Who's Closer to Eclipsing Michael Jordan's Legacy: Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?

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Who's Closer to Eclipsing Michael Jordan's Legacy: Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Michael Jordan would disagree, but for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, it's about more than just championship rings.

Both Bryant and James, whether they admit it or not, have spent their entire careers chasing Jordan.

Comparisons have been unyielding and thus inescapable. Each has managed to establish his own legacy and write his own reputation, but neither has been able to circumvent the incessant parallels that continue to be drawn.

While said correlation can be simplified by pointing to Kobe's five rings versus LeBron's one, it's more complex than that. His Airness' legacy stretches far beyond the six pieces of championship hardware he obtained, and it's not any different for the Black Mamba or the Chosen One.

From a statistical perspective, neither Bryant nor James seems poised to eclipse the immensely high bar Jordan set over the course of his 15-year career.

Jordan's career averages of 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game easily exceeds the 25.5, 5.3, 4.7 and 1.5 marks Bryant has put up over the last 17 years, respectively. And though James' 27.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals actually surpass MJ in two areas, much of the same can be said for him as well.

Photo via TheScore.com/TBJ.
Truthfully, LeBron receives more credit for the completeness of his game than Jordan ever did and far more than Kobe does. His role as a point forward has left him more Magic Johnson-like than Jordan- or Bryant-esque.

And yet, even the Magic comparisons are difficult to make. After becoming the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points on at least 60-percent shooting in six straight games, any comparisons at all are difficult to make (via Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times): 

Since LeBron James was in high school, the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue has been Michael Jordan.

But what if we were making the wrong comparison all along? What if, instead of looking at Jordan or any other basketball player, we should have been looking at “Jeopardy” contestants, film directors or conquering kings to relate to James, especially lately, with his unprecedented streak of dominance and precision?

As LeBron continues to set records while playing a style of basketball that is seemingly unprecedented, any and all contrasts become problematic. 

What if James isn't like Kobe? Or Magic? Or even MJ? What if he's just LJ?

More so than Bryant, James has attempted to elude the Jordan comparisons. Like Kobe, he wants to construct and subsequently maintain his own legacy, not someone else's. Where the Mamba has attempted to define himself by doing what Jordan did best—score—LeBron's illustrious career has been marked by unselfish efficiency.

Therefore, not only is he different from Jordan, his aberrant stylings arguably make him better.

Or do they?

Never will I—nor should anyone—attempt to dispel the importance and originality of James' game. His role on the basketball court in unique. That he is on pace to have a 10th straight season with an assist percentage above 25 percent is something neither Jordan nor Bryant can lay claim to.

But that's not enough to separate himself from these ranks as much as he would like. Kobe and Jordan weren't the facilitators James is because they weren't expected to be. Bryant has only recently been tasked with deferring more, and MJ dished off only when he needed to.

Bear in mind also that Jordan dished out a career-high eights assists per night during the 1988-89 season, which actually exceeds James career-best of 7.9.

To that end, LeBron hasn't separated himself from Jordan and therefore from this two-man race as much as some would postulate. 

Yes, his efficiency has distinguished his game from Bryant's. The latter has never shot better than 46.9 percent from the field for his career while James is shooting a 48.8-percent clip from the floor for his.

Given LeBron's most recent run at history, the case could also be made that he has already surpassed MJ's level of efficiency, too. Except he hasn't.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
It's important to understand James is worlds better than Kobe and MJ.
Through Jordan's first 10 years in the league, he shot 50.2 percent from the field, exceeding that of James' 48.8. And while the King is shooting a career-high 56.5 percent this season, better than the former's personal best of 53.9, Jordan wasn't foreign to James' level of efficiency.

His Airness led the league in scoring while shooting 50 percent or better from the field six times. James' lack of scoring titles (one) speaks volumes about his pass-first mentality, but let's not fool ourselves into believing Jordan's efficiency isn't at least comparable to that of LeBron's.

