Among the other legends in the canon of the True NBA Greats, Kobe Bryant is most frequently compared to Michael Jordan, for a series of obvious reasons, including their styles of play, their high basketball IQs and their near pathological levels of competitiveness. But in terms of public perception, nearly as apt a comparison for Kobe would be Wilt Chamberlain. a fellow generation-best scorer whose brilliance was obvious, but who battled perennial accusations of being (at various stages of his career, and often all simultaneously) a bad teammate, a coach killer and a ballhog, someone whose need for individual validation often superseded their desire for team success. And of course, in the half-century since Wilt set an NBA record by scoring 100 in a game, Kobe is still the only one to even wave at Wilt’s triple digits, scoring 81 in a much-commemorated 2006 game.
That 100 is probably the number most associated with Wilt’s statistically overwhelming career, closely followed by 50, his points per game average for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962. But perhaps the third-most-definitive (though much less immediately recognizable) number of Wilt’s career was 702, the number of assists the Stilt accumulated in ’68 for the 76ers — best in the league that year by total number, though Oscar Robertson actually averaged about an assist-and-a-half more in 15 fewer games. To date, Wilt remains the only center in NBA league history to lead the league in total assists for a season.
The inflated assist total from a player who had never averaged more than five a game through his first seven NBA seasons did not come by accident. After winning a title with the Sixers in ’67, with head coach Alex Hannum and a trio of Hall of Fame teammates in Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer and Chet Walker, Wilt purposefully set to shed the idea that he was just a scorer, not a team player, and figured he could shed that label indisputably by leading the league in a statistical category synonymous with selflessness. He would succeed in the short term, though he ultimately failed to change public perception of him, as his assists-at-all-costs quest eventually came to be seen as just another act of box score narcissism from the Big Dipper.
Though the two situations are far from identical, I still couldn’t help but think of this chapter in Wilt’s controversial history while watching the last four games played by Kobe Bryant, in which the Black Mamba has adopted the role of point guard and playmaker in the Lakers offense, averaging 12 assists a game over that stretch, easily the richest period of diming in Kobe’s 17-season career. Not since Wilt’s calculated stat shift had a scorer on Kobe’s level (still netting nearly 30 a game) consciously and pointedly made the decision, late in their career, that they were now gonna be all about playmaking and distributing, with putting up points a secondary concern.
This is interesting with Kobe as it was with Wilt, because Bryant has always self-identified as a “scorer.” Increasingly rare in an era where the ideal model of a franchise player is LeBron James, an impossibly gifted shot-maker who nonetheless makes a point to be just as devastating as a creator for teammates, Kobe has never had any problem letting it be known that putting the ball in the basket is priority No. 1 for him. (“I eat first,” he once memorably said of the Lakers’ scoring hierarchy.) As a guard, Kobe is naturally more of a distributor than Wilt, but Bryant has also struggled on occasion with finding the balance between scoring for the team and scoring for his own sake. During his second set of title runs in the late 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see Kobe spend the first half of a game passing to a fault, belaboring the point that he was “trusting his teammates,” before starting to gun again in the second half, secure he’d done his share of good teamwork for the game.
That’s why it’s so jarring to see Kobe play like this for a relatively extended period, where his second half self-compensation never quite comes. Perhaps this was what it was like for 76ers observers in ’68, where over the course of two seasons, Wilt’s points dropped from 33.5 to 24.3 a game as his assists rose from 5.2 to 8.7. You can see flashes of Wilt in the ego-stroking that Kobe has done when interviewed about his point guard turn after games. “I can do it, man,” he answered one reporter who asked if he could keep up the distributing role all season. “I’m like Neo out this motherf—er.” When asked how good he thought he could have been as a point guard, he answered incredulously, “What, you think I’m gonna sit here and say I wasn’t gonna be the best?… If I was to be a point guard, I’d just obsess over it and wouldn’t stop until I get it absolutely right.” You could pretty easily see Kobe keeping this up for a whole season, just to silence the critics, just to prove that he could.
However, there is a sense — for now at least — that Kobe’s primary motivation for this role change is not to prove anything about himself or his career, but simply to help his struggling team win games. Unlike Wilt, who was defending a title on a team that was still best in the East, the Lakers are just 20-26 this season, and fading from overall relevance. And the first three games of the Kobe Bryant, Point Guard experiment have resulted in the best stretch of Lakers play this season, including a win over the West-best Thunder at home. Kobe’s overall stat lines were efficient and immaculate, his teammates seemed to be playing (and defending) with more energy, the team just seemed better with Kobe being less insistent on eating first. This storyline was similar to the early stages of Wilt’s point turn, as before his dime-quest got cartoonish, he did help lead the Sixers to that title in ’67 while scoring far less (24.3 points on 68 percent shooting) and dishing far more (7.8 assists a game, up over 2.5 from the game before).
It didn’t last for Wilt. As the center’s assist total expanded in ’67-68, the Sixers’ win total shrank by six games (though they still won 62 that year), and Wilt’s insistence on passing-for-credit (sometimes even freezing out certain teammates when he felt like they were “wasting his passes”) quickly got under the skin of Coach Hannum, who believed Wilt, and by extension the team, were better off with their most gifted scorer — the most gifted scorer, period — focusing on scoring. (The evidence would suggest Hannum was correct, Wilt posting his lowest PER of his career in ’68 as the team’s collective offense slipped.) Wilt ignored Hannum’s directions, irritated his coach was “thwarting his plan to lead the league in assists,” and Hannum eventually went after his star in the papers, ribbing his sensitive ego by claiming he thought Wilt might have lost some of his old scoring moves. Wilt responded, of course, by dropping 68 on the Bulls. But the damage between player and coach was irreparable, and the Sixers’ title defense ended in a Game Seven against the Celtics where, fittingly, Wilt took just two shots in the entire second half, scoring just 14 for the game.
We don’t yet know how long the Kobe Bryant, Point Guard experience will last, or how it will end relative to Wilt’s league-leading assist season. But the differences between the two players was evident in the Lakers’ Wednesday loss to the Suns, where a double-digit Laker lead evaporated over the course of a frustrating fourth quarter that saw Dwight Howard injured on the bench as Kobe tried desperately to close the game for LA. In this time of crisis, Kobe reflexively defaulted to Takeover Mode, shooting in five of the team’s final six possessions, though largely in vain, as the Lakers let the fourth game of the KBPG era slip away.
At the end of the day, Kobe still wants to be the guy who makes the difference between the Lakers winning and losing. By contrast, peers of Wilt often theorized that he was actually more comfortable when losing, and Rick Barry went on record saying of the Big Dipper that “when it comes down to the closing minutes of a tough game, an important game, he doesn’t want the ball, he doesn’t want any part of the pressure.” Though both Kobe and Wilt were obsessed with the way they were perceived, Kobe separates himself from Wilt by demonstrating at least a little understanding that more than any other stat — points, assists, whatever — wins, and a player’s role in getting them, are what you’re ultimately measured by as a basketball legend.
For the rest of the season, it’ll be fascinating to see how much Kobe sticks with the point guard experiment, whether the Lakers succeed or struggle, whether his own scoring stays sharp or falls by the wayside. He probably won’t ever get the assist title the Stilt so doggedly pursued and eventually (technically) earned, but if he could manage to so thoroughly reinvent his career this late on while helping his team win more games than they would otherwise in the process, that’ll be another line item on Kobe’s resume that Wilt probably never would’ve even realized he was so badly lacking.