Kobe's Unbelievable, but He's No Michael Jordan

I'd like to preface this by acknowledging that, yes, I'm being a spoilsport. I know I will get criticism such as: "Oh stop dissing Kobe! He's passing now! What more do you want?" and the sure-to-be-popular "Sore loser. You write for a Hornets blog, therefore you are automatically disqualified from writing a credible Kobe < MJ post". Kobe Bryant just won the MVP, guided his talented Laker squad through the treacherous West, and all the way to the NBA Finals. It's a remarkable achievement for sure. But sorry Kobe's parade. You're about to be rained on.

Recent comments by Mark Jackson added fuel to a fire that's been steadily growing for a few years now. Is Kobe the G.O.A.T.? Nope. Sorry to break it to you, but it's not even close. A breakdown, the point of which is not to throw out nebulous terms like "Jordan had great leadership, but Kobe's more explosive," but to provide concrete evidence of MJ's superiority:

Scoring:

We don't have a better scorer in the league right now than Bryant. (Sorry LBJ, but seriously, 39.9% on jump-shots won't cut it). Was Jordan better in his time? PPG is not the greatest measure of a player's ability, but when coupled with eFG%, it gives a pretty good estimation of efficiency and production.

A look at 23's best 10 seasons vs. 24's top 10:

Kobemj1

Granted Kobe shot better than MJ in their two respective best scoring years. That's an aberration. Check out the rest of the figures. It's immediately obvious that Jordan scored more, and Jordan scored more efficiently. Only two places where this doesn't hold true: #1 and #10. From 2-9, MJ dominates. Jordan shot 55% en route to score 33 a game. Seriously, 55%.  Oh, and by the way, Jordan has a 28.2 and a 26.9 that didn't make ths list. Given the numbers, it's pretty clear that Jordan dominates the scoring matchup. Two caveats though:

Firstly, Kobe's only 30 and will probably produce around his current level for 3 or so years before dropping off ever so slightly (and still churning out solid seasons). So he'll fill up some nice numbers in that 6-10 range. But even with the extra time ahead of him, we have zero signs that he will come close to matching MJ's scoring and scoring efficiency in the 1-5 spots. Second, Kobe had Shaq so he didn't need to score all that much. This is a very valid argument and using it, one can argue that PPG undervalues Kobe. There are other aspects to the game...

Ball Handling/Taking Care of the Rock

This is a category that many analysts award to Kobe for some reason. That's something I don't see the logic behind. There's no better way to measure how often a player gives up the ball than turnover percentage, or TOV% (raw turnovers are okay, but crude. TOV% is the number of turnovers/100 possessions and thus cuts down on error due to team and league pace). Time for another table, this one of TOV% in both players' first 12 seasons. Keep in mind that the lower the number, the better.

Kobemj2

Now go ahead and count up how many times Jordan was better. I've bolded the seasons to make this very difficult task much easier. Done? Now if you think 11-1 Jordan is crazy, get this next one. MJ had the lowest TOV% in the entire league in '97. He had a lower TOV% than his teammate Steve Kerr, who was legendary for not letting the ball touch the ground (ie, a shot or a pass on every touch). Baseball people will often point to Yogi Berra striking out just 12 teams in 600 AB's as one of the craziest single season stats in the sport. MJ's TOV% is basketball's Yogi Berra strikeout stat.

Kobe a better ball-handler? Riiight.

Rebounding

Jordan (6'6", 195) and Bryant (6'6", 200) are so similarly built that it's worth comparing their rebounding figures. I won't bore you with season by season statistics, but instead with three simple numbers. ORB%: MJ 4.7, Kobe 3.8. DRB%:  MJ 14.1, Kobe 12.6. TRB%: MJ 9.4, Kobe 8.2. Translation: MJ was better at offensive rebounding. MJ was better at defensive rebounding. MJ was better at rebounding. And before you say that Kobe had Shaq stealing his potential rebounds , dig deep in those memory banks and remember who was cleaning the glass for Chicago. Yup, Dennis Rodman.

Passing

This has long been one of the biggest critiques of Kobe: he doesn't pass enough and make his teammates better as MJ did. I think much of that has been overstated through the years. This is the thing with Kobe: many of the shots that he takes only look "bad" because most players would look silly taking them. Kobe haters won't admit this, but #24 is probably the most difficult shot maker in NBA history. Yes, better than MJ. No way to quantify it, but watch a season of Jordan games and a season of Kobe's games and it's obvious. Kobe can hit a fadeaway, turnaround 20 footer over a hand seemingly at will. It looks like a bad shot when it misses, but given his ability, it's never as bad as it looks. That's my defense of his supposedly poor passing.

