Phil Jackson has grabbed headlines recently for his latest memoir, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.” In the book, Jackson finally compares the careers of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and definitively identifies Jordan as the better player.
Of course, Phil Jackson is not merely another objective observer. Jackson holds a unique insight into both players, having coached Jordan during all six of his championships, and Kobe for all five of his. It’s gratifying to see that, based upon the excerpts of the book released to the Los Angeles Times, Jackson took the time to clearly identify why he feels Jordan is better. Specifically, he believes Jordan was a better shooter, defensive player, and team leader than Bryant.
Jackson’s book has rekindled the comparison between the two legendary shooting guards. Almost universally it is believed that Jordan is the greatest 2-guard ever. In the process, we have heard intelligent points made as to why MJ is better, as well as several foolish arguments, thus prompting this article.
Top 5 Good and Bad Reasons to Declare Jordan Better than Kobe
Good Reason #5: Jordan was a better passer and rebounder than Kobe
Kobe once stated that a main difference between him and Jordan was that, unlike Jordan, he preferred handling the ball. Yet despite playing off the ball more, Jordan had better career averages in assists than Kobe (5.3 APG to 4.8 APG). Kobe certainly liked the ball in his hands, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he used it to find the open man.
Furthermore, even though Kobe was an inch taller than Jordan, Jordan was the better rebounder (6.2 RPG to 5.3 RPG) due in part to his superior strength and compact frame.
Bad Reason #5: Michael Jordan is a more competitive person off the court than Kobe
This was pointed out recently by Phil Jackson on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno as a critical difference between the two. According to Jackson, Kobe’s crazy competitiveness ends when he leaves the court, while Jordan’s continues into everything else he does.
Frankly, this surprising comment actually increased my respect for Kobe a little. Who wants to compete with your kids, as Jordan seemed to do in his Hall of Fame speech? Assuming it's true, it gives us some insight into their personal lives. As evidence of who the better player is . . . well, it doesn’t help at all.
Good Reason #4: Jordan was a stronger and more physical defender
MJ led the league in steals three times and won the Defensive Player of the Year once. Both players actually made the All-Defensive First Team nine times, yet most objective observers noticed the decline in Kobe’s defensive prowess in the latter half of his career and a few of those “All-Defensive” honors are questionable.
Phil Jackson’s own words from “Eleven Rings” are the best on this. “No question Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender. He could break through any screen and shut down any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense . . . In general, Kobe tends to rely on his flexibility and craftiness, but he takes a lot of gambles on defense and sometimes pays the price.”
Bad Reason #4: Jordan never had Shaq to help him like Kobe did
It’s true that Jordan never had a teammate as talented as Shaquille O’Neal, not even Scottie Pippen. It’s also true that for the first half of Kobe’s career Shaq was better than Kobe, and at least equally responsible for the first three NBA championships of Kobe’s career (Shaq won Finals MVP in ’00, ’01, and ’02).
But of course sharing the ball and the limelight with an elite big man is not something Jordan ever had to do either. It’s unclear whether his ego would have clashed playing alongside another MVP talent or his statistics would have diminished. Would a Jordan-Shaq combo have disintegrated even quicker than the ugly ending in LA? Perhaps.
Finally, Jordan’s “supporting cast” weren't as bad as some seem to suggest. Jordan first retired in 1993 after leading his team to a 57-win season and another NBA Title. In 1994, the Jordan-less Bulls still won 55 games and lost in a tight 7 game series to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion New York Knicks. Surprisingly small difference.
Good Reason 3: Jordan was better at attacking the hoop
Both guys were incredibly tough to keep out of the paint. But Jordan had a quicker first step and was a better penetrator than Kobe, who didn’t get to the rim as easily as MJ. As finishers at the basket, both were incredible, but Jordan’s hang-time and aerial acrobatics were unparalleled.
While Kobe could match the older Jordan’s cleverness around the rim, he could never match the younger Jordan’s athleticism. Young MJ simply didn’t get stuffed at the rim once he took flight, which did happen to Kobe on occasion.
Bad Reason #3: Jordan is a better outside shooter than Kobe
When Phil Jackson states that Jordan is a better shooter than Kobe, I doubt he is talking about which is the better pure outside shooter. Both Jordan and Kobe had devastating mid-range games, either off the dribble or in the post.
However, Kobe was the slightly better free throw shooter (83.8% to 83.5%) and 3-point shooter (33.6% to 32.7%). In fact, Kobe’s ability to hit difficult shots away from the basket probably exceeds Jordan’s and he was certainly more aggressive shooting the three-ball (3.9 3PA to 1.7 3PA).
