The NBA’s 30 best go-to players (#1: Kobe Bryant)

By: 10.29.09  •  75 Comments

Kobe Bryant

Who do you want your offense to run through with everything on the line? Counting down 30th to 1st (one per team), I’ve ranked the League’s go-to guys…

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#1: KOBE BRYANT, L.A. Lakers

Grown-man fear is a complicated thing. It’s not a pure phobia, nor the fear one experiences through startled shock, nor is it a fear that cripples, like that of failure or open spaces.

Grown-man fear is a healthy fear, a rational and smart fear. Born out of respect, it grows bigger and stronger when fueled by mythology or previous experience. It’s the feeling you’d have if a mafia-looking cat asked you to sit in the front seat, or if you felt handcuffs on your wrists in a foreign country.

No active basketball player inspires grown-man fear quite like Kobe Bryant. Defenders assigned to guard him feel it, as well as teammates who don’t do their jobs. Then on another level, you have Kobe’s NBA peers who sometimes seem fearful of even mentioning anyone but Kobe when asked to identify the League’s best overall player or its most dangerous clutch performer. I’ve personally asked those questions, and seen several players spit out “Kobe” as if it’s reflex. And from some of them I caught a sense that although they didn’t truly believe that answer, that’s what they were sticking to. Anything else could create a reason for Kobe to single them out for a 50-point statement game or a one-time baptism on the wrong end of a highlight.

Look at Kobe’s recent run with Team USA. Playing with the game’s elite go-to players, from Dwyane Wade to LeBron James to Carmelo Anthony, Kobe wasn’t just the first option in crunch time — he was unquestionably the first option in crunch time. Had Coach K drawn up a play for a cold-shooting Kobe in a crucial situation, the likelihood of one of his teammates steeping in to say, “Nah, Coach, I’M taking this shot!” was unnaturally low.

Going by the numbers, though, there are other players who could hold this No. 1 spot. While Kobe did lead the NBA in “clutch time” scoring last season with 56.7 points per 48 minutes, his 45 percent field-goal shooting in the clutch was well below LeBron, Carmelo and Vince Carter, among others. Wade and Danny Granger were more prolific fourth-quarter scorers, while Chris Paul and Brandon Roy shot significantly higher percentages in the fourth. Kobe’s clutch time and fourth-quarter assist numbers were relatively low considering he is the Lakers’ primary playmaker, and according to, Kobe has made only 25 percent of his game-winning shot opportunities over the last six years; Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki and Allen Iverson trump him in either their number of game-winners, or have hit a higher percentage of their daggers. Kobe has gone head-to-head with Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan on the NBA’s biggest postseason stages, and lost. Sometimes decisively.

But then every time I ask, “Who do I least want to see coming out of the other huddle when my team needs a defensive stop?” … Kobe is always the first answer.

Do you have to believe the media machine that has decided Kobe’s “will to win” is greater than anyone else’s? That he’s so much more competitive than everyone else? That his refusal to lose somehow has an impact on every other player on the court? No. But do you remember that Nike commercial a few years ago where the skinny kid on a dirt road somewhere is listing any and everyone that he’d beat in a race?

“Anybody, anywhere, any time. Put ’em next to me, you say ‘Go,’ I’ll race ’em. And I’ll beat ’em.”

The kid’s name was Myzel Robinson, but his swagger was definitively Kobe Bryant. And maybe he doesn’t always win. Maybe he doesn’t always make the shot or make the right decision. But if you’re on the other side, you’ve always got that grown-man fear that he will, and it nags at you more in Kobe’s case than in the case of anyone else playing this game.

That’s the story.

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2. Dwyane Wade
3. Paul Pierce
4. LeBron James
5. Tim Duncan
6. Dirk Nowitzki
7. Brandon Roy
8. Carmelo Anthony
9. Chris Paul
10. Deron Williams
11. Vince Carter
12. Joe Johnson
13. Danny Granger
14. Steve Nash
15. Kevin Durant
16. Gilbert Arenas
17. Derrick Rose
18. Chris Bosh
19. Andre Iguodala
20. Tracy McGrady
21. Baron Davis
22. Michael Redd
23. Devin Harris
24. Kevin Martin
25. Al Jefferson
26. O.J. Mayo
27. Stephen Jackson
28. Nate Robinson
29. Boris Diaw
30. Rip Hamilton

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