Despite being inextricably linked as superstar contemporaries whose career overlapped for 13 seasons, there was never much of a rivalry between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Not on the court, at least, where the two never locked horns so much as a single time in the playoffs, where rivalries are truly born. Off the court, however, is a different story altogether as fans have been debating their respective places in the game for years.
Kobe has more rings and a killer instinct LeBron lacks, argues one side. But LeBron, counters the other, is just better.
Now comes even more fuel to the fire as James, now wearing the same purple-and-gold uniform Bryant donned for two decades, surpassed the Laker legend for third place on the career scoring list in a loss to the Sixers in Philadelphia.
It marks the latest achievement in a career already filled with them for James, surpassing yet another great with seemingly no end in sight. Nearly 34,000 points — one bucket at a time, one game at a time, one season at a time, since 2003.
But does that mean James was the better scorer? Raw stats would seem to say so, with James averaging more points per game on superior efficiency.
But let’s take a deeper look in some other areas that might shed more light on how two of the very best scorers to ever grace an NBA court truly measure up.
Different era, different opportunity
Cumulative statistics are better measures of production and longevity than actual impact. But as far as that goes, Bryant’s career point total would almost certainly be larger, perhaps even significantly so, had he entered the league with a different team, at a different time.
When the Lakers traded for Bryant in the summer of 1996, he was the first high school guard to join the NBA, and only the fifth high school player overall. As such, the NBA was still grappling with how to best develop them. Bring them along slowly? Throw them right into the deep end? At that point, it was still anyone’s guess.
That was especially the case with the Lakers, who were expected to contend for the championship after adding Shaquille O’Neal to a veteran roster that included, among other standouts, a future All-Star at Bryant’s position in Eddie Jones. The following two seasons would prove to be an exercise in frustration for the precocious young star as he waited impatiently for his opportunity to shine.
It wouldn’t be until his third season that Bryant finally cracked the starting lineup, averaging 37.9 minutes, 15.6 shots and 19.9 points in 1998-99 as a 20-year-old.
James, of course, never had that issue. By the time Cleveland took him 1st overall in 2003, the NBA was 16 additional players and almost a full decade deeper into the straight-from-high-school experiment. Combined with his otherworldly talent, there was never any doubt: The Cavaliers were LeBron’s team from Day 1, ready to go as their prize rookie went.
Would Bryant have been able to average 20.9 points as a rookie, or 27.2 points in his second season, as James did? We’ll never know. But we do know he didn’t get the chance to try.
Different type of scorer
Unfortunately, Basketball Reference’s shot tracking only dates back to 2000-01, which excludes four seasons from Bryant’s career totals. But given that what they do have accounts for more than 87% of his total attempts, it still gives us a fairly comprehensive look at his shot distribution.
And that look is telling: He simply wasn’t capable of and/or willing to work for the same kind of shots as James.
Two things stand out the most.
* First, and this will come as no surprise for anyone who saw Bryant play for any significant period, the strong majority of his shots — 28%, almost seven points more than any other zone — came from what we’ll call far mid range (defined by B-R as 16 feet to the 3-point line). This is where Bryant excelled at isolating defenders and, if he couldn’t break them down off the dribble, digging deep into his bag of tricks for some kind of jump shot, degree of difficulty be damned.
These are also some of the least-efficient shots in basketball according to the recent philosophical revolution that emphasizes 3-pointers and looks at the rim to the exclusion of virtually everything else.
* Second, James simply takes better shots, and a lot more of them. As a high-volume scorer, he is obviously no stranger to taking contested 2-point jumpers. But it was never a staple of his diet. Indeed, why would it be when he could usually either overpower smaller opponents or speed past bigger ones to get to the rim?
Standing several inches and at least 40 pounds heavier than Bryant, James has been able to take a whopping 36% of his career attempts at the rim, compared to a relatively paltry 21% for Bryant. Not only that, James is significantly more effective on those shots, shooting 73.3% — the league average this season is 66.0 — compared to 63.4 for Bryant.
Given that Bryant didn’t make up that ground at the 3-point line — James actually shoots slightly better on 0.2 more attempts per game — LeBron’s advantage at the rim is even more enormous.
Different type of player
What makes James’ scoring feats even more impressive is that it’s never really been the focal point of his game.
That might sound like a silly thing to say given that LeBron has averaged virtually the same number of shot attempts (19.6 to 19.5) and free throws (8.0 to 7.4) as Bryant, whose credentials as an aggressive volume scorer are unquestioned. But James has done that while serving as arguably the best non-point guard playmaker in NBA history.
Indeed, going by raw stats, there’s no “arguably” about it: James has both the highest per-game assist average (7.4, 24th) and assist percentage (36.3, 20th overall) among those who didn’t play the “1.”
That places him in a completely different category as Bryant.
Which isn’t to say that Kobe was deficient in that capacity; far from it. As far as volume scorers go, Bryant was frequently a very willing and able passer, forming devastating tandems with O’Neal (at least when they weren’t trying to kill each other) and later Pau Gasol en route to a total of five championships.
It’s just that far more often than not, Bryant’s clear m.o. was to shoot first, and ask questions later. James, on the other hand, has spent far, far more possessions creating for others where he might have otherwise looked to get his. That’s been especially the case this season as he leads the NBA in raw assists per game (10.8, almost double Bryant’s career-high of 6.0), potential assists per game (19.0) and points created via assist (27.1).
For the win …
If you ever want to aggravate a serious basketball analyst — which, to be clear, we don’t claim to be — bring up the term “clutch.” They’ll argue to the death that there’s no such thing, that the ability to consistently raise one’s performance in important, end-of-game moments is largely a myth conjured around random outcomes over incredibly small sample sizes.
Just how small? In 1,566 career games, including the postseason, Bryant was called on to shoot for the lead in the final five seconds of regulation or overtime just 77 times — 4.9 percent. For James, it’s 73 out of 1,480 — also 4.9 percent. In other words, these are extremely isolated opportunities that, given the fact that everybody in the arena knows who’s getting the ball, don’t exactly lend themselves to consistent success.
Indeed, just look at these percentages on such shots:
Bryant enjoys the edge in the regular season, while LeBron has more playoff game-winners.
If we insist on debating the notion of “clutch” or “killer instinct,” perhaps it might be more informative to expand our scope. For example, wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine how players performed, say, in elimination playoff games? That still doesn’t afford much in the way of sample size, but it’s infinitely larger than last-second shots.
And in that arena, James has no peers — literally.
From his 45-point, 15-rebound masterpiece against the Celtics in 2012 to his string of epic performances to lift the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 Finals, James has put up the best statistical record in elimination games of any player in NBA history. Better than Jordan. Better than Kareem. And yes, significantly better than Bryant.
These are monster numbers, including the highest scoring average in league history, coming in some of the most important games a player will ever face. And yet Bryant, despite having significantly worse averages across the board, and no clear edge in game-winners, is the one with the killer closer reputation, while LeBron’s narrative is that of a player who hasn’t always risen to the occasion.
Which isn’t untrue on its face. This is also a player who vanished under baffling circumstances as the 2011 Finals slipped through Miami’s collective fingers. But the overall body of work speaks for itself: When your season is on the line and “clutch” is required, LeBron is truly The King.
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Dan McCarney wrote this feature. You can e-mail him here.
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