Is Kobe Bryant Actually Better Than Michael Jordan?

Ethan SAnalyst IOctober 21, 2010

Is Kobe Bryant Actually Better Than Michael Jordan?

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    Most people consider Michael Jordan to be the greatest basketball player of all-time. Saying that anyone else is better, especially someone as divisive as Kobe Bryant, is nearly sacrilegious.

    Jordan has come to prominence lately with his promotion of the NBA 2K11 game and his claims that he could score 100 points in a game if he were playing today. He also threw some derision at Kobe, saying that Bryant was one of the top 10 guards of all-time.

    There have been many assessments of Kobe and Michael over the years. Many of the arguments resort to a comparison of stats. However, each player had different career paths and played in different eras.

    The NBA in the 1980s was played at a faster pace, and some years teams averaged 20 percent more possessions than teams over the past decade.

    Jordan played 3 years in college whereas Kobe played sparingly his first couple years out of high school in the NBA (which in part led to the firing of his first NBA head coach Del Harris).

    Taking out the first 3 years from Kobe’s NBA career would give him averages of 28.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 5.2 apg—very similar to Jordan’s career averages of 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 5.3 apg. Further adjusting for the inflated statistics during the high scoring era in the 1980s would bring Jordan’s averages even closer to Kobe’s.

    Furthermore, stats don’t tell the whole story.

    And finally, awards are not always the best way to measure NBA players. There have been issues with the way the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP awards have been handed out. For instance, does any one really think Steve Nash deserved two MVP awards?

    Clearly, the MVP award does not go to the best player in the league, but rather the best player on one of the teams with the best record—with the caveat that the media has to like that player (note to Miami Heat fans: forget about Lebron’s chances this year of being the league’s MVP).

    It may be hard for some to consider both players with an open mind. Kobe Bryant has been one of the most hated players in the NBA, whereas Jordan’s Nike marketing machine helped elevate his image to a deity-like position.

    Double standards have run rampant, despite Jordan having worse antics both on and off the court.

    Everyone has their biases and I surely have mine. But as a fan of both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, I will attempt to compare aspects of each player’s game—which may be the fairest way to analyze the two legends.

Dunking

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    Michael Jordan in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Competition
    Michael Jordan in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Competition

    Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are two of the greatest dunkers of all-time.

    Bryant won the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk Contest and has displayed some of the most creative dunks in NBA history.

    While Jordan won both contests in 1987 and 1988, it is the way he won—especially in 1988 going up against Dominique Wilkins—that helps set Jordan apart. Also, his 48-inch vertical leap compared to Bryant’s 38-inch vertical leap helped Jordan stay in the air longer.

    It was often said that Michael Jordan could fly, especially after his famous dunk after jumping from the free throw line.

    Michael Jordan was a master of moving through the air, turning basketball moves into an art form. It is quite possible that Jordan was the best dunker of all-time.

    Advantage: Jordan

Driving Ability

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    Jordan driving past a young Shaquille O'Neal
    Jordan driving past a young Shaquille O'Neal

    Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have played on teams with different dynamics.

    With the Lakers, Kobe has played with dominant low post presences like Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol, who took up a lot of room in the paint. This in turn has limited Kobe’s opportunities to drive to the basket.

    By contrast, Michael Jordan had more room to drive to the hoop, as his teammates would often “clear out of the way” and let Jordan go to work.

    Both Kobe and Michael were among the best drivers in the game. However, once again Jordan edges Bryant out in this aspect of the game. Jordan’s ability to elevate and hang in the air long enough to alter his shots near the rim gave him an advantage not afforded to Kobe.

    This ability, and the fact that Jordan used the dribble penetration drive as his primary offensive weapon earlier in his career led to six seasons where Michael averaged at least 50% FG or better—a feat Kobe has never been able to accomplish.

    In short, driving ability was one of Michael Jordan’s greatest strengths as a player—and one that was superior to Kobe’s ability.

    Advantage: Jordan

Post-Up Game

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    Kobe Bryant posting up against MJ in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game
    Kobe Bryant posting up against MJ in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game

    One area that has separated Jordan and Bryant from other top guards is their ability to post-up, usually being more effective than most big men in the NBA. 

    Developing this weapon particularly towards the end of their careers, as both players athletic abilities started to subside, helped prolong Jordan’s and Bryant’s offensive dominance.

    Jordan used this weapon a little bit more than Bryant, as his Chicago Bulls teams didn’t have dominant low post scoring threats.

    However, Kobe has mastered the post game, learning moves from the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon that Jordan never had in his offensive arsenal.

