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Processing the end of Kobe Bryant, the NBA's most divisive player

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Reflecting on Kobe Bryant's place in NBA history, his final years, the upcoming farewell tour and how he's been covered.

Now that we've come to terms with Kobe Bryant's retirement announcement, it's time for a long goodbye to one of the game's most compelling figures. Where does he rank all-time? Has he received undue criticism from the media? Are we underrating his place in the game? Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery discuss.

ZILLER: So, Kobe Bryant never passed Michael Jordan. That shouldn't be a disappointment -- Greatest Of All Time actually means something -- but it does leave open the question as to where Kobe ranks among the best ever. Some have said top 10. I don't think so. Top 25 seems more reasonable to me. Is that about right?

FLANNERY: This has always been the problem with Kobe and by his devotees. When you measure yourself against the GOAT, there's a good chance that you're going to come up short. That's OK! It's not a failure and it's not a diss to say that the guy was one of the very best who ever played, but that were others who were better. Jordan is an impossible standard, and to his credit, Kobe came very close. But that doesn't mean he's second or third or even 10th.

I think top 20 is right and you can get into some very interesting arguments once you get past the top seven or eight. At the end of the day, though, what's it worth? For as much as a competitive bastard that Jordan was, there were still a handful of people who loved him and have fond memories of playing with him. Kobe did it his way and left a trail of battered psyches in his wake.

I didn't care for it when he was younger, but I came to appreciate it more with my own advancing age. God love him for that, but I have never been a member of the Cult of Kobe, so I'm having a difficult time feeling feelings at the moment.

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ZILLER: Something multiple smart people have said is that Kobe is a symbol and, in a way, the last hero of a discredited brand of basketball. That Jordanesque heroball is dead, and very few people miss it. Kobe is the last avatar of that style, and now he is (for all intents and purposes) gone. Again, no one misses it. But there's a certain appreciation for that era that's valid. Kobe was the absolute king of that style of basketball, despite the excellent co-stars and very distinct system his coach ran.

That said, Kobe is third all-time in points scored, won five titles as no worse than the second-best player on each team and was the face of the NBA for roughly a decade. As much as I think Kobe is in that No. 11-20 range among best, most valuable and/or most notable players ever, there's a certain part of me that wonders if I'm performing a minor erasure of him by not acknowledging the fact that wide swaths of the world believed he was almighty during his time. Like, doesn't that count for something, even if those people are wrong?

FLANNERY: You know who else felt that way? His peers. I can remember when the Celtics would tilt their defense toward Kobe and dare him to beat them from the outside (as many teams did in his later years). Kobe would get going and Doc would have to call a timeout to remind them that this is what they want. I'm not sure guys like KG and Pierce truly believed that even when it was working. We've seen it in recent days with younger players like Kevin Durant calling Kobe, "Our Jordan."

Kobe is the rare player who was both underrated by his detractors and overrated by his supporters. Add that to layers upon layers of charisma and it's difficult to get a proper read without falling into the noisy echo chamber of the past few years.

I want to get back to what Durant said the other day about how the media has been unfair to Kobe. I think it's gone the other way, to be honest.

ZILLER: You know, I do think the media narrative has shifted on Kobe over the past few years. That piece on Kobe ruining the Lakers' free agent chances by our boy Henry Abbott -- a thoroughly reported and reasoned piece -- touched a massive nerve and seems to have contributed heavily to this notion that "the media" has been rough on Kobe. Surely Durant is thinking about that and other more current narratives.

Back when KD was in high school, though, the media was handing Kobe a bunch of dubious All-Defense honors. Back when KD was a Longhorn and a Sonic, the media was trumping Kobe as the best player in the game despite LeBron's clear statistical and value superiority.

I can see how if you're only really paying attention to media issues lately, you think the media is hard on Kobe. Over the course of his career, that's just simply not been the case.

Back to where Kobe lands on the all-time scale. One argument that those who claim he's obviously in the top 10 all-time use is that he's still ahead of LeBron. This is lunacy to me. Kobe was the best player in the league for one, maybe two seasons. (2006 is the 'maybe' season for me.) LeBron has been the league's best player with minor blips for nearly a decade. The rings matter, but here's where I note that LeBron has exactly as many Finals MVPs as Kobe. In fact, LeBron was damn close to winning Finals MVP last season in a team loss. He almost had more Finals MVPs than Kobe!

Anyway, to me, any argument that Kobe has had a better career than LeBron is a hilarious non-starter to me.

FLANNERY: That's fair. I was referring to the last few years where beating up on Kobe was beside the point, but yes, the narrative did shift post-2011 and he absolutely felt the brunt of new-media scorn.

The LeBron thing is the ultimate in Count the Ringz nonsense. The rings matter to the extent that when Kobe played with a dominant big man (Shaq and then Gasol) he either won titles or was in the hunt. When Bron played with D-Wade and Bosh, he either won titles or was in the Finals. Teammates matter. They have always mattered. It's a big part of why Russell usually beat Wilt and why Magic ultimately got the better of Bird. It's a huge part of why Jordan was able to dominate the 90s playing with a pair of all-timers in Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. It's why Tim Duncan has had a more successful career than Kevin Garnett.

It's interesting that while Kobe has played the part of lone wolf, he's enjoyed a far superior franchise infrastructure during his career, while LeBron has embraced the role of great teammate while working with inferior supporting casts. That's my greatest criticism of Kobe: he rarely seemed to appreciate what he had. I remember Iverson saying something to the effect that if Kobe was done with Shaq, he'll gladly take him.

The last few months are going to be weird. Kobe will be treated with reverence wherever he goes. How do you think he'll handle the adulation? He doesn't strike me as the nostalgic type. 

ZILLER: I think he's human in that sense. His smile at Paul George at the free-throw line at the end Sunday's game cut me to the core. This dude really does seem to appreciate that there are a finite number of capital-M moments left. When he hit that three, then tried (in vain) to psych one of the young dudes who has been most vocal about his childhood adoration for Kobe -- that's what I hope we get. Everyone deserves to end their careers on high notes. The team isn't good and might not win 20 games, but Kobe can still find solace in these moments sprinkled throughout his farewell tour.

Most of us don't care about the fate of the Lakers, or are actively rooting for it to be awful. (Guilty!) But I do wonder if the impacts on the development on D'Angelo Russell of Kobe going out guns blazing at 30 minutes per game will wear on Lakers fans this season. They may want to move on to the next generation, but there's still time on Kobe's clock.

FLANNERY: I will say that his announcement is a great parting gift for the Lakers. Now they know they can get on with the business of properly rebuilding and they may even be bad enough to keep their first-round pick. The collateral damage to Russell is mitigated by his age. He'll survive and maybe even prosper in the long run, given the circumstances. I'd feel better about all of this with a different coach, but that's a whole different issue.

If nothing else, it's a chance for a long and proper farewell to one of the most fascinating characters the game has ever seen. The league will go on just as it did when Bird/Magic/Jordan left, but it will be a very different landscape without Kobe. We can argue about whether he was the best player of his generation or where he ranks all time in the pantheon, but there's no debate as to whether he was the central figure of the post-Jordan years. Not even LeBron can match his charisma.

ZILLER: Or his sense of the moment, for better or worse. That excites me going into these last 60 or so games: Kobe is going to have a moment in every city. All his fans deserve those.

FLANNERY: And they are legion. As we are reminded constantly whenever we bring his name up. What will become of them now?

ZILLER: Nick Young: it is your time to shine.