In other words, James' supposed statistical edge over Jordan doesn't exactly exist, or rather, isn't as drastic as it is often made out to be.

Here's where Kobe comes in.

The Mamba's efficiency has never been where Jordan's was and LeBron's is, but he has been playing long enough to rival the totals of Jordan more than James has.

Kobe and Jordan are not only two of just five players to score at least 30,000 points—they're also two of just four to have scored 30,000 points, grabbed 5,000 rebounds, dished out 5,000 assists and forced 1,500 steals for their careers.

This is where James' professional tenure actually hurts him. He has played just 10 seasons to Jordan's 15 and Bryant's 17. We can't just overlook the additional seven years Kobe has played, because they're a part of his career, and thus a part of this argument.

USA TODAY Sports
LeBron has done things Kobe hasn't, and vice versa.
LeBron has done things during the first decade of his career that Kobe hasn't (again, his latest streak), but Bryant, likewise, has been able to accomplish what the King hasn't.

Time will tell if that changes. Once Bryant fades off into the sunset, and James has played for another decade or so, he may stand alone.

But for now, the longevity of Kobe's career has put him in a better statistical position.  He already has more career assists than Jordan, and he's fewer than 1,500 points and 250 rebounds away from outranking him there as well.

Bryant has also had more time to leave his imprint on the game.

We've come to know Kobe as a brutally honest, bordering on sadistic, competitor. His desire to win easily matches that of Jordan's, and his distaste for losing is perhaps greater (death stare, anyone?).

Like MJ, Bryant has become the unofficial trend-setter for this generation of basketball. He has not shied away from the Jordan comparisons. He has accepted a role as one of the most beloved villains the Association has ever seen.

Kobe's similarities to MJ's.
I can't think of anything better to exemplify Kobe's embraceable hubris than what went down at the 2012 Olympics, when he irrevocably asserted that this past summer's team would take down the 1992 Dream Team (via Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports):

Well, just from a basketball standpoint, they obviously have a lot more size than we do — you know, with [David] Robinson and [Patrick] Ewing and [Karl] Malone and those guys. But they were also — some of those wing players — were also a lot older, at kind of the end of their careers. We have just a bunch of young racehorses, guys that are eager to compete.

So I don't know. It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out.

Jordan went on to refute Bryant's supposed finding, saying there is "no comparison" as to which team is better.

Still, Bryant stood by his claim (via CBSSports.com):

So what? He knows I'm a bad mother[expletive]. I'm not really tripping.

The fact is, they have [Patrick] Ewing and [David] Robinson and those big guys, it's tough. If you're asking me, 'Can you beat them one game?' Hell yeah, we can beat them in one game. You didn't ask me if we could beat them in a 7-game series. In one game, we can beat them. No question about it.

Roughly two weeks later, James went on to support Kobe's claim, albeit it a bit more passively (via ESPN.com):

The '92 Dream Team paved the way for all of us ... We understand what they did for our game, but we also are big-time competitors as well, so if we got the opportunity to play them in a game we feel like we would win, too.

I won't play the Kobe-said-it-first card (though he did), but the difference in definitiveness, the appearance of their God-given right to make such bold claims is more evident in Bryant than it is James. Kobe's effervescent persona is more like Jordan's than LeBron's has proven to be.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jordan even favors Kobe over LeBron.
The manner in which Bryant says that "he knows" is also of importance he as well. Perhaps it comes from actually playing against Jordan, but there seems to be mutual respect there.

Not that Jordan doesn't have respect for what James has done for the game of basketball, but he constantly has the 28-year-old under a microscope (via Wright Thompson of ESPN.com):

The announcers gush about LeBron, mentioning him in the same sentence with Jordan, who hears every word. Those words have an effect on him. He stares at the TV and points out a flaw in LeBron's game.

"I study him," he says.