Passing can be measured decently with AST% (number of assists/100 possessions). Jordan had a really odd trend in his career- in 1989, he posted a stellar 34.7 AST%, but his assist rate declined pretty much every year until his second retirement, when he posted a shockingly low 18.0%. If Kobe every posted an 18.0%, he'd be crucified. Was it a case of him trusting teammates less and less? That's debatable. AST% for great scorers isn't a measure of "trust" as much as a mixture of confidence in oneself and luck. You'd better believe that MJ was pretty damn confident in himself by 1998. Jordan's career AST% stands at 24.9%.

A common phrase we've heard a lot this year is "Kobe's passing the ball a lot more and trusting his teammates." According to AST%, not true. His AST%, since 2000, '00 first: 22.4, 23.0, 25.9, 27.2, 24.4, 28.5, 24.1, 25.5, 23.9. His '08 campaign saw his lowest assist rate in 7 years, so he's not necessarily passing the ball more. Instead, the numbers say that Kobe's always been a pretty good passer, contrary to public opinion. Bryant's career AST% stands at 23.6%.

In the end, Jordan is still the better passer but by less than you might imagine. The 1.3% difference in AST% is bound to decrease with P. Gasol in the mix for L.A.

Defense

Easily the most difficult aspect of the game to quantify. You'll find some analysts that say steals indicate nothing about a player's defensive prowess and that steals might actually be a negative stat due to the potential gambling involved. You'll find some analysts that say steals can't be ignored because every steal is a defensive stop (as outlined by Dean Oliver). You'll find some analysts that say DPOY awards and All-Defensive teams are popularity contests, and others that support those honors.

In terms of box score stats, MJ posted a 3.1 STL% to Kobe's current 2.2 So slightly better. He posted a 1.4 BLK% to Kobe's 1.2. Basically negligible. In terms of awards, MJ garnered 9 All-Defensive 1st team awards in 15 seasons to Kobe's 6 in 12. MJ, though, also won a Defensive Player of the Year award, something most feel Kobe won't ever achieve. In the end, I say that Jordan holds the slight edge, but it's clearly up for debate.

Durability

This one isn't mentioned in very many MJ vs. KB debates, but I don't see why not. Jordan was one of the NBA's great ironmen and hit 80 or more games in 10 out of 13 seasons with Chicago (and played all 82 his last year in Washington). Kobe, meanwhile, has played 80 or more in just 5 of 12 seasons (I'm counting '99's 50 games as 80+). This stat may seem like a cherry-pick since Kobe did hit 77 games one year (I'm only counting his starter seasons, so his 79 in '98 doesn't count). But Jordan also posted a 78 game season in '93 to even that out.

Simply put, Jordan just didn't miss very many games whilst not stricken by a crippling desire to play professional baseball in a highly amateurish fashion. Kobe's missed quite a few.

Playoffs? Playoffs? We're talkin'... Playoffs?

Yeah, Playoffs. Jordan posted 33.4 PPG (on 49%), 6.4 RPG, and 5.7 APG. He's collected 6 championships. As of today, Bryant's posted 24.2 PPG (on 45%), 5.1 RPG, and 4.6 APG. He's collected 3 championships.

He could pick up #4 in the next few weeks, and maybe #5 in the next few years. But as far as matching Jordan as one of the greatest playoff performers of all time? Not impossible, but let's just say, highly improbable. I hate measuring players based on what they've won; it sells great players with bad teammates short. So let's just move on.

The Big Picture

As of today, I don't think there's a better "big picture" stat than John Hollinger's PER. +/- has some work to be done as far as isolating individual player performances, and ORtg requires USG% to be useful. So how do Jordan and Bryant match up, PER-wise?

A list of the top 10 season PER's between the two players combined:

  1. Jordan, '88, 31.7
  2. Jordan, '91, 31.6
  3. Jordan, '90, 31.2
  4. Jordan, '89, 31.1
  5. Jordan, '87, 29.8
  6. Jordan, '93, 29.7
  7. Jordan, '96, 29.4
  8. Bryant, '06, 28.0
  9. Jordan, '97, 27.8
  10. Jordan, '92, 27.7

Jordan career PER: 27.8, Bryant career PER 23.6. Think about that. Kobe had his best year statistically in 2006, when he hit amazing shot after amazing shot, averaged 35.4 ppg and scored 81 in a single game. And Michael Jordan had not one, not two, not even three, but seven seasons that were better. In the end, it's probably naive to omit mentioning hand checking violations and zone defenses that differentiate both players' eras. But it's also beyond the scope of most statistics to account for the error caused, so I'll merely say that both players had their perks. Jordan didn't contend with the zone and Bryant is now hand-check free. Make of that what you will, but the overall picture still remains the same.

Kobe might be the greatest of his generation, but better than Michael? That's an insult to the Greatest of All Time.

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