Kobe Bryant: Can He Move Behind Michael Jordan for Second-Greatest NBA Player?
Although ranking the all-time NBA greats is highly debatable, most analysts today feel that Michael Jordan is the greatest player in the history of the league.
This is a sentiment that I also believe in.
So why do most people feel this way?
Examining Jordan’s career and accomplishments brings to light why he is generally considered the greatest.
For instance, when most people think of Jordan, they think of amazing athleticism, his dominating scoring ability, clutch playmaking, and his multiple NBA championships.
And all of this is true. His athleticism was important, as it enhanced his overall basketball skills, and led to the rising popularity of the game internationally (not to mention, it helped sell out arenas).
Jordan’s stock rose significantly when he won three more championships after his initial three-peat from 1991-1993.
In addition to having a great all-around offensive game (rebounds, passing and shooting percentages), Jordan excelled on defense too. Over his career, he was selected to nine All-Defensive teams (all first-team honors) and won the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Thus, in analyzing Jordan’s career, one gets the blueprint I use in evaluating NBA legends and determining where they rank compared to each other. The areas I look at are the following abilities: scoring, shooting, rebounding (per position), passing/play-making (per position), defense, athleticism, clutch, leadership and winning while playing a leading role.
Perhaps no player in NBA history has been compared more frequently to Michael Jordan than Kobe Bryant. It’s true that there are many similarities between the two: their height and size, their athletic ability, their low vocal tones, all-around abilities, the ability to win, and dominant post-up and mid-range games.
I have already written about why Kobe Bryant (especially when using the criteria listed above) is already one of the top five players of all time.
As one of three players to have at least 10 selections each to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, and one of four players to have won at least five championships and two Finals MVP Awards, Kobe is already in some exclusive territory.
While I feel it is unlikely that Kobe will ever surpass Jordan’s legacy, I do believe he has a legitimate shot at becoming the second-greatest player in NBA history.
In order for this to happen, Bryant obviously has to surpass other legends.
This article will compare past and present NBA legends to Kobe Bryant based on the criteria I discussed earlier in evaluating Jordan. Kobe’s career and abilities will be assessed according to these legends, with explanations of whether he has surpassed them already or if he can leap past them before his career is over.
If Kobe can top all of the legends that are discussed, then he will by default be the second-greatest player.
As always, I welcome any feedback and comments you are willing to share.
Bill Russell is known as one of the greatest winners in professional team sports. With 11 NBA titles, it seems impossible for Kobe Bryant or anyone to match that total.
But is winning everything?
Obviously not, as most people rank Jordan above Russell.
One area that hurt his legacy was his mediocre offensive game. Despite having significant advantages in height over the competition, and playing with a lane that was four feet narrower for much his career, Russell only averaged a mere 15.1 ppg while shooting 44 percent on his field goals and 56 percent on his free throws.
Without the three-point line in use, the objective of the game during the 1950s and 1960s was to get shots as close to the rim as possible. Shorter shots meant shorter rebounds—which were easier for taller players like Russell to grab.
It also magnified the effect of his shot-blocking and deterrent ability down low.
The fact that the pace of the game was significantly faster during his era (during the 1961-1962 season teams had an average of 52 percent more possessions compared to today’s league) further inflated his statistical averages.
In today’s league, his style would not be nearly as dominating, with some teams taking close to half of their shots from three-point range and going up against players bigger than him on a nightly basis.
Russell was a great player and was the perfect piece to help the Celtics win all of those titles. But without the talent disparity of having multiple Hall of Famers on each of his teams compared to other franchises, it is likely he would not have won as often.
On top of that, scoring is the most important part of the game of basketball. Kobe has huge advantages over Russell in scoring and shooting abilities, not to mention clutch shooting.
According to the judging criteria in this article, Kobe has already surpassed Bill Russell.
Many consider Wilt Chamberlain to be the most dominant player of all time in the NBA. Most of his records will probably never be surpassed.
But how would his game be in today’s league?
There was a time when Chamberlain and Russell were two of just four players in the NBA who were taller than 6’6”. Today, nearly every team has seven-footers, many of which are quite strong and athletic. I can only imagine Chamberlain’s size advantages disappearing when going up against Shaquille O’Neal, who would have 50 to 75 pounds and an inch of height on him.
Like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers today would be deflated to some degree. While his offensive repertoire paled in comparison to centers like Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Patrick Ewing, his superior athleticism would still make him a formidable opponent.
But rather than putting up 40-50 ppg and 20-30 rpg, Chamberlain’s numbers would be much closer to about 25 ppg and 12 rpg. This average would still be great, but it certainly puts him in a different perspective compared to other legends.
