LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant: Can We Even Have This Debate?

Pat Mixon@patmixonSenior Analyst IJuly 27, 2010

Can we even have this discussion, debating who is the NBA’s best player between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant?

On the surface, the answer is a resounding no. 

That’s because there is a clear winner. The personal scoreboard reads 5 to 0, in Kobe Bryant’s favor. For many fans, that makes all the difference, regardless of personal stats or regular season hardware.

And, let’s dispense right out the gate with the usual arguments. We all know them by heart. Kobe has better players around him. Or, put LeBron on the Lakers and watch what happens. Or, send Kobe to Cleveland and see if he even makes the playoffs.

All possibly valid points but really, haven’t they been beaten to death?

In the end, the cold hard fact is that the equation for the best player breaks down like this:

Talent + Rings = Greatness.

Fair or unfair, fortunately or unfortunately, that’s how it works, that’s how great players are judged.

All the legends have applied that formula. Kobe uses it today. And, given time, LeBron will, too.

But the real question to ask when comparing both Kobe and LeBron is this: Are they even an original, or simply a Xerox copy of legend? 

Let’s face it, Kobe is basically a China knock-off of Michael Jordan, and LeBron James is the closest thing to Magic Johnson the league has seen in 30 years.

In the case of Kobe, his copy of MJ is almost identical, you have to look really hard to see the differences. It’s like looking at two photos side by side and searching for what has been moved. 

Kobe’s resume speaks for itself. 81 points. 5 rings. Shaq glory and feud. Kobe’s been in our consciousness now since 1996. He was the fresh young star, the league’s new hope to replace Michael Jordan, fell from grace, and has risen like a phoenix again. 

LeBron will win a ring in his career. Kobe’s not out of his prime yet, but age will catch up. No matter what. And, when it does, LeBron will benefit the most.

Their careers don’t overlap enough for Kobe to stand in LeBron’s way his entire career, like Michael Jordan did to Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. Kobe will retire long before LeBron. 

That alone will probably allow LeBron to raise a championship trophy. Sure, there are Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, and who knows who else that will come up. But only Rondo has what Kobe has: killer instinct.

And that intensity is what truly sets Kobe part from James, from everyone else, for that matter. 

LeBron is amazing, the best big player since Magic Johnson. If LeBron would develop a post-up game, a big man’s game in the paint, he would literally be unstoppable.

But when you look at Kobe, you see Michael. 

Kobe’s got the same game, plays in the same triangle offense, and is now only one ring away from matching His Airness. 

And, Kobe’s demeanor, work ethic, and drive are not just “Like Mike’s” but could almost be stronger, bordering on obsession, chasing both MJ and greatness.

In the opposite corner, LeBron right now is simply a poor-quality scan of Magic. 

Sure, LeBron James is a one-of-a-kind player, the likes the NBA has never seen. At 260 pounds, the man is massive. In a different era, he would have played power forward. He can leap out of the building, can run like a point guard, and finishes near the rim like a legendary dunker.

LBJ also has improved his game in his seven years in the league. His range has increased, as has his accuracy.

He also learned to be a leader in Cleveland and carried his team to best record in the regular season, as well as taking his team to the NBA Finals.

While LeBron’s speed on the perimeter, explosiveness around the basket, and overall game differs from the point guard Magic, the new Heat player passes much like the Laker Legend and looks to involve his teammates in a similar fashion.

Charles Barkley has even preached this for years, that Cleveland should have run more often. And, I agree. 

If LeBron really is Magic and could get up and down the court anything like the old Showtime Lakers from the 1980’s, it would be crazy time no matter what team the King reigned over.

But the real difference between these two great players is that Kobe has a Gladiator mentality. Hadarii Jones, a Featured Columnist here at the B/R, said it best in a recent article. “Kobe is a dying breed.”

I couldn't agree more. And, I’m not alone. 

The backlash that has swarmed the King after his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami is like a rainstorm in Seattle that never ends. And, from all angles, LeBron has been hit, from peers to legends.

