M.J. vs. Kobe: The Verdict


Following one of Charles Barkley’s alleged fits of inspiration on a TNT broadcast, it is now in vogue to say that Kobe Bryant “is better than Jordan at similar stages of their careers.”

If Barkley meant that Bryant, now five years into his career, was as good as Jordan was five years into his, then he’s farther off the mark than a Chris Dudley free throw.

In five years Bryant has averaged 18 points per game and has connected on 45 percent of his shots. After five years Jordan had three scoring titles (he was a good bet to have four but broke his foot and missed 64 games in his second season) and a 63-point playoff game, after which Larry Bird compared him to God. In Jordan’s third year, 1987, he averaged 37.1 per game (Bryant hasn’t come within eight of that number), the first player since Chamberlain in 1963 to average that many. That same year Jordan became the first guard to score 3000 points in a season and the first player to have 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season. He repeated the 200-100 feat the following year and averaged 35 points to boot. Besides the three scoring titles, at the end of five seasons Jordan had been an MVP (1989) and NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1988) and had won three NBA All-First team awards and three All-Defensive First Team awards. In addition, his career shooting percentage was 52. His talent was already full blown.

By contrast, Bryant has won no scoring titles and no MVPs, but did have an All-NBA Defensive First Team award (2000).

Uh, check, please.

The other possible meaning of “better than Jordan at similar stages of their careers” is that Bryant is better at his present age, 23, than Jordan was at 23. Let’s take a look. Jordan was drafted in 1984, when he was 21; Bryant in 1996, at 17. Bryant ended his fifth year, his last full season, at the age of 22. At 22, Jordan, had won Rookie of the Year and shot .515 from the field. He was the first rookie since Larry Bird to lead his team in points (28.2), rebounds (6.5), and assists (5.9). Jordan also had 196 steals and 69 blocks in his rookie season and topped the league in points scored.

One might expect that Bryant, by the end of his fifth season, might have reached at least one of those numbers. He hasn’t. The evidence is thus overwhelming that Bryant in his fifth year (or any one of the four years before) was not even the statistical equal of Jordan in his first.

It bears mentioning that Bryant’s numbers are checked by the presence of Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant posted only part-time minutes with the Lakers in 1996-97, his first year—and O’Neal’s first—with the team. The Lakers didn’t sign O’Neal to be a second option on offense, the argument goes, so by the time Bryant was ready for more minutes the following year, O’Neal was already the axis that rolled the offense.

But O’Neal didn’t remain the first option by fiat. He earned it. He led the league in field-goal percentage each of the past four years (consistently shooting 57 to 58 percent), while Bryant has hovered between 42 and 47 percent. Jordan never shot below 47 percent in a full season (until this year) and shot as high as 54 percent.

Sam Smith, author of The Jordan Rules, who has watched Jordan from his Chicago Trib perch from the beginning, seconds the verdict. “In his first five years there’s no one like Jordan,” says Smith. “He didn’t win any titles but was spectacularly unstoppable. Kobe does not have the explosion that Michael did. But he’s a better perimeter shooter at an early age. Kobe’s a good defender but doesn’t play it all the time. Michael was just frenetic all the time. I’ve not seen anyone like that since. He has that frenzy in his game offensively and defensively. He’s like the kid in the schoolyard who is the best player and is trying to win the game the entire time for his whole team. That’s what he was like in the college, and he went to the pros and he was so much better than everyone else. He was serious all the time. Many players aren’t. And that’s what he brings to the Wizards.”

Bryant is having a strong 2001-02 season but has no league-leading numbers in the major categories. He still has years to rally and make the comparison closer, but in fact, it isn’t even close. The gap widens when defense is factored in. Jordan may be the best on-the-ball defender in basketball history, something that could never be said of Bryant.

Bryant has voiced his desire to win more than six NBA championships, as if to imply that that would put him ahead of Jordan. We wish him well. But even that team accomplishment wouldn’t make him the equal of Jordan, who at this moment is the all-time leading scorer (31.2) and all-time leading playoff scorer (33.4) in NBA history. At the 2002 All-Star break, Jordan remains the greatest player in basketball history. Kobe Bryant hardly threatens that position.