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Michael Jordan: Why He Was a Better Shooter Than Kobe Bryant

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Michael Jordan: Why He Was a Better Shooter Than Kobe Bryant
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In August of 2010, I published on Bleacher Report a 6,010-word piece ranking the 20 greatest shooters in NBA history.  The article received over 15,000 reads, 217 comments, 104 likes on Facebook and was tweeted across the world by a bunch of strangers, including a young man in Venezuela named Carlos.

Anyhow, one of the main reasons the piece received so many comments was due to the simple fact that Michael Jordan ranked No. 3 on my list and Kobe Bryant was nowhere to be found.  I did add a note saying that Kobe was a great shot-maker, but more of the inconsistent volume variety (like Allen Iverson).  Despite the reality Jordan was the deadliest mid-range shooter ever, madness ensued.

Of course, Kobe lovers came out in full force to defend Kobe, emphasizing how the L.A. Lakers star was the significantly better long-range shooter.  Most of these fans claimed Jordan was a poor three-point shooter and thus, mindfully didn't attempt many.

I'd like to revisit this aspect of the argument and once and for all prove Jordan was not only equally as good as Kobe from three-point land, but actually better.  Doubters and haters are going to do their thing no matter what, but what I'm about to tell you is hard to counter.

To start, let's look at what we have on the surface with three-pointers made, attempted and percentage:

Jordan: 581-1178 (.327)
Bryant: 1350-3978 (.339)

Two things are obvious here: Kobe took way more attempts, made more attempts and did so at a slightly better clip than Jordan.  But to suggest Jordan took fewer shots because he knew he was out of his range is silly.  Also baseless is the notion that if Jordan shot more attempts, his percentage would have dropped.  The latter sentiment ignores the quality of the attempts.

The answer the question of why Jordan attempted so few three-pointers is simple.  In the first nine seasons of his career, Jordan played in an era in which the three-point shot wasn't popular.  Similar to the scenario of Babe Ruth out-homering teams, he only did so because he was the first guy to try to hit home runs.  Once everyone caught on a year or two later, players were hitting just as many (sometimes more) homers than the Babe.

The point here is Jordan didn't try to shoot three-pointers because in those days guys still operated under the fundamental idea that the closer you are to the basket the better quality the shot.  In today's game, high-risk, high-reward shots are commonplace.  Let's look:

Average three-pointers attempted by teams in each season:

1985: 257 
1986: 274 
1987: 388 
1988: 410 
1989: 537 
1990: 541 
1991: 586 
1992: 626 
1993: 734 
1994: 811 
1995: 1255 
1996: 1316 
1997: 1377 
1998: 1042 
1999: 1079 (adjusted for strike-shortened year)
2000: 1125 
2001: 1124 
2002: 1209 
2003: 1204 
2004: 1224 
2005: 1292 
2006: 1310 
2007: 1389 
2008: 1485 
2009: 1486 
2010: 1487 
2011:  1466 (projected)

Who was the better shooter?

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As you can see, the three-pointer didn't really blow up until 1995, when it made a 55 percent increase from the previous season.  What happened this year?  To boost scoring, the NBA moved the line in from 23 feet, 9 inches (22 feet in the corners), to an even 22 feet all around.  Even though the league moved it back in 1998 (see the decrease in attempts?), a new fascination had already been created.

As the three popularized, Jordan, who was also entering his prime, began shooting them more.  Thus, if we're going to judge his three-point shooting ability, we need to focus on the years in which he tried to shoot threes.

For his career, Jordan averaged just 1.7 attempts from three per game.  However, in four seasons it was evident he was shooting them regularly, at least above the league average.

1990: 245 attempts (three attempts per game)
1993: 230 attempts (three attempts per game)
1996: 260 attempts (3.2 attempts per game)
1997: 297 attempts (3.6 attempts per game)

In these four seasons, Jordan shot percentages of 38, 35, 43 and 37, respectively.  In the 324 games in his career where he attempted at least three three-point shots, he shot 395-1092 for a percentage of .383.

If Jordan had come into the league in 1997, like Kobe, he would have been taking 300, 400, 500 threes per season.  I'm sure every starting two-guard in the league was attempting over three threes per game in the 2000s.  Hell, in 2002, Antoine Walker averaged eight three-point attempts per game.

How old are you?

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This is what we know: when Jordan tried to shoot threes, he hit .383 percent.  Kobe tried to hit threes from day one and has connected on a .339 percent clip for his career.

So, who's the better three-point shooter?

How about this: let's remove every season from Kobe's resume in which he attempted fewer than four threes per game, this way we focus on the years he really had the shot as part of his repertoire.  This cuts out the first six seasons of Kobe's career, which is when he averaged only two or three attempts per game.

2003: 4.0 (attempts per game)
2005: 5.9 
2006: 6.5 
2007: 5.2 
2008: 5.1 
2009: 4.1 
2010: 4.1

In these seven seasons it's undoubtedly clear Kobe was looking to shoot the three (he shot above the league average each season).  These years add up to 939-2679 for a percentage of .351.

And let's say you're still not satisfied, let's remove the two years from Jordan in which the line was 21 inches closer and just focus on 1990 and 1993.

Jordan in 1990. Watch how many perimeter shots he takes.

In those two seasons, Jordan shot 173-475, which equals .364 percent.

In short, we compared the years in which both Jordan and Kobe were unquestionably looking to shoot the three and, in those years, Jordan still posted a better percentage.

From 1990 through 1997, only 44 players attempted more threes than Jordan.  Of these 44, only 19 posted a better three-point percentage (.372).

From 2003 through 2010, only seven players have attempted more threes than Kobe.  All seven have a better three-point percentage (.347).

In the history of the game, only 14 players have attempted as many threes as Kobe (3,978).  Of the bunch, only Walker has a worse percentage (.339).

Last I checked, shot selection is part of being a good, consistent shooter—something Jordan always was and Kobe never was.

Number of games in which player has attempted at least 10 shots, including at least three threes:

Jordan: 264
Bryant: 626

Of these games, Jordan has shot below 40 percent in just 34 or 12.9 percent of them.  Kobe?  He shot below 40 percent in 193 or 30.8 percent.  

Any way you cut it, Kobe has a bad shooting performance in almost one of every three games or 25 times per season.  Jordan?  A bad performance just under 11 times per season.  Consistency.

Now, I'm sure Kobe lovers are going to come out in full blast because my argument isn't reinforcing their beliefs, but I believe there's enough evidence here to settle and close this case once and for all.

And I didn't even bring up (until now) how rule changes (and a generally lower defensive IQ) have made it far easier to score (and shoot) in the past decade than ever before.

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