(Picture courtesy of The Ringer)
Kobe Bryant’s iconic career was littered with All-NBA seasons, the aggregate of which created one of the greatest off-guards in league history. Today, I’ll try to arrange the “greater” half of Bryant’s career in order of how good he was in a given season. Namely, if Bryant were plopped on a random team, how far would the squad advance? It’s my attempt to measure a player in a vacuum, inspired by the “CORP” methodology, to draw out the greatest stints of Bryant’s career.
Nearing the middle of the decade, Bryant had a typical (to his standards) season. His scoring was at an expected volume (26.8 points per 75) on great efficiency (+3.4 rTS%) considering the effect of diminishing returns that comes along with 26 FGA/100. Bryant created more than nine shots per 100 that year, a new career-high at the time, a spur in his improving passing profile. He also saw a jump in adjusted turnover rate (cTOV%), perhaps due to an increment in offensive load from the previous season. Bryant anchored a good offense (+2.o rORtg) but a poor defense (+5.3 rDRtg), resulting in a relatively poor Lakers squad (-2.3 SRS). Bryant’s impact was moderately diminished from the previous season; his game-scaled APM dropped a full point to slide in as a +1 player for the season.
Although a good season relative to the rest of the league, Bryant’s play mildly decreased after his third title with the Lakers. His scoring rate dropped 3.4 points per 75 (although his efficiency increased by +0.4 rTS%). Similarly, the volume of Bryant’s passing dropped (-2.6 differential in shots created) while the quality of his passing rose (+0.8 leap in Passer Rating). Bryant also further displayed his shaky three-point shooting (-6% differential in 3P Proficiency). His impact decreased by 1.5 points in Basketball-Reference‘s Box Plus/Minus model, but only 0.3 points in Backpicks‘s model. Bryant was roughly a +2 player in APM/g, a -0.3 differential from the previous season. He increased a random team’s title odds by ~ 12% per “CORP,” good for an “All-NBA First Team” type of season.
Kobe Bryant’s first full season in the 201st decade wasn’t a stepping stone for greater performances to come, but it was one of the more accomplished seasons of his career. His involvement was nearing a career-high, eclipsing the 45% mark in offensive load. Bryant’s massive leap in scoring volume was starting to stabilize, averaging 25.8 points per 75 that year. It was also his sixth consecutive season posting a TS% greater than league-average. Bryant’s season was an indicator of a surprise leap in passing starting to normalize; he was creating around seven shots every 100 with a Passer Rating close to 6. Bryant was a horrendous three-point shooter in 2002, converting on 25% of attempts and posting a mere 20% 3P Pro. It was his second season with a BBR and BP OBPM > 4, a signal toward his growing offensive ceiling. The ’02 Lakers were the third-best team Bryant played for in his career (7.2 SRS) and the fifth-best offense (+5.9 rORtg). He was worth ~ 3.5 points per 100 that season, the second-highest mark of his career at that point.
The first of Bryant’s seasons on the list to not take place in the early 2000s, his final full season of the 201st decade was one of the most impactful of his career. Bryant was a seasoned veteran, having just entered his 30s, but he hadn’t lost a step in terms of performance. He averaged nearly 27 points per 75, in line with his career-average, on slight-positive efficiency. Bryant was now creating eight shots for his teammates every 100 on a moderate passing quality. He didn’t fare as well in the box score as he did in previous seasons (~ 4.0 BP BPM and +4.1 BBR BPM), but it was his second-greatest season in terms of APM/g (~5.5), a mark Bryant didn’t eclipse in all but his greatest season ever. His defense was exceptionally strong for a guard (> 1 DAPM/g) and fared well in Backpicks‘s box score/plus-minus hybrid “AuPM” (~ 4.0 per game). Bryant’s team took a dip in quality from the previous season (-2.3 SRS differential), but the Black Mamba himself was right on par with all-time greats.
Bryant’s 2001 campaign was special in that it was the season in which he established himself as a star in the NBA. His scoring jumped from 22.5 to 28.5 points per game (intuitively crossing the threshold as an elite volume scorer), a +4.6 increment in “per 75” terms. Bryant’s efficiency in rTS% increased by more than a point, a testament to his ability to avoid diminishing returns on higher shot frequency (+4.5 more FGA/100 than the previous season). He created more than seven shots per 100 for the first time in his career and matched his career-high in Passer Rating. Bryant also posted a career-low in cTOV%, a surprising mark considering his increased load (+6.5 from the previous season). Bryant continued to struggle from long range (29% 3P Pro), but it made a little-to-no effect on his offensive prowess; he exceeded the +4.0 mark in BP OBPM and BBR BPM. His increased offensive load did take a toll on the defensive end in the box score (-1.8 BP DBPM differential and a -1.9 BBR DBPM differential), although his DAPM/g actually increased by +1.8 points. It was Bryant’s first season providing random title odds greater than 15%, and his first stint in the NBA as a superstar.
