Kobe Bryant's career was one of legend. Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players of all-time, and his legacy is forever set in stone. We will remember Bryant for his utter dominance of the opponent, and his unabashed confidence: there was not a shot that he wouldn't take. Even if it was a difficult shot, no-one could fault him for shooting it because there was always a good chance that it would go in. Kobe Bryant was gone far too soon in a tragic plane crash, along with his daughter Gianna and seven other people. He will be remembered not only for his basketball accolades but for his spirit when it came to competition and his Mamba mentality based solely on hard work.
Kobe Bryant was a Hall-of-Famer: he was inducted in 2020 for his countless accomplishments on the court. Most NBA fans know that Kobe Bryant wore two numbers in his career, #8 and #24. Both numbers represented a different phase of his career. Both phases of his career would be considered elite by their own merit, and each is Hall of Fame worthy. But which version of Kobe Bryant was the best? Today, we compare the two stages of Kobe Bryant's career and see when he was at his best.
#8 Kobe Bryant Had Peak Athleticism And Endless Swagger
Kobe Bryant has been athletically gifted throughout his career, but it is natural for one's athleticism to be at its peak when one is younger. Kobe wore the #8 jersey from 1997-2006, during the early stages of his career. Kobe Bryant was drafted straight from high school and was known for his amazing dunks and his air of confidence, winning a Slam Dunk contest his rookie year.
During his early #8 years, Kobe Bryant was still a player that was finding his place in the league. His partnership with Shaquille O'Neal at the start of his career worked really well: all the defensive attention that was focused on Shaquille O'Neal allowed Kobe Bryant to thrive as an isolation scorer. That partnership resulted in a three-peat, and perhaps the most dominant duo of all-time. Bryant notably became the youngest player to start in an All-Star game at 19, and a few years later, he became the youngest player to have three championships at 23.
For the #8 stage of his career, Bryant had some elite numbers: 23.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.5 APG with 1.5 SPG on the defensive end is great for any player. The 23.9 PPG doesn't quite reflect how dominant of a scorer Bryant was during that time, as that average is brought down by his rookie and sophomore seasons as he averaged lower scoring numbers due to playing time. Bryant's dominance as a scorer came to its apex during the 2005-06 season, when he won the first of his scoring titles, averaging 35.4 PPG. After Shaquille O'Neal was traded following the Lakers' loss in the 2004 Finals, Kobe Bryant was forced to take on a higher scoring load.
#8 Kobe Bryant will always be known for his ferocity and for the way that he could wreak havoc on defenders. He shattered many milestones and cemented himself as an elite scorer and clutch player. Kobe Bryant was a superstar who was out to get buckets: there was no-one that could stop him when he decided to score. The scoring night most people will remember is the 81 point outburst against the Toronto Raptors. That performance pretty much exemplifies the #8 Kobe Bryant and his mentality. By the end of his stint in the #8 Jersey, Kobe Bryant was an 8-time All-Star and had won multiple championships. To many, that would be enough, but Kobe Bryant was never satisfied.
#24 Kobe Bryant Was An On-Court Assassin
After winning three championships with Shaquille O'Neal during the early 2000s, it wasn't until much later on that Kobe Bryant won again. Despite Bryant's scoring title during the 2005-06 season, his team got eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in the first round in seven games. During the 2006-07 playoffs, the same thing happened, this time in five games. The turning point was the 2007-08 season when Pau Gasol was added to the roster via trade. The Los Angeles Lakers ended up with the 1st seed in the conference (57-25 record) and made it to the Finals, while Kobe Bryant won the regular-season MVP award. That was Kobe Bryant's first Finals appearance without Shaquille O'Neal, which he lost.
Kobe Bryant's 2009 championship run marked the first Finals that Kobe Bryant had won as the undisputed main scoring option on his team. After losing in the 2008 Finals, Bryant was determined not to lose again. Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic were his opponents, and he showed no mercy, averaging a ridiculous 32.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 7.4 APG during the Finals, and eliminating them in five games. While wearing #24, Kobe Bryant proved to everyone that he could lead a team to a championship, and added to his numerous accolades during the time.
Kobe Bryant was clearly an offensive master who used every skill in the book. It is normal to ask superstars to take difficult shots during the playoffs: defenses get tighter, and double-teams are more frequent. Some shy away from the challenge, but Bryant thrived since he took so many of those shots anyway, and had no qualms taking them. Kobe Bryant was built for the playoffs, and his game shows it. It was the title runs in during the 2008-09 season and the 2009-10 season that fully highlighted Kobe Bryant's ability at the highest level.
The jersey switch occurred at the start of the 2006-07 season, and Kobe Bryant wore #24 for the rest of his career. Statistically, Bryant improved during his time as #24, as he averaged 26.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 4.9 APG, with 1.4 SPG. Bryant's numbers show slight improvements in all categories, with a very minor decrease in steals. While the numbers are similar it is the accolades and the success that are more telling about Kobe Bryant's time as #24. Kobe Bryant cemented himself as a winning figure in basketball and across sports, and his legacy will forever be remembered. Kobe Bryant's career was capped off by a 60 point performance against the Utah Jazz: that is just one of the times where the world has been awed by Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant's Words On His Preference Between The Two
Naturally, there have been many interviews where Kobe Bryant was asked about the two different chapters in his career. Bryant notably says that the difference between the two is almost akin to a difference between two separate people. It makes sense that player and a person would change as they grow and gain experience: Kobe explained his change in mindset from #8 to #24 in this interview with Complex News:
Kobe Bryant talks about how when he first entered the league, it was the time to establish himself as a player. He mentions "headhunting everyone" to prove that he belonged in the league as #8. It seems obvious that it was this mentality that let Kobe Bryant score 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. There is no doubt that the #8 Kobe Bryant was an elite scorer, but he didn't get the team success he desired.
The key difference for Kobe Bryant between the two jerseys was mindset: when he wore #24, it was less about his personal game and more about team success. It seems that as Kobe Bryant matured, he realized what it took to help other guys get to the highest level. Kobe Bryant developed into an elite leader and realized that his teammates were the key to him winning championships. #24 was the peak form of Kobe Bryant, the one that learned how to sacrifice. Regardless of jersey number though, Kobe Bryant will always be remembered as someone who loved the game of basketball and defined the competitive spirit that came with the game.