[Editor’s note: I am very, very pleased this morning to introduce the newest member of our blogging team here at MSF.
Jon Washburn is an Indy native, a sports fanatic, and just dorky enough about his sports obsession to want to share his thoughts with others on the Internet; so he’ll fit right in with the rest of here at MSF. And let’s hope that his first article, posted below, is indicative of how good his content will be. If so, the rest of us are going to have to work really hard to keep up.]
Let’s break away from the “Summer of LeBron,” “The Decision,” and countless hours of commentary that have nothing to do with the actual game of basketball.
Instead, let’s talk about what should have been the topic of conversation all summer; let’s talk about people who have actually done something on the basketball court besides quit on their teammates during the playoffs so they could go play with his best friends on the beach.
Let’s talk about and compare the greatest player from this era and the greatest player from any era: Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
For over ten years now, Michael Jordan has been the clear, and undisputed, Greatest Player of All Time. We have tried to bestow “Next Jordan” status on countless players (Isaiah Rider, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, etc.), and failed each time. Every time one of them fails, we are vindicated in the thought that our hero, the Walking Swoosh, remains the greatest. Each time one of these “punk kids” proves that he doesn’t have what it takes, be honest, you have been a little happy.
Why? I’m not sure, but it really goes beyond the game, right? I mean, it’s not like we grew up singing, “I wanna be like Magic.” We never “dreamed we grew and flew like Bird.” There was just something so cool about MJ. He literally transcended the sport. He was the first legitimate “Global Icon.” Sorry, LeBron.
So pause, right now. Think about the Jumpman. Think about what he did for the game. Think about how he revolutionized and globalized it. Think about how he made you feel when you were a young kid who was just beginning to like basketball. Think about how he ripped your heart out when he beat your favorite team, or how he made you rejoice because you were one of the countless fans that started liking the NBA because you liked him. Think about how you would go to war with anyone that wanted to tell you that another player was better. Think about the ridiculousness of the conversation.
Do you have that all in your mind? Are you thinking about him?
Good. Now stop. Put that all out of your mind…because we are about to do the unthinkable. We are going to (once again) compare him to someone else. Someone that is not likable. Someone that definitely never had that “cool factor.” Someone that you think is another one of these punk kids. Someone that has no business being mentioned in the same breath as him.
We are going to compare him to Kobe Bryant.
So before you read the rest of this article (if you haven’t slammed the computer lid closed already), stop worshiping Jordan and put your biases aside.
If I wanted to play the emotional, subjective angle, I would point out right here that there should be no reason at all why Kobe is less likable than Jordan.
- Jordan – a guy that punched his teammate in practice for not playing hard enough.
- Jordan – a guy that recently went through one of the LARGEST divorce settlements in history (pre-Tiger of course) because he was so egregiously unfaithful to his wife.
- Jordan – a guy whose Hall of Fame speech was more arrogant than anything else I have ever heard.
(That’s right…Michael Jordan didn’t always get along with his teammates, he was unfaithful to his wife, and he was one of the most arrogant players of all time…and you thought those were the three reasons that you hated Kobe, right? Does it make any sense at all that Jordan is almost universally liked and Kobe is hated? And I won’t even mention the fact that Jordan may or may not have been banned from the NBA for 2 years for gambling).
But let’s be honest, Kobe just isn’t cool like Jordan. He doesn’t necessarily command your respect and attention. He doesn’t have that charisma. You would never ever sing, “If I could be like Kobe.” So let’s not talk about personalities. Kobe could never compete with Jordan there…nobody could. But I don’t need to play the emotional card. I want to compare their actual games.
In my mind, there were three things that made Jordan great: unmatched drive and competitiveness; unbelievable athletic ability and work ethic; and the ability to change his game late in his career.
If you are honest with yourself, only one man came close to him on the first one (Bill Russell), a few guys have had his athletic ability or work ethic but never both, and even fewer guys changed their games to stay great. And even if someone was lucky enough to come close in one area, no one came close in all three…no one except the Black Mamba.
