Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan: Comparing the G.O.A.T. to the Birthday Boy

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2013

Editor's note: Kobe Bryant turns 35 on Friday, August 23. To commemorate the Los Angeles Lakers legend's big day, we're seeing how his career stacks up next to five NBA luminaries, be they current Hall of Famers or legends in the making. Check out Parts 12, 3 and 4 here.

Today, in the last of our five-part series, we're pitting Kobe Bryant's career against Michael Jordan's. We'll be looking at how the two match up in four major categories: career accomplishments, career statistics, off-court influence and impact on the game.

At the moment, there's little debate about which NBA player sits upon the greatest-of-all-time throne.

Some old-school fans may point to Bill Russell and his 11 championships, but for a vast majority of NBA fans, Jordan reigns supreme.

Kobe, however, would like nothing more than to enter his name in that conversation.

Based on their respective skill sets and indomitable wills, Bryant finds himself closer to Jordan than any current NBA player. The two players share an eerie number of similarities, as evidenced by this YouTube video from Youssef Hannoun.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, Bryant's five championship rings have him one title shy of tying His Airness. The Lakers may appear miles away from a title for now, but all it takes is one lucky break in the draft, free agency or the trade market to vault L.A. back into contention.

Would a sixth ring for the Los Angeles Lakers legend allow him to wrest the G.O.A.T. title from Jordan?

Let's investigate.


Career Accomplishments

Bryant's many career accolades firmly establish him as one of the top 10 players in NBA history, but they don't come close to matching Jordan's.

In M.J.'s 15-year career, he won 10 regular-season scoring titles, including seven straight from 1986-87 through 1992-93. He also led the league in per-game scoring during 10 of his 13 playoff appearances.

Bryant, who's only won two scoring titles in his 17-year career, simply can't compare to that incredibly high standard. No player in NBA history can. (Wilt Chamberlain, with seven scoring titles to his name, comes the closest.) 

There's an even greater disparity between Bryant and Jordan in terms of MVP awards, both in the regular season and the NBA Finals. Bryant's one regular-season and two finals MVPs can't hold a candle to Jordan's five regular-season and six finals awards.

As if the head-to-head between the two players weren't lopsided enough, Jordan also touts both a Rookie of the Year (1984-85) and a Defensive Player of the Year award (1987-88). Bryant possesses neither.

That's not to mention their on-court head-to-head experiences against one another

What can Bryant do to turn the tables and even the score against M.J.? Continue his NBA career as long as humanly possible.

Had Jordan not temporarily retired after the Chicago Bulls' first three-peat, there'd likely be no fathomable way to overthrow him as the greatest of all time.

During the three seasons before his first retirement (1990-91 through 1992-93), M.J. averaged approximately 2,500 points, 500 rebounds and 450 assists per year. After returning in mid-March 1995, he accumulated 457 points, 117 rebounds and 90 assists over the rest of that season.

Assuming Jordan would have maintained his pre-retirement averages throughout those two seasons, he shaved roughly 4,500 points, 900 rebounds and 800 assists off his career totals with that first retirement.

Barring a slew of late-career MVPs, however, Kobe will struggle to ever match Michael's long list of career accomplishments.


Career Statistics

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the side-by-side career totals of both players look remarkably similar.

If Bryant can return to form following his Achilles tendon surgery, there's a strong probability that he'll pass M.J. in total points and rebounds within months.

It's been nearly a decade since Bryant averaged fewer than 25 points per game. Assuming he can maintain that 25 PPG average upon his return, he'll match Jordan's points total in exactly 27 games.

Likewise, the Laker legend hasn't averaged fewer than five rebounds per game since all the way back in 1997-98, his sophomore season. If he continues to average five boards per game after coming back from his Achilles injury, he'll surpass Jordan's rebounding total in 20 games.

Kobe has already accumulated 254 more assists than His Airness, so any additional dimes only bolster his resume compared to Jordan's. Going after M.J.'s career steals or blocks total, however, may prove futile. 

