Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? It’s probably the longest, and silliest, running debate on the Internet. In fact, if there’s an NBA version of Godwin’s Law, it’s that, given enough time, every NBA conversation will devolve into a comparison of the two superstars.
The crux of the issue is that in forcing a choice between the two, it predicates that there is a need for a preference. As people get cemented in their decisions, they have an increasing dislike of the other player. This, in turn, prevents them from enjoying the exploits of one of the greatest players in the history of the world, one way or the other.
Over the history of this argument, there have been a series of fallacious arguments offered up to denigrate the achievements of both of them, as though by knocking one’s accomplishments, it makes the other superior.
The Statistical Comparisons
The first thing that happens once this argument goes down is the statistical comparisons.
Usually, it’s “Team LeBron” who whips this one out, because frankly, James has better per-game stats than Bryant, with averages of 27.6 points, 6.9 assists and 7.3 rebounds to Bryant’s 25.5 points, 4.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds.
“Team Kobe,” in response, asserts that this isn’t a fair comparison because Bryant didn’t join the starting lineup until his third season, while James was a starter from his first season. Ergo, Bryant had his per-game numbers lowered through his first few seasons.
While there is some merit to this argument, it’s not as much as Team Kobe suggests. If you look at their per-game numbers through age 20, James has a massive lead, with Bryant scoring just 13.8 points per game and James averaging 24.1. However, if you look at it on a per-36-minute basis, James scores only 21.2 points per game to Bryant’s 19.6 points. So yes, it does reduce the disparity, but James still has the slight edge.
When you add in the fact that over his first few years, Bryant was not the first option but James was, that mitigates the remaining difference even more. However, James still has a big advantage in the other major categories, with 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds to Bryant’s 3.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds. And that’s just the first few years.
When you compare them over the course of their careers on a per-36 basis, while Bryant has a slight edge in scoring, James still leads in the other areas. Here are their career stats, per 36 minutes.
In balance, when you factor in the other arguments, James still has a slight statistical edge, but not as big as if you look at the whole numbers. Both sides are partly right.
Here’s what both sides are missing in nitpicking this argument, though. The two players are comparable, and that fact alone means they both demand tremendous respect and appreciation. However you look at it, the numbers for both players are absolutely massive.
There are 12 players in the history of the league with at least 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists. Two of them are Bryant and James. There is a very good chance that when they are both retired, they will be the only two in history with 30,000 points, 6,000 boards and 6,000 assists. Knocking either player’s statistical achievements is overlooking greatness.
Rings vs. MVPs
The argument will then end up in a discussion of MVPs versus rings. Bryant has one of the former and five of the latter; James has three of the former and only one of the latter. Needless to say, Team LeBron will emphasize the importance of MVPs and Team Kobe will emphasize the importance of rings.
Why can’t we live in a world where we acknowledge that both are important?
One thing that is either infuriating or funny, depending on how insistent they are, is when Bryant apologists simultaneously argue that 1) MVPs “don’t mean anything," and 2) that Bryant was “robbed” of at least one MVP award. If they don’t mean anything, why are you bothered that he was “robbed?”
What raises the level of comedy, though, is when they argue against the logic of the MVP award, insisting that the reason that Bryant was robbed is that he simply didn’t have enough talent around him to win, and that James only won because he was on a better team.
They argue that while Bryant was the most dominant player in the league, he couldn’t win by himself.
The discussion will progress to several insistent exclamatory pronunciations of “Smush Parker!” (Parker has, for some reason, become the singular example of the struggles the Los Angeles Lakers had between the Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol years, in spite of the fact that he wasn’t even with the team the lone year the Lakers missed the playoffs, 2005.)
But even if you take the Lakers’ 2005 team and compare that roster to the one James led to the NBA Finals in Cleveland, is it really that much worse? In particular, look at the second- and third-best players. Are Lamar Odom and Caron Butler so much worse than Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Are they the difference between missing the playoffs entirely and making the NBA Finals?
From 2005 to 2007, LeBron James did have slightly better teammates, but they weren’t exactly a superteam, and they won 21 more games than Bryant’s Lakers over that same span.
