Is Kobe Bryant Better Than Larry Bird? And Where Does He Rank All Time?

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Is Kobe Bryant Better Than Larry Bird? And Where Does He Rank All Time?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant’s ranking on the all-time list is debatable. Some people have elevated him to GOAT status and some people claim that he’s barely a top 20 player of all time. Most people have him in the top 10 of all time, but there is intense disagreement as to where on the top 10 list he falls.

Some people claim that he’s the greatest Laker of all time, which would put him right above Magic Johnson on the all-time list since Magic and Kobe both played for the Lakers their entire career. Saying Kobe is the greatest Laker of all time is the equivalent of saying that Kobe is greater than Magic Johnson. Period.

Johnson, to me, is the third-greatest player of all time. My top three are: 1) Michael Jordan, 2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 3) Magic Johnson. Kobe is not there...yet.

So for Kobe, he’ll have to settle for a place in the fourth through 10th categories. His competition is Russell, Wilt, Bird, Shaq, Duncan and Hakeem. Those names are legendary. Just to be included on this list means you’ve achieved basketball immortality.

But Russell, Wilt, Bird and Hakeem are not going to achieve anything else. Duncan and Shaq are still playing, but the likelihood of them having an impact great enough to move them up on the all-time list is doubtful. So Kobe will have an opportunity to move even higher than he is now with more rings and more heroics.

When I think of where to put Kobe Bryant, I think of Larry “Legend” Bird. Kobe’s better than him. Period. So wherever you have Bird, go ahead and place Bryant one spot ahead of him.

To the old-timers, the suggestion is blasphemy. I’ve been told that Larry Bird is “just flat-out better than Kobe Bryant.” Yet, when you look at both raw statistics and advanced statistics, it is pretty clear that Bryant is the superior player.

For example, Larry Bird has a career Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 23.5. Kobe Bryant has a career player efficiency rating of 23.6. You might think the difference is negligible, but remember Kobe came into the league as a 17-year-old. He didn’t play much his rookie or sophomore year – two years in which he posted PERs under 20.

The playoffs are no different. Kobe Bryant’s playoff PER average is exactly at 22.0, while Bird’s is only 21.4. Again, Kobe’s Player Efficiency Rating is higher, despite coming into the league much earlier than Larry Bird and having limited minutes in his first three years.

PER, of course, is not the dispositive factor in who is a better player, but it does eliminate the idea that “Bird was just flat-out better than Kobe.”

Then you look at all star games. Kobe has 12; Bird, 12. Then you look at All-NBA First Teams: Kobe has seven (presumably eight after this year); Bird has nine. With respect to All-NBA Team total selections, Kobe has 11 and Bird has 10.

So far, Bird and Kobe are as close as they come, but where Kobe truly surpasses Bird is on the defensive end. Kobe Bryant is one of the all-time great defenders. While many fans think that Bryant’s defensive reputation is overrated, the coaches of the NBA have nine times put Kobe on the All-Defensive Team. Only five players in the history of the NBA have more defensive team selections than Bryant. Bird is not one of them. He only garnered three selections over the course of his career.

People always like to point out the MVPs that Bird has over Kobe, but in reality that is the weakest argument one can make for Bird. First, Bird won in '84, '85 and  '86. Who else was going to win? It was either going to be Magic or Bird in the '80s. There was no one else until Jordan came along' and even then it took a while for the Bulls to become good enough for Michael to warrant MVP consideration.

Kobe will never have the MVP awards, but MVP awards were never based on how good a player is anyway. Kobe has played in the era that is most saturated with talent. Go back in history and you will never find an era that had more great—potentially all-time great—players than the era in which Kobe played. Shaq, Duncan, Wade, LeBron, McGrady, Carter, Roy, Nowitzki, Nash, Howard, Garnett—Kobe, for this era, has been considered better than all of them.

LeBron is catching up to Kobe, but Bird never enjoyed the distinction of being the consensus best player in the league by fans or his peers. In the era of talent, Bryant has been the consensus best player for nearly this decade. Politics and personality robbed Kobe of a few MVP awards, but his reputation as the game’s best player in the '00s remains intact. Why should an award by the media hold any weight over the clear reputation a person has among his peers and in his league? Crediting Bird’s MVP awards over Kobe’s reputation as the game’s best player for so long seems more of a formalistic distinction than a substantive one.

Just ask yourself, if you put Kobe in the '80s and Bird in the '00s, which one would have better success?

I think we all, if we’re honest, know the answer to that.

Then there’s this small issue of rings. Bird: three. Kobe: four and counting. Among similarly great players, rings just might be the proper tiebreaker.

So where does that put Kobe All Time?

1. Jordan

2. Kareem

3. Magic

4. Russell

5. Kobe

6. Bird

7. Wilt

8. Duncan

9. Shaquille

10. Hakeem

 

Notes: Duncan gets the nod over Shaq for his defense. Hakeem would be higher if he had more rings. Wilt was dominant in his era, but his ring count was disappointing given his statistical prowess. My top five dominated their eras on both ends (with Magic being the exception) while winning multiple championships in their prime. Being dominant is not enough to be in the top five. Being a winner is not enough to be in my top five. You have to be considered dominant and a winner. Bird fits the bill, but somebody has to be sixth. 

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