The greatest moment Michael Jordan ever had on a basketball court was the best and worst thing that could have happened to the careers of every player who came after him. Jordan's game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals is probably seared into more minds than any other American sports highlight: after that uncalled push-off of Bryon Russell that still makes it into every clip of the shot, Jordan elevated for a long jumper that swished the net as it fell through, holding his form on the shot for about a second more than necessary, savoring his authorship of the finest ending to any sporting career in the modern era.
It did not turn out to be the final memorable play of Jordan's career, it wasn't the finest game-winning shot of his career (somewhere, Craig Ehlo winces), and it didn't come at the buzzer, but all of those facts are largely immaterial to its impact. That shot crystallized Jordan's greatness in five seconds that could be slowed down to 10, reducing all his staggering brilliance to one clutch play at the best possible time and condemning every great basketball player who would come after him to the fate of being measured against it.
That comparison is why some are still so skeptical of LeBron James, whose latest fatal flaw is his lack of hunger for that blinding moment of glory, despite James' career highlight film featuring a better shot that was also a buzzer-beater. Jordan conditioned a generation or two of sports fans to expect that the greatest player in the game would, inevitably, also accrue the most victories, titles and signature moments.
No player has done more to disprove this theory than James, who has been the NBA's best player for about five years, has won only two NBA Finals games and has probably given Kobe Bryant much of the esteem he has enjoyed during his career renaissance. If LeBron isn't the best player in the league because he doesn't win titles, does the converse -- that Kobe's titles make him the best player in the league -- hold true? Of course not, but that hasn't stopped fans and media members alike from lionizing Kobe as the next-best thing to Jordan and setting him on a hero's journey to surpass the best player ever by becoming the new best player ever.
There's just one little problem with that: Kobe is not nearly as good as Jordan was, and believing he is perpetuates one of the worst myths about basketball.
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Jordan was an exceptional athlete and tireless worker, but he was also largely a volume shooter/scorer, which has become a pejorative despite it being the identity of the game's accepted greatest player. In all his years with Chicago, Jordan averaged under 20 shots per game just twice: his rookie season in 1984-85 (he fell 15 shots short of hitting 20.0 shots per game on the nose) and in his injury-marred sophomore campaign, when he struggled mightily to recover from a broken leg and shot an unthinkable 35.8 percent in his first six games back as the Bulls went 1-5. (He would shoot under 47.5 percent just once in the next nine games, the last of the season, and the Bulls would go 5-4).
The rest of the '80s would be Jordan's establishment of himself as the game's best player, though, as he averaged more than 30 points in three of the next four seasons and he was exceedingly efficient in getting them, shooting 48.2 percent in his worst of those while scorching the league for 37.1 points per game in 1986-87. From 1987-88 to 1992-93, Jordan took at least 22.2 shots per game in each season, but never shot worse than 49.5 percent from the floor, and only dropped under 51.9 percent once.
Jordan's shooting percentage only dipped below 47.0 percent four times in his career, in fact: in 1985-86, as mentioned; in 1994-95, as he returned midseason to the court after his aborted stint as a baseball player; and in 2001-02 and 2002-03, his two seasons with the Wizards.
Kobe's never shot better than 47.0 percent in a season in his career.
The closest Bryant came to topping that mark was in the four-season span from 1998-99 to 2001-02 (46.5, 46.8, 46.4, 46.9) and again in 2008-09 (46.7). Those are Kobe's only four seasons with better than 46-percent shooting; his 12 other NBA seasons have given him a career 45.3 percent mark from the field.
Kobe isn't as prone to shooting as Jordan was: he's topped 20 shots per game 11 times, including each of the last eight years, but has played 89 more games than Jordan did ... and taken 1,831 fewer shots, averaging 19.6 shots per game to His Airness' 22.9. That's right: if you think Kobe jacked it up more than MJ did, you're just plain wrong.
Kobe's certainly a volume shooter/scorer (more shooter, especially now, considering that 66.2 percent of his shots in 2011-12 were from midrange or beyond the arc), perhaps the league's best current example of it. That may be because he misses so many shots: Kobe's 12,420 career misses just pips Jordan's numerically humorous 12,345. It may also be because he's slightly less well-rounded than Jordan — who played almost entirely before statistical analysis of sports was mainstream, though he would have been a marvel for the statheads who frown at Kobe's shooting — and put up per game numbers in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks that lag behind Jordan's. There's just no sure way to make the case that Kobe's better than Jordan; the best hope for Kobe partisans is to say that Kobe has done more while being his team's go-to guy for longer.
