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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
Bryant was voted the NBA’s youngest ever All-Star Game starter at age 19 in 1998, when he finished second in the Sixth Man of the Year race, but he was far from a dominant force. He made a leap the next year and another two years after that to emerge a fully realized superstar. We will split the difference for argument’s sake, marking the 1999-2000 campaign as the beginning of his prime. That was his first of 14 straight seasons averaging 20 points, a run that lasted until a torn Achilles expedited his career descent.
From 1999-2013, Bryant averaged 27.8 points (55.6 true shooting percentage), 5.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.1 combined blocks and steals in 38.8 minutes per game. Excluding the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, he averaged 76 games per season and never played fewer than 65. During that span, he finished top five in MVP voting 11 times, winning in 2008 and finishing runner-up the following year. He placed top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting on three occasions, peaking with a third-place finish in 2002.
Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers made the playoffs every year but once in his prime (2004-05), winning five championships in seven trips to the Finals. The Lakers lost three first-round series in that stretch, including a 2013 set when Bryant was nursing his Achilles injury. In that 14-year span, Bryant averaged 27.7 points (54.3 TS%), 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.1 blocks/steals in 41.5 minutes over 192 playoff games.
Bryant was the best player on two of his five championship teams. In his prime, he never played with more than one active All-Star, sharing the court with Shaquille O’Neal for the first five of those seasons and Pau Gasol the final six. Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard also made All-Star appearances alongside Bryant.
James entered the league as advertised in 2003, averaging a 21-6-6 en route to 2004 Rookie of the Year honors, but he made his leap to superstardom as an NBA sophomore and has remained in his prime since.
From 2004 to the present, James has averaged 27.5 points (59.2 true shooting percentage), 7.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.4 blocks/steals in 38.3 minutes per game. Excluding the 2011 lockout and the current hiatus, he has averaged 76 games per season and played fewer than 69 just once. On that run, he has 13 top-five MVP finishes, winning four times and placing second twice (with another likely coming this season). He also has a handful of top-five Defensive Player of the Year finishes, peaking at second in 2009 and 2013.
James’ teams have made the playoffs in all but the first and last of his completed prime seasons, winning three titles in nine Finals trips and never losing a first-round series. Over the past 15 years, he has averaged 28.9 points (57.9 TS%), 8.9 boards, 7.1 assists and 2.8 blocks/steals in 42 minutes over 239 playoff games.
James has been the best player on all three of his championship teams. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams each made a single All-Star appearance during James’ first seven seasons on the Cleveland Cavaliers. He joined All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for four seasons on the Miami Heat before returning to Cleveland, where he teamed with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for another four years. He spent last season with a starless team in Los Angeles before luring Anthony Davis to the Lakers.
We will get to the question of how much weight Bryant’s two extra rings carry in comparison to James’ two additional shots at one, and what their supporting casts meant to both, but if you were starting a team with the knowledge of what both would bring to the table statistically for their primes, you would take James and not think twice. He scores as much as Bryant, more efficiently, while owning a sizable edge in almost every other category, and has done it all for two more years and counting. James is a prime numbers god.
As we laid out when we pitted him opposite Tim Duncan, Bryant’s career apex depends on your preference. He posted an efficient 30-7-6 for the three-time defending champs as a 24-year-old, one of eight times he made First Team All-NBA and All-Defense. Three years later, he averaged 35.4 points per game, the most since Michael Jordan. Bryant captured his lone MVP award in 2008, and then followed with his sole runner-up MVP finish, avenging the previous year’s Finals loss to Boston and capturing his first O’Neal-less title.
It is that 2008-09 season that struck me as Bryant’s peak. Coming off his contribution to the Redeem Team, a 30-year-old Bryant lifted the Lakers to 65 wins and placed them on the short list of most dominant teams of the past two decades. He finished second in MVP voting to James after winning in 2008, and then added his first Finals MVP award, erasing any doubt he could win a title as his team’s top player and vaulting himself onto the league’s list of immortals. Bryant made First-Team All-NBA and All-Defense again, averaging 26.8 points (56.1 TS%), 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists and two blocks/steals in 36.1 minutes a game.
In the 2009 playoffs, Bryant elevated those numbers to 30.2 points (56.4 TS%), 5.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks/steals in 40.9 minutes per game. And in a gentleman’s sweep of the Orlando Magic in the Finals, he averaged a 32-6-7 on 52.5 percent true shooting with three blocks/steals in 44 minutes a night. Bryant won his first of back-to-back Finals MVPs during a string of three straight Finals appearances.
