They will forever be in the debate regarding which NBA player is truly the greatest of all time.
I'm not going to take a stab at that one. Instead, I want to break down why two of them have a step up on the other.
The one word that separates LeBron and Jordan from Kobe is efficiency.
Technically it's three words created by the new vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, John Hollinger—Player Efficiency Rating. But let's be honest, who's really counting?
For those out there who have never heard of Player Efficiency Rating (PER from here on out), here's a quick breakdown of what it is.
PER is a per-minute "rating" that takes into account all of the following: field goals, free throws, three-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, as well as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls.
It's a way of taking away all of the outside factors and focusing solely on a player's complete contribution to his team.
Critics of PER say that it doesn't accurately depict a player's overall defensive impact, and while that's certainly true, it doesn't matter in our discussion.
There's no debating that LeBron, Kobe and Jordan are all great defenders, so the fact that PER doesn't holistically depict their defensive contributions isn't critically important.
To give you an idea of what an elite PER is, take note that there have only been 16 times in which a player has averaged a PER of above 30.0 for an entire season.
Jordan averaged a 30.0-plus PER for four individual seasons, and LeBron isn't far behind with three 30-plus PER seasons. Kobe is four behind Jordan with no 30-plus PER seasons.
And that brings us to the focal point of this discussion.
Kobe doesn't deserve to be in the "Jordan" debate because he lacks the one thing that defined Jordan's game—efficiency in contributions to his team.
There's no doubting that Kobe was as elite of a scorer as Jordan was. But when it comes to contributing to his team, Jordan did more than Kobe has throughout his career.
Kobe's career PER of 23.49 ranks 19th all time, and while that's not bad, it's 17 and 18 spots lower than the other two players mentioned in this article.
At the top of the all-time PER list is Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Jordan with a 27.91 PER and LeBron with 27.32, according to basketball-reference.com.
Jordan and LeBron are the only two players in NBA history to average above a 26.5 PER for the span of their careers.
While LeBron has played for just 10 years, he's only averaged under 26.5 PER for two of those 10 years—with this season sitting at 30.13 as of Dec. 29th.
If it weren't for Jordan's ill-fated return to the NBA with the Washington Wizards, where he averaged a 20.0 PER for two seasons, his career PER would be 29.1.
One thing is clear, and it's that no two players have meant more to their respective teams than James and Jordan.
In terms of well-rounded production and efficiency, LeBron and Jordan are in a league of their own. Just look at their career averages—Kobe's are included for the sake of comparison.
Michael Jordan — 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.3 STLPG, 49.7 FG%
LeBron James — 27.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 6.9 APG, 1.7 STLPG, 48.6 FG%
Kobe Bryant — 25.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.5 STLPG, 45.4 FG%
It's clear that James and Jordan have quite a bit in common when it comes to on-the-court production. Scoring isn't the only method of attack for both. They both get/got it done by being true managers and facilitators of the game.
That much can't be said for many other players in the game today or even most players who have come in the years before.
It's unfair to compare players based solely on accolades at this point, because players playing today, like LeBron, aren't anywhere near the end of their careers.
The most realistic comparison is purely with on-the-court production and efficiency, and it's clear that LeBron and Jordan are truly in a league of their own when it comes down to that.