Michael Jordan opened a can of worms by ranking Kobe Bryant ahead of LeBron James, but his justification is as superficial as possible.
The logic behind Jordan’s list is flawed. “There’s something about five that beats three. Kobe won five championships. LeBron won three,” said Jordan at his Flight School on Monday. Someone in the audience asked his Airness this question, and he went on to add that he’s better than both Bryant and James. Which is correct.
Jordan, who’s never been a great talent evaluator, has logic that means Bill Russell is the greatest ever (he’s in that discussion, for sure). Then, Sam Jones (10), John Havlicek (8) and Robert Horry (7) are some of the other guys who are greater than Jordan. Are they? No. The rings argument also means that Jim Loscutoff is on the same level as Jordan. “Jungle Jim” averaged 6.2 points and 5.6 rebounds for his career.
There’s a danger when having a debate like this because, honestly, the only edges Kobe has on LeBron are championships and psychology. The latter played a role in Bryant’s success, but he, just like every other champion, didn’t do it all by himself. At the risk of my Twitter mentions, I’m going to go ahead and say that LeBron is greater than Kobe when you look at the total package.
Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean that Kobe isn’t an all-time great basketball player. He is. And I can’t refute that. He’s the second-greatest shooting guard ever who’s also one of the most skilled players ever to play the game. He willed himself to greatness with an unwavering cockiness that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Kobe Bryant didn’t give a damn about anything except winning and being great. I respect that.
I also feel that LeBron has the same mentality, but just doesn’t show it as flamboyantly as Kobe. That’s fine. I respect that, too.
Before we start, I just want to make a few things clear:
- Anything Kobe related will be from 2013 and earlier. Those last three years shouldn’t count because he was a shell of himself at that point and it would only take away from his greatness.
- This piece will include all aspects of basketball — numbers, playoff performances, accolades and the actual skills the two displayed when on the floor.
- I am not a stan for either side. I love basketball. I love the NBA. The arguments I make here will be completely objective and, although I’m opinionated about certain things, I won’t let that sway the debate too far in one direction.
Without further adieu, let’s begin!
The easiest place to start is with the numbers. I figured I’d get these out of the way now so I can add context to them as we go along. Per game stats are more prominent than others with points, rebounds and assists being in the upper echelon. James leads in all three:
- Points: 27.1 to 25.5
- Rebounds: 7.3 to 5.3
- Assists: 7.0 to 4.8
We expected this because LeBron is the greatest all-around player ever to grace an NBA court. He does things that few have done before him, and accomplishing it at 6-8, 260 with freak athleticism makes it even tougher. Kobe never had to be the versatile wing and his selfishness was his best quality; I’ve harped on James before for being too passive. When the Mamba had the ball, his objective was simple — pick his target, attack and kill. And do it as many times as possible.
There is, however, a point often made that Bryant is a better scorer than James. Statistically, that’s not true. LeBron not only averages more points, but he shoots better overall (50.1 to 45.4) and is only 0.6 percentage points behind Bryant in three-point percentage (34.2 to 33.6). Kobe’s clear edge comes from the free throw line, where he sits at 83.8 percent on 7.6 nightly attempts. The charity stripe has never been generous to James, and, despite getting there more often (8.2), he sits at 74 percent.
Kobe Bryant is a better isolation player. He just has more in his bag. Because of a rather piddling outside shooting clip, I won’t say Bryant’s a three-level scorer. He had the explosiveness to get to the basket and finish, and he’s always had a killer mid-range shot that was made even more lethal by outstanding footwork and poise with his back to the basket. Kobe was also a solid ball handler and could create off a series of dribble moves, something that makes me cringe when I see LeBron doing it.
Despite his size, James didn’t develop a post game until his later years with the Miami Heat. And it’s puzzling. He’s a physical freak who can out-muscle anyone who’s close to his size, but he doesn’t have the polish that Kobe di.
James is power. Kobe is finesse. It’s that simple. They both had flashes of doing the opposite, especially Frobe, but those are the foundations their games are based upon.
