There's much more to achieving hagiographic greatness in the NBA than putting a basketball through a hoop a bajillion times or so.
Kobe Bryant should know. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the Black Mamba is a surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer and will, at the very least, finish his illustrious career with the Los Angeles Lakers in the discussion among the top 10 players to ever lace 'em up in the Association.
To be sure, his scoring-related accolades will contribute significantly to his case. Earlier this season, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history (and sixth in NBA/ABA history if you include Julius Erving) to surpass the 30,000-point plateau and stands as the youngest ever to do so.
Kobe already has two regular-season scoring titles to his name, and if he keeps contributing at his current 30.1 point-per-game pace through the end of the current campaign, he may well wind up with a third at the tender age of 34.
That would place him just ahead of Wilt Chamberlain for fourth place on the all-time scoring list, with Michael Jordan's 32,292 points squarely in his sights.
But even if Kobe goes on to surpass Michael in that regard, and even if Bryant hangs around a while longer to challenge Karl Malone's 36,928 points and (perhaps) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387 points, it's still difficult to put the Mamba ahead of His Airness at the pinnacle of the NBA's ladder of history.
Because, again, there's more to basketball than scoring.
Not that Bryant hasn't done plenty more with himself than produce points at a prodigious clip. He's averaged as many as 6.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.2 steals over the course of a given season and boasts career averages of 5.3 boards, 4.7 helpers and 1.5 thefts.
He's garnered 12 All-Defensive nods, though it'd be more than fair to suggest that the last two (or three) such selections were more out of respect than the result of actual lockdown play.
More importantly, Kobe has the requisite championship credentials to merit consideration among the all-time greats. He's missed the playoffs just once in his previous 16 seasons and has won five titles in seven trips to the NBA Finals.
All with the league's glamour franchise, no less.
Four All-Star MVPs, two NBA Finals MVP, a regular-season MVP, 14 All-NBA and All-Star teams and countless clutch moments constitute the CV of a player who, at the very least, looks like the second-best shooting guard to ever play and one of only a handful of perimeter players to dominate at a championship level.
Some of the others being Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, LeBron James (sort of) and, of course, MJ.
Still, as impressive as Kobe's haul of accomplishments may be, it doesn't quite measure up to Jordan's and probably wouldn't even with another 8,000 points thrown on top.
Here's Air Jordan's resume at a glance:
- Six NBA titles
- Six NBA Finals MVPs
- Five NBA MVPs
- Three All-Star Game MVPs
- 30,000-point club
- 10 scoring titles
- Three steals titles
- Career-bests of 37.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 3.2 steals
- 1984-85 Rookie of the Year
- 1987-88 Defensive Player of the Year
- Nine All-Defensive selections (all First-Team)
- 14 All-Star Games
- 11 All-NBA selections (10 First-Team)
Those are enough honors to fill more than a few mantels. Admittedly, though, Kobe has the edge in those categories tied more closely to longevity. He's been to more All-Star Games and been named to more All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. Chances are he'll go down as the most prolific postseason scorer in NBA history; Bryant needs just 388 points to surpass MJ in that regard.
Even so, Kobe has some catching up to do, despite having featured in 41 more playoff games and 124 more regular-season games than Jordan ever did. Some of that disparity can be explained by Jordan spending a significant portion of his career in a higher-scoring league, where good defense was more about toughness and machismo than smarts and schematics.
Bryant, on the other hand, rose to prominence during the portion of the 2000s before the powers that be decided to crack down on hand checking and expand the definition of "illegal defense" so as to open up the game offensively. Even so, changes in the way the game is played and coached have made scoring today more difficult than it was during the Jordan years.
Whether that bolsters Kobe's side or diminishes Jordan's more is, by and large, a subjective matter. The point is, Kobe's done slightly less overall, but he has done it for a bit longer. He's not an "Iron Man" in the traditional sense—a player with a gaudy consecutive-games streak—but he's battled through all manner of maladies over the years and has maintained a place among the league's elite throughout.
Jordan, meanwhile, accomplished more overall, though the span of time itself depends on how you measure it. In basketball time, MJ's 15 seasons will always rank behind Kobe's 17 (and likely 18). In actual time, though, Jordan's service across a period of 19 years gives him an edge.
To some, the fact that he came out of retirement twice stands as a testament to his basketball genius because quitting and restarting may well be more difficult than maintaining all the way through.
As it happens, this is approximately the point at which the debate between No. 23 and No. 24 gets murky, and venturing too deep into the proverbial forest only obstructs one's view.
For the sake of argument, let's set aside the numbers and the awards for a moment. Both did and have done so much quantitatively—and Kobe continues to do so—that the differences between the two seem all too minute, even more so as the years go by.
