LeBron or Kobe? A never-ending debate
Could it be we have chosen the wrong measurement in comparing Kobe and LeBron?
We put so much emphasis on the start of a new year without thinking about just how random the date is. All it marks is a point on the Earth's orbit, and if we're not going to use in our everyday lives the days the Earth is closest to or farthest from the sun, one day is really no different from any other day. To us, nothing really changes on Jan. 1. Where is the start or finish on an ellipse? Someone (apparently, Julius Caesar) happened to pick Jan. 1, so that's the date after which the waiting times for the treadmill at your health club increase thanks to all the extra people who resolved to lose weight. It's arbitrary.
Maybe the paths of Kobe and LeBron are circular, not linear, so we'll never really know who's ahead. The common assumption was that LeBron was chasing Kobe, owner of three championship rings by the time LeBron reached the NBA Finals and the first between them to win an NBA Most Valuable Player award. But in the past couple of seasons, in the category that matters most -- postseason accomplishments -- LeBron has held the edge. LeBron was the first to take a team to the Finals on his own as the primary star. And LeBron's team took three games from the Boston Celtics in last season's playoffs, one more than Kobe's team managed.
The data at 82games.com suggest LeBron is better in the clutch, but why is it so much easier to call up the litany of Kobe's late-game heroics?
Both have benefited from taking on each other's qualities. LeBron needed more of Kobe's ruthlessness, the desire -- the need -- to take over games when the situation called for it. Kobe flourished when he adopted LeBron's willingness to involve his teammates. Could it be we have chosen the wrong measurement, that instead of sizing them up to determine the worthiest heir to Michael Jordan, we really should be assessing them as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the two parallel players who gave the league its juice in the 1980s?
For all of those brilliant "There Can Only Be One" commercials for last season's playoffs, we were deprived of the one we needed to see: Kobe and LeBron. We had LeBron and Kevin Garnett and Kobe and Garnett, but never Kobe and LeBron. One split-screen shot of the two of them is all you need. For all the stars in the league right now -- Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, the Celtics' Big Three -- the core question in the NBA right now is, Kobe or LeBron?
I thought I had a definitive answer last week after a former NBA player with championship rings explained why he gave the edge to Kobe. He looked at what happened when they were Olympic teammates and pointed to the gold-medal game in Beijing. The United States wouldn't have won it without Bryant. The U.S. assembled a roster of stars, and whom did it need when it mattered most? Kobe.
The player said the reason you're seeing a better LeBron this season, especially at the defensive end, is that he spent the summer practicing and playing with Kobe and saw Kobe's commitment to be the best.
Sounded good enough to me. I had my answer. But the next day, Kobe shot 3-for-12 in the fourth quarter of a Lakers home loss to the Orlando Magic, while LeBron hit the Hornets for 29 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists in an easy home victory. Whom would you rather have had on your team that night?
Monday night we'll get to see them on the same court, one of the two dates on the NBA's regular-season calendar that brings these stars together.
Bryant initially tried to downplay the event. When he was asked whether the competitive juices flow any faster when he faces LeBron, he said, "Every year you ask me the same boring question, and it's the same boring answer: No. I don't concern myself with that stuff, to be honest with you."
The problem was we had just seen evidence to the contrary Jan. 11, when Bryant squared off against Miami's Wade and clearly relished the opportunity, defending Wade so tightly that Wade's jersey should have had an "inspected by No. 24" sticker on it.
Reminding Kobe of that night brought this admission: "You compete no matter who you play against. Obviously, with guys who are that talented, you have to raise the level a lot more than playing against somebody else. It's going to be the same way [against LeBron]. It's going to be competitive. I've got to do what I've got to do to help our team win. He's got to do the same thing."
So yes, this game is different, one of those dates on the calendar that stands out. We will learn a little more, but we won't get resolution. We'll be just another step closer to reaching this same place again on a never-ending path.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.