Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James: Has the Torch Been Surrendered?

Samuel Bell JrSenior Analyst IMay 5, 2010

It is always tough to watch a young-gun snatch the stranglehold that one has on an industry and its participants, as their dominance is something both revered and admired by its followers.

Observing a superstar rise into the spotlight with an array of talent and mounds of perseverance, is something that we secretly clamor for.

That's why stars are stars. We pay to see them dominate the competition, and idolize their greatness.

Every star has their day, but what happens when that day comes to a slow demise based on diminished physical ability and the arrival of a successor?

Julius Erving's attack of Larry Bird after the young-gun dominated him is what happens. Shaquille O'Neal's public verbal attack on Dwight Howard and the Superman moniker is what happens.

Ego's get in the way, and the great ones don't concede easily.

Kobe Bryant has long been viewed as the NBA's best overall player after the torch was passed from the greatest ever, Michael Jordan.

Bryant came into the league a brash, talented, and wiry 18-year-old kid who had the moon as the limit of his talent.

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Capturing three NBA titles in a row, Bryant and O'Neal played leading roles in a dynasty that brought them together, but would eventually tear them apart.

There was nothing on a basketball court that Bryant couldn't do, and there was no one man in the league that could guard him.

Bryant was undoubtedly the single most visible player in the NBA for most of the 2000's, and the most supremely talented.

That was until the arrival of a young kid from Akron, Ohio, by the name of LeBron James.

From the moment ESPN televised James' high-school games for St. Vincent-St. Mary's live, the sports world was captivated by the athletic ability James displayed, and couldn't wait for the future.

Unlike Bryant, James made an immediate impact with a 25-point, nine assist, six rebound game against the Sacramento Kings in his first NBA performance.

James won Rookie of the Year honors averaging 20.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 5.5 RPG, while Bryant averaged just 7.6 PPG in limited action.

Although James had a faster ascension into NBA hierarchy, Bryant eventually worked himself into the same conversation with the all-time greats of the league.

Once James settled into the NBA, it was clear that the torch would eventually be passed from Bryant to him as the best player in the world.

Rumblings started about this a few years ago, and they have never been more rampant as James has stole the show with his freakish physical attributes combined with his impeccable talent.

The question is, "Has Bryant officially lost the "best in the world" title?"

After winning his second consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player award, there has never been more steam behind the argument for James.

Let's put their attributes into perspective for the sake of comparison. Both players will be compared based on five important basketball characteristics.

Shooting, passing, defense, clutch performance, and leadership will be the determining factors as to who's the better player, and ultimately determining if Bryant's status as the best is no more.


When James first entered the league, the man couldn't shoot a lick.

Not to quote Mr. Outrageous Skip Bayless, but he was right when he used to call LeBron, "LeBrick."

Everyone knew James could penetrate the lane with the best of them no matter who was guarding him, but his stats suffered due to him not being a feared shooter.

Similarly, Bryant wasn't a great shooter either when he arrived in L.A, and had the same tendency to always drive and miss numerous jump shots.

James has began to shoot the ball far better than earlier in his career, and the stats prove that he has become a more potent scorer since.

Also, his ability to shoot makes defenders have to play him tighter, which allows him to use his best attribute to its fullest, his power and speed to the basket.

Bryant also developed into a formidable shooter, and added a fade-away from the basket jump shot similar to the one Jordan employed, and made a staple late in his career.

James went from shooting 42 percent in his rookie year to 50 percent this season and Bryant went from shooting 42 percent as a rookie to 46 percent this season.

James is far stronger than Bryant and gets more dunks and lay-ups than Kobe, naturally.

Both players shot 33 percent from the three-point line this season, and at this point none hold much of an edge over the other.

Some would argue that Kobe is more consistent and is a better free-throw shooter, but not enough to hold a significant edge here.

Advantage: Even


This debate is easier settled than a man having to choose between a Lamborghini Gallardo and a Saturn Ion.

Okay maybe not that easy, but James came into the league at six-foot-nine as a great passer, and averaged nearly six assists per game as a rookie, seven per game for his career and hasn't had a season below 5.5.

Pretty good for a natural power forward.

Bryant has had the stigma of "ball-hog" follow him since his days at Lower Merion High School, but those accusations aren't completely accurate.

As a rookie, Bryant didn't play much and averaged only 1.3 assists per game, but improved that to five by 2000.

