If you were to quickly scan Kobe Bryant’s Basketball-Reference.com page, three things would quickly jump out at you.
- Ha ha. He looks funny with a fro.
- Wow, he’s played for a LONG time.
- Depending on the hour, his “All-Time Fan Ranking” on the site fluctuates between 95th and 120th.
That last part jumps out at me the most.
Then why is he surrounded by guys like Glen Rice, Maurice Cheeks, and Jeff Hornacek? Because for the last fifteen years, basketball fans have been drinking the Kobe Haterade.
It’s easy to point out the reasons for people to dislike Kobe:
- He started out his career as a spoiled ball hog.
- He had those hideous Adidas shoes.
- There was that whole situation in Colorado.
And oh yeah, his fans said he was the next Michael Jordan.
For one reason or another, Michael Jordan is sacred to most basketball fans. Comparisons can never be made to him. Criticisms are never valid.
Even mentioning that the possibility exists that someday, sometime, somewhere, somebody could ever possibly be better than His Airness is blasphemous to his most ardent supporters.
Your opinions of Michael Jordan are your own opinions. We are all free to think what we want. The problem is that in the process of defending MJ at all costs, many people have wound up criticizing Kobe Bryant to unfair and utterly ridiculous levels.
Basketball writers have become experts at giving the Mamba back-handed compliments.
“Wow! What a stat line! 81 points and 2 assists. He was only 8 assists away from a double-double!”
“Congratulations to Kobe Bryant for passing Michael Jordan in the all-time assists mark. It only took him 150 more games to do so.”
On and on the “compliments” come, causing what should go down as one of the greatest careers in NBA history to never get its just due.
Of course, Kobe has long compared himself to Jordan, and he has used the Bulls legend as a measuring stick for his own success. It could easily be pointed out that since Kobe himself continually makes the comparison, we are more than free to do so.
But how far do we take this?
Is it absolutely vital to Jordan fans that no non-Lakers fan should appreciate the Mamba? It sure seems that way.
In the past two months, Kobe Bryant has accomplished several milestones or submitted praise-worthy performances of some type. Let’s examine each one with the proper historical context, rather than the “He’s not Michael Jordan so there’s no way he can be good at all” mindset.
30,000 points (and counting)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, and Wilt Chamberlain. Those are the men that have scored 30,000 career points in the NBA. By any measure, this is an incredible accomplishment.
An even closer look at the all-time scoring leaders tells us that of the top nine scorers in NBA history, only Kobe and Michael were guards.
Basketball, at its core, is a game that is largely dependent upon size. Nearly every single NBA Championship team in history had a dominant big man. The teams that didn’t either had Michael Jordan, or a slew of good and versatile if not dominant bigs (think about any of the Pistons’ teams).
What Kobe Bryant accomplished in getting to 30,000 points is remarkable.
Of course, his haters are quick to point out that he still hasn’t caught up with Michael Jordan yet and has already played 134 more games than him. This clearly means that Kobe is nowhere near the scorer as Jordan, right?
That’s probably correct. However, it’s not as big of a gap as you might think.
How many points did Shaquille O’Neal take away from Kobe Bryant over the first eight years of his career?
Let’s be real conservative and say that Shaq took three additional shots away from Kobe every year from 1996 to 2004. And let’s pretend that none of those attempts were three-pointers. And let’s pretend that Kobe shot slightly worse than his career average (45%) on those attempts.
If Kobe were to only make 1.3 additional field goals a game, he would have scored an additional 1,459 points from 1996-2004. Today, he would be sitting at 32,220 points – less than 100 from Michael Jordan.
Here’s where you say, “Who cares?!? He still needed 134 more games to get that close!” Of course you are correct, but there are other factors as well.
How many games did it take Kobe Bryant to get to his “peak” compared to Michael Jordan? If each player started “peaking” at age 23, then Michael was at his apex around game #100. Kobe, on the other hand, played more than 330 games before he reached the same age.
There is no doubt that playing 71 games as an 18-year-old high schooler averaging 7 points a game would have undoubtedly caused Bryant to reach the same milestone in more games than MJ.
