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Ball Don't Lie

Kobe Bryant says he hasn’t had any rivals to count amongst his contemporaries

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Kobe Bryant drives to the basket past an unidentified non-rival (Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant says he really hasn't had any "rivals" in his NBA career. That his competitive instincts are going great guns no matter who he plays, and at that saturation point that he couldn't possibly even add another gear to his particular combustion engine even if he did have a one-on-one rival to go against. Not that he has any rivals, he points out.

This could be Kobe the show-off, putting himself in a class above all. This could be Kobe tsk-tsk'ing scoring guards of his generation, going after Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Allen Iverson for falling off too soon. Or Ray Allen for never being as good. Or Dwyane Wade and LeBron James missing a chance to knock Kobe off at his peak.

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Or, it could just be that Kobe Bryant is absolutely correct. Without any pretense, ego, or self-aggrandizing. Not that those three things aren't part of the package, and a possible inspiration for his honest words spoken to Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles. But it doesn't mean that Kobe isn't right. By his rules, using his math, he's absolutely correct.

Here's the quote, from ESPN:

"At this point my rivals, in terms of what I have left to accomplish in my career, (left the game) when Magic (Johnson) and Michael (Jordan) retired in '98," Bryant said, referring to the second of Jordan's three retirements that came after he won his sixth and final championship with the Chicago Bulls. "That's it. In terms of what I'm looking to accomplish, that's about it."

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"I've outgrown them all, from A.I. (Allen Iverson) when I first came in to (Tracy) McGrady to Vince Carter and so forth and so on."

This is telling, even when you do the math in your head to determine that Bryant is judging Magic Johnson as a "rival" even though he retired for the NBA (save for a brief comeback in 1996) when Bryant was in eighth grade. Bryant is looking at Magic's five rings as a Los Angeles Laker, and Jordan's six overall championships, as he gauges his own legacy. And, stuck without a Larry Bird to his Magic or a litany of contemporaries as Jordan had (Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Stockton/Malone, and we'll include Reggie Miller so he doesn't cry about it), you can kind of understand why.

Because, on a statistical level (playing on crummier teams) both Wade and LeBron James topped Bryant in terms of individual contributions several years ago. Their all-around work and efficiency outpaces Bryant's, even though Kobe worked longer in the playoffs than either of them save for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2011. In terms of Wade, Bryant's seeming match at the off guard slot, he had this to say:

"He's too young," Bryant said. "He's too young. When I came into the league, he was in elementary school."

Which isn't exactly true. Wade is just three years younger than Kobe, who often forgets about the relative ages of his NBA contemporaries mainly because certain players came into the league long after him, after potentially going through four years of college.

In terms of a one-on-one rival? Bryant just never had one at his peak.

Iverson came closest, battling it out with Bryant in the 2001 NBA Finals; but Iverson's shot-happy ways made even the ultra-aggressive Bryant look tame by comparison, and his bad off-court habits relegated him to an afterthought as a player a few months after Bryant's Lakers topped Iverson's Nuggets in the 2009 Western Conference finals. Ray Allen has made more three-pointers than anyone in NBA history, but he never shared Kobe's all-around gifts. Tracy McGrady was actually outpacing Bryant about a decade ago, but injury issues dimmed his star. And Vince Carter? As soon as he gets up off the floor, you can take that up with him.

No, it's Bryant by himself. He's that odd combination of old school attitude with the oddity of coming into the league during the high school player boom between 1995 and 2005. He had a head start on a few of his would-be contemporaries as a result, and the good fortune of being traded to the NBA's most famous franchise (featuring a center, and eventually a coach, for the ages) made it so Bryant could rightfully compare his work to that of a player in Magic who entered the NBA 17 years before him.

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And he's correct in pointing out that, for whatever reason, that Iverson/Carter/McGrady triptych failed him. Ray Allen played to the best of his abilities, but he just wasn't in Kobe's league.

Dwyane Wade? I'm not so sure about that, because Wade is clearly Bryant's equal at their best and when Wade is healthy, and not that much younger despite entering the NBA seven years after him. The problem is that there haven't been very many memorable duels between the two on a regular season stage, and unlike Bird and Magic (or Jordan and his many conquests) the two have never met in the playoffs.

That could change, of course, this year. The Lakers and Heat could meet in the Finals, because though Los Angeles hasn't distinguished itself so far this year, Bryant and his team are that good. And Wade and Kobe will meet up on Sunday, just a week after Wade busted Kobe's nose with an unnecessary and borderline-flagrant foul in the All-Star Game.

Dwyane Wade is "too young" to be Kobe's rival? That's for you to decide. Like we said earlier, there's probably a bit of pretense, and a whole lot of gamesmanship, in comments like these. And we love Kobe for that.

He's earned the right to that dismissive tone, and to attempt to shape his own legacy in his heroes' mold.

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