After I submitted my Top 20 NBA Players list to Jerod on Monday night, I braced for the fallout. To my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had predicted.
On the one hand, almost nobody objected to Kareem being #1. I did my list a little differently, pretending like I was a GM that was drafting a player for his entire career. I think most people understood that, and the argument of “20 years (16 quality) is better than 15 years (11 quality)” seemed to fly pretty well.
On the other hand, there’s the whole “Michael Jordan” thing.
To be fair, the responses I have gotten are probably 60/40 in favor of Jordan over Kobe. However, most of the people that agreed with me were nice enough to e-mail me personally to tell me so, whereas Jordan’s supporters were much more vocal in the comment section and on my twitter page.
This doesn’t surprise me for two reasons:
- It’s much more fun to voice disagreements in public. I can’t even remember how many comments I’ve posted on writers’ pages when I disagreed with them. On the flip side, it’s not that fun to take time out of your day to tell the writer, “Yo dude. I agree. Nice job.”
- People almost universally love Michael Jordan…even when they take it to creepy “girlfriend lying to herself about her cheating boyfriend” extremes. I mean really, I could tell you that Michael Jordan once shot Jud Buechler in the kneecap for not finishing a suicide at 100%, and you would tell yourself, “Awesome! Jordan was such a competitor!” Of course, Kobe rolls his eyes at a teammate, and the entire blogosphere blows up with “Kobe is a bad teammate” storylines. I mean really, look no further than “Basketball-reference.com’s” All-Time Fan Ratings. Jordan is #1, and Kobe is #201…right behind Kevin Willis.
Anyway, I wanted to take the time to dive into the Kobe vs. Jordan debate once more. Once again, the rules for this list are further detailed here, but remember: Longevity matters, Era matters, and Rings matter, but aren’t the ultimate trump cards.
- Kobe Bryant’s peak will never ever be as good as Michael Jordan’s peak. But it’s not nearly as lopsided as people think. Because of this, Kobe’s longevity not only narrows the gap, but turns the balance in his favor.
- Championships, at their core, are team accomplishments. So it’s unfair to say that anybody is better than anyone else just because they have rings. Is Steve Kerr really better than Steve Nash? No. Thank you very much. I’ll be here, spewing out smart things, all night. I also believe, wholeheartedly, that Jordan’s teams were much more stacked compared to the competition than Kobe’s were.
On to point number one.
Peak vs Longevity
Quickly, if you had to choose one of the following two players to build your team around, who would it be (as much as you may want to, you aren’t allowed to say “Neither”): Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter?Try to forget, for just a few minutes, that both players aren’t winners. You really wouldn’t build around either of them…but if you had to, who would you take?
Any true basketball fan knows that T-Mac’s peak was simply higher than Vincanity’s. At one point, he was the best pure scorer in the league, an underrated passer, and simply unstoppable at times – averaging 33 and 28 PPG as a 23- and 24-year-old. He made two All-NBA First Teams, three Second Teams, and had a 4-year-peak of 28-8-5.
Vince, on the other hand, peaked at 26 and 28 PPG as a 24- and 25-year-old. He only made one All-NBA Second Team and one Third Team while averaging 26-6-4 over three seasons.
At first glance, the average guy would take T-Mac. But then you remember that out of MacGrady’s fourteen seasons, only seven of them were quality (It’s amazing when you realize that T-Mac is only 31 right now, when it seems like he’s been washed up for 5 years). Carter, on the other hand, had ten straight seasons of 20+ PPG, and is still a viable 15 PPG player on a contender thirteen years into his career.
Basically, T-Mac’s prime needs to have been considerably better than Vince’s prime in order to take a seven-year career over one that’s twice as long. In my opinion, most GM’s would sacrifice two points, two rebounds, and one assist in order to get six additional quality years.
This is my first argument for Kobe over Jordan.
Michael Jordan played for fifteen years, but he broke his foot in 1985-86 and only started seven games (Yes, Jordan fans, I understand this was flukey…and doesn’t often happen…but it did happen. Sure, Jordan was robbed of a season unfairly…but he was still robbed. End of story). He also missed the entire 1993-94 season during his baseball hiatus, and he only played seventeen games in 1994-95. There go two more years. Finally, his last two years in Washington were awesome years for a 38- and 39-year-old…but not really Jordan-esque, and definitely not “Top 100 Players Ever” types of years.
Meanwhile, Kobe just finished his fifteenth year as well. In his first two years, as an 18- and 19-year-old playing behind All-Star Eddie Jones, The Mamba only started seven games total. It would be hard (to say the least) to call those years “quality” years. However, he has been at least a 20 PPG scorer and started all but five games since he was twenty years old.
