Let's be absolutely clear about something here: Kobe Bryant is not Michael Jordan's equal in the annals of NBA history. Chances are, he'll never achieve truly equal footing with His Airness, save for an unforeseen blitzkrieg of career-redefining accomplishments as Bryant approaches retirement.
But Kobe's done enough so far to force himself into the conversation. He's also demonstrated so far through the 2012-13 season that he's ready, willing and able to make things mighty interesting before the final buzzer sounds on what's been a remarkable run for the Black Mamba.
In some respects, particularly those related to longevity, Kobe has already surpassed his predecessor. Bryant's trip to Houston in mid-February will mark his 15th such sojourn to an All-Star Game, one more than MJ's 14. Jordan was named the MVP of the midseason showcase on three occasions, while Kobe has four such awards to his name.
The same goes for some of the league's end-of-season selections. Jordan was named an All-NBA performer 11 times (10 first-team), while Kobe has pulled the trick 14 times and is well on his way to a 15th, with just as many first-team nods as No. 23. Bryant's 12 All-Defensive selections put him well ahead of Jordan's nine, though the two share equal footing as nine-time first-teamers.
Such speaks to the quantity-vs.-quality debate that any discussion of Kobe and Michael ignites. Bryant needs just 1,609 points to equal MJ's career total of 32,292. If Kobe continues to produce at a career-average clip (25.5 points per game), he should stand third on the all-time scoring list, just ahead of Jordan, before the calendar turns to 2014.
But Kobe's already played 130 more regular-season games over his 16.5 seasons than Jordan did over his 15 seasons. One of Michael's was cut short by a foot injury and another by time wasted playing Minor League Baseball. Four more aren't even counted here because they came during Jordan's first two tries at retirement.
It's not all that far-fetched to imagine that Jordan would've challenged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, if not blown it out of the water, had he played straight through until 2003. It's also more than fair to consider that Michael's numbers would've been more modest had he come up during an era characterized by stingier, more sophisticated schemes, like Kobe did, rather than during the 1980s and early 1990s, when even the top defensive squads regularly surrendered upwards of 100 points per game.
Hypotheticals and era-related adjustments aside, the point remains: Kobe projects to finish his career with more points than MJ did and should wind up with more rebounds and assists as well. Another 347 points in the playoffs will render Kobe the NBA's all-time postseason scoring leader ahead of His Airness.
Jordan's advantages in steals (733) and blocks (289) are massive, probably too massive for Kobe to make up unless he plays into his 40s. The same goes for Michael's record six NBA Finals MVPs and 10 scoring titles to Kobe's two in each category.
The Mamba might as well forget about so much as sniffing MJ's five regular-season MVPs. Kobe did enough to deserve another trophy or two in years past, particularly during those that ended with Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki taking home individual honors.
Slights aside, Bryant will be hard-pressed to win even one more MVP before his playing days are done. The possibility of another remains—Karl Malone became the NBA's oldest MVP ever when he picked up his second following the lockout-shortened season in 1999.
But such chances are slim, to say the least. So long as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are playing for perennial title contenders, and the likes of Carmelo Anthony and James Harden remain competitive in that regard, a wily veteran like Kobe would be fortunate to finish in the top five once the ballots are tallied.
And let's not even entertain the thought of Kobe earning a Defensive Player of the Year award to match MJ's, on account of Bryant's age (34), as well as his inconsistent effort on that end of the floor these days.
Not until both legends have six titles on their tallies, though, will the "Kobe vs. MJ" debate begin in earnest. Jordan finished his career a perfect 6-for-6 in NBA Finals appearances, while Bryant is currently 5-for-7.
Equaling MJ's championship take seems at once plausible (if not probable) and entirely fictional for Kobe. On the one hand, Bryant needs "only" one more ring to do so, and has the likes of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol by his side to achieve that end.
On the other hand, that very squad is a meager 17-23 through its first 40 games this season. Injuries, coaching changes and roster turnover have all contributed to the team's poor performance, particularly on the defensive end.
But explanations—some of which may or may not double as excuses, depending on context—don't change the fact that the Lakers are currently on the outside of a crowded Western Conference playoff picture looking in. Sneaking back in by season's end will be no easy task.
Nor will matching up with either the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs should the Lakers dodge the NBA draft lottery. Any one of those three would have a clear advantage over the Purple and Gold on account of depth, youth, athleticism and execution.
Will Kobe ever match (or surpass) MJ among the NBA's greats?
A full training camp and a complete season with this group under head coach Mike D'Antoni in 2013-14 could make a difference, though perhaps not enough of one to challenge an emerging oligarchy out West. Furthermore, the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement will severely restrict the Lakers' ability to reshape their roster this summer. They're on the books for upwards of $100 million this season, and will be on the hook for more than $78 million even if Dwight Howard bails via free agency.
All of which is to say, Kobe will probably have to play well beyond the duration of his current contract, which expires in 2014, if he's to see eye-to-eye with Jordan in the weightiest category of them all.
And even that probably wouldn't be enough to put Bryant on equal footing with his stylistic doppelganger. As I mentioned in mid-January, Kobe and Michael are separated most distinctly by their primacy within their respective eras. Jordan was, without a doubt, the greatest, most important, most successful and most relevant player of his generation in nearly every way. He starred during the latter half of the 1980s—despite having to wait his turn behind Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson—before dominating the 1990s, both on and off the court.
Kobe, meanwhile, is probably first in line among those of the "Trans-MJ" generation, but isn't so far ahead of, say, Tim Duncan (four titles, three Finals MVPs, two regular-season MVPs) and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal (four titles, three Finals MVPs, one regular-season MVP) to be said to have dominated in his time. Nor does it help Kobe's case that he's spent the bulk of his career amidst the Age of LeBron James, who may well go down as the GOAT (greatest of all time).
Now, none of this is meant to diminish Bryant's historical profile by any means. Even if his career ended today, without another new number to his name, Kobe would wind up being one of the 10 greatest players the NBA has ever seen. He'll keep company in the pantheon of hoops legends right alongside such one-name wonders as Magic, Larry, Kareem, Wilt, Oscar and, of course, Michael.
But initiating a discussion is not the same as truly contending within it. Such is the case with Michael and Kobe, the former having long ago established himself as the standard-bearer of basketball greatness and the latter still striving, however futilely, to measure up.