Like Harden, Bryant was a back-to-back scoring champion in 2006 and 2007, and like Harden, he was essentially unguardable and was able to get his shot from anywhere on the floor.
But just how unstoppable was the Mamba at his peak?
I know we all love to rag on Bryant for being a chucker and for his lack of efficiency, but the fact of the matter is that prime Kobe Bryant did not really fit that category.
The very peak of Bryant’s career was arguably between 2006 and 2009. You can throw 2010 in there, as well, but by that point, Bryant seemed to be declining ever so slightly, as the Los Angeles Lakers had to rely a lot more on Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to defeat the Boston Celtics in those NBA Finals.
But before 2010, Kobe Bryant was at his peak and was abusing any defender who dared to get in his way, and he was actually doing it with solid efficiency. From 2006 through 2009, Bryant’s true-shooting percentage only dipped below 56 percent once, which came in 2006 when it was at 55.9 percent. Otherwise, the “inefficient chucker” reputation that Kobe had was simply wrong back then, as evidenced by his true-shooting percentages of 58 percent in 2007, 57.6 percent in 2008 and 56.1 percent in 2009.
No, those are not exactly Harden numbers, but they are still good and showed that just because Bryant was taking a lot of shots did not mean he was hurting his team.
Let’s remember just how versatile Bryant was on the offensive end, too. Of course, he had his patented turnaround jumper that was his go-to move, but he also had an explosive first step that allowed him to get to the basket at will. He could shoot from mid range. He could get red hot from beyond the arc and burn opposing defenders from 30 feet out. He got to the free-throw line with regularity.
There was literally nothing Bryant couldn’t do. Not only that, but Bryant was also a fine passer, averaging between five and six assists per game during his best years.
Early on in Bryant’s career, you could back off of him and dare him to shoot from the perimeter. In his first four years as a starter, Bryant only shot 30 percent or better from long distance twice, topping out at 31.9 percent in 2000.
But, little by little, Bryant began to expand on his range, making him more and more impossible to defend as time passed.
While Kobe was never an elite three-point shooter, shooting at around 35 percent during his prime, he was good enough from there that defenses had to respect his outside shot, and there were times where he would go on three-point binges where everything he threw up would fall.
This is kind of where the “chucker” talk came from, as sometimes, Bryant would bite off more than he could chew by attempting too many treys, but overall, we embellished that label quite a bit.
Let’s talk about his defense, too.
Unlike Harden, Bryant didn’t just play one side of the floor at an elite level; he was also a premier perimeter defender.
Now, Bryant was actually at his best defensively before his peak offensive years, with his best seasons on that end of the floor coming during the three-peat stretch in the early 2000s.
But, even later than that, Kobe Bryant remained one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, as his length and athleticism allowed him the versatility to guard multiple positions, and while he wasn’t a lockdown defender along the lines of Tony Allen, he was still terrific.
The fact that Bryant was able to defend so effectively while expending so much energy on the offensive side was pretty incredible and should not be overlooked when discussing just how great he really was.
As a matter of fact, a legitimate argument can be made that Bryant was actually a bit underrated defensively, as we all like to focus on the future Hall-of-Famer’s latter years when he was mediocre, at best, on that end of the floor.
In his prime, though? Bryant was right up there as one of the best wing defenders in the game.
So, in Bryant, you had an elite two-way player who could drop over 50 points on any given night while simultaneously defending his position effectively.
A lot of people also like to ask how prime Kobe would have translated into today’s game, and the answer is that he would have been phenomenal, especially in this small-ball era.
I get it. Hating on Kobe Bryant is the cool thing to do. But denying just how dominant he was in his prime is just irrational detestation.