If you're looking to spark an argument, no two players provide better flint than the two superstars who may be meeting each other for the title two weeks from now.
Kobe versus LeBron. LeBron versus Kobe. Just light the match by saying those names, stand back and watch the flames grow. No gasoline needed.
With good reason, it turns out. They've won the past two MVP awards and the past four All-Star Game MVP awards, their teams had the two best records this season and they're the two most popular players in the league right now, finishing first and second in jersey sales, according to the NBA.
The similarities don't end there. Each came to the league straight out of high school and made the All-Star team in his second season. Each won a gold medal with the U.S. national team this summer. Each plays both ends of the court, with a first-team All-Defense selection this season to supplement his offensive exploits.
While they play different positions technically -- James is a small forward and Bryant is a shooting guard -- those descriptions are far too narrow to describe their talents. Both are so dominant as wing players that they essentially play point guard for their teams, with most of the attack flowing through them.
So let's break it down: Kobe versus LeBron.
To me, it basically comes down to three questions:
WHO IS BETTER RIGHT NOW?
This is a bit of an unfair fight, as James is entering the peak of his prime and Bryant is at the tail end of his. Nonetheless, it's clear that you'd rather have the 24-year-old version of James than the 30-year-old version of Bryant.
James led the league in PER, led his team to the best record and won the MVP award, but that barely scratches the surface of how good he was this season. His 31.76 PER was the third-best mark since the league began tracking individual turnovers, exceeded only by one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Bryant wasn't exactly chopped liver either, finishing second in the MVP voting, third in scoring and fifth in Value Added. Not bad for a guy playing the past 18 months with a busted pinky on his shooting hand that would have required surgery for most mortals.
James also wins the battle of the advanced stats. His on-court versus off-court differential was ridiculous. The Cavaliers were 21.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, according to 82games.com, which is roughly the difference between a 70-loss team and a 70-win team. Bryant's difference was only plus-10.23 points, although in fairness to Kobe, part of the disparity can be explained by the relative quality of the two teams' wing reserves.
And in the playoffs, James has only raised his game thus far. His Playoff PER of 41.81 is something out of a video game, as are his per-game averages of 32.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Bryant, again, hasn't been too shabby, putting up a 25.25 PER (ranked 10th in the regular season) against better competition than James faced, but he pales in comparison.
WHO HAS HAD THE BETTER CAREER?
Though LeBron is better at the moment, he still has a ways to go to catch Bryant in terms of career accomplishments. The greatest line in Bryant's résumé is his season-to-season consistency, and the only way James is going to catch him in this department is with at least another half-decade of excellence.
Bryant has been an All-Star 11 times and All-Defense pick nine times, marks James will need several seasons to match, if he can -- especially since Bryant is still accumulating honors. Kobe has won three championships to LeBron's zero, of course, and although Shaquille O'Neal was the go-to guy on those teams, Bryant wasn't exactly a role player.
Bryant's weren't just humdrum All-Star seasons of the David West variety, either -- in nearly all of them, Bryant was among the very best players in the league. This season was Bryant's ninth consecutive campaign with a PER of 23.0 or better, and the seventh in the past eight in which he was a first-team All-NBA selection. Perhaps his consistency is best seen in the MVP vote: This was the seventh time in the past eight seasons he finished in the top five.
Along with that consistency has come durability. I mentioned above that Bryant blew off the pinky injury to lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals a season ago and to 65 wins this season (not to mention winning an Olympic gold medal in between). He's missed only 42 games over the past eight seasons, a track record that looks even better when you factor in all the deep playoff runs his teams have made.
LeBron has played only six seasons, so it's impossible for him to have matched Bryant's accomplishments just yet. He's off to a really good start, though: Already he has five All-Star appearances, three straight first-team All-NBA selections and four straight top-five MVP finishes. He's also led the league in PER three times, something Bryant hasn't done even once.
For James to match Bryant's career totals, he'll need to stay on the court. That seems a given right now, but remember that James is huge -- he is listed at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, but reported to be larger -- and his knees and ankles are taking a tremendous pounding. James has already played in more than 500 NBA games, and played more than 40 minutes a pop in them -- an intense 40 minutes, I might add, as he has been doing most of the ballhandling and creating for the Cavs.
So we can't take it as a sure thing that he's going to keep performing at this exalted level until he's 30. No player in history has accrued mileage at the rate James has, not even Bryant. That fact stands as the largest potential impediment to his matching Bryant's career totals.
WHO HAS HAD THE BETTER PRIME?
We can't totally answer this question, of course, since we don't know how the upcoming seasons will play out. But looking back, we do have a tantalizing four-year period to examine: The time when both players were contemporaries, and at or near the top of their game. From 2005-06 through this season, both Bryant and James were in the top eight in PER, the top five in MVP voting and the top four in scoring each season. In addition to the MVP trophy, each won a conference championship and both may add another one in the next two weeks.
In that span, James finished second, fifth, fourth and first in the MVP vote; Bryant was fourth, third, first and second. Bryant had the two highest scoring averages and PER marks of his career in that span, including his insane 35.4 points per game in 2005-06, while four of his top six PER marks came in the past four seasons.
Even in that comparison, though, James comes out a little ahead. Bryant's 2005-06 season was easily the best of his career; even so, James just edged him out for the PER crown that season (28.17 to 28.11, with Dirk Nowitzki slipping in between at 28.16). James has led the league in that department three of the past four seasons, in fact.
Bryant finished with a better PER than James only once in that span, the 2006-07 season when his 26.13 beat out James's 24.56. Since then it's been all James, as he held a 29.15 to 24.09 edge last season, and a crushing 31.76 to 24.46 advantage this season. Similarly, James has had the better postseason PER in three of the four seasons, as well.
In the big-picture categories, we see a similar picture. James has consistently had better on-court versus off-court numbers over the four-year period, and his team had the better win-loss record in three of the four seasons. The one time it didn't was last season, and even then it comes with an asterisk -- James' Cavs put up a much better fight against the Celtics in the playoffs than Bryant's Lakers did.
It's not total domination, but run through nearly every category and you'll hit the same conclusion -- three seasons out of four, the edge goes to LeBron.
SO WHO WINS?
In the final analysis, we're missing one key variable: Time. It's safe to say that James' peak value is greater than Bryant's. His three best PER marks would be the three best of Bryant's career, and in the coming seasons he may add several more similar seasons to that list.
Similarly, the debate over which player is currently superior isn't much of a debate anymore. Two seasons ago it made for a much livelier discussion, and even last season you could throw around some pretty strong arguments either way. But James' epic 2008-09 campaign pretty much terminated the conversation, and it's obvious to anyone not flying purple and gold flags off their cars that he's the best player in the league.
What remains, then, is the career comparison. Bryant still has those three gleaming rings sitting in his trophy case, and he still has twice as many All-Star seasons as James does. It may seem like a no-brainer that James will eventually catch him, but time does funny things to a human body.
Bryant has been one of the most durable guards in league history, and his consistent excellence over a 12-year (and counting) period is the strongest line on a spectacular résumé. We have no idea if James can maintain the same track record over the next half-decade or so, and his sheer size may become a major impediment in those efforts.
If James does stay on course, however, any remaining debate over Kobe versus LeBron will be put to rest in favor of James. In that case, we would move on pretty quickly to LeBron versus Michael.
But if he can't? Then it gets interesting, because there wouldn't be a clear-cut answer. Instead, the debate would likely linger -- LeBron's superior peak value versus Kobe's superior career value -- long after the careers (and commercials) of both have faded into history.
Edited by #24, May 18, 2009 - 01:24 PM.