Few debates in the world of sports spark the raw emotion of 'Who is better, LeBron or Kobe?'
The argument is particularly captivating because in addition to being the clear cut No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, they are also the most polarizing. With LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, you either love them or hate them. There is no middle ground, there is no gray area.
I've tackled this argument before, so I'm going to take a more simplistic approach for Kobe-LeBron version 2.0. To anyone who sincerely believes Kobe Bryant is the league's best player, read up as I attempt to enrich you and convert you to team LeBron.
LeBron's career field goal percentage of 47.6 tops that of Kobe's 45.5 percent, their career three point percentages are virtually identical, and Kobe's career free throw percentage (83.7) bests LeBron's (74.4), although LeBron gets to the line more per contest over the course of their respective paths.
Kobe has won the league's scoring title twice, LeBron has led the league in scoring just once (though it must be mentioned LeBron narrowly missed out on his second last year, when Kevin Durant edged him by just .4 points per contest).
Yes Kobe once scored 81 points in a single basketball game. He once averaged 35.4 points a game for an entire season. But I'm of the belief that if LeBron was in Kobe's shoes on those putrid Laker teams from 2005-2007 he would've put up similarly gaudy stats, and what's more, he wouldn't have allowed them to miss the playoffs as Kobe did. But more on that later.
Common logic is that Kobe is a better scorer than LeBron, but the statistical evidence refutes that claim. Kobe boasts a healthy career average of 25.2 ppg, but LeBron flaunts an extraordinary career average of 27.7 ppg. A frequent complaint Kobe supporters use in their argument is Kobe didn't become a full time starter until his third year, whereas LeBron was thrust into the starting lineup from day one. LeBron was ready to step in and play from day one. Kobe Bryant wasn't. How can one hold that against LeBron?
"Our team is trying to clinch (homecourt advantage) for the whole playoffs and that is more important. If I really wanted to, I if really wanted to win the scoring title I could win it every single year," James was quoted as saying in 2009. "Every single year, I could really do it. But it doesn't matter to me."
That quote is very telling. LeBron's focus has always been on winning, while Kobe's focus has always been on scoring first and foremost. In NBA history, only Michael Jordan (at 22.9) took more shots per game than Kobe (19.3) during a career. Kobe will go down as one of the greatest scorers in the history of the league. But LeBron does it easier and more efficiently.
Advantage, LeBron James.
This category isn't as cut and dry as some others, simply because of the differences in position between the two. But it's not like we're comparing Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.
LeBron James' career average is 7.1 rebounds a game, Kobe Bryant's is 5.3 rebounds a game. LeBron's a small forward, he weighs more, all of that is completely understood. But at the end of the day these two players are only two inches apart. It's like contrasting the rebounding merits of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Advantage, LeBron James.
MAKING OTHERS BETTER
Laker fans wants to paint Kobe as an individual who has become a better teammate and grown as a leader over the years. Personally I don't think he's changed all that much and I have multiple relatively recent examples which defy that.
There was the time he publicly demanded the Lakers should "ship his ass out" in regards to then 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum.
There was the time last Sunday, during the Lakers-Thunder tilt, where after Lamar Odom rimmed out two free throws that would've given the Lakers a four or five point lead with ten seconds left; Kobe Bryant threw a towel directly into Lamar Odom's face on the bench.
Earlier this season, Kobe delivered this backhanded compliment to Pau Gasol, “Even when he was in Memphis and he was the go-to guy, he was always very nice,” Bryant said of Gasol. “Very white swan. I need him to be black swan. Be an (expletive) sometimes.”
You also might recall the time he single handedly ran a certain Hall of Fame center out of town, despite both being in their primes, despite having already won three NBA championships together, despite yet another trip to the Finals just the year prior. Anyone who watches basketball with any regularity knows that if Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal had stayed together, their run of championships may have never ended.
With Kobe and Shaq, the Lakers had the two best players in the entire league joining forces. It cannot be overstated, both were absolutely at the apex of their respective careers. This was Kareem-Magic 2.0, but Kobe wasn't willing to sacrifice his game for the betterment of the Lakers. Had Bryant found a way to coexist with O'Neal, he'd have a hell of a lot more than five rings on his fingers.
Kobe is currently in his 15th season, but he still hasn't fully grasped what it takes to get others involved and the importance of getting others involved. This article hit the nail on the head perfectly. This is why every single playoffs the Lakers lose a handful of games they have absolutely no business losing.
Kobe, despite playing on by far the most talented team in the league, inexplicably decides to take it upon himself to take an inordinate amount of shots. In so doing, he shoots the Lakers right out games they would have dominated otherwise.
Kobe doesn't just do this in the playoffs either. This regular season alone, there have been multiple HOME games where Kobe and his excessive shooting cost the Lakers embarrassing losses at the hands of the lowly Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies.