Bryant’s ’09 campaign was crucial in cementing his longevity. His listed age for the season was 30, an important footstep in a player’s career. It was a strong indicator of whether Bryant’s game would remain linear past his physical prime. He was still a ridiculous volume scorer, averaging 28.4 points per 75 possessions on +1.7 rTS%. Bryant’s offensive load was also similarly high; he was meaningfully involved in ~ 49% of plays and attempted slightly under 30 FGA/100. His shot creation remained similar, creating around nine shots per 100 with passing quality alike his norm. Bryant was turning the ball over at a very low rate; his cTOV% was just over 7% that year. He contributed more than a point every 100 from scoring and playmaking each (an intuitively marginal feat, but actually quite impressive). Bryant’s offensive wasn’t losing any ground; he was worth +5.9 points per 100 on offense per BBR BPM and nearly +4 per 100 in BP BPM. Bryant’s totality was worth more than +5.0 points per game in APM, and it reflected in his team’s proficiency (7.1 SRS in 2009). If not a footnote of persistence in his career, Bryant’s age-30 season was historic: an increment of ~ 16% title odds.
Following a mind-boggling 35.4 points per game campaign, slight regression wasn’t unexpected, yet he maintained similar play. Bryant’s stellar 31.6 points per game prorate to 29.8 points per 75, which paired with a career-high +3.9 rTS%, makes for one of his greatest-scoring seasons. Bryant joined a rare club in exceeding an Offensive Load greater than 50 for the third time in a career. Resultantly, he created the second-most shots per 100 in his career at the time, sparking an eventual eight-season streak of a Passer Rating in the six-range. Bryant contributed the (tied for) second-most points per 100 from scoring during his career, as well as a tick under one point from playmaking. He exceeded career-highs in free-throw efficiency, converting on 87% of an absurd 12.6 FTA/100. Bryant was, once again, worth more than five points a game in scaled APM, having anchored a modest offense (+2.2 rORtg). His BBR BPM raised in the Playoffs, although Daniel Myers’s model is notoriously skewed toward high-load players (which fits the metric’s description but has garnered theoretical dispute). Backpicks‘s model saw a decrease in production for Bryant, which is the sole stain in an otherwise flawless ’07 campaign.
The year following the Lakers’ three-peat was a defining season in Bryant’s career, with eventually continuous trends unveiling themselves. His scoring was perennially great, averaging 28.2 points per 75 on +3.1 rTS%, a top-two scoring season of his career at that stage. It was Bryant’s first time contributing in more than half of his team’s offense, and consequently, the first season in which he contributed nine shots for his teammates ever 100. It was the foremost-passing version of Bryant at the time, and he maintained remarkably low turnover rates. 2003 was his point of origin for contributing a point or more every 100 from both scoring and playmaking. Resultantly, it was clear Bryant was nearing or in his prime, supported through his one-number metrics (+7.1 BBR BPM, ~ 5.5 BP BPM, ~ 2.0 AuPM/g, and ~ 3.5 APM/g). It was clear the Bryant/O’Neal Lakers were on the decline (-4.5 SRS differential from 2002 to 2003), but Bryant continued to thrive in his newfound prime.
The season in which Bryant won his first scoring title makes a strong case as his greatest individual season. Despite a heavy load of 3,277 minutes in 80 games played with an offensive load north of 56% (!), Bryant was the (tied-for) second-highest volume scorer in league history (34.2 points per 75). Factoring in the offensive struggles (relative to current times) of the mid-2000s, he averaged 35.4 inflation-adjusted points every 75. Bryant took on a new level of playmaking capabilities, creating ten shots for his teammates every 100. Regardless of his massive load, Bryant maintained a cTOV% of a tick over seven percent. He went to the free-throw line an eye-popping 13.2 times every 100 and converted on 85% of attempts. Bryant was an adequate outside scorer (35% 3P Pro) en route to lethal offensive impact (+7.4 BBR OBPM, ~ 4.5 BP OBPM, ~ 6.0 OAPM/g). He provided a random team with a near 19% increment in title odds and truly cemented his status as a legendary scoring weapon.
Bryant’s sole MVP season appears at the top of the list, and not because of the award itself. At face value, ’08 seemed a typical season to his standards. Bryant averaged 27.4 points per 75 on great efficiency (+3.6 rTS%). He created around nine shots every 100 with similar passing quality to the rest of his career (Bryant always seemed to have a Passer Rating in the six-range). He was a dual-threat offensive weapon, exceeding the one-point mark in scoring and playmaking, and extended his streak of > 10 FTA/100. Bryant was a modest three-point shooter, even to today’s standards (36% 3P Pro), crossing the threshold into solid outside efficiency. Basketball-Reference viewed Bryant as slightly less than his legendary ’06 season (+5.8 BPM), but Backpicks‘s model argued he was actually in his prime (~ 6.0 BPM). Bryant also had two important career-highs in AuPM/g (~ 3.5) and scaled APM/g (~ 6.0) while playing for the second-greatest team in his career (7.3 SRS). He was on top of the world in the ’08 season, and the list aims to reflect it.
Several iterations of the Black Mamba were present in three different decades of play, each conveying a new story to the previous one. Bryant found countless sources of contributions, whether it be scoring, playmaking, shooting, or defense. The result was one of the greatest careers in league history. Today’s list aims to frame the individual versions of Bryant’s illustrious play.