Backpicks GOAT: #5 Shaquille O’Neal

Key Stats and Trends

  • Unmatched scoring and efficiency combination for a post player
  • Massive defensive attention led to dynastic playoff offenses
  • Inconsistent and problematic tendencies limited defensive value

Scouting Report

A 300-plus pound colossus with a 7-foot-7 wingspan, Shaq took the league by the storm as the most physically dominant force in history. He was still fairly raw in the beginning, relying on brute strength and breathtaking athleticism, powering into and over smaller challengers:

Yet he was nimble enough to face the basket and dribble, setting up spins and hooks:

Shaq loved that jump hook, and when young, it was his preferred post move along with the power spin. He habitually deployed it on the right block where he could kiss it off the glass:

He generated chunks of offense on put-backs, where he used size, length and quickness to transform bricks into layups.

Here, he pins his man under the rim, volleyballs the rock to himself, and then makes like a 300-pound Hakeem Olajuwon:

In his first three years, Shaq’s offensive rebounding was historically strong, posting rates in the 95th percentile among high usage big men. (His rate hovered around the 84th percentile, or 11.5 percent, for the remainder of his prime.) In tracking his games, many of his offensive boards were immediately hammered home as dunks or layups.1

Unlike Wilt, who was largely stationary on the block, O’Neal often battled for position across the breadth of the lane, making himself a threat to catch entries in a variety of spots:

In the next clip, notice how he drives his derrière back into the open space, so when the defender adjusts, he creeps closer to the hoop. The result is a deep catch at the rim and some seriously high-percentage offense:2

He was a foul-drawing machine, bludgeoning front lines and producing the highest free throw rates in NBA history. Yet overplaying Shaq off the ball was risky. Hedge too much for position, and he would spin to an open space that only he could access, catching lobs from the side or the top:

These counters made him a nightmare, physically overwhelming men that tipped the scales at 265 pounds. Without the rock, defenders desperately clung to him to prevent offensive rebounds or lobs. As a result, standard Box Creation seems to underestimate his opportunities created, which were over 5 per 100 during his prime in my sample.3 I even counted two or three clear instances of face-guarding — a version of the “tethering” discussed here — to keep him off the boards. This off-ball gravity added scalable value, preoccupying defenders unwilling to leave O’Neal.

Fortunately for the league, Shaq was a relatively weak distributor when he arrived in Orlando, rarely finding advanced passes and frequently missing high-percentage looks like this:

However, he was an extremely willing passer, leveraging kick outs or a quick repost when double-teams arrived. As he matured, he improved at locating cutters like this:

His passing progressively improved over the years, finding more connections like the last clip. His ratio of good passes to poor or missed ones flipped: In his first three seasons, I didn’t score a single O’Neal pass as “good.” By his Finals MVP years (2000-02), he threw far more quality passes than problematic ones while still missing the occasional layup assist.

His game progressed throughout the ’90s, and around ’96 or ’97 he started using a right-shoulder fade more:

Shaq’s physical condition was a constant issue, and in his first year in Los Angeles (1997) he looked heavier and sluggish, often battling an assortment of nagging injuries that sidelined him for 81 games from 1996-98. He played through an abdominal strain that hampered him in ’98 and ’99 before returning with a vengeance in 2000 in his best physical form since his third season. His elevation was noticeably improved, as was his touch. His quickness, at times, was nothing short of unfair:

In my tracking, O’Neal averaged 1.14 points on 126 on-ball attacks (from 1996-2002) — a small sample, but a reflection of his dominant field goal percentage metrics and a justification for the often-employed hack-a-Shaq defense. His defense, however, was more of a mixed bag. Size and athleticism served him well around the rim, and centers without refined post repertoires challenged him at their own peril:

But O’Neal’s team defense was, at times, cringeworthy. His effort and court coverage were lacking, his rotations often a step slow (if at all):

Although he slapped at the ball there, his typical help technique turned him into a 300 pound fouling machine. Young Shaq would often lunge his body into defenders while simultaneously chopping down on the ball, drawing a foul call nearly every time:

