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, 2 and 3 here.
In the fourth installment of our five-part series, we're pitting Bryant's career against that of another Lakers luminary, Magic Johnson. 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.
The Lakers have been blessed with no shortage of legendary players throughout their illustrious history. Bryant and Magic will go down as two of the greatest.
Together, the duo brought 10 of the franchise's 16 championships to Los Angeles. Magic's "Showtime" teams of the '80s gave way to the squads of Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal at the turn of the century. Each is historically memorable in its own right.
Because the two stars represent such a major share of the team's lore, it's only natural to wonder which player deserves the title of greatest Laker in franchise history.
Let's find out where each player stands in that regard.
Before Magic's career was cut short by HIV, he was one of the NBA's brightest stars.
|Kobe Bryant||Magic Johnson|
|Rookie of the Year?||No||No|
His onetime rival Larry Bird prevented him from winning the 1980 Rookie of the Year Award, but Magic made the best of it. He helped guide the Lakers to the 1980 NBA Finals to face off against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Magic's iconic teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle in Game 5 and had to sit out the next game. With a 3-2 series lead in jeopardy, Magic rotated between every position on the court in Game 6, finishing with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in the championship-clinching 123-107 win.
For the remainder of the decade, Magic and the Lakers were a mainstay in the Finals. In 1982, once again facing the 76ers, he won his second championship and Finals MVP Award, but the Sixers avenged their loss against the Lakers one season later.
In 1984, Magic's Lakers and Bird's Boston Celtics clashed for the first time in the playoffs. To this day, the seven-game series (which Boston won) remains one of the greatest NBA Finals matchups of all time.
The Lakers got their revenge against the Celtics over the next few seasons, beating them in both the 1985 and 1987 Finals. Magic won his third Finals MVP Award in '87 after averaging 26.2 points, 13.0 assists, 8.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game throughout the series.
Johnson and the Lakers defended their championship the next season against the Detroit Pistons, which ended up being the fifth and final title of Magic's career. He took home back-to-back regular-season MVP Awards in 1988-89 and 1989-90, but his HIV diagnosis before the start of the 1991-92 season cut his promising career short.
The only thing threatening to cut Kobe's career short? Father Time himself.
Just four months after suffering a torn Achilles tendon, Bryant is already running on an anti-gravity treadmill. Due to his relentless work ethic, there's a reasonable chance he'll be back on opening night of the 2013-14 season like nothing ever happened.
At the moment, he's tied with Magic for the most rings accumulated while wearing a Lakers uniform. It's no secret he's got his sights set on a sixth title, however.
If Kobe can bounce back and win yet another championship, he'll have one notch on his belt Magic won't ever be able to match. On the other hand, Kobe's unlikely to ever exceed Magic's number of regular-season MVPs (three).
Given the tie in championships, Magic takes the edge in this category because of his advantage in regular-season and Finals MVPs.
Magic is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest passers in NBA history.
His career totals prove why.
|Kobe Bryant||Magic Johnson|
With over 10,000 dimes during his 13-year career, Magic currently ranks fifth all time in terms of total assists, according to Basketball Reference. His average of 11.19 assists per game is currently the highest in NBA history. John Stockton's average of 10.51 is second.
Magic led the NBA in assists per game four times in five years, starting with the 1982-83 season. He was also the back-to-back steals-per-game league leader in 1980-81 and 1981-82.
Johnson trails only Oscar Robertson in career triple-doubles, according to NBA.com, with 138 to his name. His career averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game speak to his astounding versatility on the court.
Kobe's statistical totals exceed Magic's in every category except assists, but with four additional years under his belt, that's not entirely surprising. Had Johnson not been forced to retire before the 1991-92 season, he likely would have added an additional 6,000 points, 3,500 assists and 2,000 rebounds to his resume.
In terms of advanced statistics, however, Magic emerges as the clear winner.
|Kobe Bryant||Magic Johnson|
Johnson holds the advantage over 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.
Despite playing four fewer seasons than Kobe, Magic sits fewer than 20 total career win shares behind him. As of the start of the 2013-14 season, Bryant had six seasons with fewer than 10 win shares, while Magic had only two.
Magic, a 30.5 percent three-point shooter over the course of his career, also knew his limitations. He only averaged 1.2 three-point attempts per game during his 13 years in the NBA, which helps explain how he managed to shoot 52 percent from the field overall.
Kobe could only dream of shooting efficiency like that. His single-season career-high field-goal percentage of .469 is lower than what Magic posted in all but one year.
Each player's respective PER tells a similar story. Magic can attribute his advantage in that category to never having posted a PER below 20, whereas Kobe didn't crack a PER of 20 until his fourth season in the league.
The Mamba's advantage in terms of career totals can't neutralize Magic's advanced-metrics dominance. The elder Laker legend earns the nod over his successor here too.
When Magic announced his HIV diagnosis before the start of the 1991-92 season, it came as a total shock to NBA fans.
As Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard wrote in November 2011:
In a moment our world shifted. Superstar athletes were supposed to be indestructible, especially one as transcendent—and wholesome—as Magic. I knew people who cried, as though they'd lost a family member. One friend swore off sex. Another scheduled an HIV test. After all, if Magic could get HIV, anyone could. We could.
For more perspective, check out this series of tweets from the anonymous @BIGSPORTSWRITER.
We were kids. Everyone that found out about Magic's HIV - we were all instantly children. Terrified children that just didn't understand.— Mr. Sports Journo (@BIGSPORTSWRITER) August 14, 2013
And if you were a child, if you were 10, 12, 14 - and heard it. You were an adult from then on. There was no such thing as superheroes.— Mr. Sports Journo (@BIGSPORTSWRITER) August 14, 2013
And while we were grieving, wondering, fearing and questioning - and some even assuming and slandering - Magic was preparing.— Mr. Sports Journo (@BIGSPORTSWRITER) August 14, 2013
None of us had any idea that in November of '91, Magic was on his way to proving that Superheroes were realer than we'd ever imagined.— Mr. Sports Journo (@BIGSPORTSWRITER) August 14, 2013
As we know 22 years later, Magic's HIV diagnosis wasn't the death sentence many once presumed it to be. His perseverance over the disease served as an inspiration to the rest of the HIV-positive community.
That type of social impact is something few professional athletes have ever accomplished.
Bryant certainly can't claim to have done anything along those lines.
Instead, Kobe's largest off-the-court impact revolves around the globalization of the NBA. Commissioner David Stern turned the worldwide expansion of basketball into one of his pet projects over his 30-year tenure, and Kobe has proven critical to that mission.
At this point in his career, Bryant can't even keep track of his number of visits to China. That global outreach has paid off for the Mamba, as he topped the NBA's first-ever list of top-selling international jerseys in June 2012.
Kobe's jersey didn't just outsell others internationally, however. He also dominated all three key regions—China, Europe and Latin America—highlighted by the NBA.
The original 1992 Dream Team, of which Magic was a part, deserves much of the initial credit for expanding the league's global reach. Kobe, who spent eight years of his childhood in Italy, was more than happy to pick up that baton from the Dream Teamers.
Bryant facilitating the worldwide growth of the NBA is no small feat, but Magic's impact on the once-taboo topic of HIV/AIDS gives him the edge in off-the-court influence.
Impact on the Game
Barring a major, unforeseen upset, Magic will go down as the greatest point guard in NBA history.
His assist numbers are through the roof, as you've already seen, but that doesn't tell the full story. Before Johnson came along, the league hadn't ever seen a 6'8" player with dazzling passing skills like his.
Magic inspired a generation of basketball players with his team-first attitude. His influence didn't stop with players in the late '80s and early '90s either. As recently as 2010, John Wall told ESPN the Magazine that he looked up to Johnson as a kid.
"He was a tall point guard who found his teammates and had a good time. It seemed like his enjoying the game made it easier for everybody," Wall said. "That should tell you all you need to know about me as a point guard: I like the ball and I like to hit big shots. I got it from Magic."
Let's put that into its proper perspective: Players who come into the league a full two decades after Magic are still modeling their games after him. If that doesn't speak to the permanent imprint he left on the league, what does?
Kobe, through his relentless, never-say-die attitude, has carved out a similar legacy.
His ability to remain elite this far into his career will serve as inspiration to future generations of basketball players.
What's Kobe's secret? Hard work and dedication.
He told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin back in March 2013, "There's a certain commitment. There's a lot of sacrifice and a lot of attention to detail that goes into trying to play at a high level for a long, long time. It's a lot of sacrifice, man. But to me, it's worth it. "
As his athleticism began to fade over the past few seasons, Bryant consciously expanded other parts of his game to compensate. He became more low-post oriented, willing to exploit his physical advantage against smaller guards on the block.
With five championships to his name, no one could have begrudged Kobe for fading quietly into the night.
That's not how the Mamba is wired, however.
He told McMenamin, "After so many years, it becomes easy to lose focus. Some guys lose focus from game to game. I take it as a challenge to try to be focused for many, many years."
His devout work ethic will be one of the defining aspects of his career and should continue to inspire future generations of NBA stars. Magic takes the cake here, though, as his electric playing style remains one of the most memorable in league history.
The Verdict: Magic
When all is said and done with Kobe's career, he'll go down as one of the top 10 players in league history.
That's no match for Magic, though.
Based on his on- and off-court impact, Magic should universally be considered one of the five greatest players to ever play the game.
By default, that makes him the greatest Laker of all time.
I'm not the only one to hold that opinion, though. Kobe himself recently said as much.
Kobe said he said he will never accept the honor of being the greatest Laker from Magic because he learned so much from him.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) August 16, 2013
If Kobe adds to his ring collection or breaks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record, Magic's place in Laker franchise history could be in jeopardy.
Until then? The Magic Man trumps the Mamba.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.