Now I could exhaust myself trying to prove that Kobe is Jordan’s equal in each of these three areas, but that is not really where the crux of my argument lies. In reality, any true basketball fan, someone that follows the game, would give me those three points. You would at least say something like,
“Ok, maybe he doesn’t quite have Jordan’s drive, but he’s right there with Bill Russell for second place. You are right, his work ethic is legendary…just like Jordan’s (just ask both the Dream Team and the Redeem Team). And yeah, the way Kobe has changed his game this year (adding a post game and shooting better from outside) is very much like Jordan.”
So with those three points a given, I want you to consider three thoughts: an argument, a comparison, and a hypothetical.
- How is ’99 Kobe – ’06 Kobe any different from ’84 Jordan -’90 Jordan?
- Who did they have to beat to get to the top?
- If we could ever invent a time machine and make them switch places, would things be any different than they are currently?
1) How is young Kobe any different from young Jordan?
Forget about stats. They are often misleading, and in this case, they really don’t tell the whole story.
Yes, Jordan averaged over 25 a game as a rookie and Kobe didn’t even crack double figures. Yes, Jordan was the ROY and Kobe famously hoisted up air-balls in the All-Star Game. But stats really can’t tell the whole story.
Jordan came into the league as a 21-year old-man, while Kobe came in as a 17-year-old kid. Jordan was handed the keys to the car from day one, while Kobe went to a team with Shaquille O’Neal and played behind an all-star (Eddie Jones) at the same position. If you honestly think that Michael Jordan would have scored more as a 17-year old on the same team…you need a reality check.
No, my point is this:
Up until 1991 when Jordan won it all, we thought we knew three things about him: he was an amazing scorer, he hated losing, and his team could never win it all with him leading the league in scoring…selfish scorers like that just didn’t win championships (think about Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and Isiah’s Pistons during the 80s.) In fact, only one person in history (a young kid named Lew Alcindor) had ever won a championship while leading the league in scoring. Jordan would join Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and all the other selfish stars that lost to the unselfish teams, the thinking went.
Of course, we forget about that now that he has six titles and is considered the GOAT, but to quote Jordan from his book, For the Love of the Game, “By the start of the 88-89 season, the challenge was mental. I was perceived as a great player, but the criticism was still the same: The Bulls will never win a championship with Michael Jordan leading the league in scoring.”
Be honest. Haven’t you heard all of those things about Kobe? Kobe couldn’t win by himself. He is too selfish. He’s a great player, but he doesn’t “get it.”
Of course, we remember this so well because it’s much more recent. As little as 5 years ago, Kobe was scoring 81 points and missing the playoffs. The last thing we remember about Jordan was his shot over Russell. But ask “Air” himself…the feelings about young Jordan were very similar to those of young Kobe.
So what happened to change these thoughts about Jordan? Well, most people would say that he just “got it.” He bought into the triangle. He became unselfish. But in reality, the changes had nothing to do with Michael, and everything to do with what was happening around him.
Scottie Pippen came into his own. The Bulls got Phil Jackson. And not coincidentally, Magic, Bird, and Isiah all became old. That’s right. It’s easy to forget now, but Magic and Bird had both been in the league for ten years, and Isiah’s teams were washed up (by the way…if you are under the unfortunate delusion that the 90s were great and Jordan was the “King of the Greats,” you might want to stop reading when I get to point #2).
Unfortunately for Kobe, the only reasons that he won were because of his teammates…at least, that’s been the conventional wisdom. We deliberately choose to forget about the fact that he basically beat the Kings by himself in 2001 (48 points and 16 rebounds in the clincher!). We gloss over the fact that he has made so many All-NBA Defensive teams.
Look, both young Jordan and young Kobe had their shortcomings. But it’s much more fun to say that Jordan just “got it” whereas Kobe lucked out and got Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom later in his career. You can make that choice, but I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. They both grew up a little bit, they both got a little lucky, and their competitiveness eventually pushed them over the top.
2) Who did they have to beat to get to the top?
This argument can get rather lengthy, but I just want to make this point. Think about all of the “great” teams in the 90s. How many of them had more than one superstar? I guess if you want to say the Jazz, I’ll give you them. The Sonics had one good year with GP and a pre-coke Shawn Kemp. Shaq and Penny split up the year that Jordan got back. If you really want to press things, Hakeem and Clyde the Glide can make 1 1/2 stars. Those are the only teams, right?
Let’s evaluate the teams that Jordan actually had to beat.
