Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are separated by six years, played on different teams with different teammates, against different opponents, and they don’t even play the same position. But ever since Michael Jordan established himself as the Greatest Player of All Time, we’ve been desperately searching for someone else to take on the mantle. The way Lebron plays is closer to Magic than Michael, his personality more like Shaq than Kobe, and his stats are most similar to Oscar Robertson. But each of them, just like MJ, have battled and are continuing to battle for the title of Best Player On the Planet.
So, for the sake of argument, I’m going to compare the first nine seasons of Kobe Bryan’ts career with those of Lebron James. Statistically, Lebron was far better through his first nine seasons in the NBA than Kobe was through his (1997-2005). There’s no way to skew the stats where Lebron doesn’t come out on top in just about every category imaginable. Well, except one major category: championship rings. By 2005, Kobe already had 3 to Lebron’s 1. Throw out the team awards though and Lebron is the clear winner.
Kobe knows his answer.
Since our last comparison, we have a lot more data. Per game, Lebron averaged more points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, shot more efficiently, racked up more double and triple doubles, dominated advanced statistics like Win Shares (WS) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and even performed better in the clutch (more on that later). However, Kobe did not start his first two years in the league like Lebron did, so comparing their per 36 minutes statistics is a little more even:
Per 36 Minutes
They are essentially even in three point percentage, steals, blocks, and turnovers. Kobe has a slight edge in free throw percentage, but Lebron racked up 1.6 more assists, 1.2 more rebounds, and 1.9 more points. Although Lebron has always been a more well rounded player, I think his higher stats are also due to him being the best player on his team in Cleveland, while Kobe had to share the ball with Shaq. The stats prove this: during those years, Kobe has a 3% lower usage rate than Lebron.
While Kobe has always scored a lot of points, he never dominated multiple stats across the league during his first nine seasons like Lebron. In 2003, Kobe lead the league in total points and in points per game during the playoffs with 32. But he has never been outstanding in advanced statistics like win shares and PER because he doesn’t grab as many rebounds or make as many assists. Lebron however, has done both. In his 5th season in 2008, Lebron won the scoring title with 30 points per game. From 2007 to 2012, he lead the league in Win Shares. From 2008 to 2012, he lead the league in PER.
In the playoffs, Lebron was even more dominating. He lead the league in points per game in 2009 and 2012 and lead in win shares in 2009, 2011, and 2012 and PER in 2009 and 2012. Per game, Lebron has been a beast in the playoffs, where the pressure and stakes are so much higher than the regular season.
Again, aside from a small gap in field goal and free throw percentage, Lebron trumps Kobe in every other category, averaging close to 6 more points per game, nearly 4 more rebounds, and over 2 more assists.
Bryant looks like a great crunch-time scorer. He has the right skills, the right demeanor, the right highlights, the right jewelry. But as it turns out, Bryant’s clutch like an SUV is safe.
Lebron was equally shredded by the media, but few actually looked at his stats. Until he won it all this season, the media pegged him as someone who shrinked in the limelight of the final minutes of a game. Without Wade, Lebron would choke away every close game, or so the media told us. But that simply isn’t true. If you look at the stats, through their first nine seasons, Lebron has not only been just as clutch as Kobe, in many ways he has been more clutch. I’m not going to argue whether Kobe is the best or not, but I will be comparing his first nine seasons to Lebron’s.
What Is Clutch?
The way I would describe it, clutch is how good you are when you have to make a basket. Everyone knows you will get the ball and try to make the shot, so how well do you do despite all the pressure and expectations? Translated to stats, Basketball-reference.com allows you to look at individual shots made in the last minutes of a close game. For example, here are are the stats for Kobe and Lebron’s 5th through 9th seasons, in the 4th quarter or overtime, regular season and playoffs, with just 2 minutes or less left and a scoring margin between -5 and 5 points:
- Kobe made 121 shots, 27 assists, with a 43% Effective Field Goal percentage (adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal)
- Lebron made 143 shots, 26 assists, with a 49% EFG.
Okay, but making a shot that puts you up by 7 or gets you within 3 or 4 isn’t the same as making a shot to tie or win the game. So how many shots have they made in their 5th through 9th seasons to tie or win the game?
- Kobe: 44
- Lebron: 50
So it turns out that not only was Lebron just as clutch Kobe, but he also did it more often.
Let’s Talk Trophies
During their first nine seasons, both players won an All Star MVP (Kobe in 2002 and Lebron in 2008). Lebron also has a Finals MVP (2012) and 3 regular season MVPs (2009, 2010, and 2012). But, by his 9th season, Kobe already had 3 championships under his belt. There’s no way for Lebron to top that now. In the next 7 years, Lebron will need to win 4 of the next 7 seasons in order to match Kobe’s total through 16 years.
Guys have voices now, want to build brands,” Bryant said. “I don’t identify with it, but I understand where it’s going, why it’s going there. That’s not for me. I focus on one thing and one thing only – that’s trying to win as many championships as I can. – Yahoo Sports
We finally have a stat where Kobe is clearly dominating Lebron: something I just invented, called Championship Winning percentage (CW%), or championships per season. Through nine seasons, Kobe’s CW% was a high 33%, while Lebron’s was only 11%.
The Next Seven Years
Lebron has his work cut out for him. A year after Shaq left, in 2006, Kobe lead an onslaught against the league, hauling the likes of Smush Parker, Luke Walton, and Kwame Brown into the playoffs. That year he averaged 35.4 points per game, had the 81 point game against Toronto, 62 points in 32:53 against Dallas, made 7 of 7 three pointers against Phoenix, and scored over 40 points in 27 games. Since 2006 he has also added 2 championships, 2 finals MVPs, a regular season MVP, and 2 All Star MVPs.
The Stats Don’t Matter
People want sports to be defined by stats. They want to understand them, exert control over them. But sports will never just be numbers. – @GotEm_Coach
When comparing great athletes in team sports, I don’t know if it’s possible to prove who is the “better” player. During the Olympics, there is a clear winner in track and field, a clear winner in swimming, but there is no individual winner of basketball. There are far too many variables: time periods, opponents, teammates, coaches, etc.
We can assemble all these stats and say that yes, Lebron was better than Kobe because he scored more, made more assists, and pulled down more rebounds. But stats don’t win championships. You still have to play the games. The stats are a by product of their greatness, not the other way around. Their individual greatness is a culmination of talent, hard work, determination, luck, and everything else that makes sports more fun to watch than analyze.
More Kobe vs Lebron:
- MUST WATCH: Kobe vs. LeBron All Star Match-up
- A Statistical Misrepresentation (is Kobe clutch?)
- This Is How My Brain Works (Lebron Rant)
- The Difference Between LeBron and Kobe