That gives us thirteen years of High Quality Kobe Bryant compared to just eleven for Michael Jordan. (This is also assuming that Kobe Bryant is done right now. I don’t think he’s finished, but I think we could all agree that his career is winding to a close. I think an incredibly conservative assessment would be that Kobe has one more good year, and then two or three more that are similar to Jordan on the Wizards. Whatever. I will give you Jordan fans the benefit of the doubt…let’s just pretend that Kobe is completely washed up now.)
Now, as a GM, Jordan’s eleven years need to be much better than Kobe’s thirteen years in order to draft Air ahead of the Mamba. So let’s take a look at their actual peaks. Here are their four best years from a statistical standpoint.
- ‘02-03: 30-7-6; Percentages of 45-38-84; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
- ’05-06: 35-5-5; Percentages of 45-35-85; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
- ’06-07: 32-6-6; Percentages of 46-34-87; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
- ’07-08: 28-6-5; Percentages of 46-36-84; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
- ’86-87: 37-6-6; Percentages of 48-18-86; 1st Team All-NBA.
- ’87-88: 35-6-6; Percentages of 54-13-84; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
- ’88-89: 33-8-8; Percentages of 54-28-85; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
- ’89-90: 34-7-6; Percentages of 53-38-85; 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-NBA Defense.
Interestingly enough, none of those years were Championship Years for either. I guess that shows that even two of the greatest players of all time need a good team to win titles (more on this in a second).
But look at those stats again. Jordan averaged 3.5 more points, 0.75 more rebounds, and 1 more assist a game. He shot much better from the field, but much worse from three-point range (Don’t be fooled by his ’89-90 percentage…he more or less realized he couldn’t shoot threes and only made 1.1 a game. He ended up making 581 in fifteen seasons compared to Kobe’s 1418). They were both elected to every possible All-NBA team, and Kobe made one more Defensive 1st Team than Jordan.
Are Jordan’s statistics better? Yes. Is he “leaps and bounds” better? Absolutely not. As a GM, would you take his eleven years over Kobe’s thirteen (minimum)? I’m not sure yet. But for those of you who came to this article with a strong Jordan bias, you need to be honest: it’s much closer than you thought it would be.
Now, maybe you are thinking, “Those were just four random years! Jordan was awesome for all eleven of those seasons!” Ok, let’s look at each player’s best eleven seasons.
- Percentages of 46-34-84;
- Nine All-NBA First Teams, One Second Team, One Third Team;
- Nine First Teams All-NBA Defense, Two Second Teams All-NBA Defense
- Percentages of 51-33-84;
- Ten All-NBA First Teams, One Second Team;
- Nine First Teams All-NBA Defense
This probably surprises you even more. It’s almost eerie how similar the two are. Jordan averaged five more points and shot better from the field, but Kobe made more Defensive teams and made over 750 more threes than His Airness. Nearly every other statistical category is equal.
Also of note, is that I don’t really think era affects these numbers unfairly in either direction. On the one hand, there may have been three guys in the entire league that were as athletic as Michael Jordan when he played, while today there are two guys on every team that are as big, strong, and athletic as he was (unfair advantage for Jordan). On the other hand, they were allowed to handcheck, push, grab, and practically punch people in the face when Jordan played (unfair advantage for Kobe).
Jordan supporters love to say things like, “Jordan would average 45 points a game if he played today with the way the rules are.” Kobe supporters counter with arguments like “Yeah, and Kobe would absolutely love to be guarded by guys like Jeff Hornacek in back-to-back NBA Finals!”
To me, the eras mostly cancel each other out, and besides, we could never really know…so let’s just take the stats for what they are worth.
Here is my point: Kobe Bryant was never ever as good as Michael Jordan at their respective peaks. But it was very close. And Kobe’s longevity could absolutely end up making his career better than Michael Jordan’s.
But you might still be on the fence. Those of you who disagree with me probably fall into one of three camps.
- “Screw you, Twitch. I’d still take eleven years of the best guy ever over thirteen years of Kobe Bryant.”
- “Jordan still has six rings, compared to Kobe’s five.”
- “Kobe played with Shaq! He wasn’t the best player on three of those championship teams! Kobe really only has two rings. It’s not even close!”
To those of you in that first group, I will never change your mind, and that’s fine. Seriously. It’s a hard call for me as well, because the fact is, even though Jordan’s eleven weren’t a lot better, they were still better. If you choose to rank Jordan ahead of Kobe because of those transcendent eleven years, that’s fine with me – so long as you at least admit that the distance between MJ and Kobe is far smaller than you originally realized.
But to everyone in those final two groups, I’d like to give you the second reason why I believe Kobe is better than Jordan – and that’s the fact that Michael Jordan, simply, played against inferior competition.
Comparing the Competition
Now don’t get all crazy on me. I don’t mean to say that the players in the 90s were way worse than the players of the 2000s. In fact, after a ton of research, I believe that the players are pretty equal.
