For the first time in a long while, the career trajectories of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan are headed in very different directions. Since coming into the league a year apart—Bryant in 1996 and Duncan in 1997—both superstars have enjoyed massive success.
But now, as Duncan and his Spurs sit at home awaiting a challenger in the 2013 NBA Finals, Bryant is in a walking boot, his career at a crossroads after suffering a torn Achilles at the end of the regular season. Don't let the current disparity in their respective positions mislead you, though; both have been indisputably great for the better part of two decades.
But which one has been better?
By just about every common offensive statistic, Bryant has the edge on Duncan. The Los Angeles Lakers star currently sits in the fourth spot on the all-time scoring list with 31,617 points. Duncan "only" checks in at No. 22 with 23,785. And on a per-year basis, Bryant's career scoring average of 25.5 points per game is well clear of Duncan's 20.1.
Plus, Bryant holds a pair of scoring titles (2005-06 and 2006-07), while Duncan has ranked in the top 10 just five times.
Scoring points is important. In fact, it's kind of the main idea in basketball. But buckets aren't everything, and in the increasingly analytical world of the NBA, it's starting to become clear that raw scoring totals don't necessarily give a very good idea of a player's overall worth.
In terms of PER, which offers a broader measurement of a player's total offensive value, it's Duncan who has the advantage. His career mark of 24.7 ranks ninth all time. Bryant is close behind at 23.4, which rates 20th.
We're just getting started, though.
Duncan's has amassed 90.7 offensive win shares in his career, which ranks 28th on the all-time list. Bryant, a player whose career has very much been defined by offense, checks in at No. 9 on the career list with 123.8.
But on defense, it's Duncan who really shines. His 93.5 career defensive win shares have been bettered by just four other players in NBA history: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Wilt Chamberlain. Bryant resides behind those players and 41 other ones. His 49.5 defensive win shares rank just 46th in the career record books.
Overall, Duncan has an advantage of nearly 11 full win shares over Bryant: 184.2 to 173.3.
It could get exhausting to list the various individual honors and trophies these two have collected over their careers. Maybe a quick graphic will be helpful for all of the visual learners out there:
|Player||MVPs||All-Star Games||All-NBA||All-Defense||Finals MVP|
Looks like a pretty close race, huh?
The individual awards these guys have hauled in over the years don't do much to differentiate between them. So perhaps a look at team success will be more telling.
Duncan has never once missed the playoffs in his 16 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. Bryant has missed the postseason just once in his 17 years with the Lakers. That might appear to make the "team success" portion of our comparison a draw, but a closer look reveals that Duncan's teams, on the whole, have performed better than Bryant's have during the regular season.
Since joining the Lakers, Bryant's team has won at least 50 games in a season 11 different times. Duncan's Spurs have topped the 50-win mark in 15 seasons. Plus, Bryant's Lakers endured a marked dip in play from 2004-05 to 2006-07. No team of Duncan's ever suffered through a similar swoon.
Based on the consistent excellence of his teams, Duncan deserves a nod in this category.
You'd think the ring count would be the easiest part of this process. Bryant has five championships, while Duncan has just four.
But all rings are not created equal.
Bryant's first three championships came during a period of almost unparalleled dominance from teammate Shaquille O'Neal. When the Lakers won the title in 1999-2000, O'Neal poured in a ridiculous 38 points and 16.7 rebounds per game, easily winning the Finals MVP.
Bryant averaged just 15.6 points per game on 37 percent shooting in that series.
The next two Finals were better for Bryant, whose numbers jumped up to 24.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in 2000-01 and rose just slightly higher in 2001-02. But in each of those two Finals, O'Neal was the dominant force.
The big man put up averages of 33 points and 15.8 rebounds in 2000-01 and followed that up with 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in 2001-02. It might sound crazy to say, but the Lakers would almost definitely have won that first title without Bryant, and you could make a case that they'd have at least been competitive in the other two.
But there's no way they win even one in their three-peat without O'Neal.
So of Bryant's five rings, he was only the best player on two of those teams—the ones that won the championship in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Not surprisingly, he's got a pair of well-deserved Finals MVP trophies from those two title runs.
Duncan, on the other hand, was his team's best player in three of the Spurs' four Finals triumphs. His three Finals MVPs are an accurate reflection of that fact. And if you want to get technical, Duncan probably could have won his fourth in 2007 when his teammate, Tony Parker, took home the award.
Overall, Duncan has been the most important player on at least three (but possibly four) NBA championship teams. Bryant has been the most important player on just two.
So, even though Bryant has five rings to Duncan's four, the Spurs big man still has the more impressive postseason credentials.
Winning basketball games is about numbers beyond scoring averages and defensive win shares. Sometimes, it's the dollars that really matter most. So Duncan has to get some credit for his selfless decision to sign a three-year, $30 million contract in July of 2012. There's no question that he could have gotten more from the Spurs or, God forbid, another team.
But Duncan accepted less so his club could pay players to surround him in pursuit of another title.
It's not fair to knock Bryant for getting the most money possible. In any other occupation, nobody would bat an eye about that. But the fact that he has essentially commanded (and demanded) max money in every contract negotiation of his post-rookie deal serves to highlight that Duncan is something special.
Lots of players, Bryant included, talk about doing everything they possibly can in order to win basketball games. Kobe trains harder than anyone, works to add to his game like nobody since Michael Jordan and plays with constant effort.
But shouldn't Duncan's willingness to take less money—an act that literally made it easier for the Spurs to get players to help them win games—be lauded in a similar fashion? Bryant can talk all he wants about being devoted to winning.
Duncan, though, has actually put his money where his mouth is.
Bryant is a great player. But Duncan has put his team ahead of himself, shown no trace of ego and virtually never been the source of strife in the locker room or the media. If all of those things count for anything—and they most certainly should—Duncan takes the "miscellaneous" category of this comparison handily.
Body of Work
The numbers are remarkably similar across the board between Bryant and Duncan. Both have been very, very good for a very, very long time.
But part of what makes NBA basketball great is nuance—the stuff below the surface that sometimes goes unnoticed. In the same vein, I think it's clear that after looking below the surface in this comparison between Bryant and Duncan, there is a surprisingly robust amount of evidence that says Duncan's resume is more impressive.
Advanced statistics certainly favor him. And a deeper look at his postseason success shows that he was more integral to his team's championship runs than Bryant was to his.
So it's time to give Duncan the credit he deserves, and in an unpretentious fashion that Timmy would undoubtedly approve, here it is: Tim Duncan has had a better career than Kobe Bryant.
And if the Spurs take home yet another title in June, the gap between the two will only widen.
*All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.