- Michael Jordan reignited the Kobe vs. LeBron argument, but James ended that debate a long time ago. Here are five more compelling arguments.
The Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James argument was briefly revived this week when Michael Jordan, a former baseball player, said he thinks Bryant is the better player, thanks in large part to his five championship rings (compared to LeBron’s three.)
Fortunately, readers of The Crossover know better. The Kobe vs. LeBron debate ended a long time ago. James is the better player. He’s a better one-on-one defender, better team defender, more versatile defender, better passer, more willing passer, more efficient scorer, more efficient clutch scorer and better teammate than Bryant (to name a few of the things). So if you’re committed to wasting your time comparing NBA players, here are five arguments that are much more compelling than Bryant vs. James.
All stats via Basketball Reference
Tim Duncan vs. Shaquille O’Neal
Duncan vs. Shaq is one of my favorite NBA arguments. Shaq at his peak was the more dominant player. What O’Neal did to competing NBA centers during the Lakers’ three-peat, particularly those in the Eastern Conference, was insane. But Duncan’s longevity arguably—I said arguably!—gives him a case as the better player. Both played 18 years in the league, but Duncan played nearly 200 more games because he was the more durable of the two.
In his prime, Shaq was in a different tier than Duncan offensively. Having said that, Duncan was the more impactful defender, and he maintained his defensive prowess practically through the final season of his career—which can’t be said for O’Neal. Shaq has the edge on Duncan in PER, but Timmy edges him in Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and VORP. In the Finals, Shaq was indisputably the Lakers’ best player during their run of three straight titles. And yet, Duncan has the same number of Finals MVPs, and he was a key cog on championship teams from 1999 to 2014. So whose career would you rather have?
Prime Kobe vs. Prime Wade
Who was the better player in their prime—Wade or Bryant? Kobe’s durability and overall game gives him several advantages over Wade in terms of their whole career, but when both were at their best, their games were closer than you may think. If you compare Bryant’s 2008 MVP season with Wade’s best individual year (‘08–’09), Wade has the upper hand in several categories, including PER, Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and VORP.
In fact, over his entire career, Bryant never had a season in which his PER or VORP matched Wade’s best year. Both of these players' primes were affected by somewhat substandard teammates. Kobe had some lean years in L.A. before the arrival of Pau Gasol, while Wade’s best years in the league were spent alongside Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and a cast of iffy veterans. Had both of these players had truly great teams during their best years, this debate could have been settled head-to-head.
1987 Lakers vs. 2017 Warriors
This is the historical matchup I most want to see. Who on the Warriors guards Kareem? How quickly does Kevin Durant run A.C. Green off the court when the Dubs go small? This matchup would perhaps be the ultimate battle in contrast of styles. The Lakers may have been Showtime, but they weren’t the three-point bombing team the Warriors are currently. The game has changed so much in 30 years. Draymond Green would have been a small forward in the ‘80s!
This matchup most likely hinges on Kareem. If he, at 39, dominates Green in the post, the Warriors would be forced to play big, which takes one shooter off the court. But if Kareem can’t run around on defense, Golden State would be happy trading threes for twos. I honestly think the Warriors would win because of their outside shooting (Mychal Thompson does, too), but can you really pick against Magic, Kareem and James Worthy?
Joel Embiid vs. Greg Oden
Tony Parker vs. Manu Ginobili
What this argument really shows is how much of a sacrifice Ginobili has made by coming off the bench for most of his career. Parker has racked up the accolades—a Finals MVP, six All-Star appearances, three All-NBA Second Team nods. Mani has advantages over Parker in career PER, VORP, but Parker has more career win shares. Which player was more valuable to the Spurs in the four championships Parker and Ginobili shared? Parker has been more durable and more consistent. Ginobili at times was much more impactful albeit in shorter stretches. This one is sneaky tough to figure out.
Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
The counting stats and per-36 numbers of Paul and Thomas are very close, with Paul holding slight edges in assists and rebounding while Thomas barely holds the lead in scoring. The advanced numbers tell a different story. Paul has significant leads in PER, true-shooting percentage, Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 minutes and VORP over Thomas.
Now, we started this exercise by saying championships could be a reductive way at determining a players’ worth. With Paul and Thomas, however, doesn’t it have to mean something that Thomas was the best player on two title teams while Paul has never been to the conference finals? Paul has faced stiff competition, but Thomas was dealing with Jordan’s Bulls, Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers—all of whom he defeated en route to two championships. (And he could have had a third if not for a phantom foul call.) Until Stephen Curry, Thomas was the last point guard to be the best player on a title team. In a perfect vacuum, you probably want Paul. Still, Thomas proved himself against his contemporaries in a way Paul has yet to, and that can’t be ignored completely.