The Los Angeles Lakers recently announced that both of Kobe Bryant’s jersey numbers will be retired on December 18th, when the Lakers host the Golden State Warriors. The ceremony will take place during halftime, during which Staples Center will surely be packed with thousands of faithful Lakers fans waiting to see the Black Mamba forever immortalized in its rafters.
Tickets won’t be cheap, either. The lowest-priced tickets on StubHub are currently going for just under $600. Over at Gametime, $658 will get you an upper end seat. Unsurprisingly, the retirement ceremony easily makes December 18’s match-up one of the most expensive of the 2017-2018 NBA Season.
The hype is well deserved, given Kobe’s impressive NBA resume—one that will no doubt make him a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee when he’s eligible in 2021.
The definition of a superstar, Bryant spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, winning five NBA titles (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010) and two Finals MVPs (2009, 2010) with them. Additionally, as a member and leader of both the 2008 and 2012 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Teams (dubbed the “Redeem Team” and “Dream Team 2.0,” respectively), Bryant helped bring home Olympic gold.
Kobe garnered 18 All-Star selections (the second most ever, behind only Abdul-Jabbar’s 19) and 15 All-NBA Team selections (tied with Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan for the most). He was named MVP of the NBA following the 2008 season, though he was quite frankly robbed of the award in 2006 after carrying the Lakers to the playoffs with his jaw-dropping 35.4 PPG. The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer, Kobe’s 33,643 career points are the third most in NBA history, putting him ahead of Michael Jordan (32,292) and behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) and Karl Malone (36,928).
While a celebrated scorer, Kobe was far more versatile than that: his 6,306 career assists are the second most in Lakers franchise history (behind only Magic Johnson’s insane 10,141 dimes), as well as the most in NBA history for a shooting guard. In fact, Bryant, who is 29th on the NBA’s all-time assists list, is the only non-point guard to crack the top 30. Moreover, Kobe was a top-tier defender throughout his career, earning 12 All-Defensive Team selections—the most ever by a guard.
The list of accomplishments goes on and on, but it’s a fact that Kobe Bryant is one of the best players to ever step foot on a basketball court, and as such deserves to have his numbers retired by the Lakers. To suggest otherwise would be utter insanity.
However, it’s important – and, quite simply, fun – to consider that two distinct “versions” of Kobe accomplished these feats: a younger, brasher number 8 rocking an afro, and the older, wiser number 24 who claimed every milestone in stride.
So which one was better?
Number 8: 23.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.5 APG, .451 FG%
For the first half of his career (1996-2006), Kobe was an athletic phenom—not that that ever ceased to be the case after the number switch, but nightly slam dunks by “Frobe” better personified his first decade in the NBA.
It was this Kobe that, alongside Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, led the Lakers to the NBA’s most recent three-peat, winning championships in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Despite having the Diesel as his teammate for most of the first half of his career, Kobe proved to be just as dominant: in his ten years as number 8, Bryant made the All-Star team nine times. Furthermore, Kobe was named an All-NBA player eight times (four first team, two second team, and two third team selections). Coincidence?
Number 8 was arguably the better defender—though 24 was by no means a slouch. In his single-digit days, Kobe averaged 1.5 steals a game, and his vicious, youthful athleticism allowed him to challenge just about everyone on the defensive front. This earned him six of his career All-Defense selections.
His 23.9 PPG mark, while impressive, doesn’t match his average as number 24 (26.3 PPG). However, Kobe didn’t see a ton of action his first two seasons, given that he was mainly a bench player and saw a grand total of seven starts during that span. If you exclude those two seasons and look at his stats from ’98 – when he became a starter – to ’06, his PPG jumps up to an incredible 27.1.
While the departure of Shaq after the Lakers’ demoralizing 2004 Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons certainly deprived him of a true supporting cast, Kobe would quickly silence anyone doubting his individual ability and basketball I.Q. Though the 2004-2005 season was the only time Kobe missed the playoffs while wearing number 8, it’s hard to blame him, especially given his 27.6 PPG (second highest in the NBA that year) and the lack of a talented roster.