While Chamberlain was a superior shot blocker, he was never thought of as an elite defender until late in his career—unlike Kobe Bryant, who was selected to All-Defensive teams at the age of 21.
Wilt was also never seen as a primary go-to guy in the clutch because he was a liability at the free throw line, making only 51 percent throughout his career.
While Kobe Bryant has been the clear leader of his recent Lakers teams, and has been credited with mentoring several players, Chamberlain never quite showed the same leadership attributes. He was mired in controversy with his teammates while in Philadelphia and by the time he came to play in Los Angeles, Jerry West was the leader of the Lakers.
So with Kobe Bryant having advantages in winning, defense, shooting, clutch and leadership, Kobe has already surpassed Wilt Chamberlain.
Magic Johnson is one of the most beloved players in NBA history. I actually consider him to be the greatest Laker of all time, slightly ahead of Kobe Bryant.
Like Kobe, Magic Johnson won five NBA championships during his career. What puts him a step up from Kobe is his all-around abilities. His overall game was unbelievable, as he was dominant at scoring, rebounding and play-making.
With his patented no-look passes and ability to run the fast break, Johnson is generally considered the best point guard of all time.
While he certainly hit many clutch shots during his career, he also had his moments of failure, just like Kobe Bryant. As history rolls on, we tend to glorify players and their abilities while forgetting about their mistakes. Yet, one might recall that after Magic’s blunders in the 1984 NBA Finals, many people were calling him “Tragic Johnson.”
While Johnson (with his height ability) had a superior post-up game to Kobe Bryant, Kobe has huge advantages over Johnson in scoring, outside shooting and defense. While Magic was one of the NBA’s premier thieves with his stealing ability, he never once made an All-Defensive team as he was generally considered just an average defender.
So Kobe and Magic each have their advantages over one another. Hence, for Kobe to surpass Magic Johnson, he will need to win a sixth NBA championship as the leader of the Lakers—likely tying the Los Angeles Lakers with the Boston Celtics at 17 titles.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
In my opinion, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest center in NBA history. By using one of the most effective shots ever (the sky hook) Kareem catapulted himself to the NBA scoring record.
Over his legendary career, Kareem won six NBA championships while being selected 15 times to the All-NBA team, 11 times to the All-Defensive team, and 19 times to the All-Star Game. Truly, he had a dominant all-around game including rebounding, play-making, defense and hitting clutch shots.
About the only thing Kareem couldn’t do well (not that it’s necessary as a center) is hit outside shots.
But there is one big area that hurts his legacy: leadership on winning teams. While Kareem was the obvious leader of the Milwaukee Bucks team that won the 1971 championship, the successful Lakers teams of the 1980s quickly became Magic Johnson’s team.
Despite having amazing teammates on previous teams (Oscar Robertson, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon), Kareem was only able to win one title before teaming up with Magic Johnson.
While it is true that Kobe’s outside shooting game and scoring repertoire is vastly superior to those of Kareem, an extra championship and Finals MVP should move Kobe past Kareem. And for those who might be skeptical of this, two more championships for Kobe would make it nearly impossible to rank Kareem higher.
Larry Bird, in my opinion, is the greatest small forward in NBA history and the greatest Boston Celtics player. He combined a great all-around game (scoring, rebounding and play-making) and became one of the greatest winners, with three NBA championships.
He is also considered a better shooter than Kobe Bryant, being one of the few players that made at least 50 percent of his field goals, 40 percent of his three-pointers, and 90 percent of his free throws over the course of a season.
While he matches Kobe in Finals MVPs with two apiece, there are several areas where Kobe outshines Bird already.
First, Kobe has nearly double the number of championships as Bird. While it’s true that Larry Bird and his Celtics had to contend with another dynasty in the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe has had his own dynasty to compete against (the San Antonio Spurs) as well as several great teams along the way (such as the Boston Celtics of recent years).
While Bird was a better shooter, Kobe is the superior scorer and defender. While Bird made three All-Defensive teams (all second-team selections), he was seen as a good team defender, but only an average one-on-one defender.
By contrast, Kobe has dominated in both areas on defense and his eight first-team selections to the All-Defensive Team clearly outshines Bird’s accomplishment in that area.
Lastly, Kobe Bryant has been dominant for a longer time than Bird was in the NBA. While Bird had some severe injuries that affected his play and shortened his career, Kobe has shown a remarkable ability to play through pain and dominate the game despite several serious injuries.
Due to the advantages in length of dominance, defense, scoring and winning, Kobe Bryant has already surpassed Larry Bird.
At 7’1” and 325 pounds, the NBA has never seen a force quite like Shaquille O’Neal. Few players have been more dominating in the league as Shaq was from 1999-2002.
While he won his three Finals MVP awards while teamed with Kobe Bryant, many write off Kobe’s efforts as being “second fiddle.”
