The circus is back in town.
Every year, or sometimes even more often, we seem to be forced to debate on whether Kobe Bryant or LeBron James is the next Michael Jordan. It’s like the Tim Tebow debate; ESPN cooks it up and puts it on a plate and we forgo our forks and shovel it into our gluttonous mouths.
We can’t get enough. We’re like the blood-thirsty plant from Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II. “Feed me, Seymour,” she repeats throughout the show. We want more. We must have it. We won’t be satisfied.
It’s a little disturbing, actually.
Now, on Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday, the debate resurfaces as strong as ever.
Before I get into this debate, however, let me first get three things clear:
- I’ve been a Chicago Bulls fan since I can remember. I was nine years old in northern Indiana when they won the first of six championships. (I do not believe this to be a fair-weather fandom, though I didn’t exactly buy jerseys during the Elton Brand years)
- My vitriol for “The Decision” and the media feeding frenzy that came with LeBron’s move to Miami and consequent prediction of a decade of championships has waned since they won their first one. I wanted him to be the next Karl Malone and now that it can’t happen, I don’t hate him or his decision as much. (I guess maybe that’s a bit fair-weather of me)
- I despise Kobe Bryant. I think he’s a selfish, whiny, childish, immoral human being. That said, it’s hard to complain about the 48 minutes he spends on the court. His talent is indisputable, no matter how you feel about his contributions to the moral fabric of society.
The next thing we have to do is narrow this debate down to one question. It seems like all debates can get narrowed into these four very different questions:
- Who would win in a one-on-one match?
- Who is the most likable?
- Who is the best player in NBA history?
- Who is the most dominant basketball player of all time?
Dealing with the generational gap is interesting in this conversation. Kobe Bryant has played against both Jordan and LeBron. He owns a 5-3 edge over Jordan (though a majority of those games were against an over-the-basketball-hill Washington Wizards Jordan) but is trounced 11-5 by Lebron, mixed solidly between Cleveland and Miami.
It’s hard to judge the head-to-head experiences. Kobe had better stats per minute against Jordan, while being dominated by LeBron. Jordan’s Chicago teams owned the Lakers but that was in part due to their dominating supporting cast (who knows what would have happened had Shaq been with Kobe against Jordan).
If we try and take each player in their prime, what can we guess? First of all, do we even know if LeBron has hit his prime yet? LeBron is decidedly bigger than either Jordan or Kobe, but Kobe is a better outside shooter and Jordan is probably the quickest of the bunch. Jordan also possesses far superior defensive abilities (when people complained about his defense in the mid 80’s, Jordan promptly went out and won the Defensive Player of the Year award).
LeBron is the more powerful driver, while Jordan likely has more athletic abilities to improvise once in the air. Kobe, on the other hand, is a master at drawing the foul and getting the basket. They all have different strengths and virtually no weaknesses. Do we give King James the nod for being able to swat more shots away? Probably not, because I’d counter with Jordan’s ability to knock the ball out before the shot is attempted.
Which of these traits are more important? Which ones give the stronger advantage?
We’re teased by the relatively close proximity in years during which these players performed. There are overlaps in careers and opponents’ careers. It’s not like trying to compare Oscar Robertson to Shaq.
No one knows what would happen in a one-on-one tournament between the three players. We do know that it would probably be the most watched individual sporting event in history.
Rumble in the Jungle, eat your heart out.
I’m going to go ahead and just disqualify Kobe for this category. Maybe it’s not totally fair to him, but the fact that he’s had a very open rivalry with his own teammate (the one who perhaps carried him through three championships) hurts his case as badly as the rape accusations. He and Shaq apparently are getting along now, but the ball-hogging, tantrum-throwing history for Kobe doesn’t sit well with the average fan, and the rape case in Colorado probably lost the general public for good.
Moving upwards from here, LeBron James hit a pretty large speed bump, himself. “The Decision” not only thoroughly upset Cleveland fans but it painted LeBron in a prima donna light. Clevelanders likely would have hated LeBron just for leaving, but the one hour self-serving LeBron-fest on ESPN looked a lot worse than it had to be. Then LeBron went on stage with new teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh and guaranteed upwards of eight championships. Then LeBron starred in his own commercial that was designed to make us feel bad about having hurt his precious feelings.
