Perhaps the most impressive feat of Kobe Byrant's illustrious 15-year career revolves around the idea that, for whatever reason, we continue to read, write, debate and ultimately consume articles on "Kobe Bryant vs Michael Jordan" at an unbelievably high rate.
I mean, isn't that already enough? Do we really need to justify Kobe's career any further when we can simply point to the fact that he's the only player in NBA history who we can realistically have this discussion about? Or how about the fact that he's the only player we've ever witnessed who is genuinely confident that he can be better?
Now look, we can't reasonably have this discussion until Kobe is finished writing his legacy in its entirety and no one (including him) really knows when that will be. Personally, I think he's about three-fourths of the way finished with his story—consider it 15 seasons in the books with at least five remaining chapters yet to be written.
So at this point in time, it's really not fair to compare the two until we can look at Kobe's full body of work. What we can do is definitively say that from 1986 until 1998, Michael Jordan performed at the highest level we have ever witnessed, in what has to be considered the most dominant stretch in NBA history. Kobe's run from 2000-2010 is similar, but really not on the same level.
However, when it comes to longevity, Kobe has done a better job at taking care of his body and will likely surpass Jordan in a number of very meaningful statistical categories over the next few seasons. When you include the Playoffs, Kobe has played a total of 48,310 minutes in 1,311 games. By comparison, Jordan played a total of 48,484 minutes in 1,251 games.
I obviously realize that Kobe is significantly younger than Jordan at this point of career comparison—32 years old vs. 40 years old. But it certainly shouldn't take away from the fact that, despite having the same mileage on his tires as MJ did when he finished his career with the Wizards, Kobe is still finishing fourth in the MVP voting and being named first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense.
This is a very important point to keep in mind. Although we're seeing Kobe's minutes reduced significantly (34 MPG in 2011 vs. 39 MPG in 2010), he is still producing at an extremely high level (.75 points per minute in 2011 vs. .7 points per minute in 2010).
And although his percentages dipped slightly in both three-point field goals and free throws, he still managed to maintain his career 45-percent field-goal percentage while matching his career averages of 25.3 points, 4.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds (he technically fell just short with 5.1 rebounds per game in 2011).
So what exactly does Kobe need to do in order to be more legitimately compared to Jordan?
First and foremost, he needs to win two more rings and be named NBA Finals MVP during both of those title runs. Seven NBA championships to go along with four NBA Finals MVP awards would stack up nicely against Jordan's six and six.
Assuming he plays at least five more seasons, he will have an opportunity to close the gap even further. For example, he currently trails Jordan by 4,424 career points. If he averages just 20 points a game for 74 games over the next three seasons, he will surpass MJ and become the third all-time leading scorer in NBA history. I believe that's a fairly conservative estimate when you consider the 2,078 points he scored last season, and we should anticipate him breaking this record early in the 2013-2014 season.
What about all-time playoff points?
MJ is the all-time leader with 5,987, while Kobe ranks third with 5,280, a difference of 717 points. Once again, if Kobe averages just 20 points a game, he would need to play 36 more playoff games to break this record. Depending on how deep the Lakers advance in the playoffs, this record could be broken in the 2012-2013 season.
He trails MJ in All Star game appearances, 14-13, first-team All-NBA awards, 10-9, and gold medals, two to one. They have both been named to the NBA All-Defensive first team nine times. Two years from now, he could overtake Jordan in all of these major career milestones.
So does Kobe need another ring to be compared to MJ? No, not really, because he is already being compared to him on a pretty regular basis. But I can assure you that Kobe Bryant isn't just thinking about being compared to Jordan, he's thinking about what he needs to do to be better than Jordan.
And right now, he is sitting on a beach somewhere figuring out a way to prove all of his critics wrong. We'll check back in five years to see if he was indeed able to accomplish everything I mentioned above, but in closing, ask yourself this: Would you bet against him?