James’ pinnacle is easier to pin down, even if he submitted four MVP campaigns. Coming off his stewardship of the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. Olympic men’s national team at age 28 in 2012-13, he averaged 26.8 points (64.0 TS%), eight rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.6 blocks/steals in 37.9 minutes per game. He received all but one of 121 first-place MVP votes and finished a close second to Marc Gasol in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, as his Heat won 66 regular-season games, including 27 straight.
In the 2013 playoffs, James averaged 25.9 points (58.5 TS%), 8.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.6 blocks/steals in 41.7 minutes per game. And in the seven-game barnburner against Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs dynasty in the Finals, James averaged a 25-11-7 on 52.9 true shooting with three blocks/steals in 43 minutes a night. He won his second of three Finals MVPs en route to eight straight Finals appearances.
Players with the same regular-season stat line (or better) as Bryant’s most complete campaign: James Harden, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Durant, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Stephen Curry, Larry Bird, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Clyde Drexler, Kawhi Leonard, Wade and James ... seven times. Bryant’s was the least efficient scoring season of the bunch, and yet it was among the most efficient of his career. James has not had a season as inefficient since he turned 23 years old.
Players who posted the same stat line as James at his best: LeBron James. Even removing true shooting percentage from the equation, only Jordan and Bird averaged a 26-8-7 with at least 2.5 steals/blocks in a single season. (Steals and blocks were not recorded when Robertson and John Havlicek met the standard).
And only James did it during a season in which he led his team to a championship.
In fact, only 10 players have won MVP and Finals MVP in the same season: Jordan (four times), James (twice), Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Duncan, O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Willis Reed. James was the regular-season MVP both times Bryant won Finals MVP, including the 2009 season.
Reputation rates Bryant as more clutch, given the mythology surrounding his Mamba Mentality and the notion that James wilted in big moments for much of his career. There is no evidence to support this.
Bryant averaged 25.3 points (50.7 TS%), 5.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.7 blocks/steals in 37 games across seven Finals bids, logging a 5-2 record (lost to the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics). Meanwhile, James has averaged 28.2 points (55.1 TS%), 10 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.6 steals/blocks in 49 games over nine Finals, finishing 3-6 (three losses to the Warriors, two to the Spurs and one to the Mavericks).
In eight advance-or-go-home games in his playoff career, including a pair of Finals Game 7s, James has averaged 34.9 points (59.9 TS%), 9.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.6 blocks/steals, posting a 6-2 record. In a 95-88 win over the Spurs in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals, James scored 37 points on 12-for-23 shooting, adding 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals. And in a 93-89 victory against the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, he posted 27 points (9-24 FG), 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals.
Bryant finished 5-5 in 10 career advance-or-go-home playoff games, averaging 23.5 points (47.4 TS%), 7.8 rebounds, four assists and 2.7 blocks/steals. He played in one Finals Game 7, scoring 23 points on 6-for-24 shooting, willing 15 rebounds and adding two assists and a steal in an 83-79 win over the Celtics in 2010.
James is 10-for-25 (40 percent) in the playoffs on shots attempted when tied or trailing by two points or fewer in the final 24 seconds. Bryant was 7-for-28 (25 percent). James is 12-for-23 (52 percent) on playoff game-tying or go-ahead field goals with less than 10 seconds left. Bryant was 5-for-22 (23 percent). James has made five buzzer-beating game-winners in his playoff career. Bryant made one. This is not close.
James detractors will point to his relative disappearance in the 2007 and 2011 Finals or the 2010 Eastern Conference finals that he mailed in as examples of his inability to perform in the clutch. They rarely mention Bryant’s equally troubling numbers in the 2000 and 2004 Finals or how he quit in Game 7 of a first-round series loss to the Phoenix Suns in 2006. We can cherry pick narratives, but the evidence is the evidence.