In his earlier years, these habits (and his own offensive fouls) sometimes landed him in foul trouble. He wasn’t “foul prone,” but he failed to defend the paint efficiently until 2000. And his lack of mobility — some of it from effort, some from size — hamstrung him against the pick-and-roll:

O’Neal was hesitant to leave the lane and chase stretch bigs, as he would often sag back and watch them shoot. Similarly, his statuesque defense left ball handlers free to fire, and a number of guards torched LA with clear jumpers behind a basic ball-screen during these years:

During his peak seasons, O’Neal was sometimes reluctant to move at all, loitering in the lane with threats nearby:

Here’s perhaps the most extreme example of Shaq’s laziness that I catalogued, in which he guards the block instead of following the screen setter, David Robinson, before heading toward the ball:

He was able to influence the penetrator on that play, but these stationary rotations expose a defense. They were more plentiful during the middle stretch of the ’90s, when O’Neal registered a whopping 6 “delayed” rotations per 100 in my sampling. He cleaned this up noticeably during his peak years (from ’00-02), but still committed them with problematic frequency (just under 3 per 100). These flimsy efforts are better than not rotating at all, but they are largely ineffective defensive habits from the team’s most important defensive pillar. (Shaq also committed outright defensive errors at a moderate rate — about 2 per 100 in my sampling.)

To recap: After a raw rookie season, O’Neal was far more grounded and skilled on offense in ’94. By ’97, he showcased a robust skill set, but still struggled with passing, defense, and ultimately, conditioning. His peak years, from 2000-02, saw improvement in those areas before weight started to take its toll — some reports had him up at 380 pounds by 2003. After that, he slowed down, clocking another three effective seasons before tapering off hard in 2007.

Impact Evaluation

O’Neal’s arrival in the Magic Kingdom correlated with an overnight transformation. After three seasons of ineptitude, Orlando morphed into a playoff quality team in his rookie season. While the Magic improved slightly on defense — from 2.3 points worse in relative defensive rating (rDRtg) to 0.9 points better than average — most of their growth stemmed from a massive 5.2 point jump in relative offensive rating (rORtg). The change occurred with roughly the same core of players, a young Nick Anderson maturing and Dennis Scott playing more. But Shaq was the team’s leading scorer and carried the largest offensive load as a rookie.

In 1994, O’Neal exploded, dropping his turnovers and generating a top-100 scoring rate of all time on efficiency 7.7 percent better than league average (rTS); only 12 seasons in history have exceeded Shaq’s scoring rate that year with better efficiency.4 Rookie Penny Hardaway arrived and Orlando sprung forward on offense, posting a +4.5 rORtg and playing at a 52-win pace (3.7 SRS). In ’95, the Magic added Horace Grant and Hardaway emerged as an elite weapon, helping the team to an historically good +6.9 rORtg (98th percentile).5

When Shaq moved to Hollywood, the Lakers were a garbled mishmash of talent, coming off a 53-win season behind a strong offense. They lost Vlade Divac and Cedric Ceballos in ’97, but were loaded in the backcourt for the next two years, with All-Stars Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and a teenage Kobe Bryant off the bench. When Phil Jackson brought the triangle to Tinseltown in 2000, LA’s rotation featured two-way role players instead — Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher — who could feed off of Shaq’s interior gravity and drill outside shots while adding defensive value.

Shaq’s attack was so impervious to defense that LA lost nothing on offense — particularly with the emergence of Bryant — despite swapping skilled scorers for extra-passers and unheralded finishers. (Fox and Horry shot triples at about 36 percent during those years, Fisher at 39 percent.) O’Neal’s combination of scoring and true shooting was practically unrivaled among modern big men, as he outpaced everyone during his peak years while maintaining top-of-the-pack efficiency. Below, I’ve plotted his scoring, efficiency and creation agains the other great 3-point era big men:

Outside of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, traditional pivots aren’t incredible offensive centerpieces. But O’Neal was a unique force. There have been 26 seasons in NBA history with a scoring rate over 29 points per 75 and an rTS above +4 percent. Only two players have done it four times: Michael Jordan (six) and Shaq (four).

