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. Tim Duncan
We might start Bryant’s prime in 1997-98, when at 19 years old he became the youngest All-Star in history and finished second in the Sixth Man of the Year race, but he really became Kobe Freaking Bryant two years later, when he first averaged more than 20 points per game and was the second-best player on a championship team. That prime ran for 14 seasons, until he tore his Achilles on April 12, 2013.
In that span, Bryant averaged 27.8 points (45.5 FG%, 33.6 FT%, 84.0 FT%), 5.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.1 combined blocks/steals. The Los Angeles Lakers reached the playoffs in all but one of those seasons, between Bryant’s pairings with future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol that resulted in five titles. Kobe captured MVP honors in 2008 and finished top five in the voting 11 times.
The end of Duncan’s prime is difficult to peg, since his minutes per game dipped below 30 and his statistical averages followed suit in 2009-10. Still, he garnered MVP votes four more times and won a title in 2014. It’s hard to argue that you’re not still in your prime when you’re still making All-NBA rosters, which means Duncan’s lasted from his rookie season in 1997-98 to his penultimate campaign in 2014-15, which respectively coincided with the first and last of his 15 All-Defensive honors.
In those 18 seasons, Duncan averaged 19.5 points (50.6 FG%, 69.6 FT%), 11 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.9 steals/blocks per game, finishing top-five in MVP voting nine times and winning twice. The Spurs won at least 50 games every year, save for the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign, when Duncan won the first of five titles. Those teams mostly featured Hall of Famers-in-waiting Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker while spanning the tenures of David Robinson and Kawhi Leonard.
Your mileage may vary on whether you prefer the natural-born scorer to the natural-born leader, but the argument here comes down to this: Duncan was more relevant in the NBA as a winner — and more important to his team’s relevancy — for a longer period of time than Bryant. Part of that may be the result of Bryant demanding 40-plus minutes per game until his Achilles gave out at age 34, but still.
Duncan won the first of his five titles in 1999, sweeping the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in those Western Conference finals, and his last in 2014, when injuries cost Bryant all but six games and marked the beginning of the end of his career. Duncan was unquestionably the most important player on the San Antonio Spurs in every one of those seasons, save for the moment Leonard was coronated in the 2014 Finals.
There is some question as to whether Bryant was truly the most important player on his team until he nudged O’Neal out the door in 2004, although Kobe did finish ahead of Shaq in the MVP voting in the last two of their eight seasons together — with their three titles behind them. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005, when Lamar Odom and Caron Butler were Bryant’s best supporting actors, and Kobe did not lead the franchise out of the first round again until Gasol arrived in 2008.
Bryant was not the undisputed best player on a contender until Year 12 of his career. By then, Duncan owned three Finals MVP trophies. We can argue whether Duncan was graced with better teammates for the entirety of his career, but Duncan also helped establish the culture that cultivated and kept those teammates. (For the record, six other Lakers made 13 All-Star appearances from 1998 to 2015, while three other Spurs made 11 All-Star appearances during that same span.)
Bryant’s career apex depends on your preference. As a 24-year-old, he posted an efficient 30-7-6 stat line with a couple steals per game for the three-time defending champions, making First-Team All-NBA and All-Defense (something he did seven more times). Three years later, he averaged a league-leading 35.4 points per game, the most since Michael Jordan. Two years after that, he captured his lone MVP award, and then followed that with his sole runner-up MVP finish, avenging the previous year’s Finals loss to the Boston Celtics to capture his first non-Shaq title.
It is that 2008-09 season, when 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, that strikes me as his apex. He finished second in MVP voting to LeBron James after winning the award in 2008, and then added his first Finals MVP award to his shelf, erasing any doubt he could win without Shaq and vaulting himself onto the league’s all-time top-10 list. Also coming off his contribution to the Redeem Team in 2008, he made First-Team All-NBA and All-Defense again, averaging 26.8 points on 47-35-86 splits with five assists, five rebounds and two blocks/steals per game.
Duncan’s apex is clear. His 2002-03 season is as good as any big man’s in history. At age 26, he won his second straight league MVP and second of three Finals MVP awards, leading San Antonio to 60 wins and another title. His road to a ring included a conference semifinals win over Kobe’s three-time defending champion Lakers. Duncan finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, making First-Team All-Defense for a fifth straight year. (He also won gold at the FIBA Americas Championship, capturing USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year honors.
Duncan averaged 23.3 points, with career highs of 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.9 blocks per game. The only other player to produce those numbers in a single season: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who did it six freaking times. (Speaking of which, we should throw him into a “Who was better?” with the GOATs from other eras.)
Those who averaged Kobe’s stat line at his apex: Kareem ... Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Rick Barry, Clyde Drexler, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
There are many internet claims that Bryant has made more game-winning shots than anyone else in NBA history, although it is hard to trace the root of that claim. We do have statistical evidence he may have attempted more than anyone else.
