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 1 and 2 here.
Today, in the third of our five-part series, we're pitting Bryant's career against LeBron James' already-incredible body of work. We'll be looking at how the two match up in four major categories: career accomplishments, career statistics, off-the-court influence and impact on the game.
As James' Cleveland Cavaliers rose to power in the late 2000s, Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers returned to relevance by acquiring Pau Gasol. Over those next few seasons, the league appeared destined for a Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals matchup at some point.
However, the Boston Celtics thwarted those plans by proving to be as much of a roadblock to LeBron as the Detroit Pistons once were for Michael Jordan. The Celtics KO'ed the Cavs in the 2008 and 2010 playoffs, both times in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Amazingly, every Finals series since 2007 has featured either Kobe or LeBron. But somehow, as of 2013, the two haven't clashed on the league's grandest stage.
Luckily for NBA fans, there's still time for it to happen. Bryant may be in the twilight of his career, but it's no secret that he has his sights set on winning a sixth ring before hanging it up for good.
No matter what happens, both players will go down as two of the greatest to ever play the game. Comparing them is only natural, even if their on-court rivalry remains largely dormant.
Ten years into his NBA career, LeBron James has already accomplished far more than most players ever will.
Only five players in NBA history—James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain—have ever won four or more regular-season Most Valuable Player awards. James is the first ever to win four MVPs in five years.
He'll face stiff competition for the award over the next few years, but he enters 2013-14 as the prohibitive favorite to win his third straight MVP. If he can avoid a career-altering injury, it's entirely feasible that James one day will surpass Abdul-Jabbar for the most MVPs in NBA history. (Kareem finished his career with six).
Back in 2003, James entered the league with an unparalleled amount of hype. The Cavaliers fully expected him to become a franchise savior, and despite his failure to deliver a championship to Cleveland, he otherwise held up his end of the bargain.
He averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game en route to the 2004 Rookie of the Year award, then took his game up a notch from there. Averaging roughly 28-30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game become commonplace for James during his time with the Cavs.
His infamous "Decision" to join the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010 sparked a flood of scorn, but three years later, it's tough to argue with his choice. He's made three straight trips to the NBA Finals and won back-to-back championships in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
If LeBron continues winning MVP awards and championships at the rate he has since joining Miami, he still has an outside shot of dethroning Michael Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history.
Bryant won't ever match James' number of regular-season MVPs, but he's trumping 'Bron in terms of championships and All-Star MVPs at the moment. The latter might be somewhat meaningless, but the former couldn't be more valuable to either player.
Those five rings have Bryant in rare NBA company. He's one of only 25 players with five or more championships to his name, according to Basketball-Reference, which ties him with Magic Johnson and Derek Fisher for the most titles in Lakers history.
LeBron's per-game career scoring average (27.6) is higher than Kobe's (25.5) heading into the 2013-14 season, but Bryant has one more scoring title than James.
Of course, LeBron, at 28 years of age, still has plenty of time to make up ground against Kobe here. For the moment, however, Bryant's collection of championships trumps James' bevy of MVPs.
With Kobe having played seven more years in the league than LeBron, one might expect the Lakers star to hold a major advantage over James in terms of career statistical totals.
As it turns out, that's not exactly the case.
Kobe, as expected, holds a major edge over LeBron when it comes to total minutes played, points scored and turnovers. In seven years' time, assuming he can avoid a career-altering injury, James should surpass Bryant in all three categories.
For rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, James is either within spitting distance or already past Bryant. Remember: James still has roughly half a career to go, including the final few years of his athletic prime.
And, for what it's worth, LeBron has the third-highest points-per-game average in league history at the moment (27.6 PPG), according to Basketball-Reference. Kobe sits 10th with his 25.5 PPG career average.
For now, Bryant takes the cake when it comes to total career statistics. At LeBron's current pace, however, it'll be a much different story by the time both players retire.
As much as Kobe steamrolls LeBron when it comes to career totals, the exact opposite is true when looking at advanced statistics.
LeBron beats Kobe out in every single major category listed here: career PER, average offensive win shares, average defensive win shares, average win shares, average win shares per 48 minutes and career effective field-goal percentage.
Despite coming into the league seven years after Kobe, LeBron sits only roughly 20 total win shares behind the Laker legend. He ranks sixth all time in terms of career win shares per 48 minutes (.241), according to Basketball-Reference, while Kobe ranks 31st (.183).
He's additionally led the NBA in total win shares and win shares per 48 minutes for each of the past five seasons (starting in 2008-09) and posted the highest number of offensive win shares in four of the past five years. Kobe, on the other hand, has never led the league in any of the three aforementioned categories.
There's an even more cavernous gap between the two players when it comes to PER.
King James ranks second all time in career PER (27.6) behind only Michael Jordan, according to Basketball-Reference. Bryant, with his career PER of 23.4, currently sits 20th all time.