While O’Neal’s creation doesn’t compare to the elite perimeter engines like MJ, it was strong for a post player, and, coupled with his offensive rebounding and ability to foul out entire front lines, made him a playoff nightmare.6 As a result, Shaq’s playoff offenses were nearly unrivaled. From 1995-2002, he had the second-best eight-year run of any lead player in NBA history (+8.8 rORtg) and his 1997-2001 Lakers had the best five-year postseason offense in history.7 Here is how O’Neal’s teams stack up against the best unique five-year offenses in the shot clock era:8

There’s strong evidence that Shaq was the driving force behind these offensive heights. From 1996 to 2004, he missed at least 15 games in six separate seasons, leaving a large WOWY trail in four of them. In ’96, with the Magic returning the same core rotation, Orlando played at a 65-win pace at full-strength and a 50-win pace without O’Neal. Without Shaq, the Magic were an excellent offense, generating a +5 rORtg. But with him, they were one of the best healthy offenses ever, posting an astounding 117 offensive rating (+10.8 rORtg).

That was just the beginning. In 1998, the Lakers offense improved from +4.5 relative efficiency in 26 games without O’Neal to +7.3 with him. From 2000-03, LA played 32 full-strength games without Shaq and posted a +0.4 rORtg. With him, they were an exceptional +7.3 (although the defense was slightly worse). Even his floor-raising was colossal: In 29 games without Kobe Bryant, Shaq’s 2000 and 2001 Lakers posted a +2.8 relative offense at a 54-win pace flanked by role players (and Glen Rice for half of those games). O’Neal’s game-to-game impact across his career was consistently huge and, naturally, his overall WOWY results are some of the best on record:

Shaq’s entire prime was played during the plus-minus era, and these non-box stats are extremely kind to him. Every one of his scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) seasons from 1995-2006 is above the 94th percentile historically, with an amazing seven consecutive seasons in the 99th percentile starting in ’98. This family of metrics also casts Shaq as an offensive juggernaut; every year during that ’98-04 stretch falls in the 99th percentile in offensive APM, including the seventh-best four-year peak on record (1998-2001). Only LeBron James (nine) and Steve Nash (six) have more top-100 scaled offensive APM seasons than Shaq’s five.

In line with the scouting report, defensive indicators weren’t always as kind to him. First, there are the broad strokes: Orlando improved with Shaq and hovered around average for his entire tenure there. In LA, with the exception of blips in 1997, 2000 and 2002, the Lakers were either around average or a few points below it. However, Shaq was a capable shot blocker and excellent defensive rebounder — even posting a rare 27 percent rebounding rate and 4 percent block rate combo in the 2000 postseason — and as a result his scaled defensive APM numbers ranged from the 79th percentile to the 94th.

A lot goes into evaluating defense, but an important indicator for a non-horizontal player like O’Neal is rim-protection data. As LA’s primary shot-blocker and resident lane dweller, we can ballpark how effective he was at guarding the hoop while he was on the floor by looking at opponent shooting in the lane while Shaq was in the game:

It’s a noisy stat, but those gaps between O’Neal’s teams and other notable defenders are large. Additionally, those numbers correlate with both defensive APM and defensive box plus-minus from year to year for him. He does have the curious 2000 result on his side; in Phil Jackson’s first season in LA, the Lakers posted an rDRtg 5.9 points better than league average, the third largest defensive improvement in NBA history, and far better than any result during Shaq’s career as a defensive cornerstone.9 But this was sandwiched between two subpar defensive years from LA, and the team’s postseason defense wasn’t exactly spectacular either. A simple explanation is that Shaq’s defensive effort in the paint waned — he has admitted to playing himself into shape — but it’s likely more complicated than that.10

There is evidence that Shaq was a strong man defender; from 1998-2003, All-Star centers scored at 3.6 percentage points worse (in true shooting) when they faced him versus when they played the rest of the league.11 For comparison, this is comparable to how Dikembe Mutombo performed against All-Star centers during his defensive prime from 1992-98, although Mutombo faced a far more offensively-inclined group, including Shaq himself. Overall, most metrics indicate that O’Neal was a good to very good defensive presence at times, although his lack of mobility and poor help habits seemed to cap his defensive impact well below the greats.

