There are few things in sports greater than the rivalry created by two phenomenal players. Team rivalries make the leagues go round, but the fans love—even crave—a thrilling one-on-one as much as a nine-on-nine, 11-on-11 or five-on-five.
One of today’s great rivalries, and even greater debates, is that of Kobe vs. Lebron.
Stats alone do not measure the player and when pitted against each other in that way, they are pretty even:
Kobe: 45.5% FG, 34% 3FG, 84% FT
Lebron: 47.4% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 74% FT
Lebron is bigger and stronger, but no one will ever question Kobe’s grit and determination. Kobe is heralded for his workout ethic; Lebron is blasphemed for his ill-advised way of leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, something he called “The Decision.”
While Kobe, at 32, is six years older than LeBron, he is ages ahead of him in maturity; his ability to lead, his clutch performances, versatility, shooting ability and all-around class.
When Kobe came into the league, he wanted to strut his stuff and show off with what he believed to be his unrivaled individual talents. He was still an adolescent and he acted that way. He was not known as the greatest team player, but there was no question he was a tremendous shooter and finisher, an acrobat around the basket and just about impossible to guard. (Sound familiar, MJ?)
But, as time went by and one championship became three, then four and five, and with them a nearly insatiable desire to win even more, Kobe honed his all-around game and became more of a team player.
Yes, he had Shaq to create space and fear in the middle, and they played off of each other flawlessly.
When Shaq finally left the Lakers, it became Kobe’s team and he rose to the occasion, learning how to setup his teammates, passing better and choosing the right moments to take over the game. He actually took on some of his famous Coach’s inner beauty and brought a Zen to his game and a calm to his team that was imperative as the games became more important leading up to the playoffs and the Championship series.
Meanwhile, LeBron has shown little in the way of knowing what a true leader is all about. The self-anointed "King" James is but a self-centered monarch on the court.
Yes, he may be a great passer, often compared to Magic Johnson, but he is nowhere near the quarterback of the team that Magic was. What is worse, he has this penchant for wanting to—needing to—make the final shot at the buzzer to win the game rather than set up a fellow teammate who may be more open for the shot (only once this season did he pass up the ball in a crucial moment to Eddie House, and yes, House converted).
James brought a highly effective team to Boston last year, a team with the best record in the NBA, an overachieving team, no doubt, but one that could have pulled together to beat the Celtics. Yet he seemingly quit on his team when times got difficult.
That is not something Kobe would ever be accused of because that is not how a leader acts.
How is it that someone who devotes so much energy to one side of the court is equally as proficient on the other?
Even at an age when he is giving as much as 10 years to younger, quicker guards and with surgically repaired knees that have way too many years of hardcourt on them, Kobe defends better than anyone in the league. He is a defensive demon who seems to get up for locking down a foe as much as for putting a jumper in his face.
The same cannot be said for LeBron, who should be able to muscle guys into awkward positions and keep them away from the hoop.
Sure, he may be famous for (once again) wild-eyed plays where he closes in on a fast-break lay-up, swatting it into the stands and waving his hands in conquest. But his team defense is wanting at best.
Kobe has been on the all-defensive team 10 times, while Lebron has been awarded to it only twice. 'Nuff said.
Los Angeles Lakers fans have heard time and time again: Kobe is a pure gym rat.
After a recent loss, he spent an hour on the court by himself, shooting and working on his game.
His off-season workouts are renowned. Pat Riley would have loved to coach him; Jerry West has often voiced his admiration for him. Coach Jackson just has to smile about it in wonder.
Someone, somewhere put a bug in his ear about it and he has never let up. Maybe it’s the MJ thing…that he has to be better than Michael, work harder, longer and get stronger so he can surpass him in the number of rings.
Whatever the reason, and it could be just what champions are made of, Kobe is never happy just being great and so he works harder at it than anyone has before.
The same cannot be said of LeBron who has huge gaps in his game. Why has he not become a better post-up player? With his strength and quickness, perhaps the greatest NBA body ever, he would dominate anyone who would try to guard him down low. Yet he has not worked at that at all, preferring to take
long jumpers or driving to the hoop for one of his classic monster jams.
While he has great durability, James should look to his older, wiser competitor on the West Coast to learn what it means to train tough in order to play tough; to practice those things that will make you better and prolong your game.
When it comes to shooting the basketball, Kobe ranks up there with the giants of the game. He is a pure shooter like Ray Allen, who comes off of screens, releases quickly and makes a living at the three-point line.
Kobe creates his shots. He elevates. Double-pumps. He pivots back for a hanging patented fade-away jumper or squeezes in between defenders for an off-balanced, off-handed shot. His quick elevation even with a man in his face is as daunting a weapon as anything in the league.
