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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant is not as Good as Michael Jordan--So What?

Kobe Bryant scored 26 points during the Lakers' 100-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday December 14 to move past Michael Jordan into third place on pro basketball's career scoring list. One might think that this accomplishment would be an occasion to reflect upon Bryant's consistency and longevity but while some observers have taken that approach many commentators go to great lengths--either via anecdotes or via statistics--to "prove" that Jordan is not just better than Bryant but that Jordan is much better. The very fact that the comparison is often made--even if it is just done to belittle Bryant--says a lot. No one is comparing scrub players to Michael Jordan. For that matter, no one is comparing LeBron James or Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Garnett to Jordan. Bryant has won five championships and he has been a dominant two-way player since the early 2000s. There is no one else since Jordan retired who can be compared with Jordan. Yes, everyone in the post-Jordan era falls short in that matchup, but at least a case can be made for Bryant in terms of Bryant being a fundamentally sound, freakishly competitive multiple championship winner with a high pain tolerance and a low tolerance for teammates who lack willpower and desire.

The way that some people compare Jordan and Bryant is interesting. The best case for Jordan versus Bryant would focus on Jordan's efficiency and Jordan's performances during his 6-0 run in NBA Finals (Bryant has one more Finals appearance than Jordan but also two more Finals losses). Of course, field goal percentages in general were higher during Jordan's era, the rules and style of play were much different and Jordan's overall numbers benefited from him playing college ball before immediately becoming an NBA starter while Bryant jumped straight to the NBA from high school and thus needed some on the job training as a bench player.

The similarities between the players--in skill set, physique and demeanor--are striking and not just superficial. If Jordan had publicly called his teammates soft and then the next night his undermanned squad defeated the reigning NBA champions, the media would have exploded with paeans to Jordan's competitive greatness and how Jordan brings out the best in his teammates--but when Bryant does this he is mocked, media members predict that Bryant is going to shoot 50 times against the Spurs and then when the Lakers win the whole story disappears.

While some media members and fans may not understand or appreciate the rough edges of Bryant's personality, Kevin Durant, the 2014 NBA MVP, respects Bryant's approach and refutes the idea that good players do not want to play with Bryant:

Excuse my language, but that's (expletive). I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day...(His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff. I think (the accusation) is BS.

Durant admires the way that Bryant pushes his teammates to be better, a trait that Durant observed firsthand as Bryant's teammate while winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics:

Just his work ethic, just his demeanor man. He doesn't mind being an (expletive), and he comes to work man. He's intense. He demands a lot out of his teammates, and I've seen that just playing alongside him in the Olympics (in 2012). He demands a lot out of everybody. He makes them better. Everybody out on the court. You've got to respect that. As a player, I study guys like that. We might not have the same personality, but I think we approach the game the same way and I've learned a lot from just watching him.

Once one moves past comparing Bryant to Jordan and once one understands that any player with the right mindset would welcome the challenge and opportunity of playing with Bryant, one can focus on just how remarkable Bryant's current season is. Forget for a moment his career-low field goal percentage and consider the fact that Bryant is a highly productive player in his 19th NBA season. Only three players in NBA history have even made it past their 19th season: Robert Parish (21 seasons), Kevin Willis (21 seasons) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20 seasons). All three of those players are big men who could camp out in the post and did not have the responsibility of handling the ball full-court. Parish did not average more than 5 ppg after his 18th season. Willis was not a full-time starter or double figure scorer after his 14th season. Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most dominant centers in pro basketball history, did not average more than 25 ppg or more than 9 rpg after his 13th season; he made the All-Star team in his 19th, 20th and 21st seasons but he did not average more than 18 ppg or 7 rpg in any of those campaigns.

In contrast, during the 2014-15 season Bryant is logging heavy minutes (35.4 mpg), his floor game is still excellent (5.1 rpg, 4.9 apg and 1.4 spg, numbers that are comparable to his career averages of 5.3 rpg, 4.8 apg and 1.4 spg) and he is scoring 24.6 ppg. Bryant's field goal percentage (.372) is not good but he is remarkably productive and durable for a 19 year veteran who is coming off of two serious leg injuries. Bryant is in excellent shape and if his body holds up his field goal percentage will probably improve during the course of this season as he regains his game legs after being out of action for such an extended period.

No, Kobe Bryant is not quite as good as Michael Jordan and, no, Kobe Bryant is no longer as efficient or dominant as he was during his prime--or even during his last healthy full season, when he was a legitimate MVP-caliber player averaging 25.5 ppg on .463 field goal shooting (including a career-high .510 from two point range) as a 17 year NBA veteran--but Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan that we have seen or are likely to see anytime soon. Bryant's former dominance and his remarkable, ongoing longevity should be celebrated.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:02 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Friday, December 26, 2014 7:54:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

well said! Plenty of media ppl just being ridiculous

 
At Monday, December 29, 2014 2:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Kobe needs some time in offseason to get his strength back up, and then he will be putting up some good numbers IF the team is filled with players that can consistently space the floor. Right now they double team him on and off the ball consistently, and I think a lot of people overlook that aspect, even his assists are not coming in easily because his teammates regularly brick wide open shots which leads to bryant playing hero ball.