There are several examples I can cite specifically in regard to Kobe shooting far too much and costing his team games: Game 3 at the Oklahoma City Thunder last year. Kobe went 10/29, slugged along at just 34 percent from the field, while his elite big man Pau Gasol only got 12 shot attempts, connecting on seven. There should NEVER be a 29 to 12 shot discrepancy between Kobe and Pau, especially against the Thunder who featured at that time a very pedestrian frontline defensively. The Lakers lost.
Game 3 at the Phoenix Suns last year. Kobe got up 24 shots to Pau's 14, and again Pau was ridiculously efficient, finishing 11-14. Kobe was productive this game, but the Lakers lost the game.
Game 2 vs the Boston Celtics last year. Pau Gasol was a remarkable 7-10 from the field, Kobe labored through a paltry 8-20 shooting day. The Lakers lost.
Then there is ball hog Kobe's alter ego "Weird Kobe", where he sarcastically takes the tutelage of coach Phil Jackson's orders of getting his big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol more involved and doesn't look to score whatsoever himself. Weird Kobe lifts a metaphorical middle finger to Phil's notion of how vital it is to feed Pau and Bynum early and often by playing very passively and refusing to look for his own shot at all.
The notion of "Weird Kobe" may seem hyperbolic, but any Laker fan knows exactly what I'm talking about. And if they don't, I'll remind them with the time Weird Kobe showed up (or, more apropos, didn't show up) for an elimination playoff game in Phoenix in 2006. 16 shot attempts and five free throw attempts in an elimination game? A Game 7 that his Lakers lost by 31 points? Please...LeBron has NEVER been blown out in an elimination contest.
Now that's not to say that every time the Lakers lose it's because Kobe shot too much. That's obviously not true. My main point is that Bryant, despite all his years of experience, is still reluctant to raise the level of play of his teammates by sharing the rock. Incredibly, he still doesn't realize the basic principle that it would make life a hell of a lot easier for himself.
Conversely, LeBron does understand the importance of getting others involved. It is arguably his most valuable trait as a basketball player in fact.
LeBron's career average of 6.3 assists as a small forward is unparalleled. LeBron James is the antithesis of Kobe Bryant in this respect. LeBron lives to make other players better.
In 2007, LeBron, all of 22 years of age at the time, miraculously led a starting five consisting of himself, Sasha Pavlovic, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilguaskas and a rookie head coach to the NBA Finals. Read that one more time. Two of them are out of the league, the other two are serving as the 10th men at the end of the bench for their current teams, and their coach doesn't even have a job.
The Cavaliers were quickly swept by a vastly superior Spurs team in the Finals, but I'd argue that this achievement is unequivocally on par with any team conquest Michael Jordan ever achieved.
In 2005, just one year removed from an NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons and forcing Shaquille O'Neal out of Los Angeles, the Lakers retooled and Kobe directed the Lakers to a dreadful 34-48 record. The year prior the Lakers won 56 games, a precipitous fall with Kobe as the new 'leader' of the team. Kobe was in his prime, just 26 years of age, and played with a roster that was far better than just 34 victories. The squad wasn't elite, but it did feature two other fringe All-Star caliber players in Caron Butler and Lamar Odom.
Do you remember Kobe Bryant emphatically demanding a trade around this time? During the slop that was Lakers basketball from 2005 through 2007 (before Pau arrived), they were a one trick pony, with Kobe shooting thirty times a game, his four teammates on the floor watching him hoist contested J after contested J, with Mamba scoring thirty five a night and the Lakers barely playing .500 ball.
When the going got tough for LeBron, and he played alongside a terrible supporting cast, he rose his level of play as well as that of his teammates and they won games. Kobe? Went for his stats, got frustrated, begged to be traded.
Do you see where I'm going with this? The one time in Kobe's career he didn't play on the best roster in the league, he pouted and whined his way through perhaps the most pitiful campaign in the storied history of the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant in 2005 played with a better roster than LeBron had in 2007, while LeBron led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals with his pond scum teammates and Kobe couldn't even guide the Lakers to a .500 record.
King James is a winner. He single handedly led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the league's best record in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, squeezing every ounce of talent out of their limited roster. The biggest indicator of what LeBron meant to that organization and to his former teammates is how vile the Cavaliers have become.
They have by far the league's worst record, currently 11-48, and recently set the NBA record for consecutive losses at twenty six straight. It cannot be forgotten that this is by in large the same roster that LeBron had lifted to incredible prominence the previous few seasons. If the King was still a Cavalier, their record would be 48-11 not 11-48. That's the type of profound impact this young man has on a team.