The clearest edge between the two is with playmaking/basketball IQ. James is a savant. His career assists average is the best among forwards and is second among players who are 6-8 and taller. Magic Johnson is the first. Not only are the numbers jaw-dropping, but the level of difficulty on some passes are also so high that only Magic or Chris Paul could make them, and it’s clear that James was born with a gift. Just like Kobe has his “Mamba Mentality,” James has a sixth sense when he’s on the court and can slide passes to where us mere mortals don’t think they’d fit.
As we get deeper into the information age, advanced stats — or analytics — are more frequently in arguments. Like anything else, they need context. You can’t base an entire argument on someone’s box plus/minus. However, you can include it.
Metrics like that have grown on me recently; they give us different ways to look at a player’s impact, and LeBron and Kobe are on two different ends of the spectrum. Advanced stats help calculate efficiency. It’s a running joke that Bryant is a shot-chucker who doesn’t like to pass but, as J. Cole said, “all good jokes contain true shit.”
The standard stats already tell us James has more of an impact when he plays. Numbers like PER, win shares and box plus/minus justify it. James edges out Bryant in PER, 27.6 to 23.4; BPM is 9.1 to 4.3 in favor of LeBron, and that’s something that includes both defense and offense. Lastly, win shares estimate how many wins a player contributed to. Despite playing more games, Bryant’s 173.3 pale in comparison to the 205.4 from James.
It’s no secret that James does more on both ends. Defensively, Kobe gets knocked more than he should. The stigma is that he was terrible and that just isn’t true. Average at best? Yeah, but not a total liability. He managed to make 12 All-Defensive teams, but that’s a bit misleading. When Kobe choose to, his athleticism and length allowed him to be a huge pest, but he lacked the versatility that James has. Over the last few years, LeBron has regressed from being an elite defender to a great one, but both guys had to do so much on offense that defense often took a back seat.
Bryant and LeBron have played their way to a trophy room’s worth of hardware. Combined, they’ve won eight titles, five regular season MVPs and five Finals MVP. Further, Kobe landed on 15 All-NBA teams with James being not far behind at 13. All throughout the 2000s, James and Kobe were mentioned side-by-side because of their talents. It takes more than that to win a championship, and those are crucial going by Jordan’s logic.
Three ingredients are necessary for reaching the NBA’s pinnacle: talent, chemistry and luck. They’re equally important. Without talent, you can’t compete. Without chemistry, guys won’t trust each other. Luck is tricky because no one can practice it. Kobe spent hours perfecting his game while the team worked tirelessly to form an unshakeable on-court bond. I’m not afraid to say that Kobe got luckier than LeBron.
It’s not James’ fault that he’s dealt with dysfunctional front offices who changed coaches like underwear. It’s not Kobe’s fault that his organizations were better run.
Getting Shaq played a huge role in the Lakers’ success, but they didn’t start winning until Phil Jackson became the head coach. He brought the triangle, a system that accentuated the strengths of Shaq and Kobe offensively. It allowed them to play off of each other. O’Neal was the behemoth inside that no one could handle, and that meant constant double and triple teams.ff
It took four seasons for Kobe to become what we remember him as. He didn’t crack 25 points a night until 2000, where he jumped from 22.5 to 28.5. However, he was never the clear-cut best player on his team like LeBron was. Throughout his career, James has never taken a backseat to anyone. Shaq wasn’t worlds better than Kobe, but he was more dominant. When the Lakers three-peated, O’Neal averaged 29.9 points and 14.5 boards in the playoffs. He also shot 55.2 percent from the floor on 21.3 nightly attempts. Kobe was at 25.3 points on 20.8 shots with a 44.7 percent clip.
Like I said, Shaq wasn’t the obvious number one guy and the two split time operating in that role. However, if I’m coaching, I’m looking in the post before anywhere else because chances are it’s an easier bucket. The numbers prove that.