The New York Knicks
Yeah, they were tough. Yes, they were incredibly physical. They absolutely took advantage of the rules as they were written back then. But weren’t Michael and Scottie BY FAR the two best players in this series? Really. Ewing, Starks, and Oakley? Who is legitimately scared about that team.
Besides all of that, the Bulls nearly beat them the year Jordan was gone! I think it’s safe to rule out the Knicks as some sort of “dynasty that would have been.”
The Utah Jazz
We’ll agree that Karl Malone was great…during the regular season. And we can say that we kind of enjoyed watching John Stockton play too. But if Jordan and Scottie played 2-on-2 against them 100 times, don’t they win them all? Honestly, the Jazz were just the left-overs of the Western Conference – the team that couldn’t get it done for years until Hakeem, Clyde, Barkley, and Magic were all old.
The Indiana Pacers
Quite possibly the only team that you could argue might have been better than the Bulls. They had Jalen Rose, Antonio Davis, Derrick McKey, Travis Best, and Austin Croshere…all coming off the bench. Their starting lineup included Hall of Famers Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller, and Mark Jackson, as well as All-Stars Dale Davis and Rik Smits. But really, at the end of the day, even as a die-hard Pacers fan, I have to admit that Jordan and Scottie were still by far the two best players in the series. And when you have a team that has won five titles playing a team that has never even been to one…it’s no surprise that the Bulls pulled it out.
So with all of that in mind, are you going to tell me that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen…the only team that had 2 bonafide superstars in the entire decade…shouldn’t have won that many titles in what was quite possibly the weakest era in NBA history?
That’s right. We don’t think about it now, but the 90s was the weakest era in the history of the league. The NBA expanded from 23 to 29 teams. Then we had the high school infusion of guys that would eventually be good…but not for 3-4 years. You don’t think this would water down the league? Sometime, when you are bored, you should just “dissolve” the 6 worst NBA teams and put all their players on other teams…tell me how much better each team gets.
This brings us back to Jordan and Scottie – the only team with 2 superstars. Plus, let’s give them the winningest coach in NBA history. Now riddle me this: why is the fact that they basically ran off six straight titles against a watered down league really that big of a deal?
Now you might try to tell me that Scottie wasn’t a superstar. Don’t waste your breath. I could tell you that he made more All-NBA First Teams then Stockton, Drexler, and Isiah. Or I could remind you of how he took a mediocre Bulls team to the Eastern Conference Semis after Jordan left. But here is my favorite stat:
In the ’94-’95 season, before Jordan came back, Scottie became the first player in history to lead his team in pts, rebs, assts, blks, and stls. The point? Scottie Pippen was REALLY REALLY good.
Now we have Kobe. The shortcomings of his that I hear most often are different versions of the same two arguments: A) He could never win without Shaq/Pau/Odom/Artest/etc. and B) Something about 6 for 24 in the NBA Finals.
Number one, if my previous novel about Jordan in the 90s proved anything, it’s the fact that NO ONE has ever won by himself. LeBron played about as good as is humanly possible these past three years and he didn’t even get all that close. Let’s stop pretending that Jordan is so much better than Kobe because he “did it himself.” Let’s stop pretending that anyone could ever “do it by himself.”
Let me also take the time to point out that Kobe had to go through the greatest PF in history (Tim Duncan), a top 4 PG (Nash), the greatest shooting big man (Dirk) and countless others (KG, Melo, D-Will, C-Webb, Bibby, Finley, Manu, Parker)…every year…just in his own conference. If you really break it down, the NBA is surprisingly MUCH deeper now than it was in the ’90s.
Now to the whole 6 for 24 thing. I get it. Jordan “rose to the occasion.” He “came up big when it mattered.” He had 63 in the Garden, The Shot, The 3-pointers, The Father’s Day Game, The Flu Game, The Shot 2, etc. You know what? You’re right. You can’t take those things away from Jordan.
But then I think about the fact that Kobe legitimately fantasizes about being guarded by Jeff Hornacek and Bryon Russell in BACK TO BACK NBA FINALS.
Seriously. I can’t stress this enough. There are two guys on every team now that are just as athletic as Kobe. There weren’t 2 guys in the entire NBA that were as athletic as Jordan. The only one that was even close was on his team. This, in part, makes the whole “6 for 24” argument bogus. But let’s look at the argument a little closer.