It's not a coincidence that Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Sasha Pavlovic, Damon Jones, Daniel Gibson, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Drew Gooden, J.J. Hickson all played the best basketball of their careers when LeBron James was their teammate.
Advantage, LeBron James in a landslide.
On paper, this category isn't even a debate. Kobe Bryant should blow LeBron out of the water based on the abundant amount of defensive accolades presented to Kobe over his career.
But defense isn't played on paper.
Casual NBA fans don't realize this. Lakers fans would never admit this, maybe in part because of their undying devotion to the Black Mamba. But there's a dirty little secret that doesn't get nearly enough light shed on it.
Kobe Bryant is the most overrated defender in the league, and has been for several years.
During the championship seasons, Kobe took on the challenge of checking the league's premiere wing players consistently. He took pride in keeping his man in front of him and giving bountiful effort on the defensive end. In so doing, Kobe deservedly earned the reputation as a lockdown defender.
Then sometime around the time Shaq was traded, Bryant stopped giving a damn defensively. Rather than guarding the opposing team's biggest perimeter scoring threat, he always seemed to be matched up against the opposing team's offensive liability so he could play more of a help defender role.
The biggest piece of untestable evidence was the 2007-08 NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant didn't defend All-Star guard Ray Allen or would be Finals MVP Paul Pierce, the natural and seemingly correct matchup for someone with his defensive resume. Instead, Kobe inexplicably spent the six game series on Rajon Rondo, who at the time was a little known, young point guard with very raw offensive skills and absolutely zero jump shooting ability.
Here we are four years later and I'm still trying to find out why Kobe didn't defend Allen or Pierce in the '08 Finals. How could the recipient of so many All-NBA First team defense awards not take on the assignment of Ray Allen or Paul Pierce in the NBA Finals? Because he's not an All-NBA First team defender.
In the 2009-10 Finals rematch between the Lakers and Celtics, Bryant again spent the duration of the series on Rondo, even though Allen was torching the Lakers for a lot of the series, especially Game 2 when he hit a Finals record nine three pointers.
It could be Phil Jackson's strategy, maybe it's to save Kobe's legs on offense, there could be a multitude of reasons. That's perfectly fine. Just don't honor Bryant every year with undeserving All-Defensive first team cognizance because it just goes to show you the voters for these awards treat it more for a lifetime achievement award than an actual in season evaluation.
The biggest joke of it all is that Ron Artest wasn't recognized on any All-NBA defensive team, and he's the one who has matched up against Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony and all the other elite wing offensive players since he became Kobe's teammate. As a matter of fact, Ron Artest's stellar defense on Paul Pierce was easily one of the chief reasons the Lakers narrowly escaped with the championship crown.
I know this entire segment is going to be a hot button issue for Lakers fans, but I will not relent on this point. I know what I see, and what I see is complete and incomprehensible laziness on the defensive end from Kobe Bryant.
I'm almost certain Kobe will likely earn yet another nod as an All-NBA defender this year. Amazing what reputation can get for a guy. Incidentally, I'm apparently not the only one who noticed the Black Mamba's shameful defensive effort the latter part of this decade.
While Kobe played intense on ball defense his first five or six years and then fell off, LeBron is exactly the opposite.
When LeBron first came into the league, he was an athletic marvel who took chances on defense and didn't show any type of commitment to that end of the floor. As time went on, and the Cavaliers became significantly more competitive, LeBron has grown into one of the finest defenders in the NBA.
Watch LeBron compete on defense, every game. Whether it's a meaningless December game in Milwaukee or Game 7 vs the Celtics in Boston, LeBron is going to bring A+ effort. His reputation as a team defender has grown leaps and bounds too in recent years, with specific evidence filling ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 with his phenomenal chase down blocks on opponents who thought they were going to enjoy an uncontested layup.
Speaking of Paul Pierce, LeBron actually does guard Pierce, unlike Kobe. He also has complete ownership of him. In the six game series between the Celtics and the Cavaliers last year, LeBron James held Paul Pierce to the following atrocious shooting percentages: Game 1 5-17, Game 2 4-10, Game 3 4-15, Game 4 3-8, Game 5 9-21, Game 6 4-13. That's 29 shots made out of 84 attempted, good for just 34.5 percent. Now that is defense.
The trouble with defense is there really aren't sufficient metrics to measure a player's performance. Steals and blocks are tangible, and in some cases, irrelevant. Allen Iverson led the league in steals multiple times and was widely regarded as one of the league's laziest defenders.
As a result of this, defense is an almost entirely opinionated category. I am certain that if a poll among NBA players was taken on who would defend you tougher, Kobe or LeBron, the result would be James in a landslide. LeBron James is far and away a better on ball defender and help defender than Kobe Bryant.