His statistical portfolio is rivaled by few: He has the third most valuable five-year plus-minus stretch in the 24-years of data we have, trailing only LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. His WOWYR is strong (11th among players on this list), and his scoring profile, coupled with his team’s postseason offenses, are unprecedented for a post player. All signs point to Shaq’s scoring/creation/rebounding/gravity package generating outlying impact on offense for a big man, and I consider him peerless in this area among centers.12 To boot, he fit with perimeter stars and spot-up shooters alike.

Because he was so good at such a young age, Shaq amassed 14 All-NBA seasons in a row per my estimations, including seven strong MVP seasons and five more weak MVP years from 1994-2005. His peak defense is somewhat challenging to pin down, and because his offense was so good, small adjustments in his valuations during his best seasons have compounding effects on his overall career value. I could comfortably rate his offense or defense about five percent lower, which would slot him behind Wilt, but I have a hard time ranking him much higher, as slight boosts to his best offensive and defensive years would not land him on Mt. Rushmore. He and Hakeem are fairly close, but despite Shaq’s durability issues, I’m more confident in his estimations from year-to-year. With one of the highest apexes in NBA history, he lands at No. 5.

Backpicks GOAT: #14 Kobe Bryant

Key Stats and Trends

  • Offensive box and impact metrics rank just below all-time greats
  • Limited by marginal defensive value, both on film and in the data
  • Lack of post-prime longevity due to injuries

Scouting Report

Kobe, at his zenith, was a scoring dynamo, drilling an array of fading, clutching, double-teamed contortions that the league had never seen. But his maturation took time; he was the youngest player in NBA history when he debuted two months after his 18th birthday.1 In his early years, he developed a smooth pull-up and an arsenal of adroit finishes near the hoop:

Even then, he was comfortable rising up over defenders and operating out of the pinch post, which would later become his sweet spot:

Kobe’s most common attempt was some form of pull-up, and in 2001, he added elevation and quickness to his game, on display here:

Around that time, he weaponized his up-fake, and when combined with his strong athleticism and dexterity, it opened driving windows and acrobatic finishes around the hoop:

In those Frobe years, he started calling on his spin move frequently, and in 2003, extended his range off the dribble to beyond the arc:

He could knock these down with reasonable accuracy, even in the face of elite defense. But this video-game skill seduced him into some bad shots too, particularly in delayed transition and at the end of the shot clock:2

As his career rolled on, Bryant added even more to his arsenal, regularly hitting fadeaways over both shoulders post-Shaq (O’Neal left LA after the 2004 season):

He learned to extract fouls from his jump shots, using swing throughs and a series of fakes to lull in overly eager defenders:

In total, he was probably the greatest contested-shot maker in NBA history, serving up facials like a shot esthetician. His diverse offensive payload produced six of the top-75 scoring rates ever, and while his ability to make tough shots was jaw-dropping, his tendency to take these shots capped his efficiency. In a 2007 ABC telecast, Tim Legler marveled, “Kobe has the highest degree of difficulty shots in the NBA.”3 Which was not a good thing.

According to Synergy, Kobe dialed up an isolation play about one-third of the time from 2008-10, and nearly 40 percent of the time in 2006 and 2007, all ranking at the top of the league.4 Whereas someone like Michael Jordan used quickness to create clean looks, Bryant made a living by whispering shots in his defender’s ear, oblivious to the hand in his face.

