The Takeover: The Curious Case of Kobe “Bean” Bryant
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, if at all.
No one was supposed to be able to approach Mike as the GOAT, let alone be in the same breath. But comparisons are only going to grow more intense between the two, especially if the self-styled Black Mamba gets at least one more ring after just obtaining No.4.
Conventional wisdom has been that Michael Jordan had no one to pass the torch to when he left the game in the way that he so eagerly received it from Magic and Bird. Sure, there was Tim Duncan, Shaq, and Steve Nash but “the next” … Kobe, didn’t always measure up. Heck, for one infamous night in Colorado he couldn’t even seem to get out of his own way. Although, to be fair, in the realm of public perception Michael Jordan has had his share of infidelities and was not nearly a warm teammate.
But flash-forward five years and a fourth ring later, and it is Mr. Bryant that can now exhale with a large measure of vindication. At 30, he now possesses the chance to forge his own legacy as he ambitiously set out to do as a brash youngster, fresh out of high school some 13 years ago.
No, the author has surely not dismissed LeBron James. Oh no, Jordan himself was correct in his estimation recently that James has the potential to be the best ever simply because of his unique blend of athleticism, strength, power, and speed. According to the script, we were all supposed to witness the proper passing of the torch with a league approved James victory in June.
And who would argue with such a sentiment. James is a gift from basketball heaven. He is the gift to the NBA that Len Bias, lost all too soon, should have been. Bias, hailed as a combination of Jordan, Barkley, Magic, and Bird, tragically died of a cocaine overdose one fateful day in June 19, 1986. It is our good fortune as fans, and fitting, that we are able to witness James’ ability and skill, to really appreciate what it would have been like to behold the court majesty of the great Len Bias. We can only ponder how things might have been for lovers of the game if Jordan had a true rival in Bias to contend with for supremacy, to test himself by fully.
But it remains to be seen just when Mr. James will earn the title of The King. Questions linger about his mental game and outside shooting. Does he have the drive and focus of Jordan, Kobe, or Magic? There is ample time for James to quiet his critics just as Bryant has begun to silence his own, and while James is well on his way, the moment belongs to the Mamba, who I will argue is at least as good as the True King: Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Whenever there is any discussion of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it might as well be a Bears-Packers game in December because blood pressures rise, emotions are stoked, and incredulity, straining on both sides, rules the day. Kobe couldn’t carry Mike’s jock strap. Mike played in a different era, without the zone defenses Kobe sees regularly. Mike regularly went up against ultra-physical defensive play and still dominated. And on and on. To be certain, Jordan’s fans have much to stand on, it is easier to make the case for Jordan. Jordan’s resume is beyond compare. You know the numbers by now: 6 titles, 6 Finals MVPs, 5 MVPs awards, and these merely a smidgen of what Jordan accomplished in his legendary tenure. Jordan’s numbers are staggering. Bryant would have to rewrite his own history to catch up on that basis.
But like so many things in life and the game itself, when boiled down, the debate is really simple: Who is the better player?
In full disclosure, I grew up a hard, hard Jordan fan, and still am. Like many kids, I cried as a 12 year-old when Jordan first retired, and was as gleeful as a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet when he returned and established himself as the GOAT. I was convinced, along with most of the basketball-loving public and the world, that Jordan was as good as it was gonna get.
Enter Kobe “Bean” Bryant. A Jordan clone if I ever saw one. We’ve all heard (and seen) the similarities between them in style on and off the court, it is both eerie and often times annoying, and on this score writers like Bill Simmons are on solid-footing in their observations of No.24.
We witnessed his 2005-06 brilliance, and most of us had to admit that he’d given that particular MVP award away not on the court, but in a Colorado hotel room in December of 2003. And that’s not a knock on Nash. Many great performances would Kobe give, but still one first round exit after another was his lot. It seemed like his talent was going to waste.
Last season, it finally seemed like he’d climbed the mountain and overcome the 2004 Finals’ debacle against the Pistons (where he displayed awful shot selection), his personal issues, and well-documented run-ins with coach Phil Jackson through the years. Only, the Boston Celtics and Kevin Garnett had other plans. Once again, a better team playing tough defense prevailed over his vaunted Lake Show. Like Jordan, Kobe and his Lakers would have to figure out how to counter physical defenses.
