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Ted Green: How does Kobe Bryant rank among NBA greats?

June 15, 2009 |  8:00 pm

Magic West logo Jordan

Ring No. 4 for Kobe Bryant has inevitably set off a small firestorm of debate and spirited conversation about where the Lakers' star falls in the pantheon of NBA greats. For some odd reason, in 35 years of covering the league, I have never before posted my own best-ever list, leaving it to others with less to do. So by popular demand, or just because, here it is, the top 10 NBA greats ever, broken into two groups, pre- and post- Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Modern NBA (Post Magic-Bird)

1. Michael Jordan. Julius Erving may have been The Doctor, but it was MJ who operated with the skill and precision of a preternaturally gifted surgeon. The argument, however passionate, that Kobe is the crazier baller with the madder skills is a good one, and not wrong, either, but it doesn't quite hold up against Michael's extraordinary body of work. Six MVP awards, six NBA Finals MVP awards, six championships, undefeated in the NBA Finals and five scoring titles.

Until Kobe gets to seven, if he does, his Airness is still the measuring stick against whom everyone else will and should be compared.  The fact that We Liked Mike but don't always know how to feel about the more polarizing Kobe did not in any way enter into this decision.

2. Magic Johnson. The greatest team player. More impact on each 48-minute contest, possession to possession, than anyone who ever lived, and maybe the greatest teammate, too. Five titles, four Finals MVP awards, nine trips to the Finals, and all he did in his spare time was revolutionize the point guard position and save the NBA from itself.

3. Kobe Bryant. If his friend Shaq won't mind the ripoff here, the MTE, Most Talented Ever. And now his own extensive resume is looking more polished, with his fourth ring, first Finals MVP (a legit and important award) and finally a championship to call his very own.

4. Larry Bird. Freakiest white dude who ever laced 'em up. Three titles, three Finals MVP awards, might have won five himself if Magic hadn't been in his way. And by the way, his performances winning those three-point contests during All-Star weekend proved that big guys could shoot like that ... or at least Larry Legend could.

5 (tie). Tim Duncan. Karl Malone scored more points and had bigger muscles, Charles Barkley was more of an uber athlete and rebound machine, but no power forward has ever played with the consistency and precision of a metronome like Duncan has.  His four rings, three Finals MVPs and two regular-season MVPs speak to the profound respect the Big Fundamental enjoyed from both the media and his peers.

5 (tie). Shaquille O'Neal. Not the MDE. That was Wilt. But the greatest force of nature since hurricanes and tidal waves. The Daddy's four titles and three Finals MVP awards make Shaq, Kobe and Duncan the winningest among all active NBA players.

Honorable Mention:Lebron James, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley.

Pre Magic-Bird (before 1980)

1. Bill Russell. I never thought he was more talented than Wilt and still don't. He was never without a full complement, an embarrassment of riches, really, of Hall of Famers around him during his magical run of success. The 11 championships, however, is the ultimate trump card. Scoreboard!  Naming the Finals MVP award after him is a nice touch for the game's most incomparable winner.

2. Wilt Chamberlain. A one-man job stimulus package for statisticians who spent half a professional lifetime just keeping track of it all. Averaging close to 40 and 25 boards against the great Russell himself is almost enough to make me stop typing. The 100-point game in Hershey, the 50-point AVERAGE, averaging more than 48 minutes a game, then leading the league in assists because he said he could ... if any legend lives forever, it should be his.

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The bridge between eras, with the most unstoppable shot of all time, one that has never been replicated, the Skyhook. Six titles (thanks in no small measure to Magic), six regular-season MVP awards and the most points ever will have him higher on some lists, but he mailed in some games before Magic arrived in L.A., and his cold, off-putting style with the media made him harder to root for.

4. Jerry West. If Red Auerbach had not been clever and colorblind enough to assemble the Celtics as he did, Zeke from Cabin Creek literally could have won 7, 8, even 9 titles instead of his one in 1972. Along with Magic, Bird, Kobe and MJ, one of the five greatest and most willful competitors in NBA history, with the prettiest jump shot. In one Finals he averaged 40 against the Celtics and still lost. It is not for nothing he is called The Logo.

5. Elgin Baylor. Among non-centers, the NBA's first true scoring machine. He stood only 6-5 going on unstoppable, with a nervous tic that made his head fakes even more impossible to guard. I'd love to see him in today's game when half the YWCA touches send you to the foul line.

Honorable Mention:  George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Pete Maravich, John Havlicek, Rick Barry and Julius Erving.

-- Ted Green

Green formerly covered the Lakers for the L.A. Times. He is currently Senior Sports Producer for KTLA Prime News.

Photos: Magic Johnson by Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times; the NBA logo modeled after Lakers great Jerry West; and Michael Jordan by Kirthmon Dozier / Associated Press

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