Kobe & LeBron are widely considered two of the NBA's best...but who is better?
Last week I wrote an article giving my opinion of the top 50 players heading into the 2010 NBA season.
Scroll through if you have plenty of time to kill, but if you'd like the Cliff's Notes version, the top five were (in reverse order) Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant.
To my surprise, most of the feedback and criticism centered around Durant being ahead of Wade instead of Bryant over James.
But I feel obliged to give a little more in-depth reason as to why James was ranked No. 2, attempting to go a bit further into the superficial "Kobe has five championships, LeBron has zero" argument.
In the last two seasons, James has been the most valuable regular season player in the NBA. That's why he has two MVP trophies which is, as many were quick to point out, one more than Bryant.
His stats aren't what you'd expect from a 25-year-old, but more like something you'd put up in a video game. No one in the league can come close to approaching these balanced numbers:
2008: 30.0 pts (48.4 FG percent), 7.9 rebs, 7.2 asts, 1.8 stls, 1.1 blks
2009: 28.4 pts (48.9 FG percent), 7.6 rebs, 7.2 asts, 1.7 stls, 1.1 blks
2010: 29.7 points (50.3 FG percent), 7.3 rebs, 8.6 asts, 1.6 stls, 1.0 blks
And it's not as if he was putting up numbers on a below-average team. The Cavs won 45, 66, and 61 games from 2008-2010, respectively, and advanced to the second-round of the playoffs all three seasons.
His performance against Orlando in last year's conference finals was one of the most statistically dominant of the decade: 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists.
He even had an iconic moment that would immediately make its way onto ESPN Classic: the game-winning three-pointer as time expired in Game Two.
Even when he was "struggled" in certain series, his numbers were more than satisfactory. The 2008 Eastern Conference semifinal against Boston was probably the worst playoff series of James' career.
The numbers? 26.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.3 blocks...and his team took the eventual champions to seven games.
He has the passing abilities of Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson, the physical build of someone like David Robinson, and makes casual fans drop what they're doing to watch, just hoping he'll do something special.
So how is he not the unanimous top player in the NBA? How is an aging Kobe Bryant better?
You can't use the "he quit on the Cavs last year" argument. Whatever happened in that series, be it an elbow injury, off-court issues, or simply frustration, he clearly wasn't himself, and it affected his team negatively.
However, this isn't without precedent. Kobe's Lakers led the heavily-favored Phoenix Suns three games to two in the first round in 2006 before losing a heartbreaking overtime battle in Game Six.
In the seventh game, the Lakers were down 15 at halftime and Bryant famously was unselfish to a fault in the second half—he didn't look to score, took just three shots, and allowed his team to get blown out by 31.
You can't use the "LeBron never carried his Cavs teams the way Kobe carried the Lakers" argument. In seven years James hasn't played with anyone close to the talent level of Pau Gasol...maybe even Lamar Odom.
Yet James has carried his team, teams whose key complementary players included Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Eric Snow, Mo Williams, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, to the second-round of the playoffs every year since 2006.
Bryant's Lakers have advanced to at least the second-round since 2008, but during the post-Shaq and pre-Gasol eras, Los Angeles never made it out of the first round.
And you can't use the ludicrous "LeBron will just be Dwyane Wade's sidekick when the Heat win a title" argument, either.
Shaquille O'Neal was the dominant player on the Lakers' 2000-02 championship teams and won all three Finals MVP awards. Kobe was hardly called a sidekick during that stretch.
If the Heat win a title, even if Wade was the featured player in all close games, do you really think LeBron James would be playing a Lamar Odom/Robert Horry/Ron Harper "sidekick" role?
I doubt it. Even Cavalier fans would begrudgingly admit that.
The reason Kobe Bryant should be considered the top player heading into the 2010 season has little to do with basketball itself, but rather the inner-workings, mindset, and drive of great NBA players.
Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird are widely considered to be four of the greatest to ever grace the game of basketball. Sure, they had all the talent in the world and there are countless stats to back that up.
But we consider them great because they were winners—they willed their teammates to new heights when it mattered most.
Russell writes about this ability in his book Second Wind.
"Star players have an enormous responsibility beyond their statistics—the responsibility to pick their team up and carry it. You have to do this to win championships—and to be ready to do it when you'd rather be a thousand other places.
"You have to say and do the things that make your opponents play worse and your teammates play better."
Both Bryant and James have been successful in this regard in their careers. Actually, James may have understood this concept from the beginning while it took Bryant a few painful losses in the mid-2000s to finally embrace it.
Basketball is a sport where individuals are the most prominently featured. However, while team success generally creates success for the individual, the opposite isn't necessarily true.
There are examples of this from all eras. Guys like Dominique Wilkins and Vince Carter enjoyed tremendous success throughout their careers...but their mere presence didn't make their respective teams elite.
James made his Cavalier teams better as soon as he put on a uniform, even as a raw and undeveloped 18-year-old. And as soon as he embraced the role of superstar, struck fear into his opponents, and instilled a belief and trust in his teammates (which culminated in his epic performance against Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals), he was destined for greatness.
Similarly, Bryant's presence made the '05-'07 Lakers immeasurably better. But that wasn't enough. He had always inspired fear in opponents but Kobe and his teammates never seemed to share that mutual trust until the '09 playoffs.
Once you saw that trust develop, Los Angeles reached championship level. And that's why we now consider Bryant to be one of the greatest players of all-time.
Here's one more quote from Russell:
"Even with all the talent, the mental sharpness, the fun, the confidence and your focus honed down to winning, there'll be a level of competition where all that evens out. Then the pressure builds, and for the champion it's a test of heart...
"Heart in champions has to do with depth of your motivation, and how well your mind and body react to pressure. It's concentration—that is, being able to do what you do under maximum pain and stress."
And that's where Bryant has elevated himself above James.
We saw the Cavaliers as a team with unbelievable chemistry. Each player seemed to genuinely like one another. No doubt that is part of the reason everyone expected them to make the Finals in '09—that chemistry has to mean something.
But as Russell said, competition evens that out. And as great as LeBron was in the '09 ECF, he couldn't find ways to make his teammates significantly better...that is, enough to carry them past Orlando.
Maybe a good portion of that blame deserves to go to the coaching staff for a poor game plan or to the front office for not surrounding him with enough quality players.
But no matter what anyone says, a team that wins 66 games in the regular season has enough talent to win a championship. The Cavs, and James, just didn't get it done.
Likewise, Bryant has seen that level of competition play out—most notably in the '08 Finals against Boston. And like James, he failed on one of basketball's biggest stages.
But last year's Game Seven in the Finals showed that he learned from that experience. Even though he shot 6-of-24, he contributed in other ways...such as slowing down Rajon Rondo, grabbing key rebounds, and getting to the free throw line in the fourth quarter with the game still undecided.
The obvious counter-argument is Kobe has been in the league seven years longer than James and should have had more opportunities to redeem himself. This is completely true...but that experience counts for something. And the fact that he has redeemed his past failures (many of the same mistakes that have haunted James) matters.
At 32, with 1,219 career games under his belt, Bryant can't carry this torch forever. His days as an elite player, let alone best in the league, are dwindling.
But much like the Lakers should be considered preseason championship favorites over the Heat because of their experience, the same logic should be applied in the "Bryant vs. James" debate.
Now, the onus is on James to do what Bryant has done.
Despite all of the offseason drama and negative backlash that followed, James will ultimately end up being a champion someday. He's simply too good of a player on too strong of a team to not win anything in the next five years.
And when he does, not just the title of NBA's best player will be waiting for him. He'll also begin to etch his place among the elites in history.