SPECIAL: Lebron or Kobe?

Lebron James/Kobe Bryant
(Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Originally published in 2012)
I’ve told you before why Lebron would never surpass Michael Jordan.  I even broke the argument down statistically in 2010. But what about Kobe? Has Lebron surpassed Kobe Bryant? The old adage was to give the edge to the guy with the rings.  In case you were wondering, that’s Kobe.  But I don’t think it’s that simple. Let’s break it down two ways: Statistics and accomplishments.

Statistics:

Lebron James: 27.6 ppg, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals, .8 blocks, 3.3 turnovers, 39.8 minutes per game, 48% FG, 33% 3pt, 74% FT

Kobe Bryant: 25.5 ppg, 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.5 steals, .5 blocks, 3 turnovers, 36.6 minutes per game, 45% FG, 33% 3pt, 83% FT

I think when you look at their careers this way, it’s shocking.  Lebron averages more points per game?!  Lebron’s known for his all-around play and Kobe is known for his scoring.  Skewing Kobe’s numbers slightly are his first 3 seasons (7.6 ppg, 15.4 ppg, 19.9 ppg).  After that, he’s averaged over 22 ppg the rest of his career.  Lebron has never averaged less than 20.  Slightly a difference in eras I think.  In the 90s, you paid your dues.  Around the time the league really began to shift to a “superstar league” with Iverson, McGrady, Kobe, Shaq, Webber, and Carter, young guys began to take on more prominent roles.  This really came into effect when Lebron was entering the league.  Remember all the hype about him when he was in high school?  It was insane.  He was one of the first to come in directly from high school and be given the reigns.  Kobe played on a more veteran team which had Shaq, Cedric Ceballos, Elden Campbell, Robert Horry, George McCloud, Byron Scott, Nick Van Exel, and Eddie Jones with an old school guy, Del Harris, as coach.  Kobe was never going to get a chance to show himself.  He started showing flashes the next 2 years, but it wasn’t until Phil got there and taught him the virtues of the triangle offense that he really started to show his skill.  Lebron’s skill was evident from day 1.

Everything else plays out almost exactly how I’d expect it.  There’s always been this myth that Kobe was a better 3pt shooter than MJ/Lebron.  The numbers don’t back that up (Jordan hung around 33% for his career).  Kobe’s career high 3pt percentage is 37% his rookie year.  MJ shot 50% in 94-95 (wearing number 45) and 42% the next year (a full season when he was focused on destroying the entire NBA).  Lebron shot 36% last year and is shooting 42% thus far this season.  Lebron averages more assists, rebounds, and more minutes.  His field goal percentage is better, Kobe’s is lower because he takes more jumpers and hasn’t been effective finishing at the rim in recent years.  I think looking at their numbers per 36 minutes is interesting:

Career averages (per 36 minutes)

Lebron: 24.9 ppg, 6.5 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.6 steals, .8 blocks, 3 turnovers

Kobe: 25.1 ppg, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals, .5 blocks, 3.4 turnovers

This makes more sense to me.  These look like what you would expect.  In fact, I think if Lebron plays as long as Kobe and declines kind of like KG did, his career averages will finish somewhere around here.  Lebron still has the edge in most statistical categories.  But this is all regular season. What about the playoffs?

Averages in the Playoffs:

Lebron (115 games): 28.5 ppg, 8.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.7 steals, .9 blocks, 3.6 turnovers, 46% FG, 31% 3pt, 74% FT

Kobe (220 games): 25.6 ppg, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.4 steals, .7 blocks, 2.7 turnovers, 44% FG, 33% 3pt, 81% FT

Is anyone out there surprised?  Most people see Kobe Bryant as a “clutch” performer and Lebron has been widely viewed as “anti-clutch” throughout this career.  Here’s the stat lines since 2007-2008 for their last playoff games. An asterisk denotes a championship.

