Unfortunately, the basketball world has thus far been deprived of a head-to-head series between the two biggest stars of the Association A.M.J. (After Michael Jordan).
First, it was James neglecting his end of the bargain in three straight postseason shortfalls with the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers won back-to-back-to-back Western Conference crowns. Since then, the Black Mamba's been at fault, albeit with devastating injuries decimating what slim shot he might've had at retaking the throne from King James over the last year or so.
Of course, Bryant doesn't need any more accolades to cement his legacy.
His five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, one regular-season MVP, myriad All-NBA and All-Defensive nods and prominent placement on scores of the league's historical stats lists practically guarantee that he'll be regarded as one of the 10 best players to ever lace 'em up once the curtain drops on his remarkable career.
Is it possible, though, that James might actually overtake Bryant in the game's all-time hierarchy with another memorable performance in the upcoming Finals against the San Antonio Spurs?
It sounds crazy, I know, but let's at least consider the question before anyone decides to dismiss it out of hand.
In some respects, James is already Bryant's superior. He's outpaced nearly all of Bryant's "youngest to" milestones since following the preps-to-pros path in 2003 and has already out-MVP'd the Mamba four to one—during the regular season, anyway.
Bryant owns four All-Star MVPs to Bron's two, while the two are neck-and-neck in Bill Russell trophies for Finals excellence at two apiece.
One more of the latter in these Finals, and James will join Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as the only three-time Finals MVPs.
Granted, it's reasonable to suggest that Russell might've added substantially to his own collection of statuettes had the NBA begun awarding Finals MVP honors prior to 1969.
It's in this—potential—disparity that James' case against Bryant might actually take root. In two to three weeks' time, James could come away as the best player on a three-peater.
Bryant, on the other hand, was the "alpha dog" on champions in 2009 and 2010 but took a backseat to Shaquille O'Neal in L.A.'s run during the early 2000s.
In simple terms, then, James' three would best Bryant's two...right?
Well, that point of comparison isn't quite so simple. Bryant wasn't just another role player alongside the Big Diesel during that Phil Jackson-helmed three-peat.
Rather, he was the young, wily "1A" to O'Neal's "1." Bryant cracked the All-NBA second teams in 1999-00 and 2000-01 and had arrived as a first-teamer by the time the Lakers trounced the New Jersey Nets in the Finals in 2002.
Truth be told, Bryant might've been one of the league's three best players during that stretch—right up there with Shaq and Tim Duncan. Even Jason Kidd, then at the peak of his formidable powers, was hardly the one-man force of nature that Bryant had become.
Simply put, those Lakers squads don't win even one title without Kobe, and certainly not if he's merely an All-Star as opposed to a bona fide superstar.
To diminish Bryant's ring count in this way is to disregard, to some extent, his irreplaceable contributions to L.A.'s historic cause.
One would be equally remiss to assume that James won his titles "on his own."
He's had plenty of help from two other singular talents along the way in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade was a Finals MVP himself back in 2006. Bosh was a franchise cornerstone for the Toronto Raptors before he bolted to South Beach in 2010.
On the whole, James still has a lot of work to do if he's to catch, much less surpass, Bryant in the ever-shifting debate over who's better and who's best in NBA lore—and not just in terms of banners raised.
At present, James can't so much as sniff Bryant's 16 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA teams or 12 All-Defensive teams.
James is not all that far behind, however. This year, he made his 10th appearance in the All-Star Game and was bequeathed All-Defensive honors for the sixth time in his career. It's only a matter of time until James adds his 10th All-NBA selection to his impressive CV as well.
|Seasons||All-Star||All-NBA||All-Defensive||MVP||Scoring Titles||Champs||Finals MVPs|
Where James currently lags behind Bryant in individual recognition, he should find himself on par with the Mamba before his career is up.
His freakish physical gifts, tremendous durability—he's yet to miss more than nine games in a single season—and ever-expanding skill set point to a player who, at 29, still has plenty of elite-level basketball left in the tank.
