Kobe Bryant vs. Julius Erving: 5 Days of Black Mamba Birthday Comparisons

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2013

Editor's note: Kobe Bryant turns 35 on 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 those in the making. Check out Part 1 here.

Today, in the second of our five-part series, we're pitting Bryant's career against that of Julius "Dr. J" Erving. We're looking at four main factors: career accomplishments, career statistics, off-the-court influence and impact on the game.

Granted, it's inherently unfair to compare Erving to NBA legends who succeeded him.

If you're strictly weighing Erving's NBA accomplishments against those of other all-time greats, you're leaving out some of the best years of the Doctor's basketball-playing career.

Then again, how do you properly account for the way Erving dominated the now-defunct American Basketball Association in the early-to-mid 1970s? Should his statistics from those five years be factored into comparisons with other NBA megastars who didn't ever have such an opportunity?

Let's flesh that out.


Career Accomplishments

It's an understatement to say Dr. J is one of the most accomplished players in the history of professional basketball, as evidenced by the table below.

Upon joining the ABA's Virginia Squires in 1971-72, Erving hit the ground running. He averaged an astounding 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game as a rookie, finishing second to Artis Gilmore in the league's Rookie of the Year voting. (Gilmore also won the ABA's Most Valuable Player award that season).

The next season, Dr. J averaged a career-high 31.9 points per game in his final season with the Squires. The cash-strapped franchise, unable to continue paying Erving at his going rate, opted to trade him to the then-New York Nets following the 1972-73 season.

Erving responded by winning three straight regular-season Most Valuable Player awards, one of which he split with George McGinnis (1974-75). The Doctor also led the Nets to two ABA championships in that three-year span, both in 1974 and in the league's final season, 1976.

Once the ABA merged with the NBA before the 1976-77 season, Dr. J joined the Philadelphia 76ers and immediately returned the franchise to relevance. During his freshman season in the NBA, Erving helped guide the Sixers into the 1977 Finals, where they'd fall short against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Doctor brought the Sixers back to the Finals twice more, in 1980 and 1982, before finally breaking through for a championship in the 1982-83 season. He also took home the 1981 regular-season MVP award after averaging 24.6 points on 52.1 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.

Erving's 11-year NBA career, while not as award-laden as his five-year ABA stint, still solidified his spot as one of the league's greatest players.

Bryant, meanwhile, wins the battle of the hardware between the two players, even with Erving's ABA accomplishments included.

After leading the ABA in scoring during three of his five seasons there, Erving never managed to do the same in the NBA. He only topped a 25 points-per-game average once in his 11-year NBA career (1979-80), the year before he took home the MVP.

That has nothing on Bryant, who hasn't finished a season with fewer than 25 points per game since 2003-04. His career high came back in 2005-06, when he averaged 35.4 points per game en route to his first of two straight scoring titles.

Given Bryant's advantages in terms of NBA championships, scoring titles and Finals MVPs, he gets the nod over Dr. J here.


Career Statistics

Comparing the NBA career totals of Kobe and Dr. J, much like their career NBA accomplishments, results in a landslide in favor of the Los Angeles Lakers legend.

With Bryant having played six more years in the NBA than Erving, his statistical dominance should come as no surprise. He trumps the Doctor in every major statistical category besides blocks.

Adding in Erving's stats from the ABA, however, levels the playing field a bit.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, Kobe sits fourth on the all-time NBA/ABA scoring leaderboard with 31,617 total points. Erving isn't far behind, ranking sixth all time with a combined 30,026 points.

It's a similar story in terms of combined NBA/ABA minutes. Kobe's 45,390 total minutes have him sitting in 14th place, while Erving trails right behind in 15th place with a combined 45,227 minutes.

Advanced statistics tell a similar tale.

In the ABA, Erving's average PER, offensive win shares, defensive win shares, total win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and effective field-goal percentage all beat Kobe's career averages.

In the NBA, though, Dr. J only holds the advantage in terms of defensive win shares and effective field-goal percentage.

Ultimately, it boils down to the same question mentioned here in the introduction: How do you account for Erving's five years spent in the ABA? Does that time merit being included in the comparison between he and Kobe?

If you're judging the entirety of the Doctor's career, you have to factor it in. The ABA statistics just deserve an asterisk, a la baseball in the 1990s, with a note about how weaker competition could have artificially inflated per-game numbers.  

One place where Kobe holds a clear advantage either way? Year-to-year PER.

After Dr. J turned 31, his PER began rapidly declining, falling to 17.4 and 17.0 in his final two seasons. Through 17 seasons, Kobe hasn't experienced a similar drop, as he hasn't finished with a PER below 20 since his third season in the league.

While the Doctor's ABA statistics narrow the gap between he and Kobe, they're not enough to give him the advantage in this category. Kobe's dominance in career totals and certain advanced statistics put him up 2-0 over Erving here. 


Off-the-Court Influence

There aren't many people who shaped not one, but two professional basketball leagues.