Kobe: 

  • 07-08 against Boston: 22 pts, 7 for 22 FG (31%), 3 for 9 3pt (33%), 5 for 5 FT (100%), 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 4 turnovers LOSS
  • *08-09 against Orlando: 30 pts, 10 for 23 FG (43%), 2 for 5 3pt (40%), 8 for 8 FT (100%), 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 4 blocks, 1 turnover
  • *09-10 against Boston: 23 pts, 6 for 24 FG (25%), 0 for 6 3pt (0%), 11 for 15 FT (73%), 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 4 turnovers
  • 10-11 against Dallas: 17 pts, 7 for 18 FG (38%), 0 for 5 3pt (0%), 3 for 4 FT (75%), 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 5 turnovers
  • 11-12 against Oklahoma City: 42 pts, 18 for 33 FG (54%), 1 for 6 3pt (16%), 5 for 7 FT (71%), 5 rebounds, 0 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers

Lebron:

  • 07-08 against Boston: 45 pts, 41 for 29 FG (48%), 3 for 11 3pt (27%), 14 for 19 FT (73%), 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers
  • 08-09 against Orlando: 25 pts, 8 for 20 FG (40%), 2 for 8 3pt (25%), 7 for 11 FT (63%), 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 block, 3 turnovers
  • 09-10 against Boston: 27 pts, 8 for 21 FG (38%), 2 for 4 3pt (50%), 9 for 12 FT (75%), 19 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 9 turnovers
    • (Note: This wasn’t the game he “quit on before “The Decision.”  That game: 15 pts, 3 for 14 FG (21%), 0 for 4 3pt (0%), 9 for 12 FT (75%), 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, 3 turnovers)
  • 10-11 against Dallas: 21 pts, 9 for 15 FG (60%), 2 for 5 3pt (40%), 1 for 4 FT (25%), 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 6 turnovers
  • *11-12 against Oklahoma City: 26 pts, 9 for 19 FG (47%), 0 for 3 3pt (0%), 8 for 9 FT (88%), 11 rebounds, 13 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 6 turnovers

I feel like this is a fair comparison.  They played the same teams in the same years.  If you look simply at the stats, Kobe’s FG percentage is generally awful in deciding games.  Lebron has an enormous edge there.  Lebron’s 60% in 2010-2011 against Dallas is deceiving.  I remember watching that game and he hit like his first 4 shots and just…stopped.  For whatever reason, he just stopped shooting.  I thought we were in for an MJ “Shrug Game” moment from Lebron, but it didn’t materialize.  You can see the rest of his numbers were subpar.  That’s the NBA Finals when he hid in the corner against Dallas and you nearly forget he was on the team.  Kobe’s 6 for 24 (NBA Finals MVP) is laughable.  To his credit, he did pull down 15 rebounds and get to the line, but GEEZ. 6 for 24?  Another note: Lebron scored above 20 in all of those games.  Kobe only managed 17 against Dallas.  So, is the belief that Kobe is clutch and Lebron anti-clutch valid?  I’m not so sure.  I’ve written an article about how Lebron’s teammates were quality.  But he put up some numbers in those games (for the most part).  Can we really blame him for leaving Cleveland?  I’ve always believed the responsibility of a superstar is to get the most out of your team. Kobe obviously did that.  Maybe not statistically, but he did win 2 championships.  I think Lebron accomplished that last year and that’s why he got the championship.  He stopped his stupid dance routines on the sideline.  He wasn’t smiling and cheesing like a politician.  He put away the childish crap and went out and dominated, like everyone expected him to.

