Kobe vs. LeBron has become the new Brady vs. Manning.
In the early part of the '00's, Brady had the rings, but Manning had that stats. Then Manning won a ring, and the consensus seemed to be that Manning was the better of the two. Enter Randy Moss into the equation, and Tom Brady sets the NFL record for touchdown passes (passing Manning's mark) while leading the Patriots to 16-0 regular season. Unfortunately Brady's knee got torn up during the first game of the next season and Manning won his third MVP award. The next season Manning won his second consecutive MVP and led the Colts to a 14-0 start, and a Super Bowl appearance. Manning was again the victor in the Brady-Manning duel.
We overreact to bad games by great players. Manning threw the game losing pick right into Tracy Porter's hands, and kick started the "Manning is a choker" arguments up again. LeBron put up a 15 point stinker at home in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics, and initiated the same the thing for himself.
Meanwhile, Kobe's Lakers were on their way to the Western Conference Finals after sweeping the banged up Utah Jazz, and then behind a great Kobe performance, finished off the Suns to make their third NBA Finals in three seasons.
This seemed to validate the argument that Kobe Bryant was better than LeBron James. But again, sports fans are some of the most short sighted, irrational people in the world sometimes. Can we really totally disregard the past two regular seasons that were owned by LeBron, and the past two landslide MVP award races?
At the same time, Kobe has had great regular seasons the past two years as well, along with winning a title, and his first Finals MVP.
In short, Kobe has been the playoff MVP of the past two season, and LeBron has been the regular season MVP. But which one is the better individual player?
Let's break it down
Kobe has one of the best post games of any guard to ever play the game, at this point in his career. He worked with post move master Hakeem Olajuwon this offseason, and frequently adds new moves. If LeBron learned how to play in the post, he should be unstoppable because of his mix of strength, size, and quickness; but Kobe is a much better post player right now.
LeBron gets criticized a little too much for his "poor" shooting, but in reality he's really not a bad jump shooter. He's a better jump shooter than Allen Iverson was, and people weren't always complaining about Iverson's lack of a reliable jump shot.
The fact is when LeBron gets in the zone, he can make four threes in a row. However, Kobe is a better jump shooter, and free throw shooter. Shooting is more a part of Kobe's game that LeBron's right now, since Kobe's body isn't quite what it used to be, and that's to Kobe's credit for working on his shot so much. Consistency is the key to shooting, and Kobe is a more consistent shooter than James.
With the possible exception of Dwyane Wade, there is no other player in the NBA that attacks the basket with the same effectiveness as LeBron. Nobody wants to get in the way of a 6'8" monster built like a linebacker. And nobody does.
At one time Kobe was a great slasher in his own right, but his body isn't what it used to be. However, he was never as good as LeBron in this category anyway.
James is easily the best passing non-point guard in the game today. It's not even close. He always knows where his teammates are and finds wide open teammates for easy layups and open jumpers all the time. His constant driving to the hoop draws the defense to him and allows LeBron to find teammates open on the perimeter.
Kobe is by no means a bad passer, but he's not a special passer like LeBron. LeBron has the passing gene only a few have ever possessed in NBA history. This is a huge part of LeBron's game that is sometimes overlooked when comparing him to other players.
Both players have made the All-Defense team the past couple of years, so this one is extremely difficult to judge. One on one, Kobe might be a better defender than LeBron, but that's not the only part of defense. LeBron is a better help defender, and blocks shots regularly. LeBron can also guard a larger variety of players, and is a better rebounder. Both are great defenders in their own areas of expertise.
LeBron interacts with his teammates better than Kobe, and never fights with his teammates. Kobe, of course, had the long feud with Shaq, and has been called out by teammate Pau Gasol for not giving him the ball enough. Throughout his career, Kobe has been spotted rolling his eyes at his teammates, and being harsh on them. LeBron is always patting his teammates on the back, and goofing off with them.
However, LeBron's leadership style isn't necessarily the best type. Michael Jordan was never Mr. Nice Guy, but his teammates revered him, and that's the same type of leadership Kobe is trying to emulate. He doesn't lead as well as Jordan, but as the leader of his team, he equals James.
This is one area where Kobe just keeps getting better, and better. Ironically, Kobe's buzzer beaters have been the only part of his game that is missing in the playoffs. Twice have his bricked/air balled game winners been rebounded, and put in at the buzzer by teammates.
LeBron is one of the best players at the end of the game as well, but Kobe is simply the best in the NBA in the final twenty seconds (The All Time Clutch Power Trio: MJ, Kobe, Bird), and it's really not even close.
This is Kobe's biggest advantage over LeBron (along with being in the league twice as long). LeBron has only played with two All-Stars (meaning they were an All-Star the year that he played with them) during his entire Cavaliers tenure (Mo Williams, Ilgauskas), and those were both questionable selections. The Cavs acquisition of Antawn Jamison was supposed to be a big help for LeBron, but he proved to not be clutch and choke in the deciding Game 6 (five points, and five rebounds in 30 minutes counts as choking right?).
Kobe has one of the best offensive post players in the NBA, and one of the leagues top defenders on the wing. When Bynum is healthy, he gives them an extra dimension down low as well. Lamar Odom might be better than anybody on Cleveland besides LeBron, and he's the Lakers fourth option. Kobe won a title last season, but if LeBron had switched places with him he would probably have done the same.
The Final Verdict
This is really too close to call. There isn't a definitive answer either way. If LeBron was still in the playoffs, and the Cavs were dominating, LeBron would be the choice, but he's not. Personally I still believe LeBron is the best player in the world, but I can accept people who say Kobe is (as long as they aren't obnoxious about it).
Basketball is a team sport, and Kobe has a better team. If we could clone the Lakers and put LeBron one Lakers A and Kobe on Lakers B which team would win? We'll never know. And we might never know if LeBron or Kobe is better.
For now, let's just stop hating and enjoy Kobe, and LeBron for the great players that they are, and reevaluate this when both of their careers are finished.
LeBron still has plenty of time to win some titles and pile up the stats, and Kobe isn't going away any time soon.
Here's to hoping we'll get a Lakers-whoever LeBron plays for Finals before 2015.