For the past two years, we have been subjected to questions about which player was currently the top dog in the hierarchy of NBA players: Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Everybody has an opinion on the topic but I would rather ask a different question that people have yet to ask: if I had magical powers and could grant you the wish of having the career of either player, which one would you choose? Before I answer the question, let me give you a quick review of the background of these players.
Kobe Bryant was such an amazing high school phenomenon at Lower Merion High School, that he chose to bypass college and go straight to the NBA. Jerry West traded up in the draft and was able to draft the young prodigy. Upon his arrival on the team, he was nicknamed Showboat and Hollywood by Shaquille O’Neal because of his penchant to forego basic fundamental plays in favor the more crowd pleasing ones. If you’re old enough to remember seeing Kobe play in his first few years; he had a crossover that actually rivaled Allen Iverson’s. Keep in mind though; drafting high school players at the time was still somewhat taboo. The line of thinking was that these players were kids and that their adjustment to the pros would be extremely difficult. Indeed, you now had young men like Kobe Bryant seeing things a bit like the new (he’s not that new anymore, but still new) rap sensation Drake sees them now; check out a quick verse from Money To Blow:
“I am, what everybody in my path don’t want me to be,
Guess what I made it,
I’m the mothaf*ckin man I just want you to see,
Come take a look,
Get a load of this %$# (rhymes with trigga),
Quit frontin’ on me
Don’t come around tryin’ to gas me up, I like runnin on E…..
[…] They can’t help it,
And I can’t blame’em
Since I got famous
Well b*tch I got money to blow,
Gettin’ it in,
Lettin’ these bills fall over ya skin’
I got money to blow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow “
Understandably, the league had its concerns about high school seniors being paid millions. However, players such as Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant helped dispel the myth and pave the way for other high school players. If these guys remained focused on basketball, it was skies the limit for them. And in Kobe Bryant’s case, we’re still not sure what the limit is for him. Look at his career production:
|CAREER SEASON AVERAGES|
Great numbers right? How about we look at his list of accomplishments:
– 11 All-Star Game selections
– 3 time All-Star Game MVP
– 2007-2008 NBA League MVP
– 2008-2009 NBA Finals MVP
– 6 All-NBA Defensive 1st Team selections
– 7 All-NBA 1st Team selections
– 10th all time in career free throws made
– 19th all time in career points scored
– 10th all time in career points per game (25.3)
But here’s the crazy thing about Kobe Bryant’s career; when Jerry West drafted him out of high school, he was supposed to be a small piece of a 12 piece puzzle that would help the Lakers get back to the glory years. Instead, Kobe Bryant changed the puzzle that West was looking at and turned it into a four piece puzzle titled “Lakers Dynasty”. Have a look at the pieces of the puzzle:
-First piece: Shaquille O’Neal
-Second piece: Kobe Bryant
-Third piece: Phil Jackson
-Fourth piece: role players.
In addition, most people have always looked at Kobe Bryant as the Robin to Shaquille O’Neal’s Batman. But I feel different about it. Kobe Bryant might have been a sidekick the season they won their first title (1999-2000), but afterwards he was an integral part of the franchise. The Shaq & Kobe relationship had evolved more to a level where they should have been referred to as Superman and Batman. Indeed, both brought a particular set of skills to the Lakers:
Shaquille O’Neal: His role was to score inside, give the team toughness, defend the basket, rebound the ball and be the team leader.
Kobe Bryant: His role was to get the team into their offense, defend the other team’s best perimeter offensive player, score with the shot clock running down and carry the team’s offense in the clutch.
That recipe allowed for the Lakers to win three championships in a row. Although the signs had been present during their championship runs, it was clear that Shaq and Kobe would eventually no longer be able to coexist. The pair had always had disputes in public, but the 2003-2004 season was different. Kobe Bryant was facing charges of sexual assault and played that whole season thinking that there was a possibility that he might at some point land in jail. During the trial process, word leaked out that Kobe had snitched on the Diesel. When police officers made their very first interrogation of Bryant, he mentioned that he should have taken the Shaq route and given the woman in question some hush money. The criminal charges were eventually dropped but Kobe‘s reputation took a huge hit. On his way to rebuilding his image, Kobe became the most feared player in the league. He put up points in bunches and had that one game in which he scored 81 points. Bryant was eventually given a team to contend for a title and finally won a championship as the focal player of his team in June 2009.
LeBron James grew up in Akron, Ohio and became possibly the biggest high school prodigy since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. LeBron James catapulted St.Vincent St. Mary’s to the national spotlight. The young man was such an amazing talent, that ESPN nationally televised one of their games. By the end of his senior year, although he had not yet declared himself for the NBA Draft, it was evident that he was destined to join the NBA. LeBron James was not going to take the same route as Jesus Shuttlesworth (He Got Game reference); he was instead going straight to the league. As fate would have it, the Cleveland Cavaliers held the number one pick in the NBA Draft and selected the hometown kid form Akron to be the face of their franchise. Back in 2003, James faced so much hype entering his rookie season, most people thought he would either disappoint or crumble under the pressure of the expectations. And yet, LeBron made his first appearance in front of a national audience against the Sacramento Kings and impressed everybody fortunate enough to watch him play that night. By the way, for those of you that are unaware, LeBron played half of is rookie season as a point guard. Head coach Paul Silas felt at the time that James’ passing ability would help the team best if he played as the point guard and fed athletic players such as Ricky Davis and Darius Miles. Look at LeBron’s numbers:
|CAREER SEASON AVERAGES|
Same as Kobe, now let’s have a look at his accomplishments:
– 5 All-Star Game selections
– 2003-2004 NBA Rookie of the Year
– Two time NBA All-Star Game MVP
– 2008-2009 NBA League MVP
– Three time All-NBA 1st Team Selection
– 2008-2009 NBA All-Defensive 1st Team
– Third all time in career points per game (27.3)
– 26th all time in career assists per game (6.8)
LeBron James’ started his NBA career with all the expectations of the world on his shoulders. People might not recall this today, but when LeBron entered the league, there was talk that he was overrated and that he couldn’t possibly succeed as an NBA player. In addition, before ever playing an NBA game, James signed a $90 million contract with Nike. Needless to say, the kid had it made. And yet, the Cavaliers organization had essentially made it clear that for better or worse, James was going to be the face of their franchise. The man-child took that responsibility and just rolled it with as best as he could. Turns out that no one knew what that meant at the time. Before acquiring LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers had finished 17-65 in the 2002-2003 season. That record helped them obtain the number overall pick in the draft to select James. Look at the steady increase in wins after James joined the team:
2003-2004: 35 wins, 47 losses
2004-2005: 42 wins, 40 losses
2005-2006: 50 wins, 32 losses
2006-2007: 50 wins, 32 losses
2007-2008: 45 wins, 37 losses
2008-2009: 66 wins, 16 losses
LeBron James took a small market team that no one outside of Ohio paid attention to; and turned into an NBA powerhouse within five years. Although he has yet to win a championship; whenever the conversation turns to teams with a shot at winning an NBA title, the discussion usually involves the Lakers, the Celtics, the Magic and the Spurs. James has now forced everyone to include his Cavaliers into the discussion. The Cavs are now perennial title contenders and yet with the exception of James, it is basically a team of role players. In order to fully grasp what I’m trying to explain , try to imagine watching the movie Ocean‘s Eleven; except you take out Brad Pitt from the equation. You essentially leave George Clooney all alone in the movie and ask him to do all the action, all the charming and all the hustling throughout the movie; and still have the same box office hit. That’s LeBron James peoples; he doesn’t have a truly remarkable