LeBron is another story when it comes to shooting. He is definitely more of a scorer and a finisher (he's averaged over 27 points per game every season since 2004). Who in their right mind would stand between James and the basket if he came flying in the with basketball in hand?
But his stroke is hardly one that other players look to replicate. It may be his muscularity that gets in the way or just the fact that he has dominated as a slasher and crasher for so many years that he never perfected it.
Even he would have to agree that Kobe is the better shooter.
There was a period last year when Kobe made a series of last second shots to win games that seemed virtually impossible. Most of them were long-range threes, taken with time running out, the game on the line and every defender on the other team focused on him.
But Kobe would take the ball, create a little separation and swoosh, game over.
Meanwhile, there was a spate of games in Miami this year where LeBron hurled up final second shots, only to fail miserably. He was usually off-balance and way out of his range and although we have seen him make some remarkable shots in his career to win games, it just isn’t his forte.
Also, now that he's sharing the floor with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, there is no reason for him to force the issue.
Winners want the ball and Kobe is a winner. Anyone familiar with the game would list Kobe at the top of the list of clutch players.
Just ask yourself who you want to have the ball at the end of the game, Kobe or LeBron?
When comparing Kobe and LeBron, there is one substantial element that stands between them: the rings.
There are so many things that go into winning a championship: the chemistry of the team, the savvy of the coach, a bunch of luck, injuries and a wide variety of intangibles.
But when one guy is so connected with winning it all and the other isn’t, it says something about the ability of the latter.
Kobe’s strength lies in his undying desire to win. He is as much a chess player as a tireless competitor. He is an on-the-court manager who studies the game and knows its history and what makes legendary winners. He explores the ins and outs of his opponents so that he knows their foibles and attacks those weaknesses by involving his entire team.
Kobe’s eyes are constantly on the prize, while it seems like LeBron has not learned the essence of what it takes to win it all.
Did James have a terrific team capable of winning a championship while in Cleveland? Could they have learned from their mistakes and taken themselves to a higher level this year? We will never know.
In the meantime, Kobe is en route to his sixth championship and has left James in the dust.
When all is said and done, "The Decision" may end up defining LeBron.
Even if he wins a few championships, as he should, he will forever be linked to a classless decision to dramatize his leaving Cleveland for Miami.
No one is questioning his freedom to choose, and after seven years with the Cavs and a chance to work with Wade and Bosh, he sure made a move that seemed very favorable. Yet, what motivated him to star in his own charade and broadcast his cold jump from one team to another?
Maybe it’s the same thing that makes him take that last, errant jump shot at the end of a game: too much “I” and not enough “WE.”
Even Michael Jordan, "The Sandlot's" version of 'The Great Bambino,' chastised him for making the move in such a public manner.
And Kobe? Well, he has stayed with one team his entire career, faced some real challenges and doubts when Shaq left, defying those who said he wasn’t capable of guiding the team to another championship
without the Big Man in the middle.
But beyond that, despite what might be said about Kobe’s own moral misgivings, he is a team player, loyal to those around him and aware of the impact it might have on his teammates should he leave.
As Kobe has gotten older, he has matured in a very positive way. He speaks with a calm and coolness that is not defiant, but confident. He has continued to show a lot of class and that is something you don’t just learn in the gym.
Earlier this season, Kobe was asked who would win in a one-on-one competition, he or LeBron, and without batting an eye, he said he would.
A lot of NBA-watchers wondered at Kobe’s brash statement. Let’s face it, if James wants to score, he scores. But, in the history of scorers, Kobe is right there at the top. He is the youngest player to 25,000 points and the leading scorer in Lakers' history—and that is saying a lot when you are talking about such icons as Baylor, West, Chamberlain and Kareem.
Kobe was raised a basketball rat. He grew up in Europe while his father "Jellybean Joe" played ball there and Kobe got to hang out with and play against older, wiser, bigger and stronger pros even as a young kid. He learned from the best and took in everything he learned, molding it to his own game.
With that sort of experience comes sheer confidence. LeBron is easily one of the most self-confident players in the game, but that tends to come across as arrogance. Whereas Kobe’s quiet, supreme belief in his abilities comes from an interminable amount of hours on the court.
Suffice to say, it would be an amazing match-up should it happen, but I am putting my money on Kobe and am not batting an eye.
This quandary over Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James for the best player in the NBA is no big mystery, not some epic saga and at this point hardly even up for interpretation in the scheme of all things basketball.
Kobe is currently the best NBA player.