But a couple weeks ago, he got it done. Yes, he had Pau Gasol, an awake Lamar Odom, and an improved and clutch Trevor Ariza. Derek Fisher is always there when it counts. But they were his guys, molded by his leadership. One might ask the question, is Kobe in Mike’s league?
The answer is yes. Here’s why, and why he is arguably a better player.
Mark Jackson has come under tremendous fire of late for offering his view that Bryant will go down as the greatest player ever. But in essence, he was echoing what some close to the game have whispered: Kobe is the more skilled player. The irony here is that while everyone has openly celebrated James as he prepares to take the game to new heights with his unique ability, Kobe’s game may actually be … Jordan’s on steroids. It is a heretical notion, to be sure. And of course Bryant benefited from having Jordan to study, as Jordan also studied Dr. J, Magic, Bird, and the greats. Bryant was one of James’ idols and James studied Bryant.
Bryant is an objectively better ball-handler, possessing the cross-over and moves of Allen Iverson, with the shooting range and prowess of Larry Bird. Jordan is the more explosive player, having had a ’44 inch vertical to Bryant’s ’38 inch vertical. He did things the league had never seen, and his hang-time remains hard to believe. Jordan’s hands are also inordinately large, giving him the advantage in at-the rim and traffic encounters. Other than that, the two are identical, right?
Phil Jackson coached Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. He never asked Jordan to do the things that he’s asked of Kobe in facilitating the offense, and, until Ariza arrived, consistently guarding the other team’s top scorer. Those were Pippen’s responsibilities. Scottie Pippen is the single most underrated and underappreciated NBA player of all-time. People that really know the game will tell you that. Easily top 20 all-time.
Pippen could control a game with defense, tempo, passing and with points – like Magic Johnson – who Pippen himself kept in check, freeing up Jordan to score at will in the ’91 Finals. Upon Jordan’s two-year hiatus, Scottie Pippen lead a Bulls team of otherwise average talent minus Jordan to a 55-27 record, just two wins shy of the team’s overall record the year before with Jordan in ’93. If not for some dubious officiating in the ’94 Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, the Bulls would have been in the Finals again, four times in a row. It is a miscarriage of basketball justice that Pippen was robbed of the MVP award in 1994, all due respect to Hakeem Olajuwon. But Pippen’s importance to the success of Jordan is evident.
In evaluating the greatest players of all-time and whether Jordan or Bryant is better, statistics and championships are not the crucial criteria for two obvious reasons. The first is Bill Russell, the consummate winner, competitor, and professional. 11 rings, but he did it in an era with only 8 teams and only a few had a serious shot of winning the championship each year. The other is Wilt Chamberlain, and his numerous scoring averages and records. No one is ever going to touch 50 points a game for a season. Or ask Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double for a whole season (more than once before they kept track) how it feels to be left out of the discussion in earnest.
Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he only set the NBA scoring record and won numerous titles himself. Remember him? He’s busy in the lab cooking up another potential monster in the post, the still-green Andrew Bynum, who’s shown several flashes of brilliance this past regular season.
You see, it is not an exact science, but an art, evaluating the GOAT. How unstoppable? Dominant? Well-Rounded? Tenacious? Competitive? Skilled? Winner? These are all intangible considerations, among others. I will now set out specific arguments in favor of Kobe Bryant as the better player than Jordan and expose flawed arguments.
1. Did Kobe ride Shaq’s coattails?
Kobe played with Shaq and won three NBA championships. Because of this, his success is often denigrated. This despite the fact that Kobe was the clutch go-to-guy in the 4th and raised the play of Shaq and his teammates’ games in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against Portland when they were down 15 points in the final period. This despite the fact that it was Kobe, and not Shaq, who lead the team in the deciding Game 6 of the 2000 Finals by hitting ice-vein shot after shot, making play after play, and pass after pass, to finish off a tougher-than-expected Pacers team that found Shaq, at critical junctures, in foul trouble and unsure how he should attack.
What is missed in this is that Kobe clearly could have averaged 30 points himself as “the guy” on any team and certainly won a few more scoring titles to buttress his own resume. But he sacrificed for the team. Yes, Kobe did so unwillingly more often than we’d all like, but he did it nonetheless. What is missed is that we witnessed what it would have been like to have Michael Jordan playing with Wilt Chamberlain. Not an easy feat, though Jordan would often muse aloud during his career about what it would be like to play with Pat Ewing, David Robinson, or Shaq.
