LeBron vs. Kobe: Who’s Greater?

LeBron vs. Kobe: Who’s Greater?

A few weeks ago, ESPN released a ranking of the 150 greatest players in NBA history. Though there is a lot to discuss regarding those rankings, I want to use ESPN’s list merely as a launching point for one of the more popular NBA debates of the 21st century.

Current Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James and the soon-to-be retired Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant are often cited as the two greatest players of our generation. I’ve always considered the two to be neck-and-neck in terms of overall greatness, yet the basketball analysts at ESPN suggest that there is a wide gap between the two. They ranked James third and Bryant twelfth on their list, which I initially thought was ridiculous. But perhaps a more thorough investigation is in order to find out which is the greater player.

Let’s start by analyzing their respective resumes with the table below:

 

LeBron James

Kobe Bryant

Seasons:

13

20

2

NBA Titles:

5

4

MVP’s:

1

2

Finals MVP’s:

2

9

First Team All-NBA:

11

11

All-NBA Selections:

15

12

All-Star Appearances:

18

1

Scoring Titles:

2

 

There are a few things that stand out in these comparisons. First of all, Kobe has the clear edge in NBA titles. Though LeBron’s championship window is still open, it’s hard to imagine he will ever reach five titles. Bryant also has the edge over James in many other categories such as All-NBA selections and All-Star appearances. However, this is deceptive because Kobe has seven more years of experience. On a per year basis, LeBron’s credentials, particularly in terms of All-NBA selections, actually look a bit more impressive. Plus, LeBron holds a distinct advantage in MVP awards, which shows that he has generally been viewed as the more dominant player. So even though he’ll likely never match Kobe in titles, I’m giving LeBron’s overall resume the slight edge.

Now let’s dive into their respective statistics. Here are their career averages on a per game basis:

 

LeBron James

Kobe Bryant

27.2

Points Per Game:

25.1

6.9

Assists Per Game:

4.7

7.1

Rebounds Per Game:

5.3

.496

Field Goal Percentage:

.448

.339

Three Point Percentage:

.330

27.6

Player Efficiency Rating:

22.9

14.5

Win Shares Per Season:

8.6

 

Die-hard Kobe fans might want to shield their eyes because LeBron holds a pretty sizeable edge in nearly every category. Most notably, LeBron holds advantages in two of the most commonly used advanced statistics, with nearly a five-point edge in player efficiency rating, which essentially measures a player’s per minute production compared to an average player (15 is considered average while anything over 25 is considered exceptional). He also edges Kobe in terms of win shares, which is an approximation of how many wins a player contributes to a team.

But in Bryant’s defense, his statistics have been bogged down of late by some injury-plagued seasons. That’s why it’s also important to measure “peak performance” or, in other words, how great a player was in their prime. Here are their career highs in each of the statistics from the previous table:

 

LeBron James

 

Kobe Bryant

31.4 (2006)

Points Per Game:

35.4 (2006)

8.6 (2010)

Assists Per Game:

6.0 (2005)

8.0 (2013)

Rebounds Per Game:

6.9 (2003)

.567 (2014)

Field Goal Percentage:

.469 (2002)

.406 (2013)

Three Point Percentage:

.383 (2003)

31.7 (2009)

Player Efficiency Rating:

28.0 (2006)

20.3 (2009)

Win Shares Per Season:

15.3 (2006)

 

While peak performance narrows the gap a little, LeBron still holds an edge over Kobe in everything but scoring.

But what are numbers if you can’t deliver in the clutch? With the significant edge in titles, Bryant, by all accounts, is the superior playoff performer than James. But is this true? I’ll spare you another table and get to the point: LeBron, despite three fewer championships, even holds the edge in playoff performance over Kobe as well. Like he has in terms of regular season statistics, James trumps Bryant in terms of playoff points, rebounds, assists, and win shares. This applies for peak playoff performance as well, where James owns an even clearer advantage.

But what really seals LeBron’s case as a greater player than Kobe is what he brings to teams in terms of value. Even though LeBron has been known to falter in big moments (his teams are only 2-4 in the NBA Finals), whereas Kobe has thrived, people simply do not realize how valuable LeBron is. According to fivethirtyeight.com, James has had three of the ten worst supporting casts for an NBA Finals team, which shows how well he can carry a team. LeBron has also been the best player on each of his NBA Finals teams while in Kobe’s first three titles, Shaquille O’Neal was statistically more valuable. Lastly, LeBron’s value speaks for itself when you look at what happens when he transitions from a team. When he left the Cavaliers in 2009, for instance, Cleveland went from 60+ wins to being one of the league’s worst teams. Before joining the Cavs a second time, Cleveland hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since James left, yet now they are contending for the title once again. Kobe, on the other hand, could not get the Lakers to the second round in the two years after Shaq left.

Although I initially felt that ESPN was wrong to place LeBron so far ahead of Kobe, it is clear that ESPN got it right. In fact, everything I have said so far suggests that the gap between LeBron and Kobe could be even larger.

But here is why this debate is so intriguing. Even after breaking down their resumes, statistics, and respective value, I still feel that Kobe, circa the mid-2000’s, struck more fear in opponents than LeBron has at any stage in his career. To put it in other words, if I were a coach and my team was down three with a couple minutes to play, I’m putting the ball in Kobe’s hands rather than LeBron’s. Why is this? I guess it comes down to those intangibles that you cannot measure—that killer instinct, if you will—that Kobe has over LeBron.

If I am confusing you right now, let me leave with you this: there is no “right” answer. Sure, I’d argue that LeBron is greater based on the numbers, but determining who is “greater” is really a matter of opinion. They are both exceptional players and are as good as anyone to ever the play the game-Michael Jordan being the only possible exception. So if you are tuned in on March 10th for when these two meet for the last time, be sure to cherish the moment. 

 

Photo courtesy of the NBA

 

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