Can we please put the Kobe-Jordan comparisons to rest already? This is the first of a few that I’ve read.
Via Mike Wise, Washington Post:
If we’re going to have the conversation, we might as well go to one of the primary sources, no?
Greatest of all time, you or Michael?
“That’s hard for me,” Kobe Bryant said, walking to another team bus after another virtuoso performance in late May. “I’m still young. Our careers are so different.”
But what if you win a championship this season and one or two more rings before you retire? That would equal or surpass Michael Jordan’s haul of titles. Don’t we have to start talking about it?
“You can, but I don’t know if it’s fair to anyone,” Kobe said. “I mean, I came off the bench early in my career. We had such different beginnings, you know? And then I played with a much different team about halfway through my career. You almost have to judge my career in two phases.” [...]
Yet for the bulk of their careers, they both also had Phil Jackson, the greatest coach in the game.
“He’s comparable [to Jordan],” Jackson said of Bryant on Saturday night in the desert outside the coach’s room at U.S. Airways Arena. “He’s got the same drive and determination.” [...]
But the entire debate is really immaterial in some ways, isn’t it? Because in the G.O.A.T. argument, the problem for Bryant isn’t about production — it’s about perception.
The unfortunate truth for Kobe is he can never be Michael because he isn’t thought of as likable as Jordan, also the greatest commercial pitchman ever for an athlete. Even if he tied or surpassed Jordan in championships and postseason magical moments, Bryant’s public missteps — the prideful ego war with Shaquille O’Neal early in his career, the sexual assault charge eventually dropped in Colorado and his desire to leave the Lakers only a few years ago — will always be held against him.
If nothing else, Wise’s column and others like it display the fickle nature of sports media. No more than a month ago, as Kobe struggled to score against an Oklahoma City Thunder team with some serious defensive chops, we wondered if Kobe Bryant was on the decline. We thought all those damn games he had played, all those miles on his formerly tighted legs, had caught up to him. It seemed Kobe wasn’t just hitting a rough patch but running on fumes. The fumes of a great career, undoubtedly, but fumes that would never allow Kobe to touch Michael Jordan’s undeniable perch as the league’s best player.
Kobe finished a distant third in this season’s MVP ballot and had been surpassed as the world’s best basketball player in the eyes of just about every unbiased fan or analyst. The NBA had become Lebron’s world. Kobe was just playing in it.
Now, a spirited Kobe rejuvenation and two Michael-esque series’ later, people want to restart the comparisons between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan? There is no proper reason for it, other than people being easily persuaded by evidence that should amount to just about nothing.
Kobe had a couple great series’, there can be no denying that. He was terrific and wonderful — brilliant even. He hit shots that no other human being would even fathom shooting, shots that James Naismith never would have dreamed about when he invented the game with two peach baskets, and Kobe did some of it with grown, athletic, 6’8″ men all but plastered to his shooting hand. He made all the clutch plays down the stretch, even bringing an opposing coach to nervous laughter with his heavenly shot-making. He took his team to the Finals, while Lebron, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant sat idly at home. Kobe certainly made the case that he could possibly still be considered the greatest player in today’s NBA.
But ever? Child, please. Kobe scored 32.9 points per game against the Jazz and Suns, and it was wonderful basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I admire everything he did — everything his done throughout his whole career, really. But the Jazz and Suns were tailor-made — tailor-made! — to allow Bryant to score. The Jazz defended Kobe with Wes Matthews, an undrafted rookie standing only 6’5″. What did Bryant do? He took him to the post and abused him. Matthews didn’t stand a chance against Bryant in the post but, the thing is, he wasn’t supposed to. He was an outsized, undrafted rookie for Christ’s sake. And Kobe is Kobe, which means he’s outstanding at basketball. But it also means he’s not Michael Jordan.
Back to those 32.9 points per game Kobe scored in the past two series’ combined (against Wes Matthews and that miserable Suns defense ranked 23rd in the NBA), that number would be Kobe’s highest average in a postseason if he could sustain it for the entire playoffs. (His highest as it stands now? 32.8 ppg, in 2006-2007.) Do you know what Jordan averaged for his entire postseason career? 33.4 ppg. More than Kobe’s ever averaged in a single postseason, more than Kobe’s magnificent stretch during the past two series’. In fact, only as a rookie did Jordan ever average less than 30 ppg in the playoffs. Even then, his average of 29.3 ppg was well higher than Kobe’s career postseason average (25.4 ppg).
