Comparing Kobe Bryant's Swan Song to Michael Jordan's Final Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 17, 2015

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant reacts after being fouled while attempting a three-pointer against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 113-95. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Kobe Bryant has always wanted to be like Michael Jordan. 

We've seen countless YouTube videos showcasing similar plays from the two legendary shooting guards, and the narrative has only been aided by the current great sticking his tongue out while he drives to the basket, shrugging after he buries a three-pointer and constantly working to add distinctly Jordan-esque moves to his immense arsenal.

No player was ever truly going to match the presumptive GOAT, but Bryant did his darnedest and, at times, came close. 

But as Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher explained, he began to differentiate himself by announcing his retirement and indicating he was at peace with the decision to walk away from the game. The move stands in stark contrast to the indecisiveness Jordan showed while pursuing his dreams of a baseball career and again when joining the Washington Wizards.

Still, even while attempting to create some separation between himself and his predecessor, Bryant couldn't escape Jordan's shadow, and it was his own doing. 

First, we had the farewell address in poetic form, which ended up being awfully reminiscent of the message Jordan penned in 2003:

Larry Brown @LBSports

Kobe Bryant's retirement poem is just like Michael Jordan's retirement love letter from '03 https://t.co/e7jrZ4aWkr https://t.co/p7cVC0ndP6

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Then, we had Bryant himself invoke the name of the man he modeled his entire career after. 

"[Jordan] is actually one of the first people that I told over the summer," he told ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "We've been in frequent contact."

The comparison is only natural. It's unavoidable, just as it's been for so many years. 

Different Situations

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 16:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Washington Wizards on the court during the final NBA game of his career, played against the Philadelphia 76ers at First Union Center on March 30, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The Sixers won 107-8
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Right now, it's actually beneficial to the Los Angeles Lakers that Bryant is mired in a season-long slump, one from which he may never recover.

The franchise doesn't have any current dreams of realistically advancing to the postseason in the near future, and bottoming out is the best way to expedite the ongoing rebuild. Should the Lakers finish with one of the top three picks in the 2016 NBA draft, they'll actually get to keep their selection instead of handing it to the Philadelphia 76ers.

In a way, Bryant is actually helping his organization immensely, to the point that he should probably just come out at the end of the year and claim he was intentionally helping the Purple and Gold tank. After two decades of media exposure, he knows he could take the brunt of the public's criticism while deflecting the harsh words away from his young and impressionable teammates. 

But the Lakers are not the Wizards. 

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 16:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Washington Wizards on the court during the final NBA game of his career, played against the Philadelphia 76ers at First Union Center on March 30, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The Sixers won 107-8
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Washington didn't have the same history of excellence to fall back upon when it had won just 66 games in the three-year stretch prior to Jordan suiting up. It needed a spark, and having the six-time champion move from a front office role to a spot on the court would surely do the trick. As Les Carpenter wrote for Yahoo Sports in 2013, Jordan simply had to play: 

Yet running the team wasn't enough. Jordan needed to play again. Thus came the awkward arrangement of being the star player on a team whose roster he had chosen and playing for his hand-picked coach, Doug Collins. Of course it didn't work. The Wizards went 37-45 in each of the two seasons he played in Washington. A few weeks after the second season ended, Pollin fired Jordan as president. Jordan stormed out of the MCI Center, his Washington time done.

There was no tanking here. The team was never going to bottom out, because the unretired player was so invested in the success of the organization. He'd chosen his teammates and personally picked his coach, so he had to feel some pressure to win. 

Plus, there were legitimate expectations, which stands in stark contrast to a version of Bryant who finished at No. 93 in this year's ESPN NBA Rank. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver actually went even further, and he's proven more accurate:

Nate Silver @NateSilver538

We project @kobebryant to be the 236th-best player in the NBA this season. http://t.co/DTpSCuvlXC http://t.co/gPh8s6gKg3

"I think he [Jordan] will return to being one of the top players in our league. His comeback certainly puts the Wizards in a position to make the playoffs this year," Jeff Van Gundy, then head coach of the New York Knicks, said to the Associated Press, via ESPN.com's archives

CLEVELAND - JANUARY 31:  Guard Michael Jordan #23 of the Washington Wizards and guard Richard Hamilton #32 celebrate after Jordan hit the game-winning shot at the end of the NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Gund Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Janu
David Kyle/Getty Images

Was he one of the league's top players? Not exactly, though he did push the Wizards back toward the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. 