    Watching Jordan go to work in the post in his last few Finals runs was a thing of beauty, as was Bryant’s sheer command of the game from the post during the 2009 and 2010 Finals.

    Both players were great at this aspect of the game.

    Advantage: Neither

Mid-Range Game

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    The fade away was an effective weapon for Jordan in his mid-range game
    The fade away was an effective weapon for Jordan in his mid-range game

    Both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant developed an amazing mid-range game.

    While Jordan was not known for his jump shot early in his career, he had developed one of the deadliest mid-range shots by the late 1980s. Then by the mid 1990s, Michael had developed a highly effective fade away jumper that was near impossible to block.

    Kobe came into the league with a better jump shot compared to Jordan. This jumper has been one of Kobe’s primary weapons throughout his career, which has contributed to a lower career field goal percentage as compared to Jordan (since he had less driving opportunities).

    Early in his career, Kobe had mastered the fade away shot. Over the years, he has used this accurate shot to win multiple clutch shots and game winners.

    Simply the two best guards at the mid-range game: how can one pick which player was better?

    Advantage: Neither

Outside Shooting

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    Kobe Bryant hitting a game-winning 3-pointer last season
    Kobe Bryant hitting a game-winning 3-pointer last season

    Outside shooting is the first area in this analysis that Kobe truly shines.

    At 34 percent, Kobe’s three-point shooting does not blow anyone away.

    However, take away the years in the mid 1990s when the 3-point line was moved in a few feet and Jordan only made 29 percent of his three-pointers.

    Bryant has used the outside shot more often than Jordan ever did, and his ability to get hot from outside the arc and hit tough shots is the best the league has ever seen. Not to mention that Kobe set the record in a game with 12 three-pointers made.

    Think about it. If the game is on the line and your team needs a three-pointer to either tie or win the game, is there any player in NBA history who would be better at hitting that pressure-packed shot?

    Last year alone, Kobe hit three game winners from three-point territory, and this does not include other impressive feats, such as the two clutch three-pointers he hit against Portland in 2004.

    Regarding outside shooting, Kobe takes this category by a wide margin.

    Advantage: Bryant

Free Throws

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    Kobe Bryant at the free throw line
    Kobe Bryant at the free throw line

    Free throws are an important part of the game.

    Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have both excelled in this department. Compared head-to-head, Jordan holds the edge in free throw attempts per game (8.2 to 7.6) but Kobe holds the edge in free throw percentage (.838 to .835).

    While both players got their share of calls or non-calls that went against them, Jordan and Bryant were masters at drawing fouls.

    Michael’s higher attempts average may be attributed to his propensity to drive to the basket more during his early playing days. He may also be the one player who had the red carpet laid out to the free throw line the most in NBA history.

    In regards to Kobe, he has benefitted from hand-check rules since the early 2000s that have made it easier for players to draw fouls on defenders.

    When considering free throw abilities, both Kobe and Michael displayed their talents well.

    Advantage: Neither

Rebounding

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    Michael and Kobe battling for a rebound in the 1998 All-Star Game
    Michael and Kobe battling for a rebound in the 1998 All-Star Game

    Besides scoring, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have great all-around games. This has allowed both players to contribute in other areas of the game on nights when their shot hasn’t fallen.

    Rebounding is one area of the game where Jordan and Bryant have shined. While the adjusted rebounding number mentioned earlier gives Jordan the edge (6.2 to 5.8), Michael’s stats are likely inflated a little because of the higher scoring years in the 80s. More team possession meant more shots, which lead to more rebounding opportunities.

    Although Michael Jordan had Dennis Rodman to snatch up rebounds in his last three years with Chicago, Kobe’s teams have been stacked with top big rebounders more throughout his career.

    In Kobe’s early years, Shaquille O’Neal dominated the rebounds inside. Over the past few seasons, Kobe has had to share the rebounding opportunities with Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol.

    Still, Kobe has come up big many games in pulling down rebounds, as evidenced by the 15 he pulled down in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.

    But overall, this area is tough to pick. Both players excelled at this dimension of the game.

    Advantage: Neither

Playmaking

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    Kobe Bryant passing to former teammate Ronny Turiaf
    Kobe Bryant passing to former teammate Ronny Turiaf

    Similar to rebounding, playmaking is another area of the game that has defined Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as shooting guards.

    Jordan’s average barely edges out Bryant’s adjusted numbers (5.3 to 5.2), but as always, numbers do not always tell the whole story. 

    During some years of his career, Michael Jordan played more of a point guard role, such as in the 1988-1989 season when he averaged 8.0 apg. He also played this role in several playoffs, including the 1991 NBA Finals.

