If Kobe Bryant is going to be the next Michael Jordan, he'd better hurry.
His time is running out.
Bryant's game is often compared to that of the great Jordan because of their individual ability to dominate games. But one difference remains, and it's perhaps the most significant—Bryant has never won an NBA title as the leader of his team.
MJ won six.
Kobe isn't without rings, having won three in the sidekick role in the Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal combination. But is he doomed to be remembered the same way as Jordan's No. 2 man, Scottie Pippen—a tremendous player, but always under the shadow of someone greater?
Not that it's bad to be Scottie Pippen. He was an integral part of those six titles, and his countless individual accolades include being named one of the NBA 50 Greatest Players of All Time—before the second three-peat.
The careers of Bryant and Pippen, upon close inspection, show unexpected similarities. Let's compare:
- Both won championships as a sidekick. That one's a gimme.
- Both put up reasonably similar numbers during those title seasons—remarkably similar considering they play different positions. Bryant has the edge in scoring (25.4 points per game to Pippen's 19.1), and Pippen has the edge in assists and rebounds (6.5 and 7.6 per game respectively, to Bryant's 5.1 and 5.9). They were both second on the team in scoring.
- Neither won a championship after the star teammate—MJ for Pippen, Shaq for Bryant—left. Pippen led the Bulls for two years during Jordan's first retirement, leading the team to the conference semi-finals in both 1994 and 1995, but they stopped making the playoffs after Jordan's second departure. Pippen then spent time with several teams, most notably the Blazers, getting them to the conference finals where they lost to (you guessed it) the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers. Bryant's Lakers missed the playoffs the year O'Neal left, and were ousted in the first round the next two years. Boosted by the acquisition of Pau Gasol, however, they charged all the way to the Finals last year—giving Bryant the edge here, for having made it back to a Finals.
- Both had their best statistical seasons when they were the go-to guy. Bryant's scoring skyrocketed in the years after O'Neal, averaging 35.6 ppg in 2005-2006 and 31.6 in 2006-2007, meriting scoring titles both years. The two seasons with Jordan out were Pippen's best for scoring (22.0 and 21.4 ppg) and rebounds (8.7 and 8.1 rpg).
- Both had brief but well-publicized disputes with their coaches. The coach, in both cases, was Phil Jackson.
- Both are/were terrific defensive players—Pippen made the All-Defensive First Team eight times, and Bryant has seven such honors so far.
That all said, they're not identical. Bryant still clearly has the advantage as the more potent individual player, having won an MVP and three All-Star Game MVP's in addition to his scoring titles—though Pippen still doesn't fall that far behind, having finished as high as third in the MVP voting and also garnering an All-Star Game MVP.
So do those individual prizes put Bryant into Jordan range?
Not quite. Jordan won five MVP trophies, ten scoring titles, and the Finals MVP award for all six championships. Untouchable.
If Kobe is to truly deserve the Jordan comparison, he's going to need a championship of his own. Spero Dedes, the radio voice of the Lakers, agrees.
"I think he realizes that it's everything at this point," said Dedes on the Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday. "I think he knows that his legacy, at this point, is really dependent on what he does here, if he's able to win that title without Shaquille."
"Kobe is just as smart as he is talented, and he realizes that he needs to win another one, post-Shaquille, to really put him in that upper, upper echelon of all-time great players."
With the rise of LeBron James and the wear and tear of having played 12 seasons under his belt, it's likely that this is Kobe Bryant's last chance to put himself on top.
If he succeeds, he can be in the same conversation as Michael Jordan.
If he doesn't, he can still be Scottie Pippen.