This is a cartoon drawing of Kobe Bryant next to the words: Was Kobe Bryant Wildly Overrated on Defense?

How Great Was Kobe Bryant on Defense, Really?

Kobe Bryant was a good defensive player who was wildly overrated during his career. Bryant has good, but not great, career defensive statistics. Kobe’s strengths on defense happened to line up with what impressed voters and he made 12 NBA All-Defensive teams despite not always being an elite team defender. 

Kobe Bryant on Defense: Stats

Advanced statistics are often a better way to look back at a player’s career than pure memory. Stats can be limited. There is no doubt that basketball stats are better at measuring offense than defense. 

But memories can be biased and hazy. And defense is very hard for casual, or even serious, watchers to judge without extensively studying film. Stats give us the least biased look we can have at a player’s career. They are not perfect but are a great place to start. 

Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions. 

When we look at these statistics as a whole, we can get a good sense of how good a defender was. Generally speaking, great defenders will rank highly on these lists while weaker defenders will not. 

When taken as a whole, Kobe’s career defensive statistics show him to be closer to very average defenders like Tracy McGrady than to great ones like Kevin Garnett. 

Individual skill advanced defensive statistics 

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As a wing, you would not expect Kobe Bryant to dominate on the defensive glass but you would hope he’d get his share of rebounds. Kobe’s 12.7% rebounding percentage is fine. 

It compares favorably with Ray Allen (10.2%) , who was a 6’5” contemporary, but is worse than 6”8” Tracy MacGray (15.0%).  Kobe does not stand out in any way here – rebounding is not the hallmark of great wings. 

Great defenders generally get either a lot of blocks or a lot of steals. Kobe did not get a lot of blocks. His career block percentage of 1.0% is not anything amazing. 

It is better than Ray Allen’s .4%. But Ray Allen was literally worse at blocking shots than 6’0” John Stockton who finished with a career .5% block rate. Being better than Ray Allen at blocking shots is too low of a bar for a great defender!

Kobe finished well below T-Mac who finished 148th all time in career block percentage at 1.9%. Now T-Mac, especially early in his career, was dominant for a wing at blocking shots. But Kobe wasn’t and that is the point here. 

Kobe did get steals. His 2.1% career steal percentage puts him 159th on the all time  list. T-Mac, who was not a great defender, had a 2.0% (195th all time) while Allen had a 1.7%. 

Since this is Kobe’s best individual skill defensive statistic, I’d like to dig in a bit more to some comparisons. Sure, Kobe got some steals, but how does he compare to others? 

Bryant finished behind Charles Barkley (2.1% – nearly tied), Larry Bird (2.16%) and Magic Johsnon (2.5%). None of those would be considered an all-time great on defense by any means.

What about players who are considered defensive greats? Kobe finishes nowhere near Michael Jordan (3.1%), Chris Paul (3.2%) or John Stockton (3.5%). Kobe got some steals but he was hardly an all-timer at stealing the ball. 

Overall advanced defensive statistics 

Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. Kobe’s 105 career defensive rating does not put him in the all time top 250 for NBA players. 

Tracy McGrady’s career 104 defensive rating put him 157th all time while Ray Allen’s 108 was worse than Kobe’s since the lower number is better here. 

Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. 

Kobe’s is negative: -.1. It does not put him in the top 250 all time. Again, comparing to some contemporaries shows Kobe’s number is not god awful but not so great either. Ray Allen had a -.7 for his career while Tracy McGrady had a .5 and finished 194th all time. 

Defensive win shares is a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. This is a good stat for Kobe who finished with 50.7 defensive win shares good for 53rd all time. 

While that ranking seems high, and the top twenty in defensive win shares are nearly all excellent defenders, long careers tend to give a player more win shares.  

Charles Barkley’s 54 defensive win shares placed him 39th on the all-time list. He was not a great defender. DIrk Nowitzki was not either – he was called Irk early in his career for his lack of D. Nowitzki finished 25th all time with 62.6 defensive win shares. 