When LeBron goes right, he usually drives; when he goes left, he usually shoots a jumper. It has to do with his mechanics and how he loads the ball for release. "So if I have to guard him," Jordan says, "I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right."

Is Jordan perhaps more threatened by LeBron's greatness than Kobe's, feeling the need to bring the former down a peg or two?

Maybe. That he thinks enough of him to "study" him is of significance. But this isn't an "I'm better than him" war. Instead, his declaration that James' game, in some aspects, is predictable falls just short of insulting.

Part of that could just be Jordan's backhanded appreciation of the game as it used to be, but mostly it's an indication of how much more respect LeBron still has to earn (via Thompson):

When someone on TV compares LeBron to Oscar Robertson, Jordan fumes. He rolls his eyes, stretches his neck, frustrated. "It's absolutely … " he says, catching himself. "The point is, no one is critiquing the personnel that he's playing against. Their knowledge of how to play the game … that's not a fair comparison. That's not right … Could LeBron be successful in our era? Yes. Would he be as successful? No.

Not Kobe, LeBron.

Perhaps Jordan would have had a few choice words if Bryant's name had entered the conversation, but his skepticism of the Chosen One is what has taken precedence.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Reputation sets Kobe and LeBron apart more than stats do.
With the NBA expanding its reach by the day, James and Bryant have been afforded opportunities and general exposure that Jordan never was. His is still a global brand, but both Kobe and LeBron have a legitimate chance at not just rivaling, but matching the imprint Jordan left on the game.

Who's closer?

Jordan's telling sentiments aside, Bryant still has James there. Stats be damned, Kobe is still considered one of the game's best closers, while LeBron has just two walk-off shots to date. Bryant has also taken advantage of opportunities like the dunk contest to further his brand, something James still shies away from.

This isn't to say that Bryant is the better player or that James will never catch him. Nor is it meant to diminish what LeBron has done for the game, because he's done a lot.

But think about it. Kobe is the one the media looks to first. He's been more forthcoming about interviews, yes, but already this season he has taken to national television to quell the concerns of an entire fanbase.

When has LeBron been asked to do that? He crippled Cleveland with his decision to leave, and his reputation as a savior has been tainted in a way Kobe's and Jordan's never has.

For those who will again point to the seasonal differences, to Kobe's extended stay in the NBA, I beg you to understand that legacies aren't built on individual years, or what could or could not have happened.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Kobe, at least for now, is closer to eclipsing Jordan's legacy.
Jordan could have played nearly five full seasons more if he didn't retire multiple times. He could have stuck with the game of basketball longer. He could have scored to a point where Bryant couldn't catch him.

But he didn't. 

That's a common misconception about Bryant's legacy. His efficiency doesn't necessarily compare to that of MJ's or even LeBron's, but his potency and career totals do.

Are we supposed to penalize him because he's played 17-plus years in succession? Because he's totaled more than 15 years of action? Because he's been in the league longer than LeBron and closer to eclipsing some of Jordan's statistical milestones as a result?

Not at all.

Who is closer to eclipsing the legacy Michael Jordan left behind?

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Every single one of Kobe's 17-plus seasons are a part of his legacy. Just like the 15 seasons Jordan played—and the four-plus ones he didn't—are a part of his. And just like the nine-plus years James has seen make up his.

Somewhat understandably, these comparisons are infuriating. They seem to take away from the individual accolades of everyone involved, which isn't the point.

The point is that Bryant, James and Jordan are three of the most fecund talents and polarizing figures to ever set foot on the hardwood. That they are each one of the greatest of all time.

When pitting Kobe and LeBron against each other in correlation to Jordan, though, the truth is Bryant is closer to MJ's status than James. We see more of Jordan in Kobe than LeBron.

Bryant has been around longer, he's had the opportunity to do more and he's garnered a type of eminence James just hasn't—in more ways than one.

And while they don't mean everything, those five championship rings have something to do with it too.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

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