Look at the stats for Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. Seriously, I’m going to wait for you to look up the stats for Game 7 this past year.
- Pau Gasol – 6 for 16
- Ron Artest – 7 for 18
- Andrew Bynum – 1 for 5
- LaMar Odom – 3 for 8
- Guards on the Lakers’ bench – 0 for 6
- Paul Pierce – 5 for 15
- Ray Allen – 3 for 14
- Rajon Rondo – 6 for 13 (pretty good)
- Rasheed Wallace – 11 points on 11 shots
- The entire Lakers’ team – 83 points on 83 shots
- The entire Celtics’ team – 79 points on 71 shots
I mean really, it’s not like Kobe was the one guy who couldn’t rise to the occasion in this game. It’s not like the Lakers would have won had he just played as well as the rest of his teammates. The Celtics played some of the best defense of all-time.
In the playoffs alone, LeBron’s shooting percentage dropped from 58% to 45% against them. The great Pau Gasol’s shooting fell from 57% to 48%. And Kobe went from 49% to 41%. This was the Celtics. This is what they DID. Kobe actually had the smallest drop-off of any of the superstars.
Would Jordan have lit it up against that defense? Would Magic? Would Bird? Would anybody?
Yes, Kobe shot poorly, but so did Jordan in his final game. No one remembers this, but Jordan shot 15 of 35 from the field in Game Six against the Jazz in ’98. The rest of his box score wasn’t that glamorous either. 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 turnover.
With Jordan, we ignore all of that and remember the layup, the steal, and the shot. Kobe, on the other hand, somehow pulls down fifteen rebounds, plays stellar defense, and manages to get to the free throw line time after time in the fourth quarter to lead his team to victory, with a broken digit on his shooting hand, and what do we remember? 6 for 24.
You know what else? I’m willing to bet that if Kobe ever scored 45 points, but did it on 15 for 35 shooting and only had one assist, we’d kill him for that too. Preposterous.
Look, I’m not going to say that Jordan was able to just “waltz” through the 90s. I remember those series with the Knicks, Pacers, and Jazz. They were tough. He was beaten up. They were genuine battles. But could you ever say, even once, that the Bulls shouldn’t have won a series? No. In fact, I will go so far as to say this: in my mind, I think that Kobe’s five rings (in a more athletic era, against more quality teams, etc.) are just as impressive as Jordan’s six.
3) If they traded places, would things be any different?
Here is where you have to make a decision. Again, we know a few things:
- Jordan was more competitive than anyone.
- He changed the game.
- He was our hero.
But honestly, if it was possible to put Kobe in a time machine and transport him into a much less athletic league onto a team with the greatest coach of all time and the greatest #2 option of all time…do you really think he WOULDN’T have won 6?
I’m sure there are many of you that think he wouldn’t have. But I bet your reasons are mainly made up of “facts” like, “you just don’t like Kobe” and “you think Jordan was the GOAT.”
If you want to debate the idea that the ’90s were weak, let’s do it. If you want to make the statement that “Jordan never ever would have missed the playoffs twice like Kobe did after Shaq left,” I might listen to you. Those are legitimate arguments. (BTW. Kobe’s second best player on that team was either Smush Parker or Kwame Brown…Jordan always had one of the top 5 other players in the LEAGUE on his own team…)
But it’s time to take off the Jordan-colored-binoculars. Let’s stop sipping the “Air” kool-aid. From where I’m sitting, for the first time in my life, someone finally deserves to be in the conversation with “His Airness.”
That player is Kobe Bryant.
And no matter what my pre-conceived feelings towards him may have been, the truth can’t be ignored. We finally have a worthy challenger. And I for one am willing to throw Kobe into the ring with him.
Now, he may not win. He may come out bloodied, bruised, and beaten down. He may even get knocked out…Jordan was that fierce. But even so, the mere fact that someone is worthy of the conversation is a victory.
And you know what else? I’m willing to bet that even if he had a broken finger, Kobe would give the GOAT a run for his money.
* – MJ holding trophy photo source: AllFamousPeople.com
* – Kobe grabbing jersey photo source: PE.com
* – Kobe and MJ picture: Orlando Sentinel Blogs