project listed him as the 25th-best player in the league, behind such unproven upstarts as John Wall of the Washington Wizards and divisive stars like the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony. And so it continues in the 12th annual survey of the league's general managers, released Tuesday at NBA.com.
For the first time in the survey's history, Kobe is not listed as the league's best shooting guard. From John Schuhmann's introduction:
The GMs have made it clear that LeBron James is the best player in the world. And after a three-year absence, 37-year-old Tim Duncan is back as the top power forward in the league. But for the first time in the history of the survey, someone other than Kobe Bryant has been named as the league's best shooting guard.
All 30 GMs responded to 56 different questions about the best teams, players, coaches, fans, and offseason moves. General managers were not permitted to vote for their own team or personnel. Percentages are based on the pool of respondents to each question of the survey, rather than all 30 GMs.
Here's the voting breakdown:
Who is the best shooting guard in the NBA?
1. James Harden, Houston -- 56.7%
2. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers -- 20.0%
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City; Paul George, Indiana -- 6.7%
6. Dwyane Wade, Miami -- 3.3%
Last year: Kobe Bryant -- 66.7%
For those scoring at home, that's a 46.7 percent drop from last season for Bryant, which suggests that GMs were not impressed by the Lakers' disappointing season and consider the Achilles injury to be a major roadblock on his path back to the top of the NBA mountain. Frankly, I have trouble arguing with the ranking, both because Bryant's injury is typically a very serious one and because Harden really is that good. Nevertheless, as with any story involving Bryant, this ranking is sure to upset many NBA observers. He's such a major figure in the league's history that any slight can be taken as a sign that people are not taking him seriously enough.
Yet, when you look at the other top positional vote-getters in this survey and judge their current accomplishments against those of Kobe, it becomes clear why he's not held in such high standing. Point guard Chris Paul (70 percent) organizes the entire offense of a dark-horse championship contender seemingly by himself, shooting guard Harden is a dynamic offensive player who figures to work well with new Rockets center Dwight Howard, small forward LeBron James (86.7 percent) remains LeBron James, power forward Tim Duncan (31 percent, although James nabbed 13.8 percent) came a few possessions from leading the San Antonio Spurs to a title, and center Dwight Howard (65.5 percent) is capable of dominating a game at both ends. Bryant, in contrast, looks increasingly limited athletically and suffers major lapses at the defensive end. He's still great, but he's not what he once was. Outside of the basic displays of respect associated with an all-time great, why should he be rubber-stamped to the top of these surveys every season?
That's not to say that general managers no longer respect Bryant or think he's a shoddy player. (For one thing, as noted by Rob Mahoney at The Point Forward, it's very possible that GMs have assistants or interns fill out this survey for them.) Bryant did finish second among shooting guards, which proves that he still carries a great deal of ability and the confidence of knowledgeable parties around the NBA. But this survey represents rough consensus — the Heat are considered favorites to win the title for a third-consecutive year, Victor Oladipo is the runaway favorite to become Rookie of the Year, LeBron James is far and away the player picked as the centerpiece of the ideal team, etc. It's clear that, on some level, Bryant is not considered the blinding superstar he once was. As ever, it's up to the man himself to prove us wrong.
To check out the full 56-question survey, visit NBA.com. Try to remember that, in just one week, we'll be able to argue these questions while watching actual professional basketball games.