What Would Kobe Bryant's Legacy Be Had He Been in Michael Jordan's Shoes?
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Comparing players to Michael Jordan has made rich fodder for basketball fans and analysts for a while. Many people, including myself, have grown tired of it. A lot of times I wonder why we care so much. Why we've become so deeply invested in these players that when they're insulted or praised, we seem to almost take it personally.
But if you're not neutral about these comparisons, and, in fact, you hold a strong belief, it's tough to restrain yourself. I'm a Kobe fan. I won't hide it. I've followed his career from the moment he entered the league and have truly enjoyed watching him mature and progress as a player.
I'm also a fan of Jordan. I only started watching him play in his last few seasons, but was instantly an admirer. He was so athletic and smooth. The pull up jumper. The posterizing dunks. The way he methodically weaved his way through defenses. It was as if the gods had put him here to play basketball.
I even got his DVD box set that contains classics like "Michael Jordan's Playground" and "Come Fly with Me."
But through repetitive analysis of both players, I eventually came to the conclusion that Kobe is the better player.
If you just look at their statistics, Jordan is ahead of Kobe in most important categories. His career ppg, spg, apg, rpg, and fg% are all better than Kobe's (although they're pretty close except for the ppg and fg% category).
However, I believe if Kobe had traveled the exact same path (same team, time period, coach, etc.) as Michael, he would have accomplished just as much, if not more.
First of all, Michael went to college, which greatly enhanced his overall game. He was able to gently tinker with his skill set in an atmosphere with much less pressure than the NBA; gradually evolving at a pace that was more natural for a player. He joined a team (Bulls) with much less notoriety and was put into a position where he would learn how to lead right off the bat. Also, for the most part, he played with the same players year in and year out (a luxury Kobe didn't have), which allowed him to develop trust and chemistry. This setting allowed him to develop and figure out how to lead his team early in his career.
Kobe skipped college. He was drafted as a lanky teenager into a storied franchise that was dripping in media scrutiny. Since the Lakers already had a decent team, he didn't even become a starter until his third year. His fg%, ppg, and every other statistical category took a major hit because of that. When he began to play he differed greatly to Shaq and wasn't able to figure out how to be the leader of a team early in his career, which ended up hurting him for a couple seasons after Shaq left. These were also the seasons where Kobe was entering the prime of his career, and, if he had been in Jordan's shoes, he would have already learned how to lead his team.
I would also argue that Kobe has to deal with far superior competition than Jordan ever faced. The league is bigger, stronger, faster, and we recruit many more international players. There are at least two or three teams in the western conference (not including the Lakers) alone that are better than any of the Finals opponents that the Bulls faced. So, in fact, you could look at it like Kobe should have seven rings for beating teams that were better just to make it to the finals in 2004 and 2008.
Another reason Kobe would have fared just as well, if not better than Michael, had he been in his shoes, was Jordan's teammates. Each year almost every starter on his team was an above average player who didn't get the credit they deserved because they had to defer to him. They were the perfect complement because they weren't flashy or selfish, they just knew how to play the game and make their star look good. One of the most irritating things to me is when people said Jordan took average or sub-par players and made them champions. I think players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Luc Longley, and Bill Cartwright (all of them winning at least three championships with the Bulls) would argue otherwise. They even made it to the second round of the playoffs (losing to the Knicks in seven games) the year after Jordan's first retirement, and might have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals had there not been a terrible call in game five.
Also, Kobe helped Shaq look better than he was too. People slight Kobe for having him on his teams during those three championships, but he was just as much a part of helping that team as Shaq was. Shaq won another championship after he left the Lakers, but he joined up with another top three player (Dwayne Wade) in the league that helped make it happen.
Lastly, I believe Kobe would have fared better with the Bulls because of the defense they used to play in that era. Instead of zone defense, which they use today, they would play man-to-man, making it easier to penetrate and get by your man (which Michael excelled at). Whenever you watch a Lakers game you routinely see Kobe double or even triple-teamed. A reason why his fg% isn't as good as Michael's because he takes more outside shots (however, if you take into account points for field goal attempt they're incredibly close, 1.316 and 1.312, Jordan just edging him out).
I'm well aware that a lot of basketball fans think people who compare Kobe to Michael are delusional or incapable of seeing the truth because of our sheer love for Kobe. There are even people who hate Kobe simply because they hate Kobe fans. And obviously, there are those people who hate Kobe because of his demeanor and the sexual assault charges.
But Jordan had his share of problems too. Bad teammate? He punched two of them in the face. Bad Husband? He had an affair. Uncoachable? He ran his first coach, Doug Collins, out of town.
Michael just happened to play in an era where there was much less media scrutiny and he was perhaps the greatest commercial pitchman in sports history, which greatly enhanced his image.
But we shouldn't let personal issues factor into our decisions. Not only because they don't relate to the topic of debate, but because we can't assume that we know someone after only seeing them on television.
Most of these Michael-Kobe debates are stupid, but only because people make them that way. They inject their personal biases in the discussion and it makes the debate more complex than it has to be. There are certainly some Kobe fans that are obnoxious, but so are some fans of Jordan, Lebron, etc. It's important that we don't group those types of fans together with those who are actually making valid points, because that's when people fail to listen.
I know this article won't do anything to quell the ongoing debate, I just hope people can begin to look at it from a more logical perspective.
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