Yes, they played in the East and the Lakers played in the West, but don’t let excuses dismiss the successes of James' teams. He won a lot of games with a team that was a long way from championship material.
This is why the “Smush Parker” defense is so laughable. When it comes to MVPs, Team Kobe wants to emphasize the importance of teammates, but when it comes to titles, they want to ignore it.
Bryant landed on a team in his rookie season with the most dominant player on the planet. James landed on the worst team in the NBA and didn’t have an All-Star to play with for years, and when he finally did, it was a replacement.
In short, if your response to “Shaquille O’Neal” is “Mo Williams,” then you need to rethink your position.
Furthermore, if you want to excuse the failures of the Lakers when Bryant didn’t have much help, you have to give due credit to that help during the championship seasons. He did have the advantage of playing with O’Neal during his first three championship runs.
Team LeBron, on their side, would like to dismiss Bryant’s first three rings as “riding the coattails” of O’Neal, but that’s not fair either. You can hardly dismiss Bryant’s role on those teams as merely being along for the ride. He did average 25.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists during that span.
All three of those averages are more than Dwyane Wade’s production since James has joined the Miami Heat. I doubt many Heat fans would readily dismiss Wade’s contributions to last year’s title.
One other point to be made here is that Team Kobe wants to make an issue of whether players join you or you join players. It’s a distinction which would be more telling if any true star free agent had ever joined Bryant in Los Angeles, or if the argument didn’t pretend that Los Angeles and Cleveland were on the same level.
In terms of weather, endorsement opportunities and history, comparing Los Angeles to Cleveland is like comparing… Los Angeles to Cleveland. I can’t think of a mismatch worse than that.
In essence, you can sum things up by saying that while James did more with less, Bryant did more with more, which is why James has more MVPs and Bryant has won more rings. With both players, their achievements have as much to do with who their teammates were as how well they played.
Team LeBron needs to respect the rings—all of them—that are on Kobe’s fist. Team Kobe needs to appreciate the utter dominance of James to win three MVP awards (and counting). When you consider the other names who have won three awards—Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—you are talking about extremely elite company.
There’s no need for anyone to degrade the accomplishments of one man to build up the resume of the other. Both Bryant’s five rings and James three MVPs are historic accomplishments.
One issue that the Team LeBron would like to ignore is that while, for the most part, James is a point forward, Bryant has a completely different role. He is a shooting guard.
James, based on his position and role, is given more playmaking responsibilities and is a facilitator. He is asked to go into the paint more often to score. As a result, he is going to have a higher field-goal percentage and more assists.
Conversely, Bryant is asked to primarily shoot, which is why he’s called a “shooting guard.” “Shooting” implies space between you and the basket.
However, that also means he’s going to take a hit in terms of efficiency, which in part accounts for why James has a much higher field-goal percentage.
Some would argue that proves that Bryant is flawed, because he takes “too many” long twos. However, that ignores a basic fact: That’s what his role is. Not every basket can come at the rim. You need players who stretch the court by hitting outside shots, otherwise the inside game gets shut down. Bryant does the dirty work, and he does it extremely well.
Team Kobe would like to over-emphasize this point and argue that Bryant is the superior shooter. In doing so, they miss that over the past two seasons, James has hit on 41.3 percent of his jumpers, compared to just 39.1 percent by Bryant. Yes, James has really improved his jump shot and yes, that means that he does work on his game.
Bryant and James have different roles, and they both excel in them. James’ role has an inherent statistical advantage. That should not diminish the role that Bryant has, nor should it be assumed that Bryant could have the same measure of success in the same role as James.
They should both be measured by what they are asked to do, not what the other is asked to do. By that distinction, they are two of the most successful in history. In essence, Bryant is one of the greatest true scorers the game has ever seen, and James is one of the greatest all-around players the game has ever seen.
What’s wrong with that? Why are we compelled to choose one or the other?
Bryant has his 81-point game as his signature game. James has been threatening the first 50-point, triple double in the history of the NBA again and again, having just missed it on several occasions.
Both players are phenomenal, generational talents. It’s a privilege to watch either of them play, but if you’re so caught up in being a fan of one you can’t appreciate the talents of the other, you’re missing something special. Let go of the argument long enough to appreciate the other.