Now, the anti-LeBron sentiment has assuredly faded. Most people jumped on the bandwagon to keep him from getting his first championship. Now that he’s wearing a ring people seem to care a little less about the methods and means he used to get it. Most fans, like him or not, agree that LeBron is, at this moment, the single best basketball player in the world. Maybe not ever, and maybe not even next season, but right now LeBron is on top of the world.
Even at LeBron’s height in popularity, it paled in comparison to Jordan. Jordan didn’t only have the biggest shoe deal, he had the first. Jordan didn’t only have kids with posters of him, those kids lived in central Asia. Jordan was the first truly globally-marketed athlete; not just basketball, but sports in general. The only people that didn’t like him were the ones from cities looking up at him from the ashes that used to be their championship hopes.
His retirement and move to baseball made the Birmingham Barons a household name (probably the second-most famous minor league baseball team only to the Durham Bulls). His first un-retirement was more anticipated than the final Harry Potter film. His comeback was headlined by arguably the single-most dominant basketball team in NBA history.
But that’s not what made him so loved. People loved his passion and drive. People loved his smile and humility. People loved his play with the flu and with his father’s death. People loved ProStars and Space Jam. Jordan was marketable in a way that no one else since or prior has ever been. We might not know exactly why, but we know it’s true.
Sorry, LeBron. Sorry, Kobe. This one is all Jordan.
Best of the Best
Questions three and four are different versions of the same dilemma: Who is the best basketball player? The question is ultimately based on its criteria. Are we going straight stats? Most points? Most wins? Most championships? Where do we draw the comparisons and where do we draw the lines?
Jordan currently has the lead in points scored, but will get passed by Kobe within the next two seasons and will also get passed by LeBron at some point. On the other hand Jordan dominates the points per game stat.
We all know Jordan has the edge with six championships to Kobe’s five and LeBron’s one. Kobe is likely done, the Lakers need to start over before they will compete again for a title and I just don’t see how Kobe factors into that future. LeBron has the brightest outlook. He probably has another decade to get five championships. It’s not likely but it’s possible. The problem will be his supporting cast: Wade is getting up in age and Bosh has already peaked.
LeBron has led the league in points per game just once. Kobe has done it twice. Jordan has done it ten times. Jordan has also led the league three times in steals. Neither LeBron nor Kobe has ever led the league in any major statistic.
Jordan has won the MVP five times, was on the first team All-NBA team ten times and appeared on the first team All-Defensive team nine times. Kobe has only one MVP title, but matches Jordan in the other two awards listings. LeBron has three MVPs, six All-NBA and four All-Defensive; though he has roughly half of the opportunities. Each player has appeared in every single NBA All-Star game for which they were eligible.
There’s one set of awards I put above the others though: NBA Finals MVP. Jordan has won this award six times, in each of the six finals the Bulls reached. LeBron got his first Finals MVP last year with Miami, after his teams lost two previous Finals appearances. Kobe only has two MVPs out of the five championships his teams have won.
This is what separates Jordan from the others: when his team made the finals, his team won and he carried them. LeBron has lost two Finals appearances (one with Miami, one with Cleveland) and Kobe lost two with the Lakers, plus the three wins that saw Shaq get the Finals MVP.
To Kobe Bryant: thank you for playing. You were the star that bridged the gap between Jordan and LeBron. You’re one of the best of all time, definitely in my top ten. I just can’t put you in the conversation of “best of all time”. You’ve had more seasons than Jordan and less accolades. You’ve had your chance but it’s time to move on.
To LeBron James: I think you’re on the right path. I think if you can keep at least one other superstar on your team for the rest of your career you may be around to receive the torch from Jordan…but you’re still young. You need more rings; hell, you need more hardware in general. You need to dominate your league a few more years before you can be there with Jordan on top of the hill. The talent is there, there’s no doubting that, you just need to take over the league like Jordan did for over a decade.
To Michael Jordan: Happy Birthday and congratulations. You’re the best of all time. You have the stats; you have the rings; you have the commercials and the movies and the adoration of an entire planet. You’re in the Muhammed Ali conversation, not the Lebron James conversation. But don’t get comfortable…you may finally have someone worthy of climbing your mountain nipping at your heels.