MJ or Kobe? Take a closer look
Ever since Michael Jordan donned his No. 23 jersey for Chicago back in 1984 and took the league by storm, there has been a push to anoint the “next Jordan”.
Many players have been given the title at some point, from Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner to Grant Hill to Vince Carter to LeBron James. However, there is only one player who has rightfully earned his way into the conversation — Kobe Bryant.
But since Jordan was widely considered to be the greatest player of all time when he retired in 1998 (and still held the title after his short-lived stint in Washington ended in 2003), the question begging for an answer is this: Has Kobe Bryant passed Jordan to become the greatest player in NBA history?
Let’s start with the stats.
Jordan played 15 seasons in the NBA while Bryant has played 14, so no player has a significant advantage there to skew the numbers in their favor.
Offensively, Jordan scored 32,292 points in a career that spanned 1,072 games, averaging 30.1 points per game and placing him in a tie with Wilt Chamberlain for highest career per-game point total. Jordan’s best season offensively came in 1986-87 when he averaged 37.1 points over 82 games. He also dropped a career-high 69 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1989-90 season. By comparison, Bryant has scored 25,790 points in his 1,021 career games, averaging 25.3 points per game and placing him 11th for highest career per-game point total. Bryant’s best offensive season came in 2005-06 when he averaged 35.4 points in 80 games, a season that saw him score a stunning 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.
Regarding shooting accuracy, Jordan shot 49.7 percent from the field for his career, 32.7 percent from 3-point range, and 83.5 percent from the free throw line. His career-best marks were 53.9 FG% in 1990-91, 42.7 3PT% in 1995-96 (shot 50% in 1994-95 but only took 32 attempts), and 85.7 FT% in 1986-87. Bryant, meanwhile, owns career numbers of 45.5 percent shooting from the field, 34 percent from 3-point range, and 83.8 percent from the free throw line. His career-best marks are 46.9 FG% in 2001-02, 38.3 3PT% in 2002-03, and 86.8 FT% in 2006-07.
Jordan also averaged 6.2 rebounds per game to Bryant’s 5.3, 5.3 assists per game to Bryant’s 4.7, 2.3 steals per game to Bryant’s 1.5, and 0.8 blocks per game to Bryant’s 0.6. As well, Jordan committed fewer turnovers per game (2.7) than Bryant (2.9) and averaged more minutes per game (38.3) than Bryant (36.6).
And if you are a metric stats fan, Jordan’s career True Shooting Percentage is 56.9 to Bryant’s 55.7, his Player Efficiency Rating is 27.9 to Bryant’s 23.5, and his Win Shares are 214 to Bryant’s 145.9.
Then consider the playoffs, where Jordan really made a name for himself. Through 179 playoff games, Jordan averaged 33.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks in 41.8 minutes while shooting 48.7 percent from the field, 33.2 percent from the 3-point line, and 82.8 percent from the charity stripe.
And Jordan’s 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs still ranks as the greatest scoring effort in NBA playoff history.
Bryant has career playoff averages through 198 games of 25.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 39.4 minutes while shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 33.7 percent from the 3-point arc, and 81.5 percent on free throws.
And you cannot forget the accolades. Jordan was a 6-time NBA champion, 14-time All Star, 5-time MVP, 6-time NBA Finals MVP, 3-time All-Star Game MVP, 10-time All-NBA 1st Team performer (1-time All-NBA 2nd Team), 9-time All-Defensive 1st Team performer, was named Rookie of the Year and to the All-Rookie 1st Team in 1985, and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. He also led the NBA in scoring 10 times and in steals three times. He even won the Slam Dunk Contest twice and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2009. Bryant is a 5-time NBA champion, 12-time All Star, 1-time MVP, 2-time NBA Finals MVP, 3-time All-Star Game MVP, 8-time All-NBA 1st Teamer, 2-time All-NBA 2nd Teamer, 2-time All-NBA 3rd Teamer, 8-time All-Defensive 1st Team performer, 2-time All-Defensive 2nd Team performer, and was named to the All-Rookie 2nd Team in 1997. He has led the NBA in scoring twice and won the Slam Dunk Contest in 1997.
Then there is team success, with Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team going a remarkable 72-10 that year and following it up with a 69-13 record in 1996-97. Bryant’s best team was the 1999-00 Lakers team that went 67-15.
And the talent Jordan had to work with was unquestionably lesser than Bryant. The 72-win Bulls squad did feature Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman with solid players like Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, and Steve Kerr in support roles. But they only add up to six players, leaving holes to be filled by the likes of Luc Longley, Jud Buechler, Dickey Simpkins, and Bill Wennington — all of whom played at least 10 minutes per game that season. Bryant’s 1999-00 squad featured he and Shaquille O’Neal as the stars with quality role players like Glen Rice, Ron Harper, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, A.C. Green, and Brian Shaw for support.
And lest we forget that it was the Shaq Diesel — not Kobe — doing the heavy lifting in LA from 2000-2003. MJ had a future Hall of Famer and one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players by his side for his six titles, but there was no mistaking whose team it was — Jordan’s. Three of Bryant’s five titles were earned because of Shaq’s utter dominance during that era, allowing Bryant to be a super-talented second option as defenses worked to stop O’Neal. When the Lakers finally became Bryant’s team, he struggled until the likes of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest were assembled around him.
Jordan never had the luxury of playing second banana to another player on his team. He was the team. He had the Jordan Rules and the Bad Boys and the Knicks. Defenses were allowed to hand check and grab and redirect and basically do anything short of a good old-fashioned mugging, and all of this was focused squarely on No. 23.
Nowadays, players beg for a foul if they get bumped driving the lane because the rules are designed to favor the offensive player. Not so in Jordan’s day. Back then, players had to be stronger to absorb contact and still be able to get off a quality shot.
Maybe Jordan’s defense would have suffered a bit due to the new rules, but it is difficult to believe that it would fall too far considering his steely determination and competitiveness. And the boost he would have received offensively as a tradeoff would very well have placed him in the conversation with Wilt Chamberlain for greatest offensive player ever. He may even have challenged Chamberlain’s hallowed 100-point game.
Quite simply, Bryant is not better than Jordan; he is not even as good as Jordan, and it comes down to one word — resolve. Jordan’s resolve to win led him to give maximum effort on both ends of the court, something Bryant does not always do.
There is no doubt that Bryant has extraordinary talent and has even done some things better than Jordan, but until Bryant learns how to give a full effort every game and understands that consistently dominating an opponent defensively is just as important as offensively, he will never achieve the rarified air that Jordan has.
Bryant has taken steps in that direction — becoming a better teammate, playing through injury, and pouting less on the court — but the immaturity he displayed throughout much of his career may simply be too much to overcome when his final chapter is written.
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