And then there’s the whole “scoring era” that Michael Jordan enjoyed, as opposed to the defensive masterminds and tactics that have dominated today’s NBA.
The common narrative is that Jordan scored in an era that was much more difficult to score in than it is today. In Jordan’s day, defenders could hand check, the game was more physical, and we all remember how rough those series were with New York and Detroit.
The problem is that this narrative is simply untrue.
It is an exaggeration hyped by Jordan lovers to somehow prevent anyone else from approaching his perch atop basketball royalty.
In 1988 (the year Jordan had a better year than any player not named Wilt in NBA history…until LeBron this season, which is a different story), every single team but one averaged more than 100 points per game. Twelve of the 22 (more than half) averaged at least 108 points per game.
- In 1989, every team except for the expansion Miami Heat averaged 100 per game. Fourteen of the 25 averaged at least 108.
- In 1990, every team except for the expansion Timberwolves averaged 100 per game. Twelve teams, again, averaged 108 points per game.
- From ’91 to ’93, there were never more than three teams in the league that averaged less than 100 points per game.
Now compare that with some of Kobe’s peak seasons:
- In 2000, seven of the twenty-nine teams averaged 100 points per game. No team averaged more than 105.
- From 2001 to 2005, no more than four of the 29 teams averaged 100 points per game in a single season. No team averaged more than 105.
- From 2005 to 2007, the Nash Suns broke the mold a little bit with their scoring explosion. They never averaged more than 110 points in a season though…and would have finished outside the top five in many of the early 90s seasons.
- Just last season, only three teams broke the 100 point threshold.
As much as you may want to claim it was immensely harder to score in Jordan’s era, that’s simply untrue. The athletes today are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than they were in Jordan’s day. In Jordan’s prime, there may have been three guys in the entire league that could match his athleticism – and one of them, Scottie Pippen, was on his own team!
Today, every team has two or three guys that are as big, fast, and athletic as Kobe. Of course, some of these guys can’t walk and chew gum at the same time (I’m looking at you, Al-Farouq Aminu), but they sure do have the potential of playing much better defense than Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle – two guys that guarded Michael Jordan in three of his six NBA Finals appearances.
Further than the athleticism though, the defensive systems in place today are much better than they were twenty years ago.
There is a reason why only nine players are averaging 20 points per game this season. In 2003, that number was 26. In 1989, that number was 27.
Defenses today are built to stop great individual scorers.
Every team puts an extra guy on the ball-side of the court to limit great individual players. Defenses are practically begging offensive players to make the skip pass and move the ball quickly. Wing defenders now crowd the ball while the entire rest of the defense crowds the lane.
Defenses are better, players are more athletic, and scoring is down. And still, Kobe Bryant reached 30,000 points.
We should be appreciating him and his scoring greatness. Instead, we mock him and say he’s not Michael Jordan.
And what if he isn’t?
Let’s say you ignore all of the above as simple “number magic” from a Kobe supporter. Let’s say you still think that Jordan was a better scorer (I happen to believe this too). That makes Kobe the second greatest scoring guard of all time. Is that really a “criticizable offense?”
So the guy isn’t the best. Second best is pretty good.
5,634 assists (and counting)
When Kobe passed Jordan in assists this past week, nearly everyone freaked out. Most people went through the following gamut of emotions:
- WHAT?!? Kobe has that many assists?!?!? No way!
- Junk…how can I possibly dismiss this?
- AHA!!!! He needed 134 more games to reach this mark than Michael Jordan. What a BALLHOG!
Besides the fact that it’s ludicrous to assert that a guy in the top 40 of all-time assists is a flat out ballhog, let’s look at Kobe’s assist numbers a little more closely and even compare him to the great Michael Jordan in this regard.
Anyone that understands basketball appreciates the triangle offense and what it has done for Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, and other basketball legends. The triangle has only one flaw: it severely limits assist totals for every individual player on the floor.
The triangle has long been called a “point guard killer” of an offense, because it takes the ball out of the PGs hands and encourages more movement and isolations from different spots on the court.
It’s not a coincidence that the highest assist total Kobe Bryant has ever posted in a season was the one year he played outside of the triangle for Rudy Tomjanovich. Interestingly enough, it looks as if he may post his second highest total this season – again, in a system outside of the triangle.