Granted, scoring isn’t everything, so how about we check into winning. Michael Jordan won six titles, Kobe already has four. On the surface, it looks like Kobe could surpass Jordan in winning. But examine it a little closer and Kobe didn’t win a title as the best player on his team until last year. That makes it one true championship for Kobe. You can’t take the first three rings away, but those rings belong to Shaq. Kobe was nothing but Pippen to Shaq’s Jordan. Kobe had never won a Finals MVP, until last year. On the other hand, Jordan was the Finals MVP on all six of his championship teams. And hell, if Jordan hadn’t retired twice at the pinnacle of the sport he might have been a nine- or 10-time champion. And I can promise that if he had won more championships, Jordan would have also won just as many more Finals MVP trophies. He was always the best player on his team, always the NBA’s most dangerous player. He never, ever left any doubt that he was the league’s best player and best winner.
But Kobe has. At times, he’s disappeared. Remember Game 7 against Phoenix in 2006? People say Kobe never would have gone missing like Lebron against the Celtics, but those people forgot that Kobe already has. With his team’s season on the line, Kobe lost all aggression. He stopped going to the hoop, stopped taking shots. The NBA.com recap read in part, “After Leandro Barbosa helped the Phoenix Suns to a big lead, Kobe Bryant decided to do nothing about it. [...] Bryant tried to keep the Lakers in it in the first half by scoring 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting. [...] But in a puzzling disappearing act, Bryant deferred to his teammates in the second half Saturday, taking just three shots and scoring one point on a technical free throw. ‘I can’t really give you an answer why he didn’t shoot in the second half,’ [Raja] Bell said. ‘Whatever happened we’ve got bigger fish to fry now.’”
Does that sound like anything you would have ever read about Jordan? I didn’t think so. What about Kobe’s performance in the Finals in 2008? 25.7 ppg, only 40% shooting, and a series loss. Jordan never went down so meekly. In fact, in the Finals, Jordan never went down at all. He was a perfect 6-0 in NBA Finals series’.
Kobe gets painted as a ruthless competitor who will stop at nothing to become the world’s greatest basketball player, who will stop at nothing to win games. From what I’ve seen he is, if not quite that, as close as it gets in the NBA. He’s a winner, a competitor, and he has the most polished and accomplished game of any active player in the world. But I’ve got a problem with the media and how they portray his competitiveness.
Kobe destroys the Suns and it’s because he was upset about losing to them in 2006 and 2007. There was nothing more than a whisper about the Suns being 23rd on defense, the worst defensive team in the playoffs. Kobe didn’t score so many points against Phoenix because his matchup was a good one and the Suns’ defensive schemes poor, he scored so many points because he was still mad at Raja Bell. My question is, if he was so upset about what the Suns did to him back then, why didn’t he do something about it when it happened? Why’d he go out with nothing more than a whimper, scoring only a single damn point in Game 7? Why not get mad about it then, when he could still do something about it?
Now Kobe is being portrayed as a fuming superstar ready to extract revenge on the Boston Celtics. But again, I ask, why didn’t he do something about it when it happened? Why does it take two years of stewing about a loss to make Kobe’s competitiveness come out? Wasn’t he just as competitive back then, when he was laying a Finals-sized egg against the Celtics? Shouldn’t that fire have translated into success back then?
The truth is, uber-competitiveness only takes you so far when you’re overmatched. The Celtics’ defense was superior to any defense Kobe had ever seen, and he simply wasn’t up to the task. He wasn’t exactly stopped, but he was contained. He was held under his averages, shot a poor percentage and couldn’t earn himself a ring. Jordan never went out like that, and that’s not a biased opinion. It’s a fact. 6-0. I’ve said it before, but it warrants re-mentioning: Jordan won six championships and lost in the Finals zero times. He won the Finals MVP in each of those seasons. He was undeniably the league’s best, year after year.
Back to Kobe now. If Kobe Bryant leads his Los Angeles Lakers to another championship, he will again be hailed as the world’s greatest player — he will again take his seat as the NBA’s alpha dog. And he’ll deserve it, I admit: If Kobe Bryant wins a championship this season, against the Boston Celtics, and plays well doing it, he should be considered the NBA’s best player.
But if comparisons keep being made between Kobe and Jordan, Kobe won’t only be the world’s greatest basketball player.
He’ll also be its most overrated.