Jordan put up big numbers in Washington, but he failed to generate the respect he'd previously enjoyed with the Chicago Bulls. And that may be the biggest difference between the former situation and Bryant's current farewell tour. 

"Nobody on this team considers himself a Jordanaire," Richard Hamilton once told Carpenter, responding to a nickname bestowed upon the Washington squad during a television broadcast. 

Whereas Bryant's decline has been taking place for years, helped along by the many significant injuries he's suffered during the twilight of his career, the contrast between Jordan's prime and his years with the Wizards was as stark as it was sudden. There wasn't time to take in the declining nature of the future Hall of Famer, as there's been for Bryant. 

Disenchantment was only natural. 

Vastly Different Stats

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 12:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waits on the court during the game against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center on December 12, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Perception isn't the only difference between the two shooting guards. Their on-court production was vastly dissimilar as well. 

Even on the surface, the per-game stats begin to showcase how much better Jordan was throughout his own swan song. During the 2002-03 campaign in Washington, he averaged 20.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 44.5 percent from the field, 29.1 percent from beyond the arc and 82.1 percent at the free-throw line.

This year, Bryant is putting up just 16.5 points, 4.1 boards, 3.5 dimes, 1.1 steals and 0.1 blocks during his typical outing, doing so while posting a field-goal percentage of 33, a three-point percentage of 24.4 and a free-throw percentage of 82.4. Yes, that means the marginal gap at the charity stripe is the only basic stat in which Bryant has proved himself Jordan's superior.

But as we start to dive into the pair's efficiency levels, the margin is only going to grow wider. 

Adam Fromal/Bleacher Report

Both Jordan and Bryant declined late in their careers, but this current season stands out rather significantly for the latter. Not only is he averaging fewer points per game than he posted throughout his prime, but his true shooting percentage—which incorporates shots from the field, beyond the arc and the free-throw line—is at an all-time low. 

Jordan's mark of 49.1 wasn't particularly strong, checking in on the wrong side of the NBA-wide mark of 51.9 percent. Still, it's in another galaxy when compared to Bryant's 43.5, which pales in comparison to this year's league-average true shooting percentage of 53.4.

Adjusting the Shooting Efficiencies
Kobe BryantMichael Jordan
Era-adjusted FG%74.2106.0
Era-adjusted eFG%77.394.9
Era-adjusted TS%81.594.6
Era adjustment done so that the league average is 100, a score of 110 is 10 percent better than average and a score of 90 is 10 percent worse than average.

Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, the Laker is on pace to become the first player with a true shooting percentage less than 44 to average even 11 points per contest. 

Player efficiency rating tells a similar story: 

Even including the short seasons—the first coming when he broke his foot in 1985-86 and the second when he was returning from his first retirement midway through the 1994-95 season—Jordan never posted a PER below 20 until his final season. The two lowest marks of his career came during his brief Washington tenure, but they still surpassed Bryant's last few go-rounds.

This year, Bryant's PER is all the way down to 12.2, putting him well below the league-average mark of 15. And unfortunately for him, this isn't a fluke. Other advanced metrics show the same trend.  

Take total points added, which looks at how many points a player adds to an average team on both ends of the court, as compared to the expected production of a league-average player (explained in full throughout this article):

Therein lies the biggest difference between the two. 

Sure, the Wizards were on the fringe of playoff contention before Jordan retired for good, ultimately finishing just five games back of the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic. Meanwhile, the current Lakers are far closer to the bottom of the Association than the postseason. It's similarly undeniable that Jordan's basic per-game stats and efficiency levels leave Bryant's corresponding marks in the dust. 

But if we really want to sum it up, Jordan remained a positive asset during his final days.

Bryant, on the other hand, has been decisively negative, and prorated to a full season, his minus-173.71 total points added put him on pace to finish ahead of only Derrick Rose (minus-192.17), Jahlil Okafor (minus-264.8), Ty Lawson (minus-274.92) and Emmanuel Mudiay (minus-275.65) throughout the entire NBA. 

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 12:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to a play during the game against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center on December 12, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The point isn't to discredit Bryant. He has all the excuses in the world, given his lackluster supporting cast full of young pieces and one-way contributors, the injuries that have piled up over the years and his own advancing age. 

Still, this future Hall of Famer has built his career around attempting to measure up to the standard set by Jordan. And though he ultimately came up short, he did put together a convincing impression for a long portion of his career. 

That just hasn't remained true in 2015-16. 

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com or my own databases and are current heading into Dec. 17's games.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.


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