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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