Growing up watching Kobe during my college days, he was the closest thing to Michael Jordan. I never expected for him to be gone so soon.
1. Raja Bell
Raja Bell was one of the league's toughest defenders. He had a blue collar style of play reminiscent of members of the "bad boy" Pistons. Raja Bell was part of the brigade that the Philadelphia 76ers sent to guard Kobe Bryant on a nightly basis.
A journeyman who provided a lot of value on the defensive end for teams, Raja always managed to find work in his more than decade-long career. He was a defensive specialist who was tasked with guarding the opposition's best scorer.
Things came to a boil in the 2006 playoffs between the Suns and Lakers. In Game 5, Raja clotheslined Kobe and promptly got ejected for his actions. Raja claimed it was retaliation for an elbow Bryant threw at his face earlier in the game. Bell had the last laugh however, as his Suns beat Kobe's Lakers in the seven-game series.
2. Bruce Bowen
Bruce Bowen was one of the best defenders in the 2000s, and it is a crime that he never won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Bruce gained notoriety for guarding the best players in the game such as Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter.
Bruce was also known to be able to hit the corner three-pointer. He was a precursor to the modern 3-and-D player that all teams want nowadays. Sadly, Bruce will be more remembered for the flying kick he gave Wally Szczerbiak and for sticking his foot under Vince Carter when he was taking a jumpshot.
Despite some less than sportsmanlike plays, Bruce was truly an elite defensive player.
3. Vince Carter
When Michael Jordan left the game, there was a search to find the next MJ. The heir apparent revolved around players who had play styles similar to Jordan. One of the players who was hyped to take Michael's place was Vince Carter. Like MJ, Vince was a North Carolina Tar Heel alumni who was also coached by the legendary Dean Smith.
Upon his arrival in the league, Vince immediately became a household name with his thunderous dunks and acrobatic style of play. He gained the nickname "Air Canada" as he was playing for the Canadian-based Toronto Raptors. Vince would further solidify himself as one of the most exciting players in the league by winning the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. He performed a between the legs dunk—a similar dunk that Kobe used to win the event a few years prior.
Vince and Kobe spent two decades battling each other in the NBA. Kobe chose to stay in Los Angeles for the entirety of his career while Carter became a journeyman in the latter part of his career.
Anytime you saw "Black Mamba" versus "Half Man Half Amazing," you were in for a treat.
4. Tracy McGrady
Tracy McGrady was a forward with guard-like skills; this made him a tough defensive assignment. He was simply too big for other guards to defend against. Even Kobe admitted that a prime TMac was one of the toughest assignments he ever had.
Initially, Tracy was a Scottie Pippen-like player and was more of a lockdown defender. However, he was later given a larger offensive role when he went to the Orlando Magic. Tracy could do anything on the offensive end as he was a two-time scoring champion. Whether it was driving to the rim, getting a mid-range shot or shooting a long distance bomb, Tracy could do it all.
Tracy had half a decade of dominance before injuries took its toll and cut his prime short. If Tracy's body had not betrayed him, he and Kobe would have had more exciting battles. Tracy ended his career with the San Antonio Spurs and almost won a championship if not for a miraculous shot by Ray Allen.
Today, TMac can be seen prominently on NBA TV as an analyst.
5. Paul Pierce
Boston versus Los Angeles is a rivalry that spans decades. The two franchises have a combined 33 championships with Boston edging Los Angeles 17-16.
The rivalry was revived in the late 2000s when Boston had a resurgence with the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They joined Paul Pierce and formed a modern day superteam. The Celtics drew first blood by vanquishing the Lakers in 2008 and the Lakers avenged their loss in 2010. The Celtics were led by Paul Pierce and the Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant.
The NBA was hot during this time as both franchises were in perennial title contention. While Paul was not as athletic as his contemporaries, he was a good shooter and a clutch performer. He was even nicknamed "the Truth" by Shaquille O' Neil for his ability to excel in big moments.
Paul was one of the top perimeter players during his prime and easily was a 20-point scorer who could also easily get half a dozen assists and rebounds on any given night. He was a 10-time All-Star who was also a one-time Finals MVP.
