Great Debate: LeBron vs. Kobe
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.
Who is the best baller in the world -- LeBron or Kobe? We rounded up a team of TrueHoop Network bloggers to help settle the score. The Great Debate
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.