• Bryant: Five-time NBA champion (2x Finals MVP); 2008 Most Valuable Player; 15-time All-NBA selection (11x First Team, 2x Second team); 18-time All-Star (4x All-Star Game MVP); 12-time All-Defensive selection (9x First Team); two-time scoring champion; 1997 slam dunk champion; two-time Olympic gold medalist
• James: Three-time NBA champion (3x Finals MVP); four-time Most Valuable Player; 15-time All-NBA selection (12x First Team, 2x Second Team); 16-time All-Star (3x All-Star Game MVP); six-time All-Defensive selection (5x First Team); 2008 scoring champion; 2004 Rookie of the Year; two-time Olympic gold medalist
This is the question of all questions when it comes to NBA royalty. Would you rather have Bryant’s two additional rings on display or James’ extra Finals MVP and three additional regular-season MVPs in the trophy case? Nothing else really matters in this conversation, although a slam dunk title is pretty sweet.
On the one hand, Bryant collected a fistful of rings. On the other, James was the best player on all three of his title-winning teams to Bryant’s two of five. Who knows how many championships James may have won had he played alongside some equivalent of prime O’Neal in the early stages of his career. He also chased rings with Wade and Bosh in Miami and returned to a Cleveland situation with Irving and Love awaiting.
Were those triumvirates greater than the collection of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Metta World Peace that surrounded Bryant for his 2009 and 2010 title runs? Regardless of how you answer that question, there is no doubt James’ effort in the 3-1 comeback against a 73-win Warriors team in the 2016 Finals is more impressive than anything Bryant accomplished in any of his seven Finals appearances.
You could argue Ray Allen’s three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals and Irving’s in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals saved James from a 1-8 Finals record. But Bryant also benefited from Robert Horry’s winner in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, several blown chances by Orlando in the 2009 Finals and World Peace’s dagger in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, not to mention the fact he was on the winning side of two of the most controversially officiated games in NBA playoff history. Legacies can hinge on makes or misses.
The matter of hardware comes down to opinion. James’ four regular-season MVP trophies can be pointed to as evidence he was the league’s best player for a longer stretch than Bryant, just as we can argue his three Finals MVPs make him more valuable in capturing his rings than Bryant was to collecting his. But the ultimate goal is winning, and I think I would rather point to five Larry O’Brien trophies, two Finals MVPs and a single regular-season MVP as hard evidence of greater team success in what is at its heart a team sport.
For the culture
The question at the core of this category may be harder to answer. It is certainly more serious.
James has surpassed all expectations since emerging as a can’t-miss prospect out of high school and overcame the public-relations nightmare of “The Decision” to become one of the most respected figures in NBA history among his peers (Paul Pierce excluded). As the face of the NBA’s player empowerment era, he has reshaped the league in his own image, and his foundation’s I Promise School is a model for superstars to follow in serving their communities. James is the voice of this NBA generation both on and off the court.
He is also well on his way to building a billion-dollar brand. In addition to his playing career earnings and endorsement deals, James has made lucrative investments in Beats By Dre, Blaze Pizza and Liverpool F.C., among others, and established himself as an entertainment mogul. He will star in “Space Jam 2,” co-starred in the hit comedy “Trainwreck,” and his production company has launched a number of television and documentary series, including HBO’s “The Shop,” on which he regularly contributes to the discussion.
Bryant has him trumped there, given the Academy Award he won for the animated short on his 2016 retirement letter, “Dear Basketball.” He also developed the “Detail” series for ESPN after experimenting with “Musecage.” Likewise, Bryant developed a series of children’s books and podcasts that demonstrated his willingness to take artistic storytelling risks, even if they all fell short of his first post-basketball project.
He was on his way to forging another admirable career when he died in a helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of his daughter Gianna and seven others traveling to a youth basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif. His death was felt the world over, as shocking as any in recent memory, a testament to his cultural impact. Athletes across the globe shared stories of his mentorship and inspiration. Parents shed tears for a man who died carrying out his daughter’s dreams. L.A. worshiped him.
As incredibly powerful as the joy he brought to so many in life was, Bryant left behind a legacy that also included a brutal sexual assault allegation in the summer of 2003. Criminal charges were later dropped, but he acknowledged publicly, “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” As I have written in this space before, culturally speaking — in any manner of speaking — that is reprehensible.
Even if we limit this conversation solely to their impact on basketball culture, I think we have to consider James has had a broader impact on shaping the sport, for better or worse. What Bryant’s mentality did to inspire this generation of rising NBA talent, just as Jordan did before, James is doing in a manner all his own — from his selfless style of play to his commitment to preserving his body to taking ownership of his career to brand-building and leveraging his stardom to serve his community beyond the next generation.
THE DAGGER: LeBron James has had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
• Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
• Clyde Drexler vs. Dominique Wilkins
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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