Advantage, LeBron James
PERFORMANCE IN THE CLUTCH
Clearly this isn't even a contest. Kobe Bryant has made a living sticking daggers in the respective hearts of the opposition. Kobe has hit so many shots in critical situations for the Lakers over his fifteen seasons, it puts him in the ilk of of Michael Jordan in terms of performance in the clutch.
LeBron hasn't enjoyed nearly the measure of success Kobe has in the clutch. In fact, LeBron is as likely to dish to an open teammate at the end of a game as take a shot himself. James has a handful of game winning shots, most notably his game winning three against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, but Kobe Bryant had more (seven) last season than James has enjoyed in his entire career thus far.
Advantage, Kobe Bryant in a landslide.
James has experienced one trip to the NBA Finals, which resulted in a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. Kobe Bryant is well acquainted with the NBA Finals, as he has had seven attempts at the title, including the last three consecutive.
Bryant's fingers are adorned by five NBA championship rings, and two NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Awards. Kobe's five championships put him on par with current or future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan (6), Magic Johnson (5), Tim Duncan (4), Shaquille O'Neal (4), and Larry Bird (3).
Certainly Bryant's accolades blow James' out of the water in this respect as well. However, it bares mentioning that Kobe Bryant has consistently played alongside far superior talent than LeBron has. Take nothing away from Kobe, he is a championship player who has led his franchise to an incredible five titles, but he has played alongside one of the premiere big men in the league during each of those five championship seasons.
LeBron has not been afforded that luxury (until this season, if you qualify Chris Bosh with that distinction).
Advantage, Kobe Bryant by a large margin.
James has a great deal of work and team success that must be achieved for him to even get on Kobe's level in this respect. But to be fair, Kobe is 32-years-old, LeBron is still only 26. Kobe has had 14 (and counting) seasons to win titles and LeBron has 7 (and counting seasons) under his belt.
It has to be mentioned that Kobe never even won a playoff series, let alone an NBA championship, without either Pau Gasol or Shaquille O'Neal in the post to command a double team and take pressure off of Kobe. The best teammate LeBron's ever had (besides this year of course)? Mo Williams? Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Exactly.
I've argued for years that if LeBron and Kobe simply switched teams the Lakers wouldn't skip a beat. If LeBron makes players better, which we know to be true, then how do you think he'd fare alongside Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest? Answer: Quite well.
Conversely, Kobe Bryant would have been a cancer in the Cavaliers locker room. He would've whined and whimpered his way out of town and demanded a trade (as he once did in LA after he ran Shaq out and the Lakers were a below average basketball team, as a result). So to recap, LeBron with the Lakers? Still winning rings. Kobe with the Cavaliers? Would've quit on the team because of the lack of talent around him.
In seven full seasons, LeBron has earned the league's MVP award twice. In fourteen full seasons, Kobe has been named Most Valuable Player once. This year, the MVP race is believed to be a neck and neck race between LeBron and Derrick Rose.
In LeBron's eight years in the league, he has had the following coaches: Paul Silas, Brendan Malone, Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra. Four guys who've accomplished next to nothing in this league. In Kobe's fifteen years in the league, he has had the following coaches: Del Harris, Rudy Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson. LeBron's coaches: zero rings as head coach. Kobe's coaches: thirteen rings as head coach. That speaks volumes. Without question, Kobe has received better coaching throughout his career than LeBron has.
Another black eye on the otherwise sparkling resume of Kobe Bryant is the unflattering words uttered by his coach Phil Jackson. Jackson, during the 2003-04 season, wrote a book titled 'The Last Season' chronicling the Lakers and their well documented trials and tribulations. The Zen Master hit Kobe with multiple critical comments that can be read at length here.
The most notable thing Phil Jackson said about Kobe was the following, 'I won't coach this team next year if he's still here,' I said emphatically. 'He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid.'"
I don't recall Phil Jackson saying anything like that about another star pupil of his, Michael Jordan.
Kobe Bryant is a once in a generation player. I have shared my criticisms of Bryant in this piece, but there is no denying he will certainly be a Hall of Famer and is hands down a top ten player in NBA history. Other than Michael Jordan, no individual in history has as many accolades as Bryant.
But LeBron James, with his well rounded skill set, is a once in a millennium player. Society always tries to compare modern players to stars from yesteryear. Chris Paul is Isiah Thomas. Russell Westbrook is Gary Payton. Kevin Durant is George Gervin. Blake Griffin is Shawn Kemp. Shaquille O'Neal is Wilt Chamberlain. Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan.
There is no comparison for LeBron.
He's equal parts Michael and Magic. His versatility and basketball IQ is reminiscent of Larry Bird. His athleticism equates to Dominique Wilkins.
When it's all said and done, not only will LeBron James be better than Kobe Bryant, he'll be better than anyone to ever play the game of basketball.