Michael Jordan recently weighed in on the debate this week over who is that better basketball player: Lebron James or himself. Only, he weighed in to say that Lebron had not even caught Kobe Bryant in terms of contribution to the game. It appears Bryant’s chances of catching Jordan with his sixth ring may be fading as the Lakers struggle, but in many ways the comparison between Bryant and James is easier because they played the same position and Bryant has most of his career in the books.
While Kobe has earned MJ’s respect, it is clear that he has not surpassed him. The man who decided to wear #24 to signify being better than the best has come short.
With much of the conversation this past week focused on the ongoing MJ v. LJ debate (Michael Jordan versus Lebron James), it is clear to me that we can close the book with a strong answer to the first “Next MJ” question. The verdict is in: Kobe Bryant is no Michael Jordan.
Bryant’s entry into the league coincided with the final stages of Jordan’s career (excluding the two year stint with the Wizards) and analysts were searching for the next “Air Jordan.” Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and others all flirted with the attempt to claim the mantle, but while their stars faded, Bryant’s burned brighter and the question continued. Could Bryant be the heir apparent? Could he be better?
And no one relished the question as much as Bryant who thrived on it and yearned for it.
There were striking similarities between the two. Both had high basketball IQs, were high flying slam dunk artists in their younger days, possessed unbelievable drive and will to win, yet they both struggled to win championships in their first years in the league. They have similar builds and skill sets, and they each have a knack for demanding the most from their teammates.
Jordan and Bryant also each played their best basketball with a compliment player: Jordan with Pippen and Bryant with Gasol (Shaq could hardly be considered a “compliment player,” but was himself a standalone star). And, each has had incredible success winning championships. Jordan has six, while Bryant has five.
Bryant has an argument to be made. In the post-Jordan era, no one has a record of accomplishment that parallels Bryant’s. Despite a slow start to his career due to coming to the NBA straight out of high school and despite sharing the spotlight and the stats with Shaquille O’Neal (one of the game’s most dominant big men of all time), Bryant has averaged over 25 points per game in his career.
In addition to being a five time NBA champion, Bryant is a fifteen time All-Star selection, a nine time All-Defensive Team First Team selection, and a ten time All-NBA First Team choice. Even with all these awards, Bryant still has several years left in his career.
However, Kobe Bryant is no Michael Jordan. The verdict is in, and the case is closed.
There was always a general sense that Bryant would not reach the heights of “His Airness,” however, I believe we can now say that is a fact.
The conversation this week has been all about Jordan versus Lebron. The only mention of Kobe has been a few rare mentions in comparison to James, as if Bryant were a stepping stone, another rung in the ladder that James might have to best before the real debate of MJ v. LJ can begin. The fact that the greatest basketball player of all-time is at most a one sided two person debate that excludes Bryant, shows where the general consensus firmly lies.
Additionally, while Jordan has only one more championship, he never had the supporting cast that Bryant has enjoyed in each of his five runs. He never had a Shaq, and I would argue that even Gasol is better than Pippen. Jordan also had a run of six consecutive championships in seasons in which he played the full year, and won the Finals MVP each of those six seasons compared to two for Bryant.
Also, in addition to outscoring Bryant by nearly five points per game, Jordan outperformed Bryant in assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. He also won the NBA MVP five times (compared to Bryant’s one) and was able to win Defensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year (two awards Bryant never was given). Finally, in fewer seasons played Jordan matched Bryant’s selections to the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams.
Kobe Bryant is on the down side of his career. He is still one of the best players in the league, but he will not be able to catch Jordan statistically or in terms of dominance. While it is possible, that Bryant could catch his number of championships, Jordan accomplished his feats despite leaving the game in his prime and then retiring early once again only to return to play in his forties as an All-Star caliber player.
Bryant has not and will not catch Jordan in terms of performance or in the hearts and minds of basketball fans. He does not have a version of “The Flu Game,” or “The Shot,” and it is safe to say he never will. He never played competition as stiff as Jordan’s nor did he have a supporting cast as poor, and he will never accomplish as much.
While the jury is still out on whether Lebron will be able to claim the mantle of greatest of all time, the verdict is in for Bryant. He is innocent of all charges of being “The Next MJ.” He is one of the greatest of all-time, but he fell short of being the best.
Follow Cole Muzio on Twitter @ColeMuzio