Friday May 7th, 2010

The most fascinating theater of these NBA playoffs is a one-on-one duel between two players who haven't even shared a court. They are at opposite ends of the legend career arc: Kobe Bryant, 31 years old, still clinging to his throne; LeBron James, just 25, trying to ascend to his. They are on opposite ends of the country, both playing hurt, both shaping their legacy, one painful and extraordinary minute at a time.

Bryant is playing with a broken finger on his shooting hand, and it's like watching a concert pianist play with a broken thumb. James has a "strained and bruised" right elbow, and at times, I feel strained and bruised just watching him.

And yet ... there is a good chance that one of them will create a career-defining championship moment next month. If Bryant leads the Lakers to a title with that broken digit, he'll have five rings to go with two other Finals appearances, despite playing his entire career in the tougher conference. He will have an argument as the best player ever -- not that I buy the argument, but he'll have one.

If James leads the Cavaliers to a title, he can either a) bolt for a big-market team and probably lead another franchise to a championship or b) stay in Cleveland and create a dynasty. Either way, he will have staked a firm claim to the next decade.

In the meantime, game by game, we find out a little more about each man.

LeBron is going to win a championship. He will probably win several. He will do it if he comes back to Cleveland or goes to the Knicks or creates his own start-up franchise in Buenos Aires. Nobody with his ability has ever failed to win a title -- he is simply a better player than Dominique Wilkins or Patrick Ewing or anybody else in the "best player never to win a championship" conversation.

The question, then: Will James win one or two titles? Or is he ready to put together a dominant, once-a-generation run, winning championships despite roster upheaval, an assortment of worthy contenders and, yes, injuries?

And can Bryant finally, unequivocally, establish himself as the best player of his era? If he wins a fifth title, he will be ahead of Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, and he has more gas in his tank than Duncan does.

Comparing the best athletes in the world is always tricky business. As you try to analyze the difference, you inevitably overstate each player's flaws. So let's keep in mind: We are talking about two players who are not just Hall of Famers, but elite Hall of Famers -- the very best of the best. These guys are so good other Hall of Famers ask them for autographs.

So, with that yes-we-know-we're-complaining-about-the-one-dead-flower-at-Versailles disclaimer out of the way ... this is what separates the two:

LeBron is a more impressive physical specimen -- bigger, stronger and more explosive, especially at this stage of their careers. He has better court vision and is instinctively unselfish. That's amazing for a guy who made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school and has been a phenom for so long that when he was born, the hospital sent the umbilical cord to the Hall of Fame.

Kobe is smoother, a better pure shooter without any real weakness on the court.

Bryant is too willing to shoot over a triple team, but James is too willing to pass out of a single team.

But the biggest difference is in how they view themselves. Kobe, to this point, has proved to be a tougher competitor, to the point of being bullheaded. I cannot imagine Bryant shooting a late-game free throw left-handed, as James did in the first round against the Bulls, even though the game had basically been decided. And for chunks of Cleveland's series against Boston, James has looked like he is favoring his injured elbow.

It's not that James lacks toughness. I imagine he is hurting even more than he's let on, and he has still played very well. He just hasn't shown he is quite as tough as Bryant, one of the toughest guys in the whole league.

And this goes back to how they view themselves. This is best illustrated by comparing them to ... well, guess who I will compare them to:

A) George Gervin

B) Ulysses S. Grant

C) Michael Jordan

If you guessed C, congrats! You are correct.

LeBron seems to crave Jordan's approval -- he wants to prove he is the rightful Air heir. Kobe would probably never admit this publicly, but I'd be willing to bet that deep down, he thinks he could take Jordan. Deep down, he wishes he had the chance.

This says everything: When LeBron decided to change his number, he said he wanted to give up 23 in honor of Jordan. When Kobe decided to change his number, he went for 24 -- as Phil Jackson pointed out, the number just above Jordan. (I don't happen to buy LeBron's explanation, but his public deference to Jordan is telling.)

Nobody who has ever talked to LeBron would say he lacks confidence. I mean, the man has CHOSEN 1 tattooed across his back. But while Kobe famously had to rein in his selfish instincts (at least a little) to lead his team, LeBron must rein in his unselfish instincts. He still looks a little too tentative at the end of games for a player of his caliber. Not way too tentative. Just a little. But we're comparing superstars here, and the difference is noticeable.

Back in James' second season, I wrote that he looked like a freakish combination of Jordan and Magic Johnson, the two best players of my lifetime. I have not wavered from that belief. A decade from now, we might say he was the best player in history.

In the meantime, the guy in L.A. has always wanted that title. And Kobe Bryant is trying to grab it with his nine good fingers.

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