How do Kobe Bryant’s career defensive statistics compare to other great players? 

Let’s start by using the comparisons I referred to a lot in the writeup on Kobe’s career stats: Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady. These are good comparisons because they were all wings who played in the same era.

Of course, Kobe made 12 all-NBA defensive teams while T-Mac and Sugar Ray combined to make zero. Neither was considered a good defender while they played while both were considered, like Kobe, to be offensive greats. 

StatisticRay Allen
(rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
(rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
(rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
Defensive Rebounding %10.2%(NR)12.7% (NR)15.0% (NR)
Block %.4%(NR)1.0% (NR)1.9% (148)
Steal %1.7%(NR)2.1% (159)2.0% (195)
Defensive Rating (lower is better)108 (NR)105 (NR)104 (157)
Defensive Box +/--.7(NR)-.1 (NR).5 (194)
Defensive Win Shares33.4 (167th)50.7 (43rd)36.4 (136)

It is hard to look at this table and see how Kobe Bryant can be considered one of the all-time greats on defense. He appears to be a better defender than Ray Allen – but that is not saying much. Ray Allen was not a great defender.

He also appears to be slightly worse than Tracy McGrady! No one that I  can find actually believed that. But Kobe’s career statistics put him shockingly close to T-Mac and he finished a little behind in nearly every category.

Now let’s compare Kobe to two players nearly everyone would agree are all-time great defenders: Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett. 

Jordan is the obvious comparison. They played the same position and should have comparable stats. They played in slightly different eras, but it’s not like we’re comparing Bob Cousy and Steph Curry. 

Garnett certainly played a different position but he played in the same era as Kobe and was an undeniably great defender. 

StatisticMichael Jordan
(rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
(rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
Kevin Garnett
(rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
Defensive Rebounding %14.1 (NR)12.7% (NR)26.0 (15th)
Block %1.4 (205)1.0% (NR)3.0 (81st)
Steal %3.1(13th)2.1% (159)1.9 (200th)
Defensive Rating (lower is better)103 (113th)105 (NR)99.1 (19th)
Defensive Box +/-2.05 (21st)-.1 (NR)2.09 (20th)
Defensive Win Shares64.1 (21st)50.7 (43rd)91.5 (7th)

It is hard not to notice the trends here. When compared to pedestrian defenders like Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady, Bryant’s career stats fit right in.

But when compared to players who are clearly all-time great defenders, Kobe’s numbers come up well short. Jordan and Garnett have elite career defensive statistical profiles: top 20 all time (or very close) in multiple categories. Ranking on the all time list in all or nearly all of them. 

Kobe’s career defensive statistics do not look anything like an elite defensive player’s do. 

Did people think Kobe Bryant was a good defender while he was playing?

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While his career statistics don’t show it, Kobe Byrant was widely considered a great defender while he was playing. Kobe made 9 All-NBA defensive teams and 3 more second teams! 

Those awards certainly speak to a widespread reputation as a great defender. I will circle back to explaining how they could be wrong in a moment. For now, let’s consider the fact that maybe his career statistics are somehow misleading and Kobe was a great defender. 

What made Kobe good on defense? 

Kobe had a rare makeup that led to his success in the NBA. He combined elite athleticism with an elite drive. Kobe wanted it as badly as nearly anyone.

Kobe had good size for a wing at 6’6”. There were not a lot of guards who could back him down or easily shoot over him. The blocks and rebounds he got were partially because of his good size. 

He also had elite lateral quickness and athleticism. This is a trait that a Ray Allen type of player was lacking. NBA guards can shake players without elite quickness. Kobe had it. 

Not only could Kobe stay in a decent position with his quickness,  he could get off the floor and challenge shots as well. Kobe was an elite athlete for sure. 

Kobe, especially as his career went on, also had a good feel for the game and developed good anticipation. When combined with elite physical traits, that meant Kobe could make life hard for his opponents.

Almost anyone who has played any basketball knows that the key to success on defense is effort. Kobe had the insane, outlier competitiveness that a T-Mac may have lacked. 