Or, at least enough to close the on-paper gap between himself and Bryant to the point where Kobe's accomplishments can't be used as a cudgel against James' all-around supremacy.
If James is lucky, the rings he'll need to put Bryant's ghost in his rear view will come, too.
But James is much more than just lucky. He's really, really, really, REALLY good—or, if you're into the whole brevity thing, great.
At 6'8" and 240 pounds, with his blend of size, strength, speed, quickness, athleticism, coordination and court vision, James is about as close to the basketball prototype as we've yet seen in the NBA.
Which is to say, he has the genetic tools, acquired skills (i.e., shooting, dribbling, passing, defending) and smarts to play all five positions on either end of the floor.
James may not be the pure scorer that Bryant is, but he's not far off. Free-throw percentage aside, James' career scoring and shooting numbers are actually superior to Bryant's.
Granted, James had a leg up on his competition. Bryant didn't become a full-time starter with the Lakers until his third year. James, on the other hand, was Cleveland's leading man from the get-go.
|Career Scoring Comparison|
That being said, even if we willfully ignore Bryant's rookie and sophomore seasons, his scoring (23 points, 8.1 free-throw attempts) and shooting markers (.455 from the field, .334 from three) still lag behind LeBron's.
This is all without mentioning James' staggering supremacy in nearly every other facet of the game.
In fact, James has paced his team in points, rebounds, assists and steals six times in his career, and he added blocks among his leadership categories in 2007-08 and 2009-10. Bryant can't make any such claim for himself.
And lest you think James' all-around excellence was merely the byproduct of the Cavs' regrettable rosters, keep in mind that he's pulled off the points-rebounds-assists-steals feat in each of his last three seasons with the Heat.
Of course, this isn't an entirely fair comparison to make, since James and Bryant are even more distinguishable in game than they are in name.
James is a point guard in a power forward's frame, with the body control of a ballet dancer and the leadership of a corporate visionary. Bryant is a scoring specialist on the wing, the basketball love child of Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan.
That's no knock against Bryant whatsoever. He's been blessed with all manner of physical gifts and has managed to max those out thanks to a competitive drive that borders on the maniacal.
With those qualities in tow, Bryant has amassed more achievements, both personal and team-wide, in his 18 years as a pro than the vast majority of his peers—or players in any era, for that matter—could've dreamed of.
James, though, is one of the few who can, and likely will, stuff a trophy case to the extent that Bryant has, if the remainder of his time in the NBA proves to be anything like that which he's already spent.
Bryant didn't capture his fourth championship until after his 30th birthday. Come Thursday, James will have appeared in as many Finals (five) as Bryant had at the age of 29. Likewise, James could equal Bryant's pre-30s title total within the next two weeks and continue to keep pace with Kobe's shadow in this regard for at least the next handful of years.
Doing so will be no easy feat for James, particularly this year. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, the Spurs have what it takes to thwart James' Heat in the upcoming Finals:
Miami on the whole is probably a bit worse than it was last year, the Spurs a bit better.
San Antonio has been a stronger and more complete team all season, including in the playoffs, by almost any measure, and it faced a tougher road than Miami in reaching this point.
For his part, James seems well-aware of the challenge at hand.
"No one is entitled. This is no one's championship," he told reporters Monday. "It isn't ours, it isn't theirs, it's two teams fighting for it."
As dire as that may seem for Miami, the Heat will be anything but minced meat in this series, thanks in large part to James.
Another triumph of his aging empire over the resurgent, well-balanced Spurs would serve as yet another eye-catching feather in James' formidable cap.
And considering all that James has accomplished to this point and all that he figures to in the half-decade or so to come, given his career trajectory, the current King of the NBA could rightfully claim "victory" over his predecessor much sooner than originally anticipated.
Kobe or LeBron? LeBron or Kobe? Who ya got?!