Is Kobe the greatest Laker of all time? Yes he is

When the inevitability of Kobe Bryant moving into fifth place on the
NBA’s all-time scoring list became reality this week, he was thankful,
yet not satisfied.

“It would be an understatement to say it’s a
huge honor,” Bryant said after scoring 28 points Monday night in his
native Philadelphia to pass former teammate and sometimes rival
Shaquille O’Neal with 28,601 points. “I’ve been very fortunate to have
such a good career.”

However, the number that Bryant really is chasing is a much smaller one.

“I just want No. 6, man,” he said. “I’m not asking for too much, man. Just give me a sixth ring, damn it.”

Which
achievement is greater — the scoring or the championships? And do
Bryant’s accomplishments at age 33 make him, as O’Neal proclaimed this
week, the greatest Laker ever?

No one has won more championships
with the Lakers than Bryant. And of the Lakers legends who have won five
or more rings, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sits ahead of him on the
scoring list, at No. 1 with 38,387 points.

A sixth ring would give
Kobe one more than Kareem won with the Lakers, and elevate him into
even more elite company on the career championships list — joining
Michael Jordan, among others, with the fifth most in history.

Has
Kobe already surpassed Kareem as greatest Laker? Has he even surpassed
Magic Johnson or Jerry West in the eyes of Lakers faithful? Coming to a
definitive answer is perhaps impossible, considering the Hall of Famers
who made this franchise the NBA’s all-time leader in wins and brought it
16 championship banners. But here are my top five Lakers.

5. Elgin Baylor

Former
teammate Hot Rod Hundley may have said it best: “If Julius Erving is a
doctor, then Elgin Baylor was a brain surgeon.” Baylor’s career ended in
1971, so many of today’s fans and reporters never saw the 6-foot-5
scorer play. However, YouTube takes care of that, and there’s a new
Baylor appreciation society out there. An 11-time All-Star, he averaged
more than 34 points three years in a row, including a career-high 38.3
in his remarkable 1961-62 season. Why was it remarkable? Baylor was on
active duty in the Army Reserve and basically played only on weekends!
He also averaged 18.6 rebounds in those 48 games, and set a record with a
61-point game in the Finals. He never won a championship (though he did get a championship ring as being a member of the 1971-72 Lakers championship team – retiring nine games into the season), but his
career average of 27.4 points ranks fourth all-time and his 13.5
rebounds rank ninth.

3. (tie) Jerry West

He was Mr. Clutch,
and like Bryant, West gladly took the ball with just a few seconds left
on the clock and the game in the balance. He, too, was successful many
more times than he failed, and his buzzer-beating 60-footer in the 1970
Finals is considered one of the biggest shots of all time. The 6-foot-2
guard also was one of the top defensive players in NBA history. Few
players got the best of him, and the ones who sometimes did, like Oscar
Robertson and Sam Jones, got lit up on the other end of the floor by
“The Logo.” A 14-time All-Star, he led the league in scoring with 31.2
points in 1969-70 and averaged more than 25 points in the championship
season of 1971-72. He should have had more than one championship ring,
but he kept running into Bill Russell and the Celtics. But he got his
payback as a Lakers executive, building or helping build eight title
winners — including two that beat Boston.

3. (tie) Magic Johnson

The
greatest winner in franchise history and, along with Bill Russell, one
of the greatest in NBA history. At 6-foot-9 he revolutionized the point
guard position and made everyone on his team better, including the
already-great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He even filled in for the star center
in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals and turned in one of the greatest
performances of all time, scoring 42 points and becoming the only rookie
to be named Finals MVP. It was the first of his five rings and the
beginning of a “Showtime” era that helped revitalize the NBA along with
his rivalry with Larry Bird and the Celtics. He went to the Finals nine
times and won three MVPs. Johnson’s only weakness was defense, and had
his career not been cut short by HIV in 1991, he’d definitely be
battling for the top spot on this list. And if personality and
entertaining style of play were bigger factors in this evaluation, he’d
be No. 1 by a huge margin.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Other than
Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar was the game’s most
unstoppable offensive force. The skyhook was the ultimate weapon, and he
could shoot it from any place from the top of the key to the corners.
When he put out maximum effort — which wasn’t often enough for some of
his critics — he was ferocious defensively as well. Shot-blocker,
rebounder, defender — he could do it all, and was one of the most clutch
Lakers stars. His 19 All-Star selections and six MVP awards are
unmatched. It’s hard to put him No. 1 because I was one of those critics
who saw him lope up and down the floor too many times. But what he
accomplished with the Lakers was legendary.

1. Kobe Bryant

When
he left Lower Merion (PA) High School, Bryant’s goal was to be the
greatest player ever. And while he may have avoided saying it, most
observers believe he specifically wanted to be better than Michael
Jordan — maybe if only because no other player even merits a comparison.
I think he’s passed Jordan, and he very well might finish his career as
the greatest the game has seen. A 14-time All-Star, he’s been an MVP
(2008 NBA, two-time Finals, four-time All-Star) and a champion
(five-time NBA, two-time scoring, 1997 Slam Dunk) in every sense of the
words. His 81-point game is second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. He’s
third on the career playoff scoring list. He’s also the top pressure
player of his generation, as good on defense as he is offensively
(nine-time All-Defensive first team). He’s so good with the game on the
line that he makes it easier for the other team to come up with a
defensive strategy. Even though opponents know he’s taking the final
shot 99 percent of the time, he rarely can be stopped. And after 15
years in the league and numerous injuries that he’s played through, he’s
having one of his best years, averaging 29.3 points and some nights
literally willing his team to victory.

One final thought: Had
Chamberlain played his entire career with the Lakers, there would have
been no need for this column. He was the greatest individual offensive
and defensive player ever. Look no further than the NBA’s 30,000-point,
20,000-rebound club. The club has one member, Wilt Chamberlain, now and
likely forever.