Holding Court - Is Kobe better than Mike?

MANILA, Philippines - Here we go again. Kevin Durant, the leading candidate for this year’s league MVP honors, caught my attention over the weekend when he was reported to have told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News that Kobe Bryant is “the greatest of all time” and went on to classify Bryant and Michael Jordan as “1 and 1A.”

Now, lest this be misconstrued as an overreaction, please understand that such declarations hold a certain significance to us chroniclers of our games, not only basketball but all other games, as it is part and parcel of our responsibility to help provide perspective, and correct what to our mind may be patently – or even partially – misguided perceptions of the various figures and events that have helped make these games the ultimate test of skills and character and a primary source of joy and inspiration for masses of people. Remember what the great Nelson Mandela said?

“Sport has the power to change the world… it has the power to inspire,” Mandela declared in terms that will forever be etched in history.  “It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.  It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.  It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

See what I mean?  And so we go back to Kevin Durant and his declaration of Kobe Bryant as the greatest of all, even greater than Michael Jordan. Is Durant wrong in this case? Is anybody who would rank one generally regarded the best at his position, if not the best of all, period, just next to another a terribly misguided soul or totally guilty of unmitigated bias, if not outright blaspheme?

Not necessarily. As Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Devine says, “Rankings are… a matter of personal preference, Durant’s entitled to his opinion as to Kobe’s all-time greatness, and the specific elements Durant’s talking about… might not dovetail perfectly with everyone else’s definitions of ‘greatest of all time.’”

In other words, everyone is entitled to his own opinion. In this particular case, however, a little more examination is needed to get into the real context of the declaration, which was made by Durant after he was asked by Medina about the way he works on his game – and how he has modeled his approach after his own experiences with the LA Lakers super-guard over the time he has associated with him, particularly in the 2012 London Olympics.

 “Of course. He’s the greatest of all time,” Durant declares.  “His skill is second to none.  Him and (Michael Jordan) are neck and neck as far as skill.  You can put in athleticism and be the best passer and strongest and quickest.  But it’s about skill.  I think that’s how his game is played.  That’s why Kobe is the top two best ever in just having skill, footwork, shooting the three, shooting the pullup, posting up, dunking on guys and ballhandling.  It’s flat out skill.  Him and Jordan are 1 and 1A.  They’re neck and neck as far as the skills are concerned.”

THE AIR UP THERE. Michael Jordan (L) and Kobe Bryant were both iconic for their ability to innovate above the rim. Photos from WikiCommons

THE AIR UP THERE. Michael Jordan (L) and Kobe Bryant were both iconic for their ability to innovate above the rim.

Photos from WikiCommons

“He’s a great guy to talk to and somebody that I remember two years ago, I called him at like three in the morning.  We both had a game the next day,” the Oklahoma City super-forward recalls.  “I was picking his brain about different situations in the game and how I can handle my teammates better and how I can approach the game a little better.  That’s something I’ll always remember.”

Maybe, that has influenced Durant’s viewpoint, indeed, about who is the greatest player to him, but let’s not get carried away, Kevin.  Remember, you never saw or experienced Michael Jordan up close and personal the way you have Bryant, and so allow us to remind you about a few things.

First of all, the man who has intimately known both Mike and Kobe more than anybody else in history – Phil Jackson (he, by the way, will ascend the throne in New York any time now, which we’ll talk about later) – has already made a decision: Jordan is better than Bryant.  

In his last book “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” that came out last year, Jackson finally set aside all the diplomacy that he previously observed while still connected with the Lakers and Bryant, saying that Mike had the edge in practically all areas over Kobe.

ZEN MASTER. Phil Jackson, who coached both Bryant and Jordan to multiple championships, wrote in his autobiography that he felt MJ edged the Black Mamba in all major facets of the game. Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA

ZEN MASTER. Phil Jackson, who coached both Bryant and Jordan to multiple championships, wrote in his autobiography that he felt MJ edged the Black Mamba in all major facets of the game. Photo by Larry W.

Smith/EPA

Jackson said the biggest advantage Jordan held over Bryant was surprisingly not in offensive skills, where Michael ostensibly has the decisive edge with a career average of 30.1 points to Kobe’s 25.2, but in his leadership qualities and defensive ability.

“One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael’s superior skills as a leader,” Jackson wrote in his book.  “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 (early in his career).  He talked a good game, but he’d yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones.”

“No question, Michael was (also) a tougher, more intimidating defender,” Jackson continued.  “He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense.  In general, Kobe tends to rely more heavily on his flexibility and craftiness, but he takes a lot of gambles on defense and sometimes pays the price.”

Jackson also gives the edge to his Chicago Bulls legend in offensive efficiency, and noted the difference between him and the Laker superstar that probably accounts for Jordan’s loftier .497 career floor percentage, which dwarfs Bryant’s own .454 career clip.  “Jordan was also more naturally inclined to let the game come to him and not overplay his hand, whereas Kobe tends to force the action, especially when the game isn’t going his way.  When his shot is off, Kobe will pound away relentlessly until his luck turns.  Michael, on the other hand, would shift his attention to defense or passing or setting screens to help the team win the game,” the Zen Master observed.