But that absurdity is flimsy, too: Jordan's the rare volume scorer who rightly demanded the ball as often as he did because he was so good at putting it in the basket. Take away his never-spectacular three-point shooting (32.7 percent in his career), and Jordan shot an absurd 51.0 percent on twos, making his expected value on shots inside the arc 1.02 points per shot and making Jordan one of the rare guards on the NBA's career shooting percentage list. It made sense to give him the ball and let him work because he was so good at it, ranking as his team's best option in almost every circumstance.
Kobe has only rarely been that option for the Lakers. And while Jordan taking as many shots as he did was typically sound strategy, the Lakers have typically been better off when Kobe is not the best option on the team.
The thing that gets elided in virtually every conversation about Kobe's five rings is that he's had a ton of help. Maybe the best teammate of the last 30 years in his prime was on Bryant's team for three of them, and even Jordan himself might not have been as good as Shaquille O'Neal was in his three championship years with the Lakers. From 1998-99 to 2000-01, Shaq made the most shots in the league each year despite never ranking in the top three for field goal attempts, and made 57.2 percent or more of his shots. And that shooting percentage is below his career average, a 58.2 percent mark that is the NBA's all-time lead. (And those years were also Kobe's best shooting years. Maybe having Shaq around helped?)
Shaq was really, really, really good. Michael had Scottie Pippen, and LeBron now has Dwyane Wade (who, if we're talking about perimeter players who were gifted with help, got an even more efficient Shaq in Miami, though he had him less often) and Chris Bosh, but Kobe had Shaq, and there's really no way to compare any help a reputed top dog has gotten with in-his-prime Shaq. Shaq was always the best option on those Lakers teams (his worst finish in the NBA's field goal percentage derby with the Lakers was fourth), and that Kobe forced a trade to get the Diesel dislodged from Los Angeles is more emblematic of Kobe's obstinacy than his greatness.
That's something that casual NBA observers might factor in with Kobe; what they probably don't is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have been no slouches, either.
Gasol's 51st in career field goal percentage, with a 52.0 percent mark that tops Bryant's by a significant margin; heck, it tops Jordan's on twos. And Gasol was especially good in the 2008-09 year that saw the Lakers get their first title post-Shaq, shooting 56.9 percent from the field and topping the league in Offensive Rating while ranking fifth in field goal percentage. Gasol teaming with Bynum, who has been at 55.8 percent from the field or better in every season since his rookie campaign as the youngest player in NBA history, is more formidable than any other front line in the league at the moment, and has only been truly matched by the Dallas Mavericks last year (the Mavs also shut Kobe down, holding him to 23.25 points per game in their sweep) and the Boston Celtics in their Finals matchups.
And while Bill Simmons will probably tell jokes about Kobe's 6-for-24 clunker against the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals until he can no longer tell jokes, Gasol coming up big against the Kendrick Perkins-less C's in the final two games of the series (17 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists in Game 6, which saw Perkins play just over six minutes, and a 19-18 in Game 7) was what helped the Lakers come back from a 3-2 hole, and he was even better in Games 1 (23 and 14) and 2 (25-8 and six blocks). Kobe's best two scoring games that series (38 points in Game 5, and 33 in Game 4) both came in losses.
Kobe got excellent giants in his great years, but the best teammate Jordan had who was 6'10" or taller in his six championship years was probably either Horace Grant or Toni Kukoc, and neither player scored more than 14.2 points per game in any of those championship seasons. The only seven-footer to top 10 points per game in those years was Luc Longley, who had a whopping 11.2 points per contest in 1997-98, and even he had his drawbacks, grabbing just 5.9 rebounds per game (Jordan was at 5.8 per game that year) and only 7.2 per 36 minutes.
Dennis Rodman, the greatest rebounder of the modern era, obviously helped those Bulls on the boards, but he could have struggled on offense in an empty gym. Pippen, obviously, was tremendous, but even he never added more than 20 points a game to Jordan's title-winning teams, and he was a great second option at best, shooting 1.2 percent worse than Jordan in every one of those six years, even when Jordan's shot was at its worst moment of his prime in 1997-98 and he shot "just" 46.5 percent from the field.
One could make an argument for Pippen being beyond Gasol or Bynum's level, thanks to his defense, but there's no chance of Pippen winning an argument against Shaq, and there's no question that Kobe's third-best teammate was usually on par with Grant, Kukoc, or Rodman; certainly, that's the case in 2008-09 and 2009-10. And none of that even gets into the recent title-winning Lakers being extraordinarily deep with great talent, with Lamar Odom and Ron Artest serving as third options at best.