In addition to tracking data from my 2010-11 study, I sampled over 1,100 Kobe possessions for this series (from 1999-2009), studying his passing, shooting and defensive tendencies.5 In that sample, he took 129 covered shots from outside 15 feet and converted them at a stellar 44 percent clip.6 While this is resilient, inelastic offense — defenses can’t really take it away — it’s a large reason why he peaked at “only” +3.9 percent relative true shooting (rTS), a notch or two below history’s greatest scorers. He sometimes shot into multiple coverage, upping the degree of difficulty in lieu of passing:

Shots like these, where Kobe bypassed creation to shoot into double-teams, were common throughout his prime. Many skilled offensive players miss creation attempts like this (by shooting into help defense), after all, their “difficult” shots are higher-percentage than everyone else’s difficult shots. From 2001-04 and from 2008-09, Kobe missed just under 3 creations per 100 from shots like these. But in his lone-star years, he was at 5 per 100, an astonishing rate matched only by a young Michael Jordan.7

In my sample, Kobe averaged 0.76 points on these plays (including turnovers). So, bypassing an open 3-pointer, even from punching-bag Smush Parker, would be a massive net negative. (Parker shot 37 percent from behind the arc from 2006-07.) Even a long Lamar Odom 2-pointer — a shot he struggled with — was on par with one of these attempts from Kobe, or perhaps better, given Odom’s options to drive or continue the power play with his strong passing.

Kobe counterbalanced these issues with underrated passing and creation, although he fell short of the elites in each category. He had a feel for kickouts and skip passes early on, and was fairly good at exposing a double-team. In the clip below, he finds a nice diagonal pass that leads to a wide open shot for sharp-shooter Glen Rice:

His court vision was well above average, and he was at his strongest when he could map the floor, either from a set play or by surveying the action:

And he always knew how to punish interior defenders who stepped into his path:

However, Kobe rarely converted elite, high-leverage passes. His on-ball role and modern spacing afforded him numerous passing opportunities, and he was good at finding the more straightforward ones (shown above), but he lacked the anticipation required for consistent, Grade A passes:

Overall, Kobe’s rate of “good” passes in my sample was around 3 per 100. For comparison, Jordan was at 1.5 2 per 100 and an all-timer like Nash over 8 per 100.8

Defensively, Bryant is an interesting case study. In his two best years on tape (1999 and 2000) he frequently guarded scoring threats or point guards. While he was not a great lockdown defender, he used size and positioning advantageously, turning in a number of efficacious possessions like this:9

He occasionally provided rim help too, blocking attempts like this from time to time:

Kobe’s block rates peaked at just under 2 percent in ’99 and ’00, in the top-100 all-time among basketball reference’s “guards”, although more seemed to be on-ball than in help like this. His post defense was quite good; he bodied up opponents and kept them off their favorite spots:

However, starting in 2001, he struggled to stay in front of penetrators. At times, his feet were heavy, and that heel-clicking defensive stride made him vulnerable to vanilla drives. In the fist clip below, he at least mitigates his breakdown with a quick, high-IQ switch:

Every defender is blown by like this from time to time, but this problem pops on film with Bryant. From ’01-04, this happened 2.2 times per 100 possessions, which would fall in the 2nd percentile. For the remaining years I tracked between ’99 and ’09, he was under 1.0 per 100, only in the 33rd percentile, still disappointing considering how often he covered the opponent’s weakest scoring threat. During my 2010-11 tracking, he was at 1.8 per 100, landing him in the 5th percentile of that study.

