Kobe Bryant finally made clear what he alluded to in a couple less direct forays into the subject during the 2018 NBA Finals: Legacies are built on championship rings alone, and if LeBron James wants to leave a more lasting one on the league, he will have to figure out a way to increase his title count.
Or, as Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck put it after interviewing Bryant as part of a panel discussion on the subject, “legacies are built on titles, period, with no allowances for how or why James’ teams lost.”
B/R: LeBron has three rings. He’s been to more Finals than any player in modern times. But he’s 3-6 after this series. Does that matter to his legacy?
Bryant: All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That’s all I cared about. That’s how I valued Michael [Jordan]. That’s how I valued [Larry] Bird. That’s how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody’s going to value things differently, which is fine. I’m just telling you how I value mine.
If I’m Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It’s not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a player who grew up dreaming more about NBA Finals appearances, statistical résumés, roster configurations and the context of one’s opponents than championships.
But dreams and legacies are different. Dreams are what athletes imagine for the career that’s in front of them, and legacies are what we imagine about the career they left behind — how the totality of what they accomplished stacks up against those that came before them and those still to come. To boil that down to how many championships somebody won is to ignore everything we watched, and it oversimplifies sports legacy debates well beyond even comparing their statistical accomplishments.
Michael Jordan is on Kobe Bryant’s side
We should point out that Jordan agrees with Bryant on this point. When asked at his youth basketball camp last summer if James has surpassed Bryant’s legacy, the widely considered Greatest Of All Time broke down the debate like this: “Would I rank LeBron over Kobe in terms of best of all time? No. There’s something about five that beats three. … Kobe won five championships. LeBron won three.”
This take obviously serves Jordan and Bryant well. While the rest of us consider how high James has climbed in the GOAT conversation and whether he will ever reach the top, Jordan puts some distance between himself and the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar, and Bryant can work his way into the middle.
Kobe jumped into the Jordan vs. LeBron debate
That’s precisely what Bryant did last week when he stepped into the Jordan vs. LeBron debate by suggesting on Twitter that we should simply enjoy MJ’s six titles, his five and LeBron’s quest to match both of them rather than dropping one of them down a notch in a conversation with no definitive end.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) May 28, 2018
This is antithetical to Bryant’s own belief that titles alone determining one’s legacy. On the one hand, he’s saying “don’t debate what can’t be definitively won by anyone,” and on the other he’s saying championship rings definitively win the debate. And as definitive as that may seem, this argument only complicates the debate further, because Robert Horry has more rings than Jordan or Bryant.
Maybe you think that’s oversimplifying matters, that Bryant only meant titles are a legacy-determining factor only when we’re comparing the all-time greats. This should mean Bill Russell is unquestionably the GOAT in his mind, and he may very well be. Beyond that, though, how are we to determine who belongs in this conversation? With eye and analytics tests, we try to put players into context based on what they accomplished, when they accomplished it and who they accomplished it with and against.
Kobe doesn’t like context
Understandably, Bryant isn’t swayed by this line of thinking. We thought when he said of LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers last week that, “I don’t buy this whole thing that he’s playing with a bunch of garbage,” because “it seems like he has some good talent to me,” Bryant was trying to say that we should hold James’ 3-6 Finals record against him, but we weren’t quite sure. Now we’re pretty sure.
“Phil [Jackson] used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court,” Bryant told Beck for Monday’s panel discussion. “He’d say, ‘You have to do less.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, my teammates got to step up more.’ Phil would say, ‘Well, it’s your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'”
“Michael gave me some really good advice after the ’08 Finals: ‘You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship.’ Going into the 2010 series, I said, ‘Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They’re stacked.’ That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, ‘Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There’s no other alternative.’ And that’s the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don’t work right now. …
“It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them? … Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That’s not what it is. It’s about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it’s not pretty. Some of it’s challenging, some of it’s confrontational. Some of it’s pat on the back. But it’s finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.”
For the record, and not that you care, but I agree with Bryant that there are leadership questions concerning James that should be considered when painting the picture of his career. You need not look further than the fact he stewed into overtime and punched a whiteboard after a teammate’s gaffe cost his team a chance to win Game 1 of these Finals in regulation. I also think few players in the history of basketball are as adept at maximizing their teammates’ abilities as LeBron James.
But, again, Bryant entirely ignores context. His Los Angeles Lakers that beat the Boston Celtics in 2010 were a nucleus that had been in place for several years, while LeBron’s Cavs were reconfigured at the trade deadline. There are more layers to that, layers that don’t shed a positive light on LeBron’s legacy — that his controlling nature forced Kyrie Irving out and kept less helpful players around — but it’s a lot easier to figure out how to work with a team that’s been together more than two months.
If we were to put Bryant’s comparison into context, we would have to weigh Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Metta World Peace, Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher against Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson and George Hill. And we’d have to compare the 2010 Celtics — a great team that won a title in 2008, returned to the Finals with an aging roster two years later and lost its starting center in Game 6 of that series — to the 2018 Warriors, an all-time great team that has won three titles in four years, boasts two MVPs plus a couple more future Hall of Famers and is operating at the height of its powers.
But Bryant doesn’t seem interested in that, because that would mean conceding that teammates matter, that LeBron was the best player on a championship team more often than him, that a wealth of statistical and contextual analysis shows James to be better, and that the eye test does the same.
Instead, everything is pretty much equal in his eyes:
(Bryant’s Lakers faced the San Antonio Spurs five times in the playoffs between 1999 and 2004, winning three of the meetings. Shaquille O’Neal was widely considered to be the best player on all of those Lakers teams, the last of which also featured Karl Malone and Gary Payton and tried to be a super team. Bryant did not face the latter-dynasty Spurs, but James did play the same Celtics, taking them to seven games in 2008 with Zydrunas Ilgauskas as his best teammate. He then beat them in 2011 and 2012 once he teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. These conversations go in circles.)
It’s far easier to simply say five beats three. And if I were Kobe Bryant, with all he accomplished, I would value my five rings more than LeBron’s three, too. But I’m not Kobe Bryant, with nothing that he’s accomplished, so Lakers fans who value those five rings more than LeBron’s three are also going to get lost in all the context. That still has little to do with how most people will weigh their legacies.
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