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Relish the LeBron-Kobe matchup

12/25/2010
Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan had few meetings when both of them were near their prime. Andy Hayt/Getty Images

Christmas Day represents one of the last opportunities for LeBron James to beat Kobe Bryant the player. Pretty soon LeBron will be competing against the legend of Kobe Bryant, an opponent that could be almost impossible to conquer.

Kobe knows all about that challenge. He's been chasing the specter of Michael Jordan for the better part of a decade, discovering just how hard it can be to post up or guard a myth. Since they never went against each other in their prime, we're left to match what we've seen from Bryant against what we remember of Jordan.

Legends are guaranteed to appreciate with time, like a certificate of deposit. We forget the flaws and focus on the flourishes. We see Kobe shoot 6-for-24 in a Game 7 and say Jordan would never do anything like that, conveniently overlooking the time Jordan shot 9-for-25 in a Game 7. We remember Jordan winning 23 of his last 24 playoff series and forget that he won just a single game in his first three trips to the postseason.

During a recent interview on ESPN 710 AM radio in Los Angeles, Kevin McHale was asked to compare Jordan and Bryant. McHale went with Jordan, but barely, using Jordan's superior team defense as the deciding factor. That's like choosing between "The Godfather" and "Citizen Kane" based on the costume design. It was as though McHale felt obligated to stand up for the player from his generation, and would use any means to justify it.

I'm on record as saying I'd pick Kobe over Jordan to make a last-second shot. But when it comes down to the category that ultimately matters most, I'd pick Jordan if I needed to win a playoff game or series.

Based on that last criterion, I'd rather have Kobe than LeBron. He's simply won a higher percentage of his playoff series: 79 percent to 62 percent.

Granted, every series Kobe won was with either Shaquille O'Neal (in his prime) or Pau Gasol, far better teammates than anyone who played alongside LeBron until this season.

And that's already one way in which the legend is overtaking the player. Increasingly, Bryant is getting more credit for his ring total and fewer demerits for being a sidekick when Shaq was the NBA Finals MVP for Kobe's initial three-peat.

Myth and reality continued to diverge this summer, when Bryant was held up as a model of a star sticking with his home team, while James was derided for bolting from Cleveland via television show. Never mind that only three summers earlier Bryant was calling for a trade and griping about the Los Angeles Lakers organization everywhere from radio shows to shopping-center parking lots. Bryant had won two championships in the interim, and those carry more weight.

Three years from now there will be no doubt about who's better. LeBron will be in his late 20s, in his prime, while Kobe will be in his mid-30s, fading, living off his reputation. But if LeBron hasn't gained any ground in the ring chase, if he hasn't used these next two seasons to outperform Bryant when they square off, it won't be enough. LeBron can't be considered the best player ever if he can't stake a claim to being the best player of his era, and Bryant has made four trips to the NBA Finals (compared to one for LeBron) and won it twice in the time LeBron's been in the league. Those are the impressions that stick, more so than LeBron's 2-1 edge in MVP awards. (Steve Nash has two MVPs as well, and you don't hear his name in this conversation.)

Jordan and Bryant didn't have as much overlap. Kobe's first two years in the league coincided with Jordan's last two in Chicago, and those Lakers didn't have the experience and leadership to get past Stockton and Malone, let alone pose a threat to Jordan's Bulls. What if Jordan hadn't retired in 1999? Would the Lakers have won the first championship of the new millennium if they had faced the Bulls instead of the Indiana Pacers? Would Phil Jackson have been available to come to Los Angeles and coach them?

We might have seen the same transition that unfolded when Jordan assumed the mantle from Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals. Perhaps Kobe would have had a fair shot at dethroning Jordan if it had unfolded literally in front of our eyes.

Do you recall what happened the last time Kobe played Jordan? Kobe destroyed him, dropping 42 points in the first half alone. He did Jordan worse than Jordan did LaBradford Smith. But that game never comes up in the Kobe-versus-Jordan debate, because it came while Jordan played for the Wizards, and those two seasons are deemed inadmissible evidence. They're not part of the canon, as the creators of "Lost" used to say.

That leaves only a couple more seasons for LeBron to build his case while the games with Kobe are relevant. The terms have never been more equal than they are now, with Kobe coming off a championship and LeBron flanked by stronger weapons -- in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- than he's ever had at his disposal.

So far Kobe has outlasted every peer who has been compared to him. Kobe's drive to remain on top has resulted in such an extended run of excellence, it now seems laughable that we ever put Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady on the same tier as him. The Kobe-versus-Shaq debate has been in Kobe's favor for the past four years.

LeBron is the first challenger that will be here after Kobe is gone. And that's when the hard part begins.