The idea that Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan is one that gets tossed around from time to time. Honestly, the Kobe vs LeBron vs Jordan “debate” is still not even close to a debate. Even with his success in being on loaded, ready to win Championship rosters considered, Kobe’s on-the-court accomplishments have been far exceeded by Michael Jordan (obviously), and even LeBron James.
Our resident hoops expert wasn’t totally behind the creation of this article, though this article is his fault. Joe Slowik likes to read the comments on a variety of NBA message boards and articles and noticed a large number of people vehemently touting Kobe Bryant’s place as the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) with, to put it lightly, questionable talking points. He pointed this out to the Flapship editor, Steven H. Eric, and suggested an article, hoping to pass the buck entirely to someone who enjoys a good flamewar. Instead, we quickly collaborated on the article that follows.
We don’t really have anything against Kobe Bryant. He’s a great player and could easily take claim as the second best shooting guard of all-time. Really, the only debatable alternative is Jerry West, and that depends on whether you count him as a point guard or shooting guard. He has had impressive longevity, and it looks like he has a good shot at adding another ring or two to his collection.
However, we have to keep Kobe’s accomplishments in perspective, and perspective has been completely lost amid five Championships with the LA Lakers. There are other players than Kobe Bryant with superior individual accomplishments and stellar team success despite starting out in far more challenging basketball conditions.
Yes, We have to lead off with efficiency. When your main strength is scoring points, you should be able to do it well. Otherwise you’re just a chucker that should stop shooting so much.
Let’s create this article in the context of Kobe vs LeBron vs Jordan since those guys are usually at the heart of any “debates”. The only other wing player in this tier is Larry Bird, who had a very dissimilar game to these three. All of these guys can score at an effective clip, but one of them is not in the same territory as the others. Let’s take a look at true shooting percentage, which is basically a measure of a player’s shooting efficiency that is adjusted to include 3-pointers and free throws.
Kobe vs LeBron vs Jordan – Career True Shooting %
Jordan – .569
LeBron – .569
Kobe – .554
Now here’s the peak total for each player, since being elite is more about dominance than longevity and consistency.
Jordan had 6 seasons where he surpassed Kobe’s career high in TS% and another where he finished at .579. LeBron has surpassed Kobe’s career high in each of the last four seasons, and it certainly doesn’t look like he’s going to slow down any time soon. Obviously the volume of shots made is important when looking at TS%. Someone that scores 25 points per game at a .55% is more valuable than someone who scores 10 points per game at a .60%.
However, that’s not a consideration in this equation since both Jordan and LeBron actually have a higher scoring average than Kobe and did it more efficiently.
The Myth of Clutchness
One of the big talking points for a lot of Kobe supporters is how well he performs in the clutch. They point to the number of big shots he’s hit and use that to conclude that no one else should have the ball in his hands more than Kobe when it matters.
However, when you actually look at what he does down the stretch, the numbers simply don’t support this. There are a multitude of articles out there highlighting Kobe’s conversion rates down the stretch. I’ll post two of the easiest ones to find in a simple Google search.
Here’s a quick summary for those who don’t feel like reading.
The basic premise is that Kobe’s clutch reputation is based more on perception than actual success rates. He is a very high-volume shooter down the stretch, but his field goal percentages are incredibly pedestrian. People remember the times he makes them and point to those times as proof, but the far greater number of times he misses are largely forgotten.
The second article also points this out by comparing him to LeBron, a player who has always been notoriously “un-clutch” in the minds of many. His field goal percentages are higher across the board than Kobe’s in these situations, but everyone focuses on his failures instead. There’s no explaining why that happens, maybe it’s selection bias because LeBron hadn’t won anything before this year while Kobe had. We’ll cover teammates soon.
Some will also point to Kobe’s “willingness” (or, more comically, “stubbornness”) to take the big shot as something in his favor, like other players are afraid to jack up long, challenged shots with the game on the line. Abbott points out how this approach has actually hurt the Lakers’ production in the clutch, and how his own coach (Phil Jackson) said he “needs to look for his teammates more down the stretch”. Here’s one more link for good measure about the flawed thinking of “hero ball”.
