Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are forever linked, basketball adversaries in the minds of most NBA followers even though they face each other just twice during the regular season.
The two superstars operate independently in an NBA parallel universe, one as a five-time world champion for the Los Angeles Lakers, the other as the league’s “King of the Court” with the Miami Heat.
The argument over who is the better player will be analyzed, dissected, debated and argued for the next 50 years and really can’t be decisively answered until both Bryant and James have retired from the game.
Still, it's fun to pose this question: Who is having the better year—Kobe or LeBron?
Before you rush to judgment on either one, take into account all factors and ask yourself this: what constitutes a great season? Is it merely individual statistics or is it more about what you’ve done to help your team win games? Perhaps it’s both.
As pertains to their respective records, the Lakers and Heat are in a virtual dead heat. Kobe and LeBron are both doing what they normally do to help their teams win.
The Lakers hold a 32-13 record with games coming up against Utah, Sacramento and Boston this week. LeBron and the Heat, meanwhile, are 31-13 and fresh off a 17-point win over the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.
And though they play different positions on teams running unique offensive and defensive schemes, we still like to compare their games, mainly because they remain the two most compelling players on the planet (and in the NBA). Let’s take a look at the tangible and intangible evidence and see which player is truly winning this year’s battle of the association’s most treasured individual rivalry.
1. Field Goals and Free Throws: Reigning MVP Has Upper Hand
This exercise is like trying to compare Picasso and Rembrandt to see who paints better; or Frank Sinatra and Bono to determine the better singer.
Less than one point separates Kobe and LeBron in their two-man scoring race. Their numbers are that close.
Following his most recent game at Denver in which he scored 18 in a 10-point win, Kobe’s average stands at 25 in 33.2 minutes of action. LeBron threw down 38 in the Heat’s blowout of the Raptors and that raised his average to 25.9 ppg. For the season, James plays almost five more minutes per contest than Kobe.
In his last three games, Kobe has been more of a facilitator to his teammates, scoring 21, 21 and 18 in two victories and a loss. LeBron, meanwhile, has gone off for 27, 34 and 38 in losses to the Clippers and Hawks before the win at Toronto.
LeBron is a more accurate shooter than Kobe this year—hitting on almost 48 percent from the floor, including 36 percent from three-point range. Kobe is making 46 percent of his shots but just 31 percent from behind the arc, which brings his overall percentage down.
In their one game against each other in December, LeBron scored 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting and dished out 10 assists in the Heat’s resounding 96-80 win. Kobe had just 17 points and was 6-of-16 from the floor in a subpar performance for him and the team.
The edge in scoring goes to LeBron.
2. Assists: It’s Not Just about the Stats
Numbers don't tell the whole story. In Kobe’s games where he passes more and shoots less, the Lakers usually win. In LA's previous three games, two of which it won, Kobe had a total of 24 assists. He also was a very efficient 25-of-45 from the field and seems to be finding a nice balance between shooter and playmaker.
LeBron’s passing leads to a lot of points. He’s averaging 7.2 assists per game this year while Kobe is just under five per contest. There’s no getting around the basic individual stats—LeBron passes for more points than his LA counterpart. They do, however, play different positions and so during the course of a game are called on to do different things.
When the Lakers as a team go cold, they tend to stand around and shoot jump shots. They also look to Kobe to save them and so he often gets dragged into “taking over,” meaning he takes a lot more shots and his percentage drops precipitously.
LeBron’s last three games (including two losses) point out some stark differences between the performances of the two players. True, he averaged just over 30 points per game, but LeBron was a pedestrian 36-of-83 from the field and totaled just 19 assists in comparison to Kobe’s average of eight per game.
For the year, Kobe’s assist numbers are over two fewer per game than LeBron’s. Yet, he remains more of a facilitator on a Lakers team that looks for him to bring them into the flow of the game. LeBron plays alongside one of the game’s best playmakers in Dwayne Wade (4.2 assists per game), so together their passing can do a lot of damage.
The slight edge here goes to LeBron.
3. Rebounds: The Numbers Point to LeBron Again
Miami has four very active players on the boards, including LeBron (7.2), Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem (both at 8.2) and Wade (6.5). It’s rebounding by committee, which seems to work for Miami, who really plays without a true center.
Kobe meanwhile relies heavily on Pau Gasol (10.0), Lamar Odom (9.6) and Andrew Bynum (7.3) to clear the glass and make outlet passes to their teammates moving up the court. It’s not to say Kobe is a slouch when it comes to rebounding—he still brings down over five key rebounds per game and is not afraid to go get an errant shot later in a close game when it really matters.
Neither LeBron nor Kobe is thought of as a traditional rebounder, but they do their part especially when the team needs a board. Though his numbers are less than LeBron, Kobe still seems to be get the more important rebounds when his team needs them.
A slight edge here for the Black Mamba.
4. Leadership: Bryant Is Undisputed Champion
This is one of those intangibles that is so hard to measure. But there are ways to understand how a player leads and how another one just follows.
In this category, there arguably are some big differences between Kobe and LeBron. James has made it known that he doesn't want the true leadership role. When he made his "decision" over the summer to "take my talents to South Beach," LeBron intimated to reporters that he wanted to blend in with his new teammates and not always be the go-to guy.
Here there seems to be a big difference between Kobe and LeBron. Both came into the league at the young age of 17. In 15 seasons with the Lakers, Kobe has logged 38,879 minutes. LeBron is in his eighth year and has already played 23,703 minutes. So, both are battle tested. But, to date, only Bryant has emerged victorious, winning five NBA titles with the Lakers and seeking No. 6 this year.
A lot of minutes on the court doesn't necessarily mean you’re a leader, it just means you have played a lot of minutes. But Kobe has evolved over the years, from being a one-man wrecking crew to a bona fide team player. Some may beg to differ, but I don’t think there is anyone, including LeBron, who works harder at making his team better than Kobe Bryant.
Yes, there have been times when he’s been the brunt of severe criticism for not involving his team more in the offense. But not this season. There was one game, a bad 104-85 loss to Memphis on Jan. 2, when Lakers coach Phil Jackson commented that Kobe felt he needed to take over the game to bring his club back from a 13-point deficit. In the end it failed because the other Lakers stood around watching Kobe at work, cutting the Grizzlies lead to two before eventually succumbing.
But those games have been few and far between this season on a Lakers team that is spreading around the wealth and getting significant contributions from Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Andrew Bynum and lately Ron Artest. Gasol and Odom are both having All-Star-caliber years.
Summation: Stats to LeBron, Intangibles to Kobe
If we're merely debating which player is having the better year statistically, there's no question that the winner is LeBron James. He's been all things advertised for the Heat, who won 21 of 22 games before slipping back to a more normal winning pace.
But, at the halfway point of a very interesting season, the player enjoying the better overall year would have to be Kobe Bryant. While his numbers are all slightly behind King James', Kobe remains the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Lakers while LeBron is just one of several big-time players in Miami trying to win his first NBA championship.
So, until LeBron James can stand at center court and hold aloft the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy for the first time, Kobe Bryant will remain the better player. This season and every season until King James can bring the crown back to his court.