After Kobe Bryant received his fifth ring a few years back, speculation about whether he could pass Michael Jordan on the hardwood and in the history books began to swirl. After all, he is only one ring shy of Michael’s impressive six, and statistically no one has been able to produce the way Bryant has since MJ hung it up. Throw in the killer instinct and that alpha-dog drive possessed by both and it becomes easy to see where the comparisons come in to play.
Like most kids who grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Kobe idolized MJ, and developed a good part of his own game by emulating Michael’s moves. The difference between Kobe and most kids, however, was when Kobe imitated MJ on the hardwood, he actually did it well. So well in fact, that entering the sixteenth season of his illustrious NBA career, many call Kobe the second coming of Michael.
While Kobe, one of the most talented, driven, and dedicated players of all time is deserving of all the accolades and acclaim he receives on the court, I feel that the comparison to the greatest of all time is a little unfounded. This is not necessarily a knock on Kobe, as it is doubtful that anyone will be able to duplicate the individual success Michael achieved on the hardwood. In fact, Kobe may have come as close as possible, causing many to aptly label him “this generation’s Jordan.”
However, despite all Kobe’s success and similarities to MJ, there is one obvious, yet important distinction between the two; Kobe never won without big help, literally. In other words, Kobe Bryant never won an NBA Title without the presence of a premier post player on his team.
Although it is now slowly shifting to a small-ball, semi-Euro style of play, the NBA has long been a big man’s game, in which having a superior center on your team was a good indicator of success, and Kobe Bryant has benefitted from this blue print as much as anyone.
As everyone is well aware, Kobe’s first three titles came while playing alongside Shaquille O’Neil, one of the most talented and dominant big men the game has ever seen. It was Shaq, not Kobe, who was named MVP in all three of those Finals appearances while averaging an incredible 29.8 points and 14.4 rebounds per game over the course of those three playoff appearances. While Kobe was no slouch statistically during those runs, he was clearly second fiddle to Shaq; a role Jordan never knew. The best statistical support MJ ever received from a big guy during a Finals run was the 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game Horace Grant put up in the 1990-1991 playoffs.
Although he was clearly the go-to-guy on his next two title teams, Kobe’s fourth and fifth rings didn’t come without their fair share of help. In fact, if you can recall the first couple seasons in L.A. post-Shaq, Kobe struggled to keep the Lakers afloat, while complaining that he needed help (Also something you never heard Jordan do). Luckily for Kobe, the Lakers front office has long been able to work miracles, and help came in the form of Pau Gasol, another one of the League’s premier post players.
With Pau in the post, and the help of young stud center Andrew Bynum, Kobe was able to take home two more titles, while finally etching his name on the Finals MVP trophy; an honor Shaq’s performances had prevented him from. During those 08-09, and 09-10 playoffs, when the Lakers won their two most recent titles, Pau averaged an impressive 18.9 point and 10.95 rebounds per game; again well above any big man help Michael benefitted from. In other words, even when Kobe’s titles weren’t being driven by The Diesel’s dominance, he still had supreme (nearly 20-10) frontcourt support.
Sure Michael had Scottie, but the benefits of having a dominant big on the block often outweighs that of another wing, as bigs can draw attention (and defenders) away from the other players on the floor.
Kobe is one of the most driven and dedicated players of all time. He was an integral part of five (so far) championship teams and has put up some individual statistics at a consistency the likes of which the League has never seen. He is a first ballot hall of famer and one of the game's all time greats. However, when it comes to comparing him to THE all time great, his surrounding cast in those championship seasons must be considered. Kobe's frontcourt support (3 titles with shaq, 2 with pau) is far superior to MJ's (a combination of King, Cartwright, Horace Grant, Rodman and Luc Longley; none of which averaged more then 12 ppg during the playoffs of any of Michael's championship seasons).
So, while Kobe may be this generation’s Jordan, it is important not to forget the frontcourt help he had along the way; a luxury the original MJ never enjoyed.
All statistics @ Basketball-Reference.com