Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson writes in his upcoming book Eleven Rings that Michael Jordan was a better leader, shooter and defender than Kobe Bryant.
Despite that clear-cut assessment from the coach who oversaw every title won by both guards, Bryant seems unwilling to concede the historical debate.
"The comparisons are apples to oranges," Bryant wrote on Twitter. "Wonder what the perception would be if [Jordan] played [with Shaquille O'Neal] instead. Different roles, different career paths."
The Los Angeles Times printed excerpts of Jackson's book, which is set for release on May 21, earlier this week.
"One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader," Jackson said. "Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had."
Jackson noted the "pronounced" difference in their accuracy, Jordan shooting almost 50% — an "extraordinary figure" — while Bryant had been at 45%.
"No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender. He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense."
After the excerpt was published, Jackson wrote on Twitter that his words shouldn't be read as a put down of Bryant.
"Listen friends of [basketball]," he wrote. "Don’t get hung up on words. I was most fortunate to have the chance to coach two of the greatest [guards] ever."
It's no surprise that the self-assured Bryant isn't willing to settle for the silver medal just yet. The same gene that governs his next-level, late-game bravery is at play here, refusing to give an inch in a battle that won't truly be over until Bryant retires. Bryant wouldn't really be Bryant if he responded to Jackson's rundown by saying, "MJ is the greatest there was, is and ever will be." Frankly, the world would be a little disappointed in him if that happened.
Even though Jackson's assessment aligns closely with conventional wisdom, as noted earlier this week, there's no reason for a concession speech from Bryant yet. Although an Achilles tear casts a cloud of uncertainty over his 2013-14 season, Bryant played well enough to compete for All-NBA First-Team honors this season at the age of 34, and he looked like he had a number of years of quality play left in his tank. Why should Bryant give up on the pursuit of unseating Jordan as the Greatest Of All Time before the final chapter has been written?
That said, Bryant's logic here isn't great. Playing with O'Neal should have given Bryant the opportunity to stack up title after title throughout his twenties. Instead, personalities and egos got in the way, and O'Neal was shipped out of town in 2004, leaving all sorts of hardware on the table. Bryant asks, "What would the perception be if Jordan played with O'Neal?" The short answer: Three or four more titles to add to the six he earned with the likes of Bill Wennington, Will Perdue, Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley .
Comparisons to Jordan have been a particularly hot topic recently as the Hall of Fame guard turned 50 years old in February.
“If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice, but five beats one every time I look at it, and not that he [LeBron James] won’t get five, he may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.”
James at first brushed off that talk -- tweeting "I'm not MJ, I'm LJ" -- but later made it clear in Houston that he very much seeks the Greatest Of All Time title.
“I want to be the greatest of all time,” James declared, adding later: “As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don’t do it to say I’m better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That’s how I help myself each and every night.”
Back in April, longtime NBA trainer Tim Grover, who has worked for years with both Jordan and Bryant, told SI.com that comparing Jordan to anyone besides legendary Celtics center Bill Russell would be a mistake.
"Michael Jordan was six-for-six in Finals, never lost a Finals, never needed a Game 7 to do that," Grover said. "Just by saying that alone, that puts him in a category I don’t think anybody else is in, except maybe a Bill Russell. Other than that, I don’t know if you can really put [Jordan] in the same category [with anybody].
"I think what [James] should do, instead of worrying about where Mike was at, he should be trying to get to the accolades, get to the Finals, as many times as Kobe had. ... I think the comparison [for James] should be more toward a current player he’s playing against now because of what Michael already did, and LeBron, in the early part of his career, faltered two times in the Finals. I think that [the Jordan/James] comparison can’t be made, just from that alone."
Last summer, Bryant made headlines when he suggested that his 2012 USA Basketball team could defeat Jordan's 1992 Dream Team.
"It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out," he said.
Jordan responded by telling the Associated Press that he "absolutely laughed" at Bryant's statement and that there was "no comparison" between the two teams.
Bryant, of course, was asked for a response to that response. "So what? He knows I'm a bad mother[expletive]," Bryant told reporters after an exhibition game in Las Vegas. "I'm not really tripping."