From 1991 to 1998, Magic (#4), Hakeem (#11), Shaq (#12), Malone (#18), Barkley (#19), Isiah (#23), Stockton (#25), Robinson (#29), Ewing (#40), Payton (#41), and Clyde (#44) ran things along with Jordan and Pippen. That’s a total of thirteen of the top 50 players ever according to Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball). Jordan and Pippen teamed up to beat nine of them in the Playoffs.
Since 2000, Duncan (#7), Kobe (#8), Shaq (#12), LeBron (#20), Garnett (#22), Wade (#28), Robinson (#29), Nash (#36), Iverson (#37), Dirk Nowitzki (#39), Payton (#41), Kidd (#43), and Pierce (#47) have run the show. Not surprisingly, that’s another thirteen of the top 50 players (And this is with guys like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant not included…four guys that could easily be in the top 50 one day). Kobe has beaten eight of them in the Playoffs (and all four of the players that were not included yet).
No, the players have largely remained just as good, but the point I want to make is this: There have been five teams (by my count) since 1980 that were “stacked.” By stacked, I mean they had at least two of the top 24 or three of the top 35 players ever.
- The 1980s LA Lakers – Kareem (#2) and Magic (#4)…(Worthy was also #50).
- The 1981 Philadelphia 76ers – Moses (#13) and Dr. J (#16)
- The 1986 Boston Celtics – Bird (#5), Walton (#27), McHale (#35)…(DJ was also #54 and Parish was #59).
- The 1990s Chicago Bulls – Jordan (#1) and Pippen (#24)
- The 2000 Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe (#8) and Shaq (#12)
Whenever someone makes the claim that Kobe “unfairly coasted on Shaq’s coattails for his first three rings,” they are plainly forgetting two things.
Comparing the Co-Pilots
First, Jordan’s teams were just as stacked if not more so than Kobe’s.
If you read my original top 20, you saw that I believe that Scottie Pippen is severely underrated historically. But even if you only believe he was the 24th best player ever (like Bill Simmons says), that means that he was the second best player on the floor in all but six series’ during the Bulls’ Championship Reign. Magic, Isiah, and Barkley in ’91, Barkley in ’93, and the Mailman in ’97 and ’98 were the only players on the floor that were as good as the Bulls’ second best player. If you agree with me and Pistons’ coach Chuck Daly that Pippen was the second best guard on the Dream Team and in the 90s, that means that the only time in Bulls’ six championship seasons that they didn’t have the two best players on the floor was in the 1991 NBA Finals against Magic and the Lakers – which, coincidentally, ended up changing when Pippen moved over to guard Magic in Game 2.
Here are the facts: Jordan never won a playoff series without Pippen. During their Championship reign, the Bulls almost never played a series where they didn’t have the two best players. Jordan won all six of his rings this way.
Second, to say that Kobe coasted on Shaq’s coattails is disingenuous to what Kobe brought to the table.
It’s easy to forget now, but the Lakers could not go to Shaq in crunch time of games because he was such an egregious foul shooter. Kobe haters always seem to “forget” that as a 21-year-old, he had three straight 30-point efforts in an incredibly close first round matchup against the Kings and single-handedly beat the Pacers in a series-changing game three that went to overtime. They gloss over his 2001 campaign where he posted a 48-point, 16-rebound effort against Sacramento and then a 45-point, 10-rebound effort against San Antonio the next game. Yes, Shaq won all three MVPs, but if you go back and watch the games, or just look at the stats…you wwill be surprised.
The Lakers weren’t winning anything without Kobe. Not even close.
But even if you feel that Shaq was a better teammate than Pippen was, what Kobe accomplished from 2008-2010 with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as his next best players is far greater than any title that Jordan won.
In 2008, the Lakers beat Denver (Carmelo), Utah (Williams and Boozer), and San Antonio (Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker) before losing to Boston (Garnett and Pierce). The Lakers never had the two best players in any of those series’ like Jordan often had. The next year, against Utah, Houston, Denver, and Orlando, the Lakers only had the two best players on the floor in one series – Houston – and this was only after Yao Ming broke his foot. 2010 was a similar story. OKC (Durant), Utah (Williams), Phoenix (Amare’ and Nash), and Boston (Rondo and Pierce) each had one of the two best players on the floor. For Kobe to make it to three straight Finals and win two of them was far more difficult than Jordan and Pippen beating up on the likes of Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, or Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Look, you don’t have to like Kobe. But just ask yourself this: who would it be harder to win a championship with? Scottie Pippen, the 24th best player of all time, and a guy that Chuck Daly said was the second best player of his entire era? Or Pau Gasol, an All-Star big man whose game is based on finesse and who is not in Simmons’ Top 96 Players at all?
It’s close. It’s very close. At the end of the day, you would be thrilled to have either Kobe or Jordan on your team.
But in my opinion, I would take Kobe’s 13 years (and counting) of very great play over Jordan’s 11 years of very very great play.
In my opinion, I think that Kobe accomplished more with less than Jordan ever did.
That’s why, on my list, it reads Kobe first, then Jordan.