Bryant averaged a career high in 2004-05 in assists with six per game, but fell under five two times after that and has a career average under five.

For a penetrating guard with the talent Kobe has, that's a little low. Jordan had a career average of 5.3, but a high of eight and second high of 6.3 in consecutive seasons.

Bottom line, James is the better passer and has done it with less, until the arrivals of Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison.

Advantage: James


This is just as easily settled as the last comparison, but in the other man's favor.

James came into the NBA not a great defender, but descent enough to not earn the Steve Nash label of, "he may torch you on offense, but be prepared to give up 30 on D."

Wanting to be the best player on the court every night, James quietly worked himself into a very respectable on-ball defender who could guard the other team's best player consistent enough to make some big stops.

Unfortunately, he has yet to develop the patience and intensity on defense needed to shut-down the opponents best player for long stretches of time.

Bryant on the other hand prided himself on the defensive end of the floor nearly as much as the offensive side, and developed into a great on-ball defender.

Not only could Bryant guard your best player, but he could make the game very difficult to him as he did to Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook in the 2010 playoffs.

Making the All-Defensive first team eight times, Bryant has been exceptional defensively for much of his career.

James has developed a tendency to perform what I call, "demoralizing trailing blocks" that he performs when a player believes he has a fast break layup in which James swoops in like a seagull and sends the shot away.

As amazing as those blocks are to witness and Bryant's aging legs, Kobe is the winner here, still.

Advantage: Bryant

Clutch Performance

This is a very tough category because both players have shown an ability to get it done in clutch situations.

Oh, who am I kidding?

At this point, I won't waste time with this debate. James is the better clutch player.

Many of you reading this will scoff at that assertion, but before viciously attacking me like a K-9 dog to an evasive criminal look at it this way.

Mentioned in the previous "defense" category was James' propensity to chase down players and block their shots, often in dramatic fashion.

Despite that, he's not a better overall defender than Bryant. Kobe hits a considerable amount of game-winning shots, especially this past season.

Clutch extends further than that. While there is no easily identifiable stat to define clutch, being able to lift your team to victory in close games under five minutes to play is close enough.

If you believe in John Hollinger's PER (Player Efficiency Rating) system, then Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, Amare Stoudemire, and LeBron James are your top players.

Either way, Bryant is a great clutch player, but his final shots are like the highlight film blocks by LeBron:  They don't tell the whole story.

James is better at involving teammates and also being consistent in the clutch of fourth quarters, but hasn't passed Bryant individually yet.

In other words, with one shot under five seconds to go I want Bryant taking it. If I need to win a close game with under five minutes to go give me James.

Okay, I wasted some time with that debate. Oops.

Advantage: James


One thing has been consistent about Bryant since his inception into the league:  He's a demanding teammate who will not hesitate to check you to your face.

Often described as fiercely competitive and intense, Bryant will's his team to victory getting the most out of them. All great players do that.

Sometimes, though his aggression and verbal nature cause him to draw ire from his teammates, and early in his career he did just that.

For that reason amongst others, that's what broke he and Shaq apart prematurely. Those attributes combined with a sense of narcissism can take away from team unity.

Nonetheless, Bryant has transformed himself into a far more engaging teammate who can have fun with his team, but distinguish that from the task at hand, winning.

James on the other hand has always had the complete respect of his teammates, and often is the most engaging, fun-oriented player on the floor.

Since being a Cavalier, James has had many visibly jovial moments with his team such as dancing and different versions of high-fives and silly on-court antics.

Some outlets have argued that James' demeanor isn't serious enough, and that's why he hasn't won a title yet, similar to the assertions that Dwight Howard faces.

James proved the type of teammate he is when he received the MVP award this season.

He brought the entire team out to accept it with him, and that kind of appreciation is what makes him the ultimate teammate.

James willfully distributes the basketball and openly applauds his teammates when they do well. Bryant is very hard on his teammates and extremely demanding similar to Jordan.

The work-ethic example that Bryant sets and expects from his teammates makes them better, and despite his aggressive nature he has evolved into a fearless leader.

So has James, except he does it in a more comfortable way. 

Advantage: James

The fact is, Bryant is still a superstar and a force to be reckoned with. Nobody can take that away from him.

His curtain is just closed on being the best player in the world. Bryant's place is etched in history, but individually it's time for him to make like the family dog and move over for your daughter's new puppy.

Consider the torch passed, and blazing with fire. 

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