ESPN.com ran a poll last week asking fans who would have the better career when Kobe Bryant eventually retired, him or Michael Jordan. It was a layup, right?
More than two-thirds said it wasn’t even close, that it was MJ all the way. Twenty-eight percent said it was a close call. Five percent picked Kobe.
The results were predictable if only because they revealed only 33 percent of more than 283,000 voters through Saturday were paying attention.
Bryant is often quickly dismissed in the Kobe vs. Michael debate, which flared up last weekend when the Lakers star moved past Jordan and into third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Jordan is widely regarded as the best player in history. No argument here, at least for now.
But that wasn’t the question.
Allow me to repeat ESPN’s question: Who will have had the better NBA playing career when Bryant’s is over?
It’s much closer than many are led to believe when considering Bryant scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, made nearly three times as many three-pointers, played in more NBA All-Star Games, was named to more All-Defensive teams and won only one fewer championship than His Airness.
Better player: Michael Jordan.
Better career: well … let’s examine.
Bryant played more games and more seasons than Jordan did, an accomplishment more than a criticism. Bryant effectively handled the mental and physical grind better than Jordan, who took a break from the game for one season to play baseball and left for three others before returning.
Even if you don’t agree Bryant had a better career, the gap is narrower than most are willing to admit. And that includes Reggie Miller, who grossly exaggerated the difference between Jordan and Bryant when he was asked last week by ESPN’s Dan Patrick about who was tougher to defend.
“Michael Jordan on his worst day is 10 times better than Kobe Bryant on his best day,” Miller said. “That is not shortchanging Kobe Bryant because he gave me my lunch pail, too.”
In fact, Miller was shortchanging Bryant. He has been under-appreciated throughout his career largely because Jordan was the standard for greatness. No matter how many points he scores or how many titles he wins, he never will be promoted from the Court of Public Opinion’s second tier.
Still, people should take a step back and consider the variables before concluding Jordan had a better career. Time has a way of distorting opinion. The more removed sports heroes are from their careers, the greater their accomplishments and the higher their thrones. Fans protect players from their era.
Sports history is littered with examples, thus debates are handed down from one generation to the next, from Joe DiMaggio vs. Mickey Mantle to Jim Brown vs. O.J. Simpson to Jack Nicklaus vs. Tiger Woods. We believed there would never be another Jordan because there wasn’t a Jordan before him.
Along came Kobe, walking and talking and scoring and winning much the way Jordan did when he dominated the league. Bryant’s problem wasn’t just second to Jordan in ability. He was second chronologically after Jordan established himself as the best player in the Golden Era of the NBA.
Bryant is 36 years old now. His best days are behind him, but he’s still averaging 24.6 points per game. He’s remains one of the best players in the NBA in, this, his 19th season. Michael was a greater player, but Kobe was great for a longer period. Keep that in mind when comparing the two careers.
Jordan scored 32,292 points in his career with the Bulls and Wizards. He won six championships, led the league in scoring 10 times, was a 14-time All-Star, was a five-time Most Valuable Player, was a six-time MVP in the NBA finals and a nine-time selection for the All-Defensive team.
Bryant has 32,340 points and counting in his Hall of Fame career with the Lakers. He won five titles, twice led the league in scoring, was named MVP twice, was named MVP in the finals and was a 12-time selection for the All-Defensive team. He also was the last player to average 35 points per game since … Michael Jordan.
Of course, Bryant needed 197 more games to reach Jordan’s scoring output. Jordan scored more, but he also shot more. Jordan had more field-goal attempts in 13 seasons than Bryant did in his first 18 seasons. Michael led the league in attempts nine times in 13 seasons, Kobe only six times in 18 years.
Jordan averaged 3.2 shots per game more than Bryant. It adds up to more than 3,400 attempts over 13 seasons. If Kobe took as many shots and maintained his career shooting percentage, he would have added more than 3,000 points to his career total.
Jordan also had Scottie Pippen helping him on the perimeter along with Steve Kerr, John Paxson and Toni Kukoc at various stages. Bryant didn’t have nearly as much help on the outside, but he had Shaquille O’Neal for eight years. Jordan never won a title without Pippen. Bryant won two without Shaq.
Jordan was still an effective player, but he was a shell of himself over his final two seasons with the Wizards. He averaged 10 points per game fewer over his final two seasons than his previous career average. In his 19th season, Bryant is less than a point per game from his career scoring average.
Who was the better player? Jordan. Who had the better career? OK, it’s still Jordan. But it’s close.
Now, what about LeBron?