    However, for much of Jordan’s career, Scottie Pippen played the role of primary initiator in the triangle offense and often times averaged more assists than Jordan.

    For most of Kobe’s career (and especially in the triangle offense under Phil Jackson), Kobe has been the primary playmaker, usually leading the Lakers in assists every year.

    Due to the offensive system, neither Kobe nor Michael put up tremendous assist numbers in the triangle. But put either of them in a system where they dominated the ball as much as Lebron James and their assist numbers would be just as impressive.

    Once again, playmaking is an area that both players excelled at that is too close to call.

    Advantage: Neither

Help Defense

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    Michael Jordan was one of the top shot-blocking guards of all-time
    Michael Jordan was one of the top shot-blocking guards of all-time

    Help defense is an important part of the game of basketball. When an opposing player beats your teammate, you can help him out by blocking shots, stealing passes, or setting up traps.

    Both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are exemplary help defenders but this is an aspect of the game that Jordan set the bar quite high. For example, Jordan averaged over 1.5 bpg over the course of two consecutive seasons.

    In contrast, Kobe has only had one season where he averaged one block per game.

    Additionally, Jordan averaged over 2.5 steals per game six times over his career, whereas Bryant has never averaged more than 2.2 spg.

    In terms of sheer defensive stats, Jordan was definitely more effective as a help defender and his dominance in this area helped him secure the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year Award.

    Advantage: Jordan

1-On-1 Defense

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    Kobe Bryant is one of the best perimeter 1-on-1 defenders of all-time
    Kobe Bryant is one of the best perimeter 1-on-1 defenders of all-time

    One-on-one defense is an interesting area. It is tough to measure in terms of statistics.

    Consider the case of Bruce Bowen who had career averages of 0.4 bpg and 0.8 spg. He was one of the best ever at shutting down the other team’s best perimeter player. Not surprisingly, in the 2007 Finals he held Lebron James to 22.0 ppg on 36% shooting.

    Both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have been similarly effective as one-on-one defenders.

    But the difference is that Jordan had the help of Scottie Pippen for most of his career. Pippen was usually assigned to guard the best perimeter defenders to save Michael some energy for offense.

    Pippen was also usually assigned to defend bigger perimeter players, as Jordan sometimes struggled containing them. An example was in the 1991 NBA Finals when Scottie Pippen’s defense against Magic Johnson helped propel the Bulls to go on to win the championship against the Lakers.

    Kobe, on the other hand, has guarded the best opposing players for most of his career. While Ron Artest played a Scottie Pippen role last year, this was a luxury Bryant didn’t have over the previous thirteen seasons.

    Kobe has shutdown quick point guards like Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo and has gotten the better of bigger players like Lebron James. In a recent analysis, Kobe out-performed James head-to-head over the past six seasons by forcing him to shoot just 25 percent, while giving up .2 less points on a per-play basis.

    A vastly underrated area of Kobe’s game, the edge in one-on-one defense goes to him.

    Advantage: Bryant

Clutch Ability

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    Kobe hitting a game-winner against the Miami Heat last season
    Kobe hitting a game-winner against the Miami Heat last season

    Let’s be honest. Could you go wrong with having either Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan leading your team’s offense in crucial fourth quarter situations?

    Both have proven themselves to be the best in NBA history.

    Jordan’s share of game winners is legendary, with his game-winning shot at the end of the 1998 Finals cementing his legacy.

    Likewise, Kobe Bryant has had the most game winners over the past decade in the NBA, including six last season alone.

    So who would I pick personally?

    It depends. If I wanted a drive to the hoop, I would go with Jordan. If I wanted a three-pointer at the end, I would pick Bryant. And if I needed a mid-range jumper, I would pick straws to help me decide.

    Advantage: Neither

Leadership

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    Sometimes, analysts and basketball fans think of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as great leaders in sports. After all, they have both been able to lead their respective teams to multiple championships.

    Yet, both have had their share of issues.

    For Jordan, he didn’t get along with teammates very well. He once punched a teammate in practice for not working hard enough. He yelled at teammates for not passing him the ball enough, or passing the ball to Bill Cartwright, whom Jordan said couldn’t shoot.

    Jordan was also known for humiliating Steve Kerr—the same player who bailed the Bulls out multiple times during the team’s second three-peat.

    Kobe Bryant has similarly been criticized for being a ball hog and being distant with players. It didn’t help when early in Kobe’s career, he could not celebrate with teammates after big games because he was underage and could not drink legally.

    Eventually Jordan matured into a great leader, and displayed some of his best traits in this area during the late 1990s. Kobe followed a similar path, becoming a more effective leader once Shaquille O’Neal left Los Angeles.