Accomplishments

Lebron James: 1-time NBA Champion, 1-time NBA Finals MVP, 3-time NBA MVP, 8-time All-Star, 2-time All-Star Game MVP, Rookie of the Year (2004), 6-time All-NBA First Team, 2-time All-NBA Second Team, 4-time All-NBA Defensive First Team, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, 1 Olympic Bronze Medal

Kobe Bryant: 5-time NBA Champion, 2-time NBA Finals MVP, 1-time NBA MVP, 14-time All-Star, 4-time All-Star Game MVP, 10-time All-NBA First Team, 2-time All-NBA Second Team, 2-time All-NBA Third Team, 9-time All-NBA Defensive First Team, 3-time All-NBA Defensive Second Team, Slam Dunk Champion, 2 Olympic Gold Medals

I mean…wow. Just look at that for a few minutes. Lebron has the MVPs, which shows you he has been the best over an extended period of time. Kobe has the rings which, in my opinion, you could put an asterisk next to 3 of them, because of the Shaq influence. Question: T-Mac or Kobe was a serious debate in the early 2000s. If you switched Kobe with T-Mac, would the Lakers have won 3 titles? I say yes. T-Mac was a more dangerous scorer than Kobe at the time. He literally never had help in Orlando, playing alongside Matt Harpring, Pat Garrity, Andrew DeClerq, 300-lb Shawn Kemp, Mike Doleac, Darrell Armstrong, Troy Hudson…geesh. T-Mac in the triangle offense? I think it works out. Listen, NOBODY was beating Shaq those 3 years. The refs simply wouldn’t allow it. (I’m kidding…I’m kidding). He really was that dominant. If you switched Kobe with a similar shooting guard with comparable skills, that team wins the title. Now, the last 2 championships belong to Kobe. He was “the guy.”

Kobe’s accomplishments are astounding, particularly his appearances on the All-NBA Defensive Teams. Some of these had to be a gift for his resume. I’ve never watched Kobe and thought, “Man, he locks them down like Pippen!” By the way, the same goes for Lebron. His off-ball defense is terrific, but his on-ball defense is mediocre. I laugh when the “experts” proclaim him a great defender because he locked down a point guard or proclaim he can defend all five positions. Listen, you put Shaq in his prime, Olajuwon in his prime, Ewing in his prime, or Kareem in his prime on that block and tell Lebron to guard them. Not happening. I highly doubt Lebron could defend Marc or Pau Gasol adequately on the block, Dwight Howard on the block, or even Bynum. Let’s stop that nonsense. He can do what Jordan/Pippen/Magic/Bird could do: Adequately defend four positions. Durant/Luol Deng can do it too. So could Kobe once upon a time. Lebron doesn’t excel at on-ball defense though. Jordan/Pippen did. That’s why (HOMER ALERT!) John Lucas III schooled him last season and embarrassed him. D-Rose would’ve too if he wasn’t exhausted from defending Wade (a Thibodeau blunder in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals).

The accomplishments for Lebron are incomplete, but let’s give the man his due: I despise Lebron James. “The Decision” was one of the most ridiculous and most conceited acts by a professional athlete that I have ever witnessed (no pun intended). His performance in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas was a thing of beauty from a Lebron hater. I can’t stand him. Jordan and Russell were always defined by their competitiveness and their victories. Lebron could be defined by his losses: The game he quit against Boston, losing the Finals twice before breaking through, a Bronze Medal in the Olympics in 2004…it always seems like he lost before he could win. Kobe has lost 2 NBA finals himself. Jordan never did. That’s what separated him. When he got that close, he wasn’t losing. Trust me, he had the opportunities. 1998, in the deciding game, Pippen’s back failed him. Jordan was basically alone and running on fumes. He went the rim for a layup, stole the ball from Malone, and shoved Bryon Russell into the Rocky Mountains and sealed his legacy. I wrote aboutKobe Bryant’s legacy and frankly, I still don’t know what to make of it. Kobe has gotten a boost because of his rings and ultimately, Lebron’s legacy will be defined by his rings. If he only finishes with 1? I’m not sure he gets mentioned in that top-tier conversation with Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell, Kareem, Kobe, Shaq, etc. He’ll be in that 10-20 range. But as far as their overall skill? Lebron’s exceeded Kobe at his peak. Watch out, NBA.