The bottom line is Kobe’s “clutchness” is based more on what some believe about him than what he actually does on the court.
Kobe vs LeBron vs Jordan – Teammates
This section will be brief, but is important and irrefutable. Have LeBron or Jordan ever been on a team where someone else on the roster was a more valuable player? The answer is “no”, and an easier answer is “LOL!”
Meanwhile, Kobe’s first three Championships came during prime Shaquille O’Neal seasons. From 1999-2002, there was NO MORE DOMINANT PLAYER in the NBA than Shaq. “Diesel/Big Diesel/Shaq Fu/Superman/The Big Agave/The Big Shamrock/The Big Cactus/etc” led the league in field goal percentage in all three seasons, and his career TS% (.586) is better than any season Kobe Bryant has ever put together. Sure, he had high-percentage shots, but Shaq was such a monster on the glass (over 12 rpg over those three seasons) and in the paint (almost 2.5 bpg in the same stretch) that he was the clear team MVP. So much so, he won the 1999-2000 NBA MVP Award while simultaneously raising his and Kobe’s first NBA Championship Trophy. Shaq won the 2000 NBA Finals MVP, the 2001 NBA Finals MVP, and the 2002 NBA Finals MVP.
Without Shaq on that roster, we’re likely talking about Kobe being a 2-3 time champ, not a 5 time champ.
Here’s another perspective to look at: what did these guys do when they didn’t have other superstars on the roster?
All of them went through this stretch at one point or another. Michael and LeBron had to deal with it early in their career, while Kobe didn’t get much help after Shaq left for Miami.
LeBron’s years in Cleveland should be fairly fresh in our memories. Kobe went through a 3-year stretch where Lamar Odom was their second best player and guys like Smush Parker and Chris Mihm were starting games (though Caron Butler was also there for a year). As for MJ, Scottie Pippen didn’t really become Scottie Pippen until some time in 1989-1990. Between his injury-shortened second year and that 89-90 season, Michael never had a teammate that averaged 15 points per game.
All of those teams sucked, arguing which one was the best is like arguing if you’d rather get punched in the face or the balls. What these players did during that stretch is very different.
LeBron had the most success during this stretch, making the NBA Finals with a core of Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. His Cavs also won 60 games twice with Mo Williams as their second leading scorer.
The Bulls won 50, 47 and 55 games before finally breaking through for a title. They won 5 playoff series in that three year stretch before losing to a really good Detroit team each season. They also went 26-12 to start the 97-98 season while Pippen was out, which is a 56-win pace.
The Lakers didn’t do so well in the stretch between All-Star big men. The first year post-Shaq, LA won 34 games and missed the playoffs (admittedly, Kobe missed almost 20 games). The next two years, they won 45 and 42, losing in the first round each time. The next year they got Gasol, ending our sample size.
What would have happened if Kobe had ended up on a weaker team? What if he had never been traded from Charlotte? We’ll never really know but the sample size we have doesn’t look promising. He doesn’t single-handedly make a team a true contender.
Kobe was the second-best player for three championships, and was on loaded rosters for the next two. Now he gets to run around with Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and even Dwight Howard to chase the elusive sixth championship to finally match Jordan, which he truly craves. Imagine if Jordan hadn’t
been suspended taken a year off because of gambling to get his head straight, and also hadn’t retired again following his 6th title with the Chicago Bulls at the age of 34 (Kobe’s age next season).
We aren’t ripping the Lakers for having loaded rosters, and remember we already wrote in the opening that Kobe Bryant is the second best shooting guard of all-time. However, if LeBron’s statistically a better player than Kobe (and now has a championship), and Jordan is statistically a better player than Kobe, has more championships, and was always clearly the best player on his team (and is highly-regarded as the GOAT), how can Kobe Bryant be the Greatest of All-Time?
Simply put? He can’t. And I dare you to tell us differently in the comments section.