    The difference is that Kobe matured into a great leader at a younger age than Jordan. Kobe has taken the time to mentor teammates with less experience, and his communication within the game is legendary.

    Kobe’s brilliant leadership was on full display in Spike Lee’s film “Kobe Doin’ Work.”

    Due to Kobe’s better track record with teammates over a longer period, as well as a rise to maturity at a younger age, this part of the game goes to Kobe.

    Advantage: Bryant

Work Ethic

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    Their strong work ethic has made Jordan and Bryant legendary players
    Their strong work ethic has made Jordan and Bryant legendary players

    One of the reasons that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are such great players is that they are among the hardest working athletes in their sport.

    Michael Jordan would practice for hours each day, shooting one jumper after another and working on his footwork maneuvers. Throughout Jordan’s career, few players matched the level of preparedness that he displayed.

    Regarding Kobe Bryant, he takes game preparation to a new level. Although not quite as athletically gifted as Jordan, Kobe’s work ethic has been legendary.

    His conditioning regimen allowed him to bulk up quicker than Jordan did in his career. Bryant is always the first one at practice and the last one to leave. Over the summer months, Kobe is known for getting to the gym at 7 AM on a daily basis to practice different shots.

    While Jordan spent some of the offseason by playing golf and gambling games, Kobe almost entirely dedicates his time to basketball.

    And this has paid off in his ability to hit some of the most difficult shots such as left-handed three pointers and behind the backboard jumpers.

    Although both players have set the standard during their respective eras, one would be hard pressed to find a player in NBA history that has worked harder at his game than Kobe Bryant.

    Advantage: Bryant

Ability to Play Through Injuries

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    Kobe Bryant has suffered serious injuries in recent years
    Kobe Bryant has suffered serious injuries in recent years

    Both Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have had their share of injuries.

    Three games into the 1985-1986 season, Jordan broke a bone in his left foot and was sidelined for 64 games. Throughout his career, Michael had minor injuries to his ankles, knees, fingers, and back.

    To his credit, Jordan played through all the injuries in dominating fashion.

    However, after the 1986 season, Jordan never had to suffer the same type of injuries that Kobe has.

    This past summer marked the third time Kobe has had knee surgery. Through the playoff runs of the past three years, Kobe has had to deal with ankle injuries and finger injuries on top of his bum knee. 

    With his pinky and index finger injured much of the past couple of years, Kobe has had to learn how to shoot the ball effectively with a heavily bandaged finger. Despite having to endure this, Bryant has won two Finals MVP awards with these injuries.

    Whereas most players with these injuries end up sitting out whole seasons, Kobe has found a way to still succeed.

    Kobe Bryant has played some of the best basketball of his career in spite of these injuries, and it is scary to think how much better he would have been had Kobe been perfectly healthy.

    Michael Jordan had to play through his famous “flu game” in the 1997 Finals, but Kobe has played big games while being sick and injured. In all of his greatness, Michael has never made it through a Finals run with similar injuries.

    This is one area where Kobe’s skills are highly underrated, as he played well enough that many people forget how hurt he was when he was dominating other teams. This is an accomplishment that has never previously been done in the NBA for so long.

    Advantage: Bryant

Conclusion

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    Can Kobe Bryant ever surpass Michael Jordan's legend?
    Can Kobe Bryant ever surpass Michael Jordan's legend?

    In this analysis, Jordan held the advantage in three categories, whereas Bryant held the edge in five. They ranked even against each other in an additional six areas of the game.

    So does that make Kobe the better player?

    Not necessarily.

    But the pedestal that Jordan stands on is not quite as high as some people would like to believe.

    It’s amazing what good marketing could do, as Nike, Gatorade, and the NBA marketing machines built Jordan up to unimaginable heights. It was good for business and a lot of people made a lot of money.

    Putting aside awards (which can be subjective) and stats (which can be misleading when comparing different career paths and eras), Kobe Bryant is without a doubt the closest thing to Michael Jordan basketball fans have ever witnessed.

    At this point, I still put Jordan on top with Bryant closely behind. The gap between Kobe and Michael is not nearly as big as many would want you to believe.

    And without any personal bias, one can see that a player may surpass Jordan someday. 

    Kobe Bryant may be that player.

    With an analysis like this showing the two players similar to each other, it comes down to winning. If Kobe Bryant can win another three or four titles, it may be hard to deny Kobe the title of “greatest of all-time.”

    If not Kobe, some day a player will come along (if he isn’t in the NBA already) that will outdo Jordan’s legend.

    But until that happens, Michael Jordan will still rule at the top in NBA history.