While Shaq earned those awards judged off of the Finals series, Kobe Bryant was the perfect complement. When O’Neal became a liability in fourth quarters with his horrid free-throw shooting, the Lakers relied on Kobe (who usually came through in the clutch).
In 2001, it can be argued that Kobe Bryant was the MVP of the playoffs, being the most dominant player against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals (a series many consider to be the “real Finals” of 2001) and averaging 29.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 6.1 apg.
Besides beating him in the clutch department, and another obvious area (shooting), Kobe Bryant has also been a more dominant scorer. In fewer years in the league, Kobe has surpassed Shaq in 40-point games and 50-point games. By next year, Kobe should surpass Shaq in career points as well.
Last season, Kobe surpassed Shaq in another obvious area—championships, an accomplishment that made Kobe the greater winner.
Furthermore, Kobe has a huge advantage in regards to defense. Shaq was never seen as the most dominating force on defense, and his three selections to the All-Defensive Team (all second-team) pale in comparison to Kobe’s selections.
With these advantages, Kobe has already surpassed Shaquille O’Neal.
Harry How/Getty Images
Since I just wrote about how Tim Duncan compares to Kobe Bryant in a recent article, one can read a more detailed comparison here.
In short, Kobe has advantages in scoring, shooting, winning and leadership. In addition, it appears that Kobe will win the longevity category as well.
While not a fundamental part of his game, Kobe also wins in the athleticism department as well. Just like Jordan’s ability to sell the game helped create his legend, Kobe’s ability to sell the NBA and fill arenas around the world far outpaces Duncan’s ability.
Duncan may be the best power forward of all time, but Kobe’s game and career have already surpassed Duncan’s.
Jerry West (the NBA’s logo) had quite an impressive career. His averages of 27.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 6.7 apg all are higher than the respective averages for Kobe Bryant.
Like Kobe, West was a premier defender and one of the best all-time clutch performers.
But let’s take into consideration a few factors.
First, West played in an era when the pace of the game was much quicker. The extra shot opportunities—and misses—helped inflate his numbers somewhat.
Second, West was unable to win as often as Bryant on the game’s biggest stage. While it can be understood how he and Elgin Baylor could not contain the dominance of the Boston Celtics of the early to mid 1960s, losing the series in 1969, despite having home-court advantage, is unexplainable (although West would earn the Finals MVP award).
Further losing to the Knicks in 1970 and 1973 is even more embarrassing, despite having Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and Jim McMillian.
If this wasn’t enough for Kobe to surpass Jerry West, consider that Kobe has now overtaken his record as the all-time Lakers leader in scoring.
All of this should make it easy to see that Kobe ranks higher than Jerry West.
Elgin Baylor was a pioneer in his creativity and high-flying acts around the basket. He had amazing career numbers of 27.4 ppg and 13.5 rpg.
However, his numbers benefit from the pace of the game much like other legends on this list. At 6’5”, it is highly doubtful that he would be able to average even double figures in rebounds in today’s bigger and more athletic league.
While Baylor was a dominant scorer, he wasn’t that efficient—making just 43 percent of his field goal attempts. That mark is especially low when considering he played in the frontcourt.
In addition, Baylor was only average on defense, never known as a standout defender like his teammate, Jerry West.
Of course, the ultimate hit on Baylor’s resume is his inability to win an NBA championship. Like West, his career faced some bad timing going up against the Celtics dynasty, but he still had great opportunities in 1969 and 1970.
Since Kobe has Baylor beat in the areas of winning, shooting, clutch, play-making and defense, there should be little argument of Kobe’s place over Baylor.
Hakeem Olajuwon may be the best all-around center in NBA history. When considering his repertoire of offensive moves (including his patented fadeaway and “Dream Shake” maneuvers) defensive footwork, and athleticism, no other center quite matches up.
With 11 selections to the All-NBA team and nine to the All-Defensive team, Olajuwon’s game shined on both ends of the court.
While Olajuwon was dominant for a few seasons in the mid-1990s, he was unable to sustain the same dominance for as long as Kobe Bryant has. In fact, Olajuwon only averaged at least 25 ppg for three seasons, and his six First Team All-NBA selections are less than Kobe Bryant’s eight.
Furthermore, while Olajuwon’s two championships are impressive, he still didn’t win as much as Kobe has. It would have been interesting to see Olajuwon’s Houston teams go head-to-head with Jordan’s Bulls teams.
Nevertheless, while Olajuwon may have Kobe beat on the defensive end, Kobe’s advantage on the offensive end, winning, and clutch performances outshine Olajuwon’s career.
Before there was Michael Jordan as a high-flyer, there was Julius Erving. Following a successful career in the American Basketball Association (ABA), Erving took his popular style to the NBA.
