Bryant vs. Jordan: Ending the debate, finally
Bryant vs. Jordan: Ending the debate
Don't worry, Lakers fans: That loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday was a mere speed bump in the latest championship chase for Kobe Bryant & Co. The Lakers will dispatch the Nuggets, at which point Bryant will be one step closer to his sixth NBA title ring.
These Lakers are far from favorites, but they're legit contenders, and their window will remain open as long as Bryant can remain upright with all his appendages relatively intact.
If/when Bryant wins that sixth ring, his total will equal that of Michael Jordan, the player to whom Bryant is most often compared – at which point pundits from here to Bristol, Conn., will debate whether Bryant is greater than Jordan.
Let's end the debate right here and now: Kobe Bryant wasn't, isn't and never will be better than Michael Jordan.
Bryant might be Jordan-esque (see flawless footwork on fadeaway jumpers). He might do things that are Like Mike (see barrage of 3-pointers in Game 5 against Denver). But only one player can be the best of all time, and that's Jordan.
I bring this up now because if it's spring and you're in Southern California, you're bound to hear someone, somewhere (cough ... Vic the Brick ... cough) contend that Bryant is the greatest, even though it's untrue. I also bring it up because I'm uniquely qualified to compare and contrast the two shooting stars.
I spent my formative years in Chicago, watching and admiring Jordan as he revolutionized basketball, sneaker sales and our conception of the modern-day superstar athlete. I've spent the past 12 years in the Los Angeles area, watching and admiring Bryant as he mirrored Jordan's accomplishments – setting scoring records, winning championships and playing through every imaginable ailment.
Whenever I'm asked the question – Do you think Kobe's better than Michael? – I always come back to this fact: Bryant never has won a championship without a big-time big man; Jordan won six without ever having one.
Bryant won his first three championships playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal, one of the five greatest centers in NBA history. After the Lakers parted ways with O'Neal, Bryant didn't win again until they acquired Pau Gasol, a Hall of Fame-caliber player with current career averages of 18.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
Here's the motley crew of centers Jordan played with on the Bulls' six title teams: Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, Stacey King, Scott Williams, James Edwards, Jack Haley, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and Joe Kleine.
At this point, Lakers fans inevitably counter with the Scottie Pippen/Dennis Rodman argument. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Jordan played with Pippen on all six championship teams, Rodman the final three. Doesn't that offset Jordan's lack-of-big-man handicap?
No, it doesn't. Even in this era of wow-factor wings and prolific point guards, having a real scoring threat in the post changes everything. Post players demand double teams. When did Pippen, as productive and unique as he was, ever draw double-team attention when Jordan was on the floor? When did Rodman (7.3 career ppg) ever draw double-team attention, period?
If that reasoning doesn't do it for you, let's look at some statistics.
Here are Jordan's career regular-season numbers: 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, 49.7 FG percentage, 83.5 FT percentage, 32.7 3-point percentage. Here are Bryant's: 25.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, 45.3 FG percentage, 83.8 FT percentage, 33.7 3-point percentage. Most of the numbers for both players are about the same in the playoffs – you can look them all up on the wonderful website basketball-reference.com – except Jordan averaged 3.3 more points per game in the postseason.
The biggest differences in their stats are field-goal percentage and points per game, one obviously influencing the other. Despite having O'Neal, Gasol and Andrew Bynum as teammates, Bryant never has shot better than 46.9 percent in a season. Jordan shot worse than that only five times, including two seasons when he came out of retirement to play.
I'm bound to be labeled a "Kobe hater" for writing this piece, but don't misconstrue it. I absolutely respect Bryant's game – his competitive zeal, his will to win, his unmatched ability to play at peak levels despite injuries. (He's got you there, MJ.)
This isn't about hating Bryant. It's about remembering Jordan's greatness and placing basketball's icons in the proper pecking order.
It's natural to forget what now qualifies as the distant past, Jordan's last title coming 14 years ago. It's natural to think of Jordan as then and Bryant as now.
Don't worry, Bulls fans: At least one person in Lakerland knows who's No. 1.
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