Kobe relished the one-on-one battle. He’d get down in his defensive stance and fight like hell. Kobe put on a show not only with his offense, but with his defense as well.

He also relished the big moment and lived to lock down his opponent in the big possession. 

Did everyone agree Kobe was one of the league’s best defenders when he was playing?

This seems like a good point to mention that, no, not everyone thought Kobe was one of the league’s best defenders. One such person was his coach: Phil Jackson. 

Jackson always seemed to bristle at mentions of Kobe on the all-defense squads. We found out why later when he wrote a book about his time coaching the Lakers. 

In his book “The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul,” Jackson said “Kobe’s defense, to be accurate, has faltered in recent years, despite his presence on the league’s all-defensive team…Mesmerized by the ball, he’s gambled too frequently putting us out of position, forcing rotations that leave a man wide open, and doesn’t keep his feet on the ground”. 

Jackson was hardly alone in noting that Kobe’s defense seemed to have a flair for the dramatic but a lack of fundamentals. Plenty of others made the case in real time. 

Defense is very hard to quantify with stats. But it’s hard for the average watcher to really quantify defense outside of obvious effort as well. 

To really know great defense you have to study the film or, dare I say, the stats. Jackson studied more Kobe defensive film than anyone and he thought he was overrated. I showed you the stats already. 

Is it possible that the voters who put Kobe on all those first-team defenses could be wrong? 

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Who chooses the All-NBA awards? 

All-NBA awards, including NBA All-Defensive teams, are chosen by a vote of broadcasters and writers. These people are not, with very few exceptions, studying film. 

Instead, like fans, they watched the games Kobe played against their teams. They also catch more games than most fans probably do on tv. When watching games on tv, they follow the ball like the rest of us. 

You only see a player when he is making a play or guarding the ball. These are Kobe’s strengths – going for big plays or guarding one on one. 

The voters most certainly watch the biggest marquee games including the playoffs. They also probably tune in for recaps and watch the big moments of highlights. 

Remember how I said Kobe lived for the big moment? Voters probably see more of those moments than even fans do. 

Kobe has been called the all time best one possession defender by some critics. If you needed someone to stick like glue to an opposing guard in a huge moment, Kobe was your guy. 

But one possession, as noted by Phil Jackson, is not what defense is all about. Defense is about lots of things, including one-on-one matchups, but it is also about helping, positioning, consistent effort on each trip down the court, etc. 

Those things are hard to judge watching a guy a few times a year live and maybe ten more times on tv and catching the highlights. Kobe was great at the things about defense that are easiest to pick up with casual viewing. 

Kobe also knew that players were judged by defense and not just offense. But just like he was an offensive killer who rarely passed the ball, he was a defensive wizard who did not always play great team defense.

Kobe wanted the world to know he was great at defense and he made making first-team all defense a stated goal every year. He lobbied for it. 

And voters were susceptible to that lobbying. Again, judging defense is hard and the voters have to pick out the best players without studying film.

Kobe’s teams won, so that helped him. He was great at one-on-one defense and could shut down anyone when necessary. He gave great effort at certain aspects of defense, especially in the big games and big moments. 

It was all a perfect storm for Kobe to develop a reputation as one of the greatest defenders in the league. In my research for this article I read a headline that I love and which sums up my thoughts: “Kobe Bryant’s  reputation makes the NBA defensive team again!”

Kobe no doubt had a reputation as a great defender. But in many years, when he was playing with Ron Artest for instance, he was not the best defender on his own team. 

Certainly several, if not most, of his first-team all-defense awards were made by his reputation and not by his actual play on D.


Kobe Bryant was an all-time great player who was overrated on defense. He made many All-NBA defensive teams based on his reputation for locking guys down. But his own coach Phil Jackson said his reputation was better than his actual team defense in many years. Bryant’s career statistics show him to be closer to average defenders like Tracy McGrady than they are to elite, all-time defenders like Kevin Garnett. 

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