The more distance Bryant puts between himself and Jordan in career statistical totals (besides turnovers), the better. Career longevity is the Laker legend's silver bullet in the G.O.A.T. debate.

Advanced statistics, on the other hand, do Kobe no favors.

Jordan crushes Bryant in every metric featured here: average PER, average offensive win shares, average defensive win shares, average win shares, average win shares per 48 minutes and career effective-field-goal percentage.

Granted, Kobe never had a fair shot in some of these categories. Michael ranks first all-time in terms of average win shares per 48 minutes, 0.0003 points ahead of David Robinson, and sits fourth all-time in total win shares (214.0), according to Basketball Reference.

He also has the fourth-most offensive win shares in NBA history (149.88) and ranks 19th in total defensive win shares (64.13).

Kobe sits ninth on the total offensive win shares all-time list (123.84), and given that he posted 8.4 OWS in 2012-13, he could feasibly pass M.J. before he ultimately retires. He'd need to continue playing at a high level for at least the next half decade to surpass Air Jordan in defensive win shares, however.

One place where Kobe has absolutely no chance of trumping Michael? Career PER.

Jordan currently holds the all-time PER record with his career rating of 27.91, according to Basketball Reference. LeBron James, with a career PER of 27.65, is M.J.'s closest competition.

His Airness rocketed out of the gates with a 25.8 PER during his rookie season in 1984-85 and never looked back. From 1986-87 through 1992-93, he led the league in PER every season, including four straight seasons where he posted a PER above 30.

Bryant, meanwhile, hasn't ever led the league in PER, nor has he finished a season with a PER above 30.

Realistically, Kobe's best shot of ever gaining an advantage over Jordan in the career statistics department rests with his points total. If Kobe is able to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, Jordan's dominance in terms of advanced metrics might not look nearly as overpowering.


Off-Court Influence

It's no exaggeration to say Jordan birthed the sneakerhead culture.

M.J.'s release of the Air Jordan I reinvented the kicks game. He and Nike began churning out a new model of his signature shoe every year and sat back as the money poured in.

The popularity of the Air Jordans also led to some of the greatest shoe commercials in NBA history, starring Spike Lee as "Mars Blackmon."

By the early '90s, a slew of other NBA stars were following M.J.'s footsteps in pursuit of their own shoe fortunes. Adidas, Reebok and others threatened Nike's supremacy at times, but Jordan helped Nike reign supreme.

"Michael Jordan sneakers, that's what it's all about," said Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to MTV.com in February 2013. "When you walked into high school with the Michael Jordan sneakers on, you were the man."

The Jordan brand remains one of the most recognizable in sports. In 2009, it topped $1 billion in annual revenue for the first time, according to Darren Rovell, then of CNBC.

"[He] changed the public's view of what role athletes can play in society—how they can be viewed, how they can be used by corporations, how they can be social icons," Rick Welts, then the NBA's chief marketer, told Fortune in 1998. "He also leaves [the sports business] a fundamentally different industry from the one he came into."

The Jordan family only continues to grow. NBA stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin all fall under the brand's umbrella these days, as do some of the top athletes in the NFL (Hakeem Nicks, Andre Johnson and Josh Freeman, to name a few) and MLB (CC Sabathia and Derek Jeter).

Bryant doesn't have a clothing line that challenges the Jordan brand. In part, that can be traced back to him starting his career being sponsored by Adidas before switching to Nike following the 2001-02 season.

Don't shed too many tears for the Black Mamba, though. According to a January 2013 list of top-earning NBA players from Forbes, Bryant earns $32 million per year in endorsements alone, more than any other player in the league. 

The global growth of the NBA also plays very much in the Laker legend's favor. 

Bryant topped all NBA players in terms of international jersey sales during the 2011-12 season, according to the league's first-ever list of top-selling jerseys worldwide. Not only did he lead total global jersey sales, but he also topped all three key regions highlighted by the NBA: China, Europe and Latin America.

In China, he's boasted the most popular jersey for six straight seasons.