As Fran Blinebury of NBA.com wrote back in 2011:

Erving was the single biggest factor behind the merger of the NBA and ABA and in his first year in the NBA (1976-77) gave the league a freshness and identity it was sorely lacking. At time when public perception of the league was a bunch of renegades, he was a gentleman, a touch of class.

His willingness to sit with melting bags of ice on his aching knees, long after his teammates had showered and gone home, to patiently answer every last question from the most timid of notebooks or microphones, made him a source of amazement for players as well as the media. 

Essentially, the Doctor paved the way for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to escalate the NBA to new heights in the 1980s. That's as major as anything he did on the court.

He also deserves credit for helping facilitate the NBA-ABA merger in '76, as it only changed the course of professional basketball history forever. You know, no big deal.

Bryant, unlike Dr. J, can't claim to have permanently altered the course of professional basketball. The NBA has been in a position of strength ever since Kobe joined the league in '96.

What Bryant did do, however, was continue to expand the game's reach on a global stage. Nike wisely capitalized on the Laker legend's international appeal, feeding into commissioner David Stern's growth mission for the league.

In the NBA's first-ever list of overall international top-selling jerseys, released back in June 2012, Kobe ranked first overall. Not only did he lead the overall list, he also sat atop the three key regions highlighted by the NBA: China, Europe and Latin America.

According to the NBA, Kobe's jersey has outsold any other player's in China for six years running.

Based on his influence over the NBA-ABA merger, Dr. J holds the advantage over Kobe in this category at the moment. With that said, Kobe still has time to make up ground here before he retires. 


Impact on the Game

Beyond helping facilitate the NBA-ABA merger, Erving is widely credited for establishing the high-flying style of play that remains in today's league.

Or, as Magic told NBA.com's Fran Blinebury:

Julius Erving did more to popularize basketball than anybody else who's ever played the game. I remember going to the schoolyard as a kid the day after one of his games would be on TV. Everybody there would be saying, 'Did you see The Doctor?' And we'd all start trying to do those moves.

He wasn't the only Hall of Famer to sing Dr. J's praises. Check out what Clyde Drexler told Blinebury:

Me, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins—as kids, we all tried to imitate him. Julius Erving invented that style of play. He changed the game completely. He was the pioneer—the pioneer of excitement in the game.

Pat Riley, who's been around no shortage of NBA legends, said in that same piece, "I'll remember him being the most spectacular basketball player I ever saw."

Erving is the only player in professional basketball history to be voted MVP for both the ABA and the NBA. In 1997, a special panel of former ABA writers, radio announcers, executives, owners, referees and fans selected Dr. J as the league's all-time Most Valuable Player.

Any discussion about the Doctor's legacy also must include a note about his dunking prowess. His free-throw-line dunk during the 1976 ABA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest further helped legitimize the league, and, according to ESPN.com's Eric Neel, likely expedited the merger discussions.

Again, Kobe doesn't have any claims to fame as epic as helping two professional basketball leagues unite into one.

He was, however, one of the first players to enter the league straight out of high school, paving the way for players like LeBron James and Dwight Howard in the coming years.

That wasn't the only form of imitation that Bryant provoked, either.

As he told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin in November 2012:

Just by observation of some of the younger players that I face now, they wind up having a similar mentality that I had. Because growing up, they were obviously watching me when I was 21, 22 years old and just kind of by any means necessary get things done, not afraid of the big moment and extremely competitive. They all have these work ethics now and most of them get up at five in the morning to train like I do. It’s pretty cool. 

Bryant's Team USA teammates got an up-close-and-personal view of his relentless drive during the 2008 Olympics. ESPN's Bill Simmons believes that seeing Kobe's dedication to improvement spurred LeBron to raise his game, too.

Only after watching Kobe's daily workout routine and nonstop commitment to defense did LeBron realize that he was selling himself short, to some degree. And when Kobe took over as the alpha dog in the gold-medal game (and everyone let him do it), that made LeBron realize, 'I'm not quite there yet.'

There are worse ways to be remembered than as the guy with the Energizer Bunny-esque commitment to the game of basketball. And, from the looks of things, Kobe appears intent on shattering the record for recovering from an Achilles tendon tear.

Just four months after suffering the injury, Bryant is already back and running on an anti-gravity treadmill.

Depending how he responds to that torn Achilles, Kobe still has a chance to continue carving out his own legacy. Even if he decided to give up on recovery and retire before the 2013-14 season, his impact on today's NBA generation won't be forgotten anytime soon.

Knowing the Mamba's competitive drive, retirement is the furthest thing from his mind at the moment.

Ultimately, Dr. J holds the edge over Kobe in this category, too, but it's a close contest.


The Verdict: Kobe 

If this were a comparison of Dr. J's overall impact on the game of basketball compared to Kobe's, it'd be considerably closer.

But even when you include Erving's time spent in the ABA, Bryant comes out ahead.

The Doctor may have been one of the NBA's greatest innovators, but Bryant has been one of the league's most prominent faces for a majority of the past two decades.

No matter how he bounces back from his torn Achilles, he's already solidified a spot as one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history. 

Dr. J, as great of an NBA player as he was, can't say the same.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference


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