We are here to decide which of these players better rose to the occasion, not necessarily on last-second, low-percentage shot attempts, but across entire games and series in the biggest spots of their careers. Who was more reliably clutch?
First, their career playoff statistics:
• Duncan (251 games): 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, three assists and three blocks/steals per game; 54.8 true shooting percentage; 24.3 player efficiency rating
• Bryant (220 games): 25.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.1 blocks/steals per game; 54.1 true shooting percentage; 22.4 player efficiency rating
Now, their career Finals statistics:
• Duncan (34 games): 20.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.2 blocks/steals per game; 53.8 true shooting percentage
• Bryant (37 games): 25.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.7 blocks/steals per game; 50.7 true shooting percentage
Finally, their career statistics in win-or-go-home Finals games:
• Duncan (5-3 in eight games): 22.3 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and three blocks/steals per game; 51.8 true shooting percentage
• Bryant (5-5 in 10 games): 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, four assists and 2.7 blocks/steals per game; 47.4 true shooting percentage
Bryant made eight trips to the conference finals and reached the Finals in the last seven of those appearances, winning five rings. He also failed to get out of the first round on two occasions. His teams were 33-11 in 44 playoff series.
Duncan reached nine conference finals, advanced to the Finals six times and won five titles. He lost four first-round series and finished 35-14 in 49 total series.
Kobe’s Lakers met Duncan’s Spurs on six occasions, and L.A. emerged victors four times. (San Antonio also swept the Lakers in 2013, after Bryant tore his Achilles.) In total, Kobe’s Lakers emerged victors in 18 of 30 playoff games against each other.
Their statistics in those head-to-head meetings:
• Bryant: 28.2 points (53.6 true shooting percentage), 5.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals/blocks per game
• Duncan: 25.2 points (53.7 true shooting percentage), 13.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.2 steals/blocks per game
It’s fairly inarguable that Duncan was statistically more effective in those meetings, even if his teams lost more times than they won against those Lakers. What’s more, we have no way of measuring their defensive performances in terms of clutch-ness, and Duncan often drew Shaq as his assignment in five of those six playoff series.
You could argue that, if a series came down to one possession, you would rather have the ball in Bryant’s hands, if only because he can better create his own shot. But there’s little doubt Duncan had a greater two-way impact on the biggest of games, and it is difficult to find a more clutch performance than his in the closeout Game 6 of the 2003 Finals: 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks.
• Duncan: Two-time NBA MVP; five-time champion (three-time Finals MVP); 15-time All-Star; 15-time All-NBA selection (10x First Team, 3x Second Team, 2x Third Team); 15-time All-Defense (8x First Team, 7x Second Team); 1998 Rookie of the Year; 2003 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year; 2004 Olympic bronze medalist
• Bryant: 2008 NBA MVP; five-time champion (two-time Finals MVP); 18-time All-Star; 15-time All-NBA selection (11x First Team, 2x Second Team, 2x Third Team); 12-time All-Defense (9x First Team, 3x Second Team); two-time scoring champion; four-time All-Star Game MVP; 1997 Slam Dunk Contest champion; two-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012)
Bryant has a few distinct advantages: His performances at the All-Star Game and in the Olympics, and his two scoring titles. The first two have little to no bearing on who had the better NBA career. (Besides, should we credit Bryant for making three more All-Star Games — when he played in the game each of his final three seasons — one in which he played all of six games, another in which he played 35 and two more in which he was one of the worst high-volume shooters in the entire league.)
The scoring titles? Those are incredible, and helped lead Bryant to third on the all-time scoring list — 11 spots higher than Duncan. But how do we put that in context of Duncan also ranking top-10 all-time in rebounds and blocks? Bryant won scoring titles. That was his thing. It that wasn’t Duncan’s. He was the Big Fundamental and the backbone of the most brilliant and successful franchise of the last two decades.
In the end, Duncan’s advantages hold more weight: He has one more league MVP and one more Finals MVP trophy on his mantle than Bryant. You can’t argue that.
For the culture
Bryant was charged with sexual assault in the summer of 2003, and while criminal charges were dropped, he acknowledged publicly, “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Culturally speaking — in any manner of speaking, for that matter — that is reprehensible and warrants acknowledgement.
For our purposes here, when we’re talking about the impact that two historically great players made in their careers, we’re only discussing how ingrained each became with basketball culture, and there is no question Kobe manufactured a deeper connection with the sport’s consciousness. He has the signature shoes, the Mamba persona, the “Detail” series on ESPN and a freaking Academy Award.
Meanwhile, Duncan was always one of the most boring superstars in sports, and he liked it that way. It is no surprise that he has faded from view since retiring in 2016.
It should tell us all we need to that, according to a recent poll from The Athletic, 11 percent of active players believe Bryant is the greatest player in basketball history.
THE DAGGER: Tim Duncan is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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