That international popularity earns Kobe serious points in this category, but not enough to surpass the man responsible for a billion-dollar brand.


Impact on the Game 

No one player had a greater impact on today's generation of NBA stars than Jordan.

Kobe himself is quick to credit M.J. for helping shape his career.

"The imprint he’s had on the league, he’s an immortal," Bryant said during 2013 All-Star weekend, according to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com. "Everything that he’s done from the business aspect to his professionalism to his work ethic to the global (build) of the game has been something that carries on for generations and generations."

That's not the only praise Bryant has shared regarding Air Jordan.

"Michael took it to a whole other level with his athletic ability, determination and fundamentals," Kobe told ESPN.com's Jackie MacMullan in 2010. "At the end of the day, that's what separated him from everyone else."

The Laker legend appeared to model his own relentless work ethic after Jordan's. As Kevin Durant often says, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."

No one can accuse Kobe or Michael of not working hard.

Just as Bryant sees parts of himself in Jordan, the opposite holds true.

Author Roland Lazenby, who's currently working on a book about Jordan, sparked a Twitter firestorm in January 2012 when he revealed this nugget from M.J.:

While their playing styles have much in common, Bryant and Jordan appear to be wired differently from one another off the court.

So says Phil Jackson, anyway.

In his latest book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Jackson served up no shortage of Kobe-and-M.J. comparisons. Check out this excerpt, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times:

Michael was more charismatic and gregarious than Kobe. He loved hanging out with his teammates and security guards, playing cards, smoking cigars, and joking around.

Kobe is different. He was reserved as a teenager, in part because he was younger than the other players and hadn't developed strong social skills in college. When Kobe first joined the Lakers, he avoided fraternizing with his teammates. But his inclination to keep to himself shifted as he grew older. Increasingly, Kobe put more energy into getting to know the other players, especially when the team was on the road.

These days, Bryant has learned that true leadership requires reaching teammates both on and off the court.

If the Black Mamba does eventually take home a sixth ring, he'll have one distinct advantage in the head-to-head over Jordan. Bryant will have won three championship rings in two distinctly separate eras, something Jordan never did.

All six of Jordan's titles came with Scottie Pippen by his side, while Derek Fisher was the only teammate to play alongside Bryant during all five of his championship runs. Shaquille O'Neal helped Bryant take home his first three rings, while the big-man duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum pushed Bryant to his most recent two.

Let's not forget the Jackson angle either. Jackson won all 11 of his championship rings as a coach with either Jordan (six) or Bryant (five).

If Bryant wins his sixth ring sans Jackson, that's another notch on his G.O.A.T. belt that Jordan can't match.

Even with a sixth ring, however, Kobe will still have a long way to go before matching the impact Jordan had on the NBA and the game of basketball itself.


The Verdict: Jordan

Ultimately, it's going to take far more than one more ring for Bryant to supplant Jordan as the greatest NBA player ever. Shooting efficiency will always remain Bryant's biggest bugaboo in this debate.

Through 17 seasons, Bryant's career field-goal percentage sits at a respectable 45.4 percent. That's nothing compared to Jordan, who retired having shot just under 50 percent from the field (49.7, to be exact) over the course of his career.

Air Jordan shot over 50 percent from the field for five straight seasons, from 1987-88 through 1991-92. The Black Mamba's career-high single-season field-goal percentage? Try 46.9 percent, set back in the 2001-02 season.

Jordan, for what it's worth, shot below 46.9 percent only five times throughout his 15-year career. One of those seasons occurred immediately after his first comeback from retirement (1994-95), and two followed his second comeback (2001-03).

Longevity is the only thing that can get Bryant into the G.O.A.T. conversation. If he's able to overtake Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's all-time leading scorer—heading into the 2013-14 season, he's 6,770 points shy—that would assuredly bolster his argument.

Surpassing Jordan's ring total by winning seven or eight championships would only help too.

Until then? The debate between Kobe and M.J. will lack luster.

Based on their head-to-head comparison at the moment, there's no questioning who stands out as the greater of the two players.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com.


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