(The never-discussed corollary to Kobe's rarely-mentioned help is that players have not flocked to Kobe. The most important free agents who have signed with the Lakers in the Kobe era are probably Karl Malone and Gary Payton -- both well past their prime, and they came to join Kobe and Shaq, and Artest -- a defender first. Kobe got lucky that Mitch Kupchak could fleece Memphis for Gasol, lucky that Odom loved L.A. enough to bloom and lucky that the Lakers drafted and could develop Bynum. Jordan got lucky with Pippen, Grant and Rodman, too. Whether or not you think there was some collusion by the Heat's Big Three, them choosing to take their NBA fates in their hands was sort of revolutionary, and respectable in that small way at the very least.)
So: Kobe's not as good as Jordan was, not nearly, and has had much better teammates. All that established, though, Kobe still gets the benefit of the doubt from fans, and comes first in any discussions of the NBA's greatest active player.
Why? I think it's because Jordan transcended the gap between best and greatest, creating the myth that the best player must also be the most accomplished.
Jordan was the NBA's best player often in his years in the league, and often by far, but he was also the guy who looked like the best player in the league, and felt like the alpha dog. He did a lot of that on his talent, and with his borderline psychotic work ethic and competitiveness, but he was also cast that way by the most effective marketing campaign in the history of American sports.
We know who Michael Jordan was because of his play on the court, but we know MJ and Air Jordan and His Airness and the reluctant savior of the world from Space Jam, too, and Jordan's image has been "greatest athlete ever" for most of the last 20 years, despite never really approaching Bill Russell's actual NBA record for championships. Jordan's style and image converged to make the physically dominant, mentally steely, athletically magical and relentlessly competitive perimeter player the aspirational archetype most NBA fans have slobbered over for all the years since his departure from the mount; the kids who wanted to "be like Mike" still buy Jordans in droves, and they're having kids who they get to show Jordan's greatness thanks to YouTube.
That was mostly the doing of Jordan and Jordan Inc. (consider it a joint venture between Nike, Gatorade, and McDonald's), though external sources helped. Jordan got along famously with the media members who covered him, and came of age before 24/7 sports coverage brewed skepticism and distaste; if the call on the Flu Game happened today, how many tweets about the over-the-top call would be sent per second? And all of it helped buffer out the rough edges on Jordan (throwing a gay slur at Kwame Brown while he was Brown's boss, being the sort of compulsive gambler who can hang with Charles Barkley, the infamously venomous Hall of Fame induction speech).
It's no wonder that Kobe, who by all accounts thirsts for glory the same way Jordan did — and it's not a stretch to wonder whether he's made sure all of those accounts tell that story, knowing how Jordan benefited from doing the same — has been so much like Jordan in cultivating his image. And Kobe's done far worse things — being accused of sexual assault, an unforgivable act for some, trumps any of the merely reprehensible things Jordan did — and tried to buffer those flaws out by jutting his jaw and embracing the Jordan archetype of working harder than everyone and carrying a bigger chip on your shoulder than the rest of the world combined. The extra shots after a loss to the Heat last year always seemed like a cry for attention, and the "Kobesystem" ads boil down to Bryant out-jackassing Kanye West, the guy who explained Kobe's decision to wear No. 24 instead of No. 8 perfectly by rapping it "Tryna get that Kobe number, one over Jordan."
Kobe's also a smart guy, and knows that this is his curse: if you want to be like Michael Jordan, you have to do what he did, or better it, on the court, and accomplish things perceived to be commensurate with your talent. It's to Kobe's advantage (and credit) that the current equation for greatness weighs championships so heavily, but in boiling down both careers to that micro-level stage, one is also embarking on the path to that one crystallized moment.
Jordan has his. What's Kobe's? What one moment will we remember?
For a lot of fans, it'll be the press conference with wife Vanessa after the sexual assault charge was filed. For others, it'll be some pastiche of the many sprees he's gone on late in games, fist and teeth clenched. For my money, Kobe's most memorable moment is the fantastic shot he hit to send Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals to overtime...
...and even after that shot, only seconds elapse before Doc Rivers brings up Jordan's name. (Those Lakers would go on to lose in five games in that series, much like LeBron's Cavs went on to lose in six games to the Magic in 2009. That the shots are what gets remembered says plenty.)
That's what players get when they take and make big shots in the post-Jordan era: comparisons to Jordan. And they get them when they miss, too; Jordan's coolest commercial ever made failure noble, but it also excused taking the last shot and missing it as a necessary byproduct of taking the last shot.
Kobe's going to keep taking those last shots, hunting for the championship that ties him with Jordan and the moment that surpasses his. He's still got a shot at winning more titles than Jordan did. But it's harder to be greater than the best ever when you aren't the best of your own era, harder to be considered better when you got more help, and just hard to top what came before when coming after alone is a disadvantage.
Kobe can keep chasing Jordan; barring career-ending or catastrophic injury, he'll probably collect a few records on the road toward MJ's pedestal, and may even get a title or two more if the Lakers can retool.
But as for topping Jordan? Kobe has no shot.