by Ben Collins / @oneunderscore__

It’s 4 a.m., Kobe Bryant is off somewhere drinking mule sweat or something, and he is not happy.

He’s not happy because for the first time since Michael Jordan left the NBA, he’s going into the season as the second-best shooting guard in basketball. Or third. Or fourth. He is pissed. He is probably spitting out the mule sweat.

But here’s the thing: Kobe Bryant’s ranking in the SLAM Top 50 is not an indictment on Kobe Bryant. It’s an indictment on mule sweat, or whatever the hell he’s drinking or eating or doing to repair his torn left achilles.

He’s getting the best treatment in the world. It’s probably illegal. He’s probably going to turn green by the time he’s 57. Technology is incredible, but technology sucks compared to how badly Kobe wants to play basketball again while he can still win a Championship by himself.

Depending on what reports you’ll read, he’ll be back on opening night. Or by Thanksgiving. Or by Christmas. Or he’ll take the year off if they’re tanking. (By the way, you be the guy who has to tell Kobe that he’s not playing this year when they’re 7-15. I dare you.) This is the reason he’s No. 6 in the SLAM Top 50, and not No. 2 or 3. This is the reason there is a Rocket with a beard and a better coach ahead of him somewhere on this list.

It’s not because he doesn’t still have it. He still has it. Good God, does he still have it.

If you want proof, you should probably revisit the night his achilles chose not to keep up with him anymore.

I was in a bar in L.A. when this went down, because that is the place you hang out, alone, almost every night of the week when you’re a New York Giants fan. When he limped off (for the second time that night, mind you—he’d gotten kneed in the thigh earlier, and that looked worse), there wasn’t a hush. It wasn’t like the movies. There was no record screeching. The bar was too loud for that.

But one guy did yell this: “Oh, JEEE-ZUS CHRIST.” Just like that, all big and Ron Burgundy and guttural like that. There aren’t many epiphany moments out there in the universe, but this guy very quickly came to the realization that this team was now Dwight Howard’s team, and Dwight Howard doesn’t like playing basketball.

The Lakers needed to win nine of their last 10 to make the Playoffs. They did it and because this was the stretch Kobe had before he went down: In his last seven games, he dropped 28.8 ppg, 8.3 apg and 7.3 rpg. The Lakers won six of them. He played 43 or more minutes in all of those games, and at least 47 in four of them.

And then his achilles gave up because no one should be doing that kind of thing at 34.

The Lakers made the Playoffs last year, but they didn’t show up. They didn’t have their rock anymore. Looking back at it, there’s no non-emotional reason the Lakers should have stopped competing in the first round against the Spurs last year.

They didn’t play hard because they didn’t have Kobe. Without Kobe, they did not have a real chance. Without Kobe, it wasn’t even worth pretending that wasn’t true.

Pau Gasol was there and healthy and waiting for someone to use his high screens. Steve Nash was wearing a walk-in freezer on his lower back to keep it cool, but he was still available to run an offense. After a decade in the NBA, Steve Blake figured out that he should’ve been a shooting guard that whole time. Metta World Peace was his normal defensive lunatic self. Dwight Howard was present, technically, in the the physical sense.

To recap, that’s one definite Hall of Famer, two potential Hall of Famers, and a guy who plays defense like Lenny from “Of Mice and Men.” Still, after Game 2, they just quit.

Steve Nash hurt too much, Steve Blake hurt too much, Metta hurt too much, and Dwight Howard didn’t feel like playing for the Lakers anymore.

After Game 3, when the Lakers lost by 31 to the Spurs at home and L.A. started Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris in their backcourt, Mike D’Antoni said this quote, verbatim: “We’ll play as hard as we can play and hopefully it’ll work out a little better.” He wasn’t even hoping his team would win the next game, he was hoping things would work out better if they played as hard as they could.

Why? Because Kobe Bryant wasn’t on the floor anymore. That is it. That is the only reason.

Kobe Bryant is the Lakers. That’s not stopping this year. Rankings on the Internet don’t matter. If he plays, L.A. will get hot and scare the West. If he doesn’t, they’ll be hunting for Randles and Wigginses. It’s that easy.

And by the way, tell him he should be ranked worse than sixth on the SLAM Top 50. See what happens.

Where should Kobe Bryant rank in the SLAM Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Monta EllisMavsSG5
49Luol DengBullsSF10
48Ricky RubioTWolvesPG14
47Greg MonroePistonsPF12
46Kawhi LeonardSpursSF9
45Mike ConleyGrizzliesPG13
44Al JeffersonBobcatsC9
43David LeeWarriorsPF11
42Jrue HolidayPelicansPG12
41Anthony DavisPelicansPF10
40Joe JohnsonNetsSG4
39Serge IbakaThunderPF9
38Kevin GarnettNetsPF8
37Rudy GayRaptorsSF8
36Paul PierceNetsSF7
35Ty LawsonNuggetsPG11
34Pau GasolLakersPF7
33Al HorfordHawksC8
32Andre IguodalaWarriorsSF6
31Brook LopezNetsC7
30Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF6
29DeMarcus CousinsKingsC6
28Damian LillardBlazersPG10
27Josh SmithHawksSF5
26Joakim NoahBullsC5
25Roy HibbertPacersC4
24John WallWizardsPG9
23Chris BoshHeatC3
22Tim DuncanSpursPF5
21Dirk NowitzkiMavsPF4
20LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF3
19Rajon RondoCelticsPG8
18Marc GasolGrizzliesC2
17Blake GriffinClippersPF2
16Deron WilliamsNetsPG7
15Kevin LoveTWolvesPF1
14Dwyane WadeHeatSG3
13Paul GeorgePacersSF4
12Russell WestbrookThunderPG6
11Tony ParkerSpursPG5
10Stephen CurryWarriorsPG4
9Kyrie IrvingCavsPG3
8Dwight HowardRocketsC1
7Derrick RoseBullsPG2
6Kobe BryantLakersSG2

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.