He was quoted saying, "I don't want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant."
True enough, his stats since changing his jersey number from 8 to 24, seems to suggest that he’s been competing against himself all along.
While wearing #8, he won his first three titles but the Los Angeles Lakers then was arguably Shaquille O’Neal’s team. One of his personal highlights of course, an 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors in January 2006, took place during that period. But despite a stellar offensive show among others, that season was cut short by a first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Later in April that year, he announced the shift to #24, his original number from prep school. Kobe would go on to lead the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals, without Shaq, winning two championships. During this time, he also passed Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the all-time scoring list. It’s been said that he prefers to have the latter number retired, significantly because LA had become truly his team. Not O’Neal’s. Or even Phil Jackson’s.
But who is the better Bryant? Interestingly enough, the two phases of his career are evenly split into 10 seasons each. We look back on the myth of the Black Mamba and do the math on his stats.
Naturally as a newbie, it took some time before Bryant raised his scoring average. He was contributing 14.3 points a game in his first three seasons and played fewer minutes. Back then, the Lakers also had senior stars like Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. During the 2005-06 season, Kobe notched his highest scoring average at 35.4 points in 41 minutes—a good two years removed from playing alongside Shaq, one of the most dominant big men of his time.
From then on, he actually played less than 40 minutes while maintaining similar numbers, suggesting Number 24’s progression to a more efficient scorer who got a lot a of crucial touches while on the court and made the most of out them. He wasn’t the high-flying Kobe in his youth but he polished his perimeter game, including a signature step-back jumper studied from Jerry West, among other legends.
Though Kobe was on the NBA All-Defensive Team from 2011 to 2012, the younger and more athletic No. 8 made more steals (above-100 totals for six seasons) and blocks (reaching above-60 totals in two seasons). His block totals were especially low from 2009 onwards. Even less were the high-flying highlights, as the punishing 82-game seasons gradually took their toll. In the 2013-14 season, Kobe played only six games because of a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in the previous season and lateral tibial plateau fracture he was diagnosed with a few games after his return, forcing him to miss training camp, preseason, the All-Star Game, and the rest of the season.
Kobe secured 878 of his 1,499 total offensive rebounds as Number 8, never reaching above-100 in one season from 2006-2007 onwards. Though he was able to maintain mostly above-200 and -300 totals in defensive rebounds throughout, Kobe has been under-200 after the knee injury.
The ‘Kobe assist’
Though there are plenty of memes on the Laker guard as a ball hog and Grantland actually named the "Kobe assist," defined as “missed shots that are more like accidental passes that lead to put-backs” after him, Bryant has positively given up the ball more during the second half of his career. Number 24 passed more, especially when he has a solid supporting cast, despite his seeming lifetime license to shoot.
This year he quietly moved up to second on the list of the franchise’s all-time leaders in assists with 6,244 behind Magic Johnson’s 10,141 in a loss to the Houston Rockets. In 2015, he had a career-high 17 assists versus Cleveland. As Kobe notched the 20th of 21 career-triple doubles and his 6,000th career assist the year before that, he made history as the first player with as many assists and at least 30,000 career points. An amazing feat even the most ardent of Bryant’s haters can’t deny.
The post-season, a postscript
There are also reports that say that Kobe has no bias on the jersey to be hung on the rafters as he retires. He got more rings as #8, three out of his five, though the latter two seems more special because Los Angeles had unquestionably become his team.
As #24, Kobe also drew both individual and team honors, winning regular-season MVP and two Finals MVP awards (2009 and 2010). And he does have a favorite—the fifth title against the Boston Celtics, won on Game 7. Aside from the historic rivalry between the two franchises and beating three future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, Kobe averaged 28.6 points, eight rebounds and 3.9 assists in that tough matchup. He wasn’t too shabby in 2009 against the Orlando Magic either, averaging a series-best 32.4 points, the highest of his five Finals appearances.