Kobe Bryant’s career spans a remarkable amount of NBA history, from the late years of the Chicago Bulls dynasty through the rise of the Golden State Warriors. If there’s been one constant through all those years, it’s that the best player in the league has never, ever been Kobe Bryant.
In 1996-97, when Kobe was a rookie teenage bench player, the top performer in the NBA was 24-year-old Grant Hill, who put up 21.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game for the Detroit Pistons. By Pro Basketball Reference’s calculations, that gave Hill a league-leading Value Over Replacement Player of 7.9. Kobe’s VORP was 0.1.
This season, as Kobe limps into retirement, Pro Basketball Reference gives Stephen Curry a VORP of 9.4. Kobe’s VORP is -0.3.
Between those two outlier seasons, Kobe blossomed into one of the most famous and high-scoring players in the NBA. He did not, however, blossom into the best player of any year. By VORP, he never even reached second-best. He never had a season as good as Grant Hill had in 1996-97; he never had one as good as Steph Curry is having right now; in between, he never had the top season of any player in the league.
Does VORP show the whole picture? Of course not. Kobe also never led the league in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, player efficiency rating, or any other advanced stat. (He did lead in usage rate a few times, as he would.)
Here’s the year-by-year list of VORP leaders for Kobe’s career. The years Kobe made the top 20, his position on the leaderboard is included. So we can see that in his 2007-08 MVP season, he was third with a VORP of 6.0, while non-MVP LeBron James put up a VORP of 10.1. Kobe ranked in the top 10 as early as 2002-03 (well behind league leader Kevin Garnett) and as late as 2012-13 (well behind league leader James). It’s testimony to his very particular kind of staying power.
1996-97 Grant Hill, 7.9 (Kobe 0.1)
1997-98 Karl Malone, 6.9 (K0be 1.1)
1998-99 Jason Kidd, 4.1 (50-game season) (Kobe 2.1)
1999-2000 Shaquille O’Neal, 9.3 (Kobe 4.7, 12th)
2000-01 Steve Francis, 7.0 (Kobe 4.4, 20th)
2001-02 Tim Duncan, 8.1 (Kobe 5.0, 12th)
2002-03 Kevin Garnett, 9.0 (Kobe 7.1, 4th)
2003-04 Kevin Garnett, 9.8 (Kobe 4.7, 8th)
2004-05 Kevin Garnett, 9.3 (Kobe 4.5, 16th)
2005-06 LeBron James, 9.5 (Kobe 6.5, 5th)
2006-07 LeBron James, 7.6 (Kobe 5.3, 6th)
2007-08 LeBron James, 10.1 (Kobe 6.0, 3rd)
2008-09 LeBron James, 11.6 (Kobe 4.9, 6th)
2009-10 LeBron James, 10.9 (Kobe 4.0, 13th)
2010-11 LeBron James, 8.2 (Kobe 4.1, 12th)
2011-12 LeBron James, 7.6 (Kobe 2.4)
2012-13 LeBron James, 9.8 (Kobe 5.1, 7th)
2013-14 Kevin Durant, 8.5 (Kobe -0.2)
2014-15 Stephen Curry, 7.9 (Kobe 0.7)
2015-16 Stephen Curry, 9.5 (Kobe -0.3)