Kobe understood the game as any knowledgeable student of the game does: big men are rare, and having a skilled big man like Shaq was a competitive advantage that lead to close, high percentage shots. That is just the proper way to play the game. Kobe still posted 18-24 points a game during those years, despite Shaq getting 35 touches a game. Like Jordan, Kobe was also an excellent defender, especially during these early years, holding players like Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady scoreless for entire halves and 4thquarters. Both have similar defensive resumes, with Jordan being voted Defensive Player of the Year during an individually masterful and historic 1988 season. Still, given the superior conditioning and skill of players today, I’d call it a push here.
Magic recently remarked during the Finals’ telecast that “all of us” have egos – referring to the great players – that they all have a vision about how winning is done, precisely because they’ve been so successful at it. So, it stands to reason that Jordan would have had issues playing with a Shaq or Wilt because of his own ego; and that like Kobe, Jordan would not have been comfortable playing second fiddle for long with his skill set, work ethic, and knowledge that the No.1 option wasn’t taking the game as seriously on a regular basis and consistently showing up to camp out of shape.
2. If Michael hadn’t retired the Bulls would have two more championships.
This is presumptuous at best. People forget that Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson (and their squads) were in a brutal Western Conference and yet dominated as they peaked during the mid-nineties. Basketball historians and the detail-oriented fan will tell you straight-out that Jordan’s Bulls team struggled against those Rockets and Spurs teams during the regular season in the 90s. They were .500 against those type of teams at best.
Perhaps Jordan would have performed similarly as Bryant did against Dwight Howard in this year’s Finals if he’d played in that scenario. But we’d never know. What we do know is that Jordan never faced a team with a dominant and skilled defensive big man in the Finals. Karl Malone, an all-time great with quick hands, didn’t have the defensive presence of a Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett, or Dwight Howard. In many ways, at the Finals level, the teams that Kobe faced were always the best defensive teams that also had big men and were much tougher to score on than Jordan’s Final’s opponents.
3. The NBA is all about match-ups, and Kobe continues to outperform tougher competition than Jordan faced on a night in, night out, basis.
This is a fact. Granted, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant played in different eras. But do we really think that a slightly taller Kobe Bryant (Kobe is closer to 6’7 than Mike’s clear 6’6) would not have also feasted on the comparatively smallish guards of the NBA during the late 80s and 90s? Joe Dumars, a great defender with a stocky build, deceptive leaping ability, top-notch footwork, and quick hands regularly gave Jordan fits. The reader may say “Yeah, but they still had to use the Jordan Rules.” True. And Michael had his nights against the Pistons, but they made him work. Another player Jordan had trouble with was John Starks of the New York Knicks. Again, a demonstrably smaller player.
Facts such as these are glossed over by the NBA writers and historians because of allegiance and loyalty to Michael and his image. Jordan and Kobe are friendly by all accounts, it is common knowledge that they talk and text frequently. When asked directly at a skills camp who would prevail in an individual game not too long ago, Jordan stated that he would beat Kobe one-on-one and possessed a better chance to stop Kobe than vice-versa. Perhaps, Jordan was bull-strong and had the better leaping ability.
Kobe has always laughed off the comparisons himself and been rightly deferential. Usually, NBA greats avoid such direct questions about others and their standing. That Jordan, he of the immaculate resume, legendary skill, and media savvy would condescend to contemplate the outcome of a man-to-man contest with Bryant says something about how close the two are as basketball players.
To provide more context, let’s delve deeper. Another one of Jordan’s contemporaries was Ron Harper, who in his prime with the Cleveland Cavaliers was known to regularly hang 30 points on Jordan before Harper hurt his knee. In the small world of the NBA, Harper became a championship teammate of both Jordan and Bryant. The point is not that the 6’7 Harper was better than Jordan, because he wasn’t, but that the league is about match-ups.
Today, Kobe consistently faces shooting guards at least as skilled as Harper and others from Jordan’s time, on a nightly basis. Tracy McGrady, Jason Richardson, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, Pietrus, and on and on. Shooting guards are all over the place. Kobe is not a rarity as the average shooting guard is now at least 6’5 and possesses similar talent and skill as Bryant … yet he is far and away better than his contemporaries. Only Wade is in Bryant’s current class as far as offensive and defensive skill at the shooting guard position.