Starting with the 2007-08 season, LeBron led the NBA in PER each of the past six seasons. Kobe hasn't ever led the league in PER.
LeBron is also responsible for four of the 11 highest single-season PERs in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference. He, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain are the only three players among the top 11.
Kobe's advantage in terms of career totals isn't great enough to overpower LeBron's incredible advanced metrics. LBJ evens the score with the Laker legend here.
It's safe to say that Michael Jordan paved the way for James' off-the-charts impact away from the court.
Before LeBron even graduated from high school, he signed a seven-year contract with Nike worth over $90 million. It remains the largest initial contract ever awarded to a professional athlete by the shoe giant, according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.com.
It turned out to be a wise gamble by Nike, as we know a decade later. The company generated $300 million in U.S. revenue from the sale of James' signature sneaker in 2012 alone, reported Badenhausen, citing statistics from research firm SportsOneSource.
That relationship with Nike helps LeBron maintain his hold as the NBA's most lucrative off-the-court earner, according to Badenhausen. He will earn roughly $40 million from endorsements alone in 2013.
No one can accuse James of not paying those riches forward, though. He's been one of the league's most prominent charitable forces since coming into the NBA a decade ago.
He has his own "LeBron James Family Foundation," which focuses heavily on providing educational opportunities to youths. He organizes a "Wheels for Education" bike ride in Akron, Ohio, every summer, and partnered with State Farm in 2011 for a dropout-prevention campaign called "26 Seconds." (Every 26 seconds, a U.S. student drops out of high school, according to State Farm).
Even LeBron's ill-fated "Decision" wasn't all bad, as it raised over $3 million for 59 Boys & Girls Clubs across the nation, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
Kobe, as recently noted by B/R's Adam Fromal, has redefined his career reputation in recent years by becoming the NBA's de facto elder statesman.
Back in his younger days, when Shaquille O'Neal played alongside him, the adjectives "arrogant" and "cocksure" could more or less sum Kobe up. He's remained cocky as he's aged, of course, but he's now begun to appreciate the value of appeasing his teammates (at times, anyway).
He's brutally honest, sometimes to a fault, but that honesty also makes him one of the league's most believable quotes. The Black Mamba isn't one to hold back what he's thinking, to say the least.
And while LeBron may be the NBA's stateside king, there's no questioning who's more dominant overseas.
According to the NBA's first-ever list of top-selling international jerseys (which was released in June 2012), Bryant ranked first overall. He additionally topped the list in all three key regions highlighted by the NBA: China, Europe and Latin America.
In China, the Black Mamba's jersey has been the top seller for six years running, according to the NBA.
Kobe also deserves bonus points in this category for absolutely crushing his competition on Twitter. He's only been #MambaTweeting since the start of 2013, but he's already one of the NBA's best tweeters.
We'll call this category a tie, as LeBron's domestic popularity and Kobe's international dominance essentially cancel each other out.
Impact on the Game
This section is the trickiest of all when it comes to Kobe and LeBron, as both aren't finished making an impact on the NBA and the game of basketball itself.
In LeBron's case, he's proved that the "me-first" style isn't a winning strategy. He, like Magic Johnson before him, has once again made dishing to an open teammate as cool as knocking down a last-second jumper.
Kobe, on the other hand, personifies the opposite. He's a willing passer at times, but at the end of a close game, everyone in the arena knows who's taking the final shot.
Both players have proved capable of winning championships while utilizing these contrasting styles, which speaks to part of what makes basketball so fascinating. There's no one right way to win a title.
Kobe and LeBron each get points for helping to restore Team USA to the top of the basketball world order. After the program suffered a swoon in the mid-2000s, the two superstars took it upon themselves to right Team USA's ship.
Bryant served as the unquestioned leader of the 2008 squad in Beijing, and LeBron, fresh off his first NBA championship, filled that role during the 2012 London Olympics.
It's only fair to give each player an "incomplete" in this category, as both still have time to continue carving their legacies. For now, given Bryant's stature and career longevity, he gets the slight edge over LeBron.
The Verdict: Kobe... For Now
Considering what LeBron has done since the start of the 2011-12 season—two regular-season MVPs, two NBA championships, two Finals MVPs and an Olympic gold medal to boot—it's foolish to project where he'll end up among the all-time greats.
If he continues amassing hardware at the rate he has over the past two seasons, Michael Jordan's reign as the NBA's greatest player of all time could eventually be in jeopardy.
We can't predict the future, though. Just as easy as it is to imagine LeBron accumulating seven or eight rings, he could also suffer a career-altering injury and never win another championship again. Everything remains within the realm of possibility.
Because of that uncertainty, Kobe gets the nod over LeBron for the time being. As the great M.J. once said, "five beats one every time I look at it." (The same goes for five and two, if my math serves me right).
If LeBron adds another championship or two before he retires, it's very likely he and Kobe will switch places among the NBA's all-time greats.
Until then, Kobe trumps the King.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.
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