LeBron didn’t get someone like Shaq until he left Cleveland for Miami. That’s an entirely different argument, but the Cavaliers didn’t do what was necessary for them to compete. The Boston Celtics were too much for James to handle by himself, and I feel the Cavs took him for granted. That’s nothing I can say for Kobe. It always appeared that organization knew he was a unique talent.
From 2004 to 2010, James led the Cavaliers to five playoff berths. They reached the Finals in 2007 before getting manhandled by the San Antonio Spurs. Over the course of the 71 total games, James averaged 29.3 points, 8.4 boards and 7.3 dimes. On top of that, he shot 45.9 percent from the field, which kind of (but not really) covered up his heinous 31.6 percent clip from three. (I hope no one ever forgets a 22-year-old LeBron literally dragging the Cavaliers to the Finals in ‘07. He had Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic wrapped around both of his ankles with Drew Gooden pulling on the back of his jersey. Luckily, he had Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Gooden, who combined for 24 points per playoff game. James averaged 25.1 by himself. It was a truly magical run that I don’t think anyone else in NBA history would’ve been able to do. The one who’s closest is Jordan.)
James didn’t win his first championship until 2012, which came two seasons after Kobe won his final two. Back then, even as two of the NBA’s best players, comparing them was blasphemous. Bryant was now just one ring away from tying Michael Jordan, and that would’ve put him in the conversation of the greatest of all time. However, there was a rough patch.
We throw a lot of criticism at LeBron for not doing more with less. Kobe went through the same thing. After driving Shaq out of Los Angeles, Bryant missed the postseason in 2005 and got bounced in seven and five games, respectively, over the next two seasons. Over those campaigns, Kobe became a relatively reckless gunslinger who would take it personally if you looked at him the wrong way. He’d then drop 35 on your head. LeBron catches far more grief than any other star about not winning championships, but he’s never once had a first-round exit. Obviously, other factors play into this. I’m not against someone hating on James for not carrying bad teams. All I want is some fairness.
When the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler were the two best players after Kobe. It’s abundantly clear that you need a team to win a title, and that’s why LeBron went down to Miami.
Bryant also got fed up with losing at one point; with having to do everything and not seeing any success. It happened a decade ago, but we can’t forget when he requested a trade from the Lakers. “I would like to be traded, yeah. Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative, you know?” He said that to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, and said “no, bro” when Smith asked if the Lakers could do anything to keep him.
Those remarks came on May 30. Los Angeles lost Game 5 of their first round matchup against the Suns on May 2.
Things worked themselves out. Kobe stayed a Laker. In February of 2008, the organization traded for Pau Gasol and the rest is history. Bryant wins two more titles and proves just how great he is. Although the situations between James and Kobe are different, the premise is the same. Ultimately, the deciding factor was ownership. Bryant had a profound respect for Jerry Buss and told Adrian Wojnarowski “how much staying a Laker for life meant to him.” Plus, let’s just call it how we see — Buss was a better owner than Dan Gilbert.
Bryant’s record in the Finals is better than James’, and anyone who has this debate acknowledges that. Kobe has lost just two championships. LeBron’s at four. On the surface, it’s a great point to make, but what if I told you that James outplayed Kobe in their respective Finals? Would you believe me? Thanks to Basketball Reference’s Game Finder, I crunched some numbers comparing James, Michael and Kobe. The results were astounding:
LeBron’s numbers also include 2017. Despite getting beat by the Warriors in five games, he averaged a triple-double for the series, and Cleveland did everything possible to slow down Golden State. The reason the Cavs lost was simple: they didn’t have enough talent.
Since we’re talking about the Finals, I have to bring up 2011. Yes, the infamous series where James disappeared against the Dallas Mavericks. Miami was favored to win that year, one of the two times a James-led team wasn’t the underdog. It was tough to watch. In the six games, LeBron put up just 17.8 points, a mark so small that Jason Terry averaged more. I have yet to meet someone who says that James showed up for that series. The fact of the matter is that he didn’t, and it’s always a talking point when discussing the greatness of LeBron. And there’s no doubt it hampered his legacy.