He had excellent hands, stripping players on-ball or in help situations, forcing additional turnovers on double-teams, like this:

He had a good feel for where to position himself off the ball and where to roam, sometimes jumping passing lanes or providing quick help:

But his help D wasn’t airtight — even in that last sequence, he rotated past the cutter (Doug Christie, No. 13) into no man’s land. From time to time, he’d lose track of his marks or gamble aimlessly:

As he progressed into the heart of his career, he moved less on defense, playing a more conservational, stationary style, antithetical to John Stockton’s ping-ponging team defense. After his sprightly Frobe years, his paint defense wavered too; in this 1997-2015 study by Justin Willard, Bryant finished in the bottom decile in the percentage of his blocks that were within five feet of the hoop. Instead of deterring these high-value shots or taking charges, he often swiped at or ran past slashers in the lane like this:

As Kobe matured, he would gear-up for selective possessions, showing polished footwork and cagey angles. But these ostentatious stands weren’t always effective — after a beautiful sequence, he’s needlessly screened out of the play here 40 feet from the hoop:10

While he could play strong man D for stretches, hiding on the weakest player or committing key errors limited his defensive impact during the heart of his prime. This was offset slightly by Kobe’s strong defensive rebounding, which ranked above the 82nd percentile among non-bigs for 10 seasons.

Putting it all together: His defense faded in 2001 as his offense exploded, his scoring grew in 2003 with a better first step and expanded range, but his footwork and contested shot-making came at the expense of his passing and shot selection in ’06 and ’07, stabilizing in 2008 (his likely peak). His defense was solid but unspectacular from 2003-09 before eroding in the ensuing years. And by 2012, his offense bordered on “gunning,” taking more shots than in any season outside of 2006 at merely league average efficiency. Injuries caught up to him in his final few season.

Impact Evaluation

During his early prime, Kobe played a huge, but secondary role on the Laker three-peat teams. After Shaquille O’Neal left, Bryant’s box and impact metrics improved across the board, and from there he seamlessly captained fantastic playoff offenses on elite teams. His more granular non-box metrics were generally strong, pushing some of the all-time best. But he was held back by his second-tier scoring efficiency and low-impact defense examined in the scouting report.

Kobe joined LA as a teenage project, waiting in the wings on an offensively-slanted roster that orbited around Shaq’s post dominance. In his third season (’99), Bryant ascended to a sidekick position, but the Lakers regressed to a 52-win pace while reshuffling the roster. In 2000, with O’Neal rounding into peak form, LA began a brief run of dominance behind the Kobe-Shaq duo.

O’Neal’s injuries during those years give us a peak into Kobe’s performance as a primary hub. From 2001-03, Shaq missed 32 games and an otherwise healthy Lakers played at a 43-win pace (0.7 SRS), down from a 56-win clip with O’Neal (5.4 SRS).11 Kobe’s missed time did not have a mirror effect: Bryant missed 25 games from 2000-01 where Shaq and Fisher suited up, and LA played at a 56-win pace (5.4 SRS) without Kobe, down from a 61-win clip (7.3 SRS) with him.

In 2004, the Lakers added gray-beards Karl Malone and Gary Payton, but their “super team” experiment was underwhelming, barely outperforming the healthy ’03 team. Malone morphed into a Robert Horry successor, adding defensive value, extra passing and outside shooting. (He also missed half the season due to injury.) Payton, on the other hand, struggled to bring defensive punch or fit in the triangle offense. In 41 games together, the quartet posted a ho-hum +3.3 relative offensive rating (rORtg), nearly identical to LA’s 2005 full-strength offense.

All told, from ’01 to ’04, Kobe played 46 games without O’Neal;12 Bryant averaged 29.3 points per 75 on +1.4 percent rTS with 9.3 creations per 100, incredibly similar to his 2009 stat line of 28.4 points per 75, +1.7 percent rTS and 9.1 creations per 100, both a shade below his peak numbers. The Lakers played at a 45-win pace during those games (1.4 SRS) with an average offensive rating (+0.4 relative efficiency), portending the post-Shaq years.