Also David, what do you think about Jordan's era's rules? people always give Kobe a lot of crap for playing with offense favoring rules, yet Jordan played with rules that limited help team defense--illegal defense.

I know there are videos showing teams playing zones and doubling jordan, but I feel like that was very rare and for the large part of his career he had the advantage of being on a pure island.

Great read though.

 
At Tuesday, December 30, 2014 4:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It is difficult to compare eras because so many variables are different. Zone defenses are allowed now that were not allowed during Jordan's era but during Jordan's era much more physical contact was permitted by defenders and the flagrant foul rules were not so stringent. Also, even though straight up zones were not permitted during Jordan's era, it was permitted to trap the player with the ball and Jordan certainly saw plenty of double coverage; that was the whole point of the famous so-called "Jordan Rules."

 
At Tuesday, December 30, 2014 6:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'm a sucker for player-ranking debates, so I enjoy the Jordan vs. Kobe coverage to an extent, but there's obviously no shame in not being as good as the (probable, with a very small tip of the hat to Jerry West) best guy to ever play the position. Kobe is more-or-less* inarguably one of the three best 2 guards ever; pointing out he's not number one isn't- or at least shouldn't be, more on that in a second- an insult, although it is perhaps a bit redundant- did anyone besides Laker diehards- and likely Kobe himself- really think it was an argument to begin with?

I think the wider problem is that much- but not all- of the coverage came in pejorative presentation; there's no need to denigrate one player to build up another (although, not being a sports journalist myself, I admit that I do it fairly often in my own arguments). It's fair to criticize the flaws in Kobe's game in certain types of articles- or in comparison to Jordan- and it's fair to criticize Kobe's alleged character- but one has nothing to do with the other. Even if the cartoonish worst about Kobe were true- if he's a Machiavellian teammate hating sociopathic rapist who only cares about his own checkbook and kicks puppies while wearing soccer cleats- it doesn't have a thing to do with his place in the basketball pantheon- nor does it if he's a saint. By the same token, regardless of whether he's better or worse than player X, it has no bearing on his character as a human being. Lately, a lot of journalists seem to enjoy blurring those lines, which makes them not especially good journalists.

*While I would disagree with them, I suppose theoretically non-ridiculous arguments could be made- with enough hypotheticals accounting for different teammates/eras/whatever being the differentiating factors- for someone like Wade, Sam Jones, or Gervin over Kobe or West with sufficient effort. For my part, my favorite hypothetical great player is Pistol Pete in a 3-point/post-hand check rule- not to mention assist inflating- league, but alas, he exists only as a hypothetical.

 
At Wednesday, December 31, 2014 7:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

I think that commentators who do not like Bryant prefer to make the Jordan-Bryant argument as a pretext for bashing Bryant--but, ironically, the very fact that such an argument can credibly be made to any extent actually works against the goals of the Bryant bashers.

Regarding Maravich--one of my favorite players of all-time--the two biggest arguments against him would be lack of durability and the fact that we never had the opportunity to see how he would perform as the best player on a championship caliber team. From a skill set standpoint, he stacks up against just about anyone who ever played the position.

I agree with your criticisms of how journalists operate.

 
At Friday, January 02, 2015 3:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kobe/Jordan have a lot of similarities: same height(though Kobe was listed at 6-7 early in his career-not sure how that changed), same position, great scorers, similar styles, etc. However, there's a lot of differences between them.

Jordan entered NBA at 21, and though his team stunk, he was allowed to do whatever he wanted to, and was the #1 option. He never had to share the spotlight with Shaq. The media had some criticism of him early on, but not too much, and now he's loved by almost everyone, and hated by none. His career still has several failures, but is portrayed like a fairy tale. 6-0 in Finals, buzzer beater over Ehlo to win 3-2(remember that Kobe had 2 buzzer beaters vs. a better suns team and with a much worst cast to go up 3-1, but best of 7, not best of 5).

Kobe started at 18, and was a backup to AS Eddie Jones for 2 years. Kobe had to be faciliator/scorer, whereas Jordan didn't have to worry about facilitating much because of Pippen. Plus, he's had to through lots of ups and downs with his casts, including barely NBA ready casts during his prime. Jordan had to wait a few years, but after that, his teams weren't just contender ready, but elite. Jordan never won without Pippen, and the bulls are still a big-time team in 94/95. They weren't as good, but close, and after 3 straight finals, highly unlikely they make both 94 and 95 finals, let alone just 1 of them.

Defenses and overall athletic/skills of players today are much better overall than during Jordan's day. While there's more teams in league, the game is truly a world game, and competition is clearly much stiffer. Plus, even during Jordan's day, the west was the better conf. It was more even than today, but that's huge come playoff time. The heat from 11-14 would be lucky to make 1-2 finals if they were in the west, and the 07 cavs would've been a 6-7 seed and most likely lose in 1st round in west. Scoring/efficiency up across the board during Jordan's day. Plus, he had 3 years with shortened 3 and he took advantage. Kobe's facilitating role has most likely led to more TOs, less scoring, and worse efficiency than if his role was like Jordan's, but yet they're still very close in efficiency stats. If Kobe started at 21, was a starter from the get go, and was the #1 option along with focusing on scoring only for the most part, his career average would be very close to 30. The thing about Kobe was that he was an elite defender before he was an elite offensive player.

 

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