Some folks aren't particularly fond of his taste in endorsements, but you can't deny that Kobe Bryant's(notes) having another spectacular season on the court (minus, of course, a rough 8-for-27 shooting performance in the Los Angeles Lakers' 112-95 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night). The 32-year-old's floor time is down (Bryant's averaging 33.1 minutes per game, his lowest mark since the 1997-98 season), but his all-around production has been characteristically outstanding — 26.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game thus far.
With his Lakers coming off of back-to-back NBA titles, which ran his individual championship count to five, and off to an 11-2 start this season that has them looking like a good bet for a three-peat, Bryant is firmly entrenched in the "playing for history" section of his illustrious career. He's a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who unquestionably ranks among the game's all-time greats; the only question now is, where does he rank?
TNT studio analyst and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley tackled the question during the network's "Inside the NBA" show on Friday.
"Remember last week that I said that Kobe Bryant was one of the 10 greatest NBA players ever. I want to change that," Barkley said.
"To what?" asked Barkley's TNT colleague, Kenny Smith.
"He's one of the five greatest ever," Barkley continued.
Smith said, "Wow," and if you're anything like me, so did you. Hit the jump for video of the segment and more from the always opinionated Mr. Barkley.
"Michael's first, Oscar Robertson's second — this is just my opinion," Barkley said. "Bill Russell's third, Wilt Chamberlain's four and Kobe Bryant's five."
"So he's better than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson?" asked Smith.
"Yes. Yes, he is," Barkley replied.
That didn't sit well with Smith, who argued that Bird and Johnson changed the game and noted the difficulty of making accurate comparisons between athletes who played different positions. It's the classic problem when weighing the relative merits of small forwards like Bird, point guards like Johnson and shooting guards like Michael Jordan or Bryant.
Not to mention centers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history, a six-time NBA Most Valuable Player, a two-time NBA finals MVP, a 19-time All-Star and a Hall of Famer.
"You think [Kobe's] better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?" Smith asked.
"Yes," Barley replied.
At that, a stunned Smith smiled and said, "I'm gone, man," then got up out of his seat on the set.
"Are you serious? Are you serious?" asked a laughing Smith. "You think Kobe Bryant's better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 years?"
"Yeah," Barkley replied with a smile.
"Oh, you don't wanna — you know you want to take it back. Say six," Smith said. "Say he's number six. I'll agree with you if you say six."
Barkley smiled and considered his options as Smith and some of the behind-the-scenes crew laughed. Then, after a few silent seconds, Charles repeated, "Kobe Bryant is one of the five greatest NBA players ever."
Ever the wry wit, TNT studio host Ernie Johnson chimed in to note that Barkley's comments came on a postgame show sponsored by the Bacardi spirits company, prompting a laughing Smith to ask what exactly was in Sir Charles' cup on the set.
"Not Bacardi," Barkley said.
"Could have fooled me," Johnson quipped.
Now, I was 6 years old when Kareem retired, 9 years old when Bird and Magic retired, and never watched legends from years gone by like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Walton in his prime, etc., play live. There's only so much that I can share an informed opinion on the comparative brilliance of Bryant and his predecessors. (If you did, feel free to share your accounts in the comments.)
What I can say is that, given the breadth of Kobe's skills, the explosive athleticism of his youth, his seemingly pathological obsession with improving and evolving to remain dominant as he's aged, his remarkable longevity as an elite performer and his ability to contribute on the defensive end of the floor, it doesn't seem crazy to suggest that he might be a more purely talented all-around player than the (admittedly amazing) players raised by Smith. Love him or hate him, Kobe's a pretty complete game-winning solution, has been one for more than a decade, and looks poised to continue to be one for at least a couple more years.
You can make the argument, as Smith and Johnson do, that Barkley's a nutjob, and I can't completely disagree. But maybe, as so often seems to be the case with Chuck, there's something worth thinking about beneath a seemingly crazy statement. Either way, it's a fun little morsel for barstool back-and-forth consideration this weekend.