You can read whatever you want to when it comes to Kobe Bryant compiling a list of his toughest opponents. Yeah, he left off Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett – two contemporaries that, in the view of many an observer, have enjoyed superior careers due to their insistence on playing on both ends of the floor. Shaquille O’Neal isn’t here. Neither is Dwyane Wade, the guy that Shaq more or less abandoned Kobe to play with in 2004 after only witnessing Wade’s rookie season.
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What matters is the list. Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James, Clyde Drexler, and Kevin Durant. That’s a pretty formidable starting five, even if Kobe wasn’t attempting to go position-by-position.
This isn’t the Kobester coming up with an all-time crew, though. These are the toughest dudes that Bryant ever stared down. Here are the words from the man himself, via a conference call that was transcribed by the league’s website:
“Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Clyde Drexler.
“I have to — players is a little tougher for me because I came in the league where there were so many great players playing like John Stockton was still playing; Clyde Drexler was still playing. Gary Payton, Anfernee — I mean it was a lot of — so the top five players is a little tough for me.”
Just how “tough,” though, were Kobe’s go-rounds with the players listed? Considering he mentioned players who were infants during the Kennedy, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations, it’s quite a wide swatch – a testimonial to Bryant’s longevity. Let’s take a look, as Bryant sets to retire, of the nights where these five roughed Kobe’s Lakers up the worst.
Hakeem Olajuwon: November 12, 1996
Kobe was just a pup in this one, playing only five minutes in what turned out to be a 58-minute, double overtime game. It was just his second week as a pro, and in a weird bit of foreshadowing, the 19-year old lost out on potential development minutes as Byron Scott played 40 minutes off of the Los Angeles bench.
Hakeem may not have even been the best Houston Rocket on the night, as new addition Charles Barkley led the Rockets with 33 points. The 33-year old played all 58 minutes in the loss, adding 16 rebounds, five assists, and three assists. Olajuwon, in his best game against a Laker team with Kobe on it, contributed 31 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and just one turnover (Barkley had seven) in 32 minutes.
Clyde Drexler missed eight of nine shots on the night.
(Kobe chose Clyde over Duncan, KG, and D-Wade!)
Clyde Drexler: December 12, 1997
Bryant, now in his second season, was now outplaying future Hall of Famers like Clyde while coming off of the bench. This is part of the reason he was voted into that year’s All-Star Game as a starter despite only starting once in 79 Laker appearances that year. In just 26 minutes, Bryant gave Houston 27 points on just 15 shots with only one turnover and five rebounds.
Drexler had a great game – 21 points 8-16 shooting, six assists and five rebounds with just a single turnover – and it was hardly a pedestrian outing even considering his career marks. Still, this was in the season that Charles Barkley chided Clyde for taking his time in coming back from a hamstring pull (“people have come back from heart attacks quicker that Clyde has”), and despite Drexler’s brilliant career you have to wonder why he got the nod over so many other players.
It could have been gamesmanship. Or it could just be that Clyde Drexler, a shooting guard with myriad all-around skills, showed Bryant a thing or two despite not burning up the ledger with white hot stats.
Kevin Durant: December 7, 2012
This was Kobe in a weird place.
The Lakers were considered championship contenders entering 2012-13, but coach Mike Brown decided to run the Princeton offense for some reason, the team decided not to re-hire Phil Jackson as coach for some reason after Brown was let go, and Bryant decided to assert his unconventional on and off-court leadership skills on new teammates Steve Nash and Dwight Howard for, well, Kobe Reasons.
During this spell the Lakers rallied somewhat to improve upon an early-season swoon, but this loss to the Thunder left them having lost 11 of the team’s first 20 games. Bryant did well to score 35 points on just 24 shots, with seven assists, three steals and two blocks, but the Thunder (who won 114-108) were just the better team.
And Durant, at this point, was just the better player on the better, more cohesive team. He scored 36 points on 8-19 shooting, with nine rebounds and four assists. The Thunder, coming off the Oklahoma City franchise’s lone Finals appearance thus far, ably held the Lakers at arm’s length.
LeBron James: December 25, 2010
This is a tough one. James has never played Kobe more than twice in a season, they’ve never met in the playoffs, and yet their career overlaps more than any other player on Bryant’s all-time list. And, you may have noticed in the years since 2003: LeBron James is really good at basketball! Even against Kobe’s Lakers!
LeBron has scored more points than the 27 he cobbled together against the Lakers during this Christmas day game, but the 10 boards, 11 assists and four steals sent this thing through the roof. He turned the ball over just once in 38 minutes as his Miami Heat downed the defending champion Lakers by 16.
The Heat didn’t win the championship this year, but this needed bit of scent-throwing boded well for Miami – a team that struggled to start the season. Suddenly, Kobe’s Lakers (Bryant missed 10 of 16 shots) looked a little long in the tooth. In front of a national TV audience, no less.
Michael Jordan: December 17, 1997
Kobe Bryant didn’t exactly need any in-person insight to learn about Jordan’s exploits, not with all those VHS tapes filling up his bedroom, but this contest actually provided literal in-game help that would enhance Bryant’s already formidable game. Midway through the third quarter, with MJ’s Bulls running away with what would eventually become a 19-point win, Bryant caught up with Jordan just before he sat for a night to ask him about the footwork needed to stay a potent low or mid-post scorer.
Jordan was no doubt aware that he was passing the torch, but this short back and forth was likely far more influential than the first-hand sighting of MJ’s 36 points.
Was the lack of recognition for Duncan, Garnett or D-Wade a thought-out swipe? Possibly. It’s also hard to think of these things on the fly, when you know you’re on the record, even for someone as media-savvy as Kobe Bryant. We have to remember that Kobe also wasn’t asked to bring up his all-time favorite players, or his top-five stars from 1996 onward, or personal dream team.
Just the most impressive five. Jordan will tell you how tough Jeff Malone was to guard, and how hard it was to get a shot off over Doug Christie. Scores of Hall of Fame big men will talk up both Caldwell and Charles Jones, and hating to bang against them. Rickey Green still has some NBA team’s head coach shaking their head. He’s only played him once, but Justice Winslow will probably have Kevin Durant muttering in his sleep sometime in 2045.
So let Kobe have his five. He’s earned it.
(But seriously man no Duncan and KG???)
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