Compared to Kobe Bryant, there are some obvious differences that separate the two players. First, Erving lacked the outside shooting touch of Kobe Bryant.
Second, he never played defense in the same effective manner as Kobe. While he was an excellent help defender in piling up steals and blocks, he was not known as a defensive stopper. Hence, he failed to make even one All-Defensive Team in the NBA.
In addition, Erving won only one championship in the NBA, in 1983—a Finals series in which he was outplayed by teammate Moses Malone. For all of his merits, Erving simply wasn’t known as a clutch player in the same way that Jordan, Magic Johnson or Bird were.
Finally, Erving was never the scorer that Bryant is. Throughout his NBA career, Erving only scored 40 or more points nine times. Bryant once had a stretch where he scored at least 40 points in nine straight games.
Due to the advantages in shooting, scoring, winning, clutch and defense, Kobe easily ranks higher than the great Julius Erving.
Moses Malone is a player often forgotten about when discussing the NBA’s greatest legends. He had a long career that spanned about 20 years that included anchoring one of the greatest playoff teams in NBA history (the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers).
He was a formidable player in the paint, yet he built up a reputation for stat padding (such as tapping rebounds in a way to get additional rebounds). Earlier in his career, Malone earned two All-Defensive Team selections, but afterward was not known as much of a defensive force.
In his 20 years in the NBA, Malone only averaged above 25 ppg three times and only won a single championship. Not a bad career at all despite the stat padding.
Yet, compared with Malone, Kobe has clear advantages in winning, scoring and defense.
Karl Malone is the greatest scoring power forward in NBA history and one of the most durable and consistent players. He combined with John Stockton to form one of the most potent one-two punches the game has seen.
With his effective face-up mid-range jumper, Malone powered his way to becoming the second-leading scorer in the history of the league. He was known as a decent defender, although not quite the defensive stopper on the level of other forwards such as Dennis Rodman.
The biggest knock on Karl Malone is his inability to deliver on the game’s biggest stage, despite his nickname “The Mailman.” The opportunities were there, but missed free throws and horrid shooting performances in the Finals led to his Utah Jazz teams losing (plus the dominant performance of Jordan and his Bulls).
While Kobe Bryant has been an elite defender more consistently over his career compared to Malone, the advantages Bryant has in clutch ability and winning are so great over Malone that he clearly outranks him.
John Stockton was one of the NBA’s best pure point guards. An excellent shooter and play-maker, as well as a decent defender, Stockton wasn’t the same dominant scorer as other point guards such as Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas.
He is the NBA’s all-time leader in steals and assists—a huge accomplishment. However, his inability to win a single championship, despite nearly 20 years in the NBA, is a huge blemish on his resume. Like Baylor and Malone, Stockton holds the honor of one of the NBA’s biggest losers.
He only made the All-NBA First Team twice, and never made the All-Defensive First Team in his career.
It seems apparent that Bryant has advantages in scoring, defense, winning and clutch ability in coming through in big playoff series. Hence, Kobe Bryant is an easy choice to pick ahead of John Stockton.
Oscar Robertson was a statistical anomaly in NBA history. While many know that he averaged a triple-double during the 1961-1962 season, he actually averaged a triple-double over the course of his first five NBA seasons.
An amazing offensive player, he perfected the post-up game and the fall-away jumper from a guard position.
Much of his success, however, is owed to reasons discussed earlier. The NBA’s faster pace allowed for more possessions to build up his impressive stats.
In addition, he had the body of a forward, but used his size advantage to dominate over smaller guards. In today’s league, he would be just an average-sized guard and would not have that same advantage.
Despite having offensive stats more down to Earth in today’s NBA, Robertson was never known as a great defender or a big-time winner. His lone championship came playing alongside the dominant Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) near the end of Oscar’s career.
Overall, Kobe holds advantages in scoring, shooting, defense, clutch ability, leadership and winning. The same reasons that Michael Jordan is considered better than Oscar Robertson make Kobe the better player too.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
This article has compared Kobe Bryant to many of the all-time NBA greats. The formula used was consistent and the same one that most people use to elevate Michael Jordan to the status of greatest NBA player of all time.
It’s hard for many people to compare current players to past NBA players, as we tend to glorify past legends by forgetting about their true accomplishments and faults. The formula used throughout this article tries to compare players on a more fair basis.
Overall, the only players who seem to outrank Kobe in all of the mentioned areas of the game are Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
While I mentioned that it’s unlikely for Kobe to surpass Jordan’s legacy, he can surpass Magic and Kareem with another NBA championship or two, along with another Finals MVP award.
While there’s little reason to think that Kobe cannot win another championship, leading his team to another title would put him into the second slot behind Jordan.