The focus is all about LeBron’s heart, his will to win, and his ability to be “The Man” on his own team, not to partner with other greats. 

The zinger that has stung the most was from Michael Jordan himself.  

After a recent golf tourney, MJ said, “There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.

"But that's...things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."

Those comments from MJ are going to haunt LeBron for a very long time, at least until he wins multiple rings.

But the legend disappointment over LeBron’s decision didn’t stop there. Charles Barkley told the Arizona Republic last week, "Mike and I are in 100 percent agreement on this. If you're the two-time defending NBA MVP, you don't leave anywhere. They come to you. That's ridiculous.

"I like LeBron. He's a great player. But I don't think in the history of sports you can find a two-time defending MVP leaving to go play with other people."

Like a breakaway dunk, the bashing didn’t stop there. Magic was quoted as saying,“we didn’t think about it cause that’s not what we were about,” said Johnson, whose Michigan State squad beat Bird’s Indiana State team in the 1979 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. “From college, I was trying to figure out how to beat Larry Bird.”

Was this too harsh of criticism from these three Hall of Famers? Possibly. Did LeBron deserve this? Maybe not. 

I see it differently, from a fresh perspective. I see it this way. 

LeBron took control of his career, played his own General Manager when Cleveland couldn’t get him a real No. 2, similar to a Pau Gasol, and LeBron had to leave and join a new team to partner with a real No. 2. 

I’m sorry, but the Cavs never had a real No. 2, a player who will demand a double team. I’m talking a real threat, a real All-Star. That’s what Kobe has. That’s what Garnett has in Pierce, or even the other way around in Boston.

So, I can see why LeBron made the decision. And, time will be the true judge.

For now, LeBron has a heap of junk to climb out of, get from under all this ridicule. But fans have short memories and winning erases all mistakes. 

If LeBron is really serious about winning, that it is the only thing that matters, it would serve him well to look to in a different direction than he has in the past.

The biggest lesson LeBron should learn is not from the legends but from Kobe. Get back to work. 

The real reason there is still no comparison, no real debate in the LeBron v. Kobe battle is that Kobe has that killer instinct. Win or die.

You can almost see it in his face each game, each last-second shot. We don’t yet see this on a consistent basis from LeBron.

I think that’s what the legends and everyone else is really trying to say about LeBron. The underlying question is his will to win, his real drive, his supreme desire to be the best at all costs.

Jordan had it. Magic had it. Kobe has it. They would step on their opponent’s throat to win. And, they were their own man. Period.

I love that LeBron has joined forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami. The King may learn something about winning from Flash. Wade has that killer instinct. 

I’m so interested to see what will happen late in games, deep in the playoffs, with everything on the line. 

Which Heat player will take the last shot? My bet, right now, is it will be Wade. But LeBron can learn and grow. He’s so young and people really forget that.

But, he made his own bed. And, this heightened critique won’t end come the regular season in November.

The Heat have been declared the favorites to win the NBA title next June by Las Vegas oddsmakers.

You can hear the laugh from Kobe all the way in LA right now. Let the Heat be the favorites. Blow off the two-time defending champs. I even hear a chuckle up in Boston, from Garnett, Pierce and Rondo. Make Miami the front-runner.

If LeBron thought he was under the microscope this summer, wait until he’s actually playing games and under that pressure as a favorite.

Kobe Bryant has lived under that microscope from the day he set foot in Los Angeles as a 17-year-old. He knows scrutiny, he understands pressure. He has been on the favorite, the team to beat in nearly ever season of his career.

And, he’s been to seven Finals and walked away with five rings. Everyone knows this. It’s been beaten to death. The biggest benefactor of LeBron’s “decision” to join the Miami Heat has been Kobe Bryant.

But, who really is the best player, and more importantly, why?

Does it really matter? Maybe not. 

The NBA Championship is really all that matters. At least to Kobe. At least to the Legends. Hopefully, it will come to be the only thing for LeBron as well.

Until then, there is no comparison. Kobe is the best player in the league, the world. And, that is not a copy.


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