Jackson completes a Jordan sweep in the man-to-man comparison when he said that the now-Charlotte franchise owner’s personality lent itself to building more conducive interpersonal relationships.  “Michael was more charismatic and gregarious than Kobe,” Jackson revealed.  “He loved hanging out with his teammates and security guards, playing cards, smoking cigars, and joking around.

“Kobe is different.  He was reserved as a teenager, in part because he was younger than the other players and hadn’t developed strong social skills in college.  When Kobe first joined the Lakers, he avoided fraternizing with his teammates.  But his inclination to keep to himself shifted as he grew older.  Increasingly, Kobe put more energy into getting to know the other players, especially when the team was on the road.”

Of course, one has to project that a considerable way beyond at this point as Kobe has obviously matured to the point that he’s willingly shared with even a non-Laker teammate like Durant the wisdom and know-how that he’s accumulated through the years, in contrast to that younger player that Jackson was talking about.

Still, there are undeniably cut-and-dried facts that have to be factored in when comparing Jordan and Bryant besides those points cited by Jackson.  In terms of championships won, for example, Jordan has six compared to Bryant’s five.  While he wouldn’t probably admit it, that one-championship discrepancy is probably what’s keeping Bryant’s passion to continue playing aflame, as he would want to be viewed by historians as Mike’s equal at least in terms of the ultimate yardstick of championships won.

There’s something that makes these championships a little different, however.  While all those six titles won by Jordan undeniably came on the strength of his own handiwork as the Bulls’ alpha dog – as attested to by the six Finals MVP trophies he earned – three of Bryant’s titles came with Shaquille O’Neal as the dominant player on the Lakers, and only two, those won in 2009 and 2010, came with Bryant as the undisputed Laker top man.   

And one may also add that Jordan likewise brought home more league MVP awards – five – to Bryant’s mere one, and won 10 league scoring titles – seven of them consecutively – to Bryant’s two en route to becoming the third-leading all-time scorer in NBA history with 32,292 points, with his Laker counterpart right there at fourth with 31,700, which includes an 81-point game, the second-most points in a single game.  While Bryant might have been amazing at times with those wondrous stretches, like he demonstrated in that 81-point performance, Jordan definitely showed throughout his career – even in that token comeback with the Washington Wizards from 2001-2003 – that a remarkable, almost-uncanny consistency is his calling card.  

This explains why Durant’s statement – no matter the entitlement earlier mentioned – is a little skewed to our mind, and may have very well been fueled by the personal relationship he has struck with Bryant.

Kobe better than Mike?  Tell us if this has a leg to stand on, for long.

Back in New York.  Phil Jackson, for 11 years a symbol of blue-collar play with the New York Knicks, will be back with his original NBA team, this time as president of its basketball operations.

The Knicks, desperate for a winning influence during a turbulent season that has seen them go under .500 by as many as 19 games at 21-40, reached out to Jackson, who retired from the LA Lakers as coach in 2011 after his team was swept in four games by eventual champion Dallas, getting creamed by 36 points in the last game by the Mavericks.

A hip problem had forced the 68-year-old Jackson to retire from the sidelines, and any comeback would have to be in another capacity that won’t require him to travel as much as a coaching job would.

The agreement, which would be announced in a press conference on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila), is reportedly for five years and would pay Jackson, who played for the Knicks from 1967-1978, a record $12 million annually.

Jackson would take over a team that is weighed down by a number of bad contracts, including those of Amare Stoudemire ($23.4 million), Tyson Chandler ($14.6 million) and Andrea Bargnani ($12 million), all of which still have one year left after this season.  Part of his agenda will also be the fate of current Knicks coach Mike Woodson as well as a decision on top star Carmelo Anthony, who plans to opt out of his contract that pays him $23.5 million this year.

“Obviously, he’s a knowledgeable basketball guy and they need that right now,” said current Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who coached New York from 2008-2012.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, meanwhile, said it would be “weird to see him up in the boxes, instead of on the sideline.  

“He has a hell of a mind,” Popovich said of the man he rivaled as the league’s best coach. “And being a coach is sort of a pain in the ass. He’s a smart guy.”

Now, Jackson has to make that work in the Knicks’ front office.

SHORTSHOTS: With San Antonio’s 119-85 blowout of the LA Lakers last March 14, the Spurs’ trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has won its 491st game together, the second-most among trios all-time behind only a certain  triad made up of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in Boston. The Celtics’ trio of frontliners, generally regarded as the greatest frontline in basketball history, won 540 games together.  Duncan’s, Parker’s and Ginobili’s victory over the weekend surpassed the 490 wins posted by the Lakers’ own trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper… The Philadelphia 76ers tied a dubious record when they lost to Memphis at home 103-77 yesterday for their 20th straight loss. The Sixers also lost 20 straight games in the 1972-73 season, during which they established the worst single-season mark in NBA history at 9-73. The NBA mark for consecutive losses in a season is 26, set by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010-11… Paul Pierce, after scoring 15 points in the Brooklyn Nets’ 101-94 loss in Washington over the weekend, passed Patrick Ewing for 18th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 24,819 points. Ewing has 24,815. – Rappler.com 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.