While Kobe’s volume scoring was spectacular, it fell short of the upper echelon. There have been 139 seasons above 27 points per 75 since 1978, and all nine of Kobe’s fall in the bottom half in efficiency. Attempts to quantify the worth of this scoring-efficiency combination find it valuable, but outside the top 10 percent of seasons.13 Here’s what his prime scoring years look like historically:

Bryant’s strong playmaking and creation are overlooked by the above plot; only 54 players have posted seasons with at least 27 points per 75 and 8 creations per 100. Among those seasons, Kobe’s most efficient ranks 29th, snuggled next to 1996 Michael Jordan.14 Kobe’s Big 4 offensive categories compare favorably to most elite players, but as you can see below, he lags behind the modern titans in efficiency and creation, a byproduct of the imperfect decision-making that’s evident on tape:

Of that group, Kobe edges only Michael Jordan in passing, but he has a smaller shape than MJ. He also fails to surpass most of these megastars in secondary attributes like spacing or offensive rebounding (he tops Curry and Nash there). But he gains something back in the playoffs, where Bryant holds his shape incredibly well, likely a result of his robust skill set:

After Shaq’s departure, Kobe’s Lakers remained competent offensively, although they lacked defensive punch. Despite a downgrade in offensive talent, Bryant still played two of those years with Phil Jackson (although with more freedom to abandon the triangle offense), a secondary talent who could pass and create well in Lamar Odom, and a few competent outside shooters. The results were more than adequate, as LA posted a relative offensive efficiency (rORtg) above +2.0 in every season with Bryant as the hub, and in 2006 played at a noteworthy 50-win pace with him in the lineup. However, there are no indicators that he salvaged some inept team either: He missed 20 games from ’05-07 and LA played at a 35-win pace without him, while adjusted plus-minus ballparks those Kobe-less teams at an average of 33 wins. (They played at a 44-win pace at full-strength during those three seasons.)

In 2008, the Lakers leveled-up, balancing the roster around Kobe: Derek Fisher returned to provide outside shooting and defense while Andrew Bynum emerged as an All-Star rim protector before injuries derailed his season. LA played at a stunning 58-win pace (5.9 SRS) in 30 full-strength games before the All-Star break, improving the defense to match the offense. In 20 games without Bynum, they maintained a 53-win pace, only to acquire Pau Gasol and explode to a 66-win clip (9.7 SRS) the rest of the way. Bryant’s improved shot selection and playmaking prowess propelled the improved Lakers to a +5.5 rORtg, their best since 1998. They would produce similar results the following year, and from 2007-11 posted a five-year playoff offense of +5.7, the 19th-best mark in history.

Since Bryant’s entire career fell within the Databall era, we have complete adjusted plus-minus (APM) figures on him. Consistent with the game film and other metrics, his defense often grades out around neutral, sometimes slightly negative and sometimes slightly positive. This is exactly what we’d expect given his small defensive role as a guard prone to breakdowns, who occasionally provided good help and selective defensive stops. After 2002, it’s difficult to value his defense as anything more than a slight positive.

However, APM considers Kobe one of the game’s best offensive players; his five-year average of scaled offensive APM ranks eighth, nestled behind Chris Paul and ahead of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. Nine of Bryant’s 11 seasons from 2001-11 fall in the 98th percentile or better in offensive APM, enough to post five of the top-150 overall APM scores between 2006 and 2010. All told, he left the footprint of an offensive superstar who fell a hair short of the all-time greats.

His team results correlated positively with his presence, — among players on this list, he finished 18th in these game-level studies —  and he scales well for a medium-efficiency volume scorer, as evidenced by his massive role on multiple high-end lineups. His team offenses were also successful in the playoffs, consistent with his own resilience against stingier defenses. Because of all this, he has a top-10 offensive peak and a top-20 overall peak in my estimation, but lacks the longevity to pass the higher peaks in front of him. (While his longevity might appear strong, it’s not outstanding for his era.)

He could easily have placed 12th here, but for him to overtake Bird at No. 11, I’d need to boost his valuations up with the best offensive apexes in history, a position I couldn’t defend. Bumping his defense up just a notch may be slightly more plausible, but I have hard time moving much higher on his offense. As is, Kobe’s quite comfortably lumped in the 12 to 15 range, and by a whisker, lands behind Malone and Oscar at No. 14.