The irony was that Paul was an Inglewood native who grew up as a Lakers fan.
6. Shaquille O' Neil
Shaquille met a young Kobe during a Magic versus Pacers game. Kobe was a fan of Anfernee Hardaway as he was the closest thing to Magic Johnson since Magic retired. When he approached Penny, Penny shrugged him off and Shaq felt sorry for Kobe and spent time interacting with him. Shaq was already a superstar at that time and Kobe was just a fan in the bleachers.
Initially, when the two joined forces in Los Angeles, the two had a big brother and little brother type of relationship. Shaq took the young Kobe under his wing. Unfortunately, both of them wanted to be "the man" in Los Angeles and the city was not big enough for the both of them.
This was aggravated by Kobe snitching to law enforcement that Shaq had extramarital affairs and paid up his women to keep them silent. Who knows how many championships the two would have won had they simply learned to keep their egos in check?
For a while, Kobe versus Shaq became a staple during Christmas Day games. Kobe would play against the team Shaq was on at the time.
Before Kobe's tragic death, the two had mended fences and become friends again.
7. LeBron James
It is too bad we never got to see a Kobe versus LeBron Finals. The closest was in 2009 when LeBron led the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals. Dwight Howard however, denied him a Finals appearance and a match with Kobe.
With Jordan gone, Kobe and LeBron competed to see who would be the next G.O.A.T (greatest of all time). The two had a lot of memorable match-ups through the years, but they did not have as many battles as they should have since they came from opposite conferences.
LeBron has been to nine Finals but has only won three of them. Most of his losses have come at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. LeBron is currently the third leading scorer in NBA history and may even beat Kareem Abdul Jabbar's record if he plays long enough and stays healthy.
While the two players have since carried the torch from Michael Jordan, it is Kobe who plays more like Mike. LeBron plays more like Magic Johnson with a more team-oriented approach.
LeBron has mostly played his career with minimal support, except when he joined friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to form a "superteam."
8. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan was Kobe Bryant's idol. Just like millions around the world, he wanted to be like Mike. He was one of the few to have been successful in doing so. From the jersey number to the fadeaway shot to the mannerisms, Kobe was the closest thing to MJ since MJ.
MJ was nearing the end of his career when Kobe started playing. However, Jordan came back once more and the two had some memorable battles. The two had a memorable game in the 2003 All-Star game when a seamingly triumphant Jordan shot was foiled by Jermaine O' Neil fouling Kobe. Kobe then proceeded to send the game into overtime. After double overtime, Kobe's team won as he got one over Mike.
Kobe was the little brother Jordan never had as the two were so similar. They had the same competitive drive and work ethic. Kobe even came close to matching Michael's ring count. The two also shared a similar jersey number.
Kobe eventually surpassed Michael in the scoring record. This can be attributed to his scoring prowess as well as his longevity. It's a feather in the cap of Kobe and this secures his place in the pantheon of the NBA's greats.
© 2020 Jan Michael Ong
Jan Michael Ong (author) from Metro Manila, Philippines on May 01, 2020:
I hope to write another article and include any players I missed
Bee on April 29, 2020:
No A.I.? Especially given Kobe's qoute?
Jan Michael Ong (author) from Metro Manila, Philippines on February 22, 2020:
Thank you for your comment Paul. I used rival in the context of people Kobe had beef with or comparable players in his time.
Paul Burt from san pedro on February 22, 2020:
Interesting piece, and well written, but it should noted that "rival" is a very subjective term and is typically placed upon one or more athletes by the media. That said, Kobe averaged about 29 PPG versus Bell with a bakers dozen 40 point games against him. Against Bowen, the Kobester averaged a tick over 26 PPG with several 30 point+ games and a high of 44.... Against Carter, he had a high game of 46 and in another contest, spanked Carter for 42 while averaging just over 23 PPG over the course of their meetings. I remember the night he ripped BOTH of McGrady's eyes, lighting HIM up for 53, with a game against Pierce of 43, and a 55 point demolishing of an aging Jordan. LeBron and Shaq would not have been Kobe's defensive assignment, so again, the subjective nature of the term "rival" could be brought into question....
Keep up the great work!