Good Reason #2: Jordan had better shot selection
Jordan simply didn’t force up as many bad shots as Kobe did. When his shot wasn’t falling, he looked for other ways to contribute as he integrated his offense back into the flow of the game. He rarely seemed as if he was pressing on offense and the stats reflect his efficiency: Jordan shot nearly 50% from the floor for his career. On the other hand, Kobe shot 45% over his career and never as high as 47% in any one season.
As Jackson pointed out, Kobe would too often keep shooting until he regained his touch, often to the detriment of the rest of the team. Even when he scored, Kobe’s points often left his teammates stagnant. If he failed to hit his shots for a few games in a row and was criticized for it, then Kobe might reactively go on a passing binge and try and rack up double-digit assist numbers for a two-week stretch, almost as if to say, “See, this proves I’m unselfish!”
Bad Reason #2: Michael Jordan never needed a Game 7 to win in the NBA Finals
Winning a Game 7 is the ultimate test of being a clutch player. When Kobe (or any other player) wins a Game 7 in the NBA Finals, doesn’t that add to their greatness? It certainly doesn’t seem to make sense to punish Kobe Bryant for winning a Game 7 in the NBA Finals (against the Celtics in 2010). Now Kobe’s actual subpar performance in that Game 7 is a different issue . . .
But, the “never needed Game 7” proponents say, not needing a Game 7 means Jordan was that much more dominant, at least in his title seasons. But of course Jordan did play in Game 7’s, just not in the NBA Finals.
To the rest of the sane world who believe playoff performances in general matter – not just NBA Finals performances – it is noteworthy that Jordan played three playoff Game 7’s, going 2-1: 1990 (loss to Pistons), 1992 (win over Knicks), and 1998 (win over Pacers). Thus, during both his 1992 and 1998 title runs, Jordan indeed needed a Game 7 to advance.
Good Reason #1: Jordan’s leadership
Jordan could be a tough teammate at times. He scolded players regularly and even punched Steve Kerr once. However, few of his teammates seemed to actually dislike him and their on-court play certainly didn’t suffer. His very presence controlled difficult personalities like Dennis Rodman from getting out of hand. Under Jordan, the Bulls appeared to get the most out of what they had.
Initially in his career Kobe appeared aloof and later he was a self-described “a**hole” as a teammate. Kobe failed to understand the importance of team chemistry for a large part of his career. His pettiness played a critical part (as did Shaq's) in the premature demise of the Shaq-Kobe era in LA. Finally, Kobe's teams underachieved when other great players came to play for the Lakers (Gary Payton and Karl Malone in 2004, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2013).
Unlike Jordan, whose severity was matched by an engaging and dynamic personality, Kobe’s caustic intensity and critical nature often made teammates shrink rather than perform.
Bad Reason #1: Unlike Kobe or any other player, Jordan is 6 for 6 in NBA Finals
[To be clear, this is not the argument that Jordan is better because he has six championships and Kobe has only five. That is an entirely different rationale.]
This silly argument has been sadly used by several analysts not only when comparing Jordan to Kobe, but with anyone else in NBA history. This argument focuses on the fact that Jordan never lost in the Finals, but Kobe (and Kareem, Magic, etc.) lost in the NBA Finals, and this fact alone suggests that Jordan is better.
But since when is losing in the NBA Finals worse than losing in the first or second round of the playoffs (or not even making it at all)? Isn’t a loss in the Finals at least equal to or better than getting knocked out in an earlier round of the playoffs, or not making the playoffs at all?
Apparently these “6 for 6” folks expect everyone to forget that Jordan played a lot more than six seasons in the NBA. Jordan played 15 seasons in the NBA. So another way to say it is that Jordan's teams failed to reach the NBA Finals nine times.
Yet another way to view it is to say he was 6 for 15 in winning conference titles, a 40% clip. Alternatively, Kobe is thus far 7 for 17 (41%), Kareem was 10 for 20 (50%), and Magic was an astonishing 9 for 13 (69%). I am not necessarily advocating this as a basis for stating who is better, but simply pointing out how numbers can be manipulated to mean different things.
Finally, the “6 for 6” group also ignore the actual competition the Bulls played in the NBA Finals. In the Finals, Jordan’s Bulls never played all-time great teams such as the ’83 Sixers, the 80’s Lakers or Celtics, the "Bad Boys" Pistons, or even the formidable 2008 Celtics (who Kobe’s Lakers lost to in the Finals).
Jordan did play (with admittedly lesser teams) the 80's Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs though, losing in both '86 and '87. Jordan and Pippen played the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons as well – and lost in ’88, ’89, and ’90, before defeating an older Pistons team in 1991.
By Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com