Kobe single-handedly carried the talentless Lakers to the playoffs the subsequent season, and as stated previously, was completely robbed of the MVP award. Seriously, how do you average 35.4 PPG on 45% shooting, carry the likes of Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, and Chris Mihm to a game seven, score 45 or more points in four consecutive games, drop 81 points in a game, and not win MVP? (Ironically, Steve Nash had also beaten Shaq in MVP voting the year prior.)
Number 24: 26.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.9 APG, .443 FG%
If the first half of Bryant’s career was characterized by youthful athleticism and raw talent, the second half of his career (2006-2016) demonstrated an unmatched level of skill and finesse achieved only after the number swap. Because of this, Kobe’s years as number 24 – especially those attributed to his prime – can be seen as the zenith of his basketball mastery.
Gone were his youthful brashness and afro, shed in favor of his newfound “Mamba Mentality”—a killer mindset derived from his self-styled moniker of “Black Mamba,” inspired by the venomous African snake.
As number 24, Kobe undeniably cemented his individual legacy, as he led the Lakers on a second championship run in the late 2000s. Though Shaq was no longer in Los Angeles, Bryant was not without help: the acquisition of Pau Gasol in 2008 proved to be crucial, as the Spanish power forward/center was a dominant rebounder and scoring option.
With help from Gasol, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, and others, Kobe and the Lakers made Finals appearances in three straight seasons. Two of these three contests were against the Lakers’ archrivals, the Boston Celtics, thus reviving decades of storied basketball lore. Led by the “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, the Celtics bested Kobe in 2008—his sole MVP season. However, after winning his fourth ring against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in 2009, he got his revenge against the trio the very next year, defeating Boston in an epic game seven to secure his fifth and final championship.
As mentioned before, 24 boasted a better PPG than 8 (26.3 vs. 23.9), though he did so less efficiently: Kobe’s overall player efficiency rating (PER) during his final 10 years was 20.8, down from 22.2 the decade prior. His age certainly factored into this drop in efficiency, as he simply wasn’t able to force certain plays that the younger number 8 could through athleticism alone.
Still, Kobe maintained his elite level of play for about seven years after switching numbers; skill, improved mid-range shooting (nearly 3% higher compared to the first half of his career), and the “Mamba Mentality” took over where athleticism could not. In particular, number 24’s footwork was a thing of beauty, and easily superior to that of number 8.
Because of this, it’s fair to say that Kobe’s prime never “faded” from him, as with most star athletes. There was no gradual decline—his tireless work ethic and hunger for victory never let that happen. His prime had to be taken from him by force.
Injuries were that force. After that fateful Achilles tendon tear in April of 2013, Kobe never returned to peak form. During his final three seasons, he battled against his own body and endured pain and exhaustion on a nightly basis. It was abundantly clear that Bryant had become a mere shell of his former self. Of course, he showed occasional flashes of brilliance. Who can ever forget Kobe’s final game—a 60-point farewell to the sport he devoted his life to?
Even with the injuries late in his career, Kobe was outstanding in that number 24 jersey. From 2006 to 2013 – that is, before he tore his Achilles – Kobe posted a stat line of 27.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 5.1 APG on 45.6% shooting, all while playing 37.9 minutes per game as a “grandpa.” The ice in his veins was as cold as ever, as evidenced by his herculean effort against the Toronto Raptors on March 8th, 2013. One of the last vintage Kobe performances, number 24 sent the game to overtime and daggered the Raptors at the rim.
It’s only by the slimmest of margins, but number 24 gets the nod here. While Kobe won more championships, was a better defender, dropped 81 points, became a household name, and more while wearing number 8, it wasn’t until after (or at the very least, soon before) the number switch that he truly solidified himself as a leader.
Number 24 also proved that he was able to win without the assistance of a Shaq-caliber teammate. (No disrespect to Pau, but he’s not on Shaq’s level.) In addition, Kobe took home Finals MVP honors in 2009 and 2010, along with a season MVP award in 2008—a few of his most important individual accolades (although his 2006 season is being weighted similarly here, for reasons previously explained).
Above all, number 24 showed us the Mamba. It showed us the perfected versions of his legendary footwork and his signature jump shot. It showed us someone who, at heart, was a student and mentor of the game he loved.
Regardless, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Both numbers deserve equal amounts of respect, something definitely not lost on the Lakers. It’s only fitting that, by becoming the first NBA player to have multiple jerseys retired, Kobe Bryant continues to shape basketball history.