In Jordan’s day, the player’s similar to him were Harper, Clyde Drexler, and Dominique Wilkins. Reggie Miller was more of a shooter, but was still a great, clutch player in his own right. But to think that Jordan wouldn’t at least struggle against defenders with size like Ron Artest, the long Tayshaun Prince, McGrady, Paul Pierce, Shane Battier or Pietrus is wishful thinking. For years, the “book” on Kobe was to drape a Tayshaun Prince-like guard/forward over him that was just as athletic and make him shoot over the top. Ask the Pistons, in 2004 it worked. Pierce and Boston’s zone defense corralled him last year, and Bryant didn’t exercise this particular demon until he finally subdued Pietrus this year: a tall, physical, and athletic-type guard that in the past would have given Kobe all he could handle.
Unconvinced? I bring you to the peculiar case of Gary Payton, one of the five best defenders ever. Jordan’s ’96 Bulls were loaded, much-touted and justifiably so, and had just set the league record with 72 wins. Everyone asked themselves: Could the Sonics keep up with them in the Finals? George Karl, he of historic coaching ignominy, realized too late that perhaps he should put “the Glove,” the 6’4 (on a good day) Defensive Player of the Year on Jordan. What happened? Jordan had two of his worst Finals games ever as the Bulls eked out the title. See “Deconstructing Kobe,” a sound piece of hoops journalism and analysis: http://www.forumblueandgold.com/2009/06/16/deconstructing-kobe/
Payton harassed Jordan into missing 13-15 shots over two of the last three Finals’ games, and since Jordan was only able to get off about 20 shots a game over that period (Payton was unparalleled at a lost art – ball denial), he shot a paltry 33% against Payton. Once again, Jordan was given fits by a shorter, crafty defender. Kobe Bryant has made his living off dominating smaller guards and being more skilled than taller guards.
This is not to say that Kobe is always the most prolific shooter himself, as he often puts up a 40% shooting night against top defensive talent, but that is at least on par with Jordan and Kobe does it against more equal competition and unquestionably better-conditioned athletes. Mike still has the edge in field goal percentage because he successfully attacked the rim more, had large hands like Dr. J, and had the best relationship with the officials the league has ever known.
Kobe still manages a decent amount of free throw attempts over the course of his career, but it is King James, and not Bryant, that the officials respect. No way do the referees call 5 or 6 technical fouls on Jordan during the playoffs like they did with Kobe on this most recent title run.
In researching this article, I also came across an interesting tidbit: When Michael Jordan played without a Hall of Famer (e.g. Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman), his Bulls teams posted no winning seasons, even in an Eastern Conference that saw the Celtics, Bucks, and 76ers declining as the Pistons rose. But when Kobe Bryant played without a Hall of Famer (e.g. Shaq), his Lakers teams posted two winning seasons. These teams featured the likes of Smush Parker and Brian Cook, in a deadly Western Conference, and still managed to win 42-45 games. This is verifiable proof that Kobe is in Jordan’s league.
We can only guess how the perceptive Ralph Wiley would have summed up the Finals in the context of the Jordan, Kobe, and Lebron debates. Wiley was famously prescient, having once identified Kevin Garnett as one that Kobe would have to do battle with in order to get to the promised land. Like many have noted, the literary world remains poorer for his all-too-sudden departure.
It has already been quite the journey for Bryant and still more may transpire. One could bring up the hand-check rule, instituted because of Jordan’s greatness and today’s tighter officiating. In contrast, today’s zone defense can be used to argue in favor of Bryant. Both are valid points.
In the end, the game always evolves, whether or not we like the given agent of evolution. Michael raised the NBA to new heights and was the standard by which his competitors were measured. In his own way, Bryant is doing the same, exerting an indelible influence on today’s great players, showing how to prepare and compete at the highest levels, as evidenced by his quiet leadership during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Two different people; similar, yet worlds apart, both dogged and driven by a hatred of losing. Two different paths, but the same destination: greatness among the NBA pantheon, with one, James, waiting in the wings.
But for now, Kobe Bryant will take that torch thank you very much.