As well they should, given how closely Kobe's on-court evolution has come to mirror Michael's.
Rather, let's focus on how each player fits into his particular era. No matter how long he plays, Kobe will go down as arguably the greatest player of the first post-Jordan generation, though not by a particularly long shot.
Tim Duncan has asserted himself as perhaps the best power forward in history during Bryant's career, with two MVPs, three Finals MVPs and four titles to back him up.
Three of Kobe's championships came alongside Shaquille O'Neal, who was the central figure on the league's first dynasty of the new millennium. The Big Diesel was the Finals MVP on each of those occasions in Purple and Gold and went on to win a fourth title with another standout shooting guard (Dwyane Wade) after joining the Miami Heat.
A switch which, it should be noted, resulted from Kobe's most unsettling ultimatum to Lakers' brass—me or Shaq; you can't have both.
LeBron James didn't enter the league until Kobe was already in his mid-20s. But James is far and away the most outstanding player to set foot in the NBA since Jordan's final retirement, a claim validated by his first championship with the Heat in 2012.
All of which is to say that Kobe is great and has been great, and he has played among and alongside greatness. But he has never been so great as to obliterate the competition and leave no doubt as to his primacy within his particular epoch.
Bryant probably deserves to have more than one league MVP to his credit. Yet his dominance on the court has only gone so far.
He lost one NBA Finals series to a selfless Detroit Pistons squad in 2004 and another to the Boston Celtics in 2008, when they managed to microwave their way to flawless chemistry. Those two defeats came when Bryant was 25 and 29, respectively, in the midst of his athletic prime.
All told, Kobe's aura is one of intimidation, determination and success, but not necessarily of invincibility, immortality and unquestioned temporal authority.
At least not at the level of Jordan's. To be sure, Michael had his fair share of trials and tribulations. His Chicago Bulls had to wait their turn in the Eastern Conference while Larry Bird's Celtics and Isiah Thomas' Pistons had their moments in the sun. But in time, Jordan improved, as did the team around him. And he finally led the Bulls past Larry Legend's C's and Zeke's Pistons.
Once the 1990s rolled around, MJ went toe-to-toe with the best players and triumphed every time. He took down Magic's Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. He topped Clyde Drexler's Portland Trail Blazers in 1992 and Gary Payton's Seattle SuperSonics in 1996.
He led Chicago past the Utah Jazz of John Stockton and Karl Malone not once, but twice. He outlasted Reggie Miller's Indiana Pacers, shredded Dominique Wilkins' Atlanta Hawks and annihilated a young Shaq's Orlando Magic.
Of course, Jordan had help, most notably from fellow Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. But at no point since has anyone argued with any conviction that Jordan was on another level (if not in an entirely different building) separate from his teammates. Kobe didn't achieve that distinction until he pushed Shaq out of L.A.
Furthermore, Jordan played in an era replete with giants and legends and stood head and shoulders above them all. He dominated nearly an entire decade of NBA basketball in which superstar centers still walked the Earth.
Had it not been for a mid-decade retreat into minor league baseball and voter fatigue among the writers, Jordan might've hung 'em up with even more titles and MVP trophies for which to find proper storage.
Simply put, Jordan was the defining player of his time, while Kobe was a defining player of his, albeit the one whose career is the greatest cause for debate.
Certainly, comparing Kobe's distinctions to Michael's doesn't diminish those of the former. If anything, the fact that Bryant has done enough during his time in the pros to incite such a discussion should count as flattery.
Surpassing Kareem as the NBA's all-time scoring leader would hardly diminish his case against His Airness. As of Jan. 10, Kobe needed 7,850 points to equal the record still owned by the Captain, whose statue now stands proudly outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles. If Bryant were to score at his career average of 25.5 points per game going forward, he'd need approximately 308 tries to meet and exceed Kareem's mark.
In all likelihood, that would take the Mamba into the 2016-17 season, which would be his 21st as a pro. It's not out of the question that Kobe will play that long. However, given his recent insistence that he won't waste his time and effort on the game unless he can do so at an elite level, and given the revelation from February 2012 that he'd been on the verge of retirement not too long ago, it seems unlikely that Bryant will play long enough to climb from fifth to first on the all-time scoring list.
In any case, it'll take more than stat sheets stuffed with points to put Bryant on par with the man he's mimicked for the better part of two decades. What Bryant will need is another ring, if not two, to truly make MJ sweat.
And with the way the Lakers are struggling, and Kobe's consideration of calling it quits when his current contract comes due in 2014, a sixth championship for the Mamba is as much a pipe dream now as it's ever been.
Which means that Michael can rest easy—for now, anyway.
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