It’s hard to deny ranking both players so high. NBA legends have proven to be winners. With Kobe’s five championships and Duncan’s four championships, they rank as some of the biggest winners in NBA history.
The greatest players have also proved to dominate on both ends of the court. Kobe and Duncan are two of only three players to have at least 10 selections to both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams (the third being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
These numbers, combined with 13 All-Star appearances each, prove that these two players have been dominant for a long period of time—a trait unique to the very best NBA athletes throughout history.
Furthermore, both Duncan and Bryant have proven successful in leading their teams and performing in clutch situations.
However, after so many similarities, there are a few differences that one should consider in comparing Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
The Advantage of Big Men
Many claim that Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time. Although he mostly played that position in his first six seasons while teamed with David Robinson, he has played more of the center position throughout his career.
After all, at about 7’0” and 260 pounds, he has usually been the biggest player for the Spurs.
And big men have distinct advantages in this game.
Think about all of the players who appeared in the most NBA games. Players like Robert Parish, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Moses Malone should come to mind. The only small player in the top 10 of this category is John Stockton.
The reason for this phenomenon is because perimeter players play a more difficult role in the NBA.
Big players, in general, move less in half-court offensive and defensive sets. Due to their proximity to the basket and ability to get easy rebounds, big men also take easier shots than perimeter players.
Overall, being a big man in the NBA is less taxing on the body than being a perimeter player. Longer careers and easier shots have led to a lot of scoring for these types of players.
Not surprisingly, of the top 10 scorers in history, all but three are big men (the exceptions are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Oscar Robertson).
This is not to say that Tim Duncan does not have tremendous skills. On the contrary, Duncan earned his nickname “The Big Fundamental” due to his knowledge of the game and mastery of fundamental basketball skills such as footwork.
Yet, Duncan’s offensive game is mostly limited to post moves, straight-up jumpers and his patented bank shot. For any big man, that is more than enough for a potent offensive repertoire.
But in comparison, Kobe Bryant has had to work harder to score and possesses a much wider arsenal of offensive moves. In his bag of tricks are hanging floaters, three-pointers and fadeaway jumpers.
Even more amazing is that if Kobe Bryant’s career followed in similar footsteps to Tim Duncan’s (being a primary scoring option from the first game of his career and not having such a dominant scoring teammate as Shaquille O’Neal), Kobe’s averages would likely rival Michael Jordan’s—whom many consider to be the greatest player of all-time.
One of the areas that has separated both Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan from other players is their ability to shine in the postseason.
During his title runs, Duncan has put on some performances for the ages. While he didn’t benefit from having a dominant Shaquille O’Neal in a few of those runs, Duncan had plenty of help on his teams.
Among the stars and role players of those teams were David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, Stephen Jackson and Robert Horry.
Kobe has had his share of help as well. Besides O’Neal, Kobe has teamed with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Glen Rice, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Robert Horry.
Yet, there is something about Gregg Popovich’s system that seems to get the most out of outside shooters. It seems like nearly every season, Duncan is surrounded by some of the best three-point shooters in the league.
These superior outside marksmen have included Brent Barry, Bruce Bowen, Manu Ginobili, Matt Bonner, Roger Mason, Steve Smith, Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr, Terry Porter, Sean Elliott and Antonio Daniels.
Each of these players has shot at least 40 percent from beyond the arc for at least one season while teamed with Duncan.
A similar list for Kobe Bryant’s teams would include Derek Fisher, Brian Cook, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Sasha Vujacic. Besides Fisher, these players were not as consistently dominant from three-point territory.
So what does this mean for Kobe and Duncan?
Having teammates who are excellent long-range bombers helps open the floor. This has allowed Duncan to have a major advantage over Kobe during his career in being able to operate with more room in the half-court sets.
In addition, Duncan has nearly always had at least one or two All-Star caliber players on each of his teams.
While Kobe had Shaq in his early years and Pau Gasol in recent seasons, it can be argued that Kobe’s Lakers teams have been less talented overall than Duncan’s Spurs teams.
In the end, scoring is the most important part of the game of basketball. While defense leads to championships, a team cannot win without putting points up on the board. This is why most of the best players in NBA history were dynamic scorers.
When it comes to scoring the basketball, there is no comparison between Bryant and Duncan. One can say that Kobe is a ball hog and Duncan doesn’t get as many shots each game.
However, the best scorers in NBA history assert themselves—they want to take the tough shots in clutch time.
No one was more of a ball hog than Michael Jordan, but he is considered the game’s greatest legend.
Similarly, Kobe has done amazing things with the basketball. These include his 81-point game (the single most impressive scoring performance in NBA history), outscoring the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 over three quarters (a feat never done before), scoring at least 40 points nine games in a row and scoring 50 or more points four games in a row.
Another area of comparison that separates Duncan and Bryant from others is intangibles. Both have an incredible knowledge of the game and have been strong leaders in motivating their teammates (albeit each in their own ways).
Yet, one area where Kobe shines above Duncan is clutch ability. During crunch time, Tim Duncan may be effective, but Kobe Bryant is a cold-blooded assassin.
Whereas Tim Duncan has gladly deferred to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in clutch situations, Kobe Bryant always wants to take late-game shots in close contests.
This has led Kobe to having more game winners than any player in modern NBA history. Not surprisingly, NBA GMs consistently rate Kobe the best clutch player in the league—a poll which he wins in a landslide every time.
One point of comparison is the Summer Olympics. In 2004, Duncan played with Team USA and had an amazing advantage down low.
Rather than taking charge to lead the team, the squad ended up in disappointment by winning a bronze medal.
Meanwhile, in the 2008 Olympics, Kobe Bryant became the star among stars in the gold medal game and won the coveted medal that escaped Duncan in his career.
Throughout the Olympic games, coaches and players raved about Bryant’s ability to inspire his teammates to play at the highest level and exhibit tough defense.
A Final Note
On a final note, many bring up the two MVP awards that Duncan has compared to the one that Kobe has.
While it is impressive that Duncan won two of those awards, let us be honest about what the MVP award means.
If the award was given to the best player each year in the NBA, then it would be more of a valid point of comparison. However, everyone knows this is not true.
Instead, the award is given to the best player on one of the best teams in the NBA.
Unless one is willing to say that Steve Nash is better than Kobe Bryant and on the same level as Duncan, then the MVP argument is a weak comparison.
Both Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have had amazing careers.
However, it seems that Duncan’s career has reached its peak. Even winning another championship this season would do little in many peoples minds to move Duncan past Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the all-time greatest NBA players list.
However, Kobe Bryant is already in the top five players of all-time. If he can manage to win another championship over the next couple of years, Kobe will likely still be the leader of the team and will surpass Magic Johnson as the greatest Lakers player of all-time, according to many Lakers fans.
Hence, Kobe’s place in history can possibly move up some more.
As a fan of the game, I appreciate both players in this league and realize that they won’t be around for much longer.
But as of right now, one has to realize that there is a reason that TNT, ESPN, and The Sporting News named Kobe as the player of the 2000s.
As impressive as Tim Duncan’s career has been so far, Kobe Bryant has already eclipsed him.