A quick look at Michael Jordan’s career tells us the same thing. MJ put up some astounding all-around numbers including assists before Phil Jackson came. In 1989, he actually averaged 8 assists a game.
Interestingly enough though, when you look at both players’ careers in the triangle, they come out eerily similar:
- In Michael Jordan’s eight seasons in the triangle, he dished out 2,966 assists over the course of 585 games. In those eight seasons in the triangle, MJ averaged 5.07 assists per game.
- In Kobe Bryant’s last eight seasons in the triangle, he dished out 3,177 assists over the course of 623 games. In those eight seasons in the triangle, Kobe averaged 5.099 assists per game.
Say it with me now…WOW.
Once you factor in the lower scoring, slower pace, and more complex defenses of the past decade, it becomes much more difficult to make the claim that Michael Jordan was any better of a passer or facilitator than the Black Mamba.
Of course this doesn’t fit the narrative. Kobe is the gunner with no regrets! Kobe is the guy who never saw a shot he didn’t like! Kobe is the immature ball hog that can’t get along with his teammates!
Meanwhile, we were raised to believe that Jordan was a selfish player early on who learned how to get his teammates more involved later in his career, which led to his and the Bulls’ success. Even now, with Kobe’s recent “Magic-like” play (he’s got 39 assists in the last three games), people are criticizing him for not “figuring it out” sooner.
“This,” they say, “is the Kobe that we should have been seeing all along. This is the Kobe that plays like Jordan.”
Apparently not. This is actually the same Kobe that was a much better passer than Jordan ever was during his championship seasons.
Again, the conclusion is up to you.
The previous numbers don’t necessarily indicate that Kobe is a more unselfish player than Jordan, and you can still easily make the argument that Jordan was the far more efficient player. One needs to look no further than the shooting percentages of each player to understand how efficient of a scorer Jordan was.
Still, there’s no need to use Kobe’s milestone as a reason to criticize him. At the very least, he’s been just as good of a passer and facilitator as Jordan was for the majority of his career.
1,200 games (and counting)
This milestone, of all of them, may be the most impressive of all.
Barring injury, Kobe Bryant is going to finish the 2013 season in 24th place on the all-time list for games played. Of the 23 players ahead of him, exactly one – Reggie Miller – played shooting guard. The rest of the list is riddled with big men who never shrunk and point guards who never got dumber.
It’s a fact: wings don’t age well in the NBA.
And yet, here is Kobe Bryant – a guy who plays harder than everyone else on a nightly basis – steadily marching up the charts.
Of course, Jordan fans have tried to minimize this feat and have even turned it into a criticism. After all, Jordan quit on purpose twice, and could have played until he was 65 if he had wanted to.
At this point, it’s clear what is going to happen.
When it’s all said and done, Kobe’s career numbers will be better than Jordan’s, and that’s rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. Again, Jordan was the greatest, is the greatest, and always must be the greatest. The mere idea that Kobe Bean Bryant would have better numbers than him is enough to make them sick.
In protest, they have turned his longevity into a negative. All of the sudden, the length of a career is irrelevant. Jordan’s peak was better than Kobe’s…so let’s just stop the comparisons.
Again, feel free to make your own conclusion.
I, for one, have come a long way on this one. To be honest, I once trolled people long and hard, trying to be “that guy” that was different and argued that Kobe was better than Jordan. Through growth, maturity, etc., I have backed off many of the outrageous claims I used to read (you can read them below).
I agree with most fans that Jordan’s peak was slightly better than Kobe’s. But my question is this: If a guy submitted a peak that was 97% as effective, and ends up playing for six or seven more years, doesn’t he at least warrant a discussion?
Either way, it’s time to stop the hate.
One way or another, Kobe’s been great.
It’s time for all of us to learn to appreciate.
This is not the first time Jon has address this topic. Read his other articles on the Kobe v MJ debate:
- Kobe First, Then Jordan
- Kobe, Jordan, and a Matter of Perspective
- Kobe vs MJ: Why You Shouldn’t Trust The Conventional Wisdom