Sometimes, I scroll through Twitter mentions when I get bored. More often than not, someone defending Kobe will bring up this loss. It puzzles me. The Lakers got swept by the eventual champions and were outscored by 14 points a night for the series. Kobe played better than James and put up 23.3 points while shooting a tick under 46 percent, but the Lakers getting swept is inexcusable. And you have to put that on Kobe because he was their best player.
It’s okay to point out LeBron’s meltdown, but only if you touch on Bryant’s in 2004 against the Detroit Pistons. Los Angeles lost in five games that year, and Kobe posted 22.6 points with a dreadful shooting clip of 38.1 percent. Then, a couple of years later in 2008, the Lakers were on the losing end of a 39-point blowout against the Boston Celtics in the sixth game of the series. Boston rose their 17th banner that evening, and although it was a team effort, Kobe had one of the most forgettable performances of his career — 22 points on 7-of-22 shooting.
These are small sample sizes. A few games here and a series there doesn’t prove anything. However, the numbers demonstrate that, objectively, LeBron is the better player come the postseason. Just like the regular season, James leads in points, rebounds and assists:
- Points: 28.4 to 25.6
- Rebounds: 8.9 to 5.1
- Assists: 6.9 to 4.7
It’s not a radical jump, but a jump nonetheless. Kobe’s numbers fall off a bit, but it’s hardly noticeable. Both stars also make a lesser percentage of their shots (48.5 for James and 44.8 for Bryant), and that has to do with more minutes and an even more strenuous workload. If we want to throw some advanced stats in there, James PER is 27.9 with a BPM of 10.8; Kobe’s at 22.4 and 4.4, respectively. It’s clear that, even in the playoffs, James is the far more impactful player. Even during his years with the Big Three, LeBron was still the guy bearing the brunt of the workload.
I dug some more because I’m a nerd and like my dose of numbers. When we talk about Kobe, the “killer instinct” always comes up alongside the “clutch gene.” It’s a fascinating conversation to have. Both James and Bryant are killers. They’re not comparable because Kobe would want to take the last shot no matter what, whereas James is going to make the right basketball play. That’s the narrative, and it’s fitting. More times than not, we’ve seen Kobe take the last shot or James kick the ball out to the open man.
Both guys have hit their share of clutch shots, but the data begs to differ. I went back to Basketball Reference and used the shot finder for Kobe and LeBron and set the criteria as follows: in the playoffs, in the 4th quarter or overtime, with 24 seconds or less left in the quarter on the shot to tie or take the lead. What I found was contrary to every narrative I’ve ever seen: (Please note that the shot finder only goes back to 2000-01, so Bryant’s data may be slightly off.)
I was shaking. My life is a lie. If you need someone to make a shot to tie or to win, James has to be the guy, but I know that isn’t entirely correct. I can see why people pick Kobe, and I think it’s because he’s the purer shooter — from mid-range, at least. If I need either of them to make a three to save my life, I’m going to accept my fate and probably won’t look to see what happens. (There’s data for this too, don’t worry; Kobe’s 1-of-10 and James is 1-of-5.)
My objective was simple. I wanted to do my best to end the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James debate. For some, the back-and-forth arguing for each party won’t ever end, but, I believe that it should. James surpasses Kobe in every category statistically and is a better basketball player. The only thing Bryant has are more championships, but debating the greatest of all time shouldn’t be limited to just that. Numbers, seeing the player play and impact on and off the court need to be included, and this piece was limited to the hardwood only.
You’re going to have your opinion, and I respect it. Ultimately, I hope to come back to this piece after LeBron retires. James’ hasn’t finished his book. Kobe has. With all of this, it’s paramount to remember that I — in no way, shape or form — tried to tear down Kobe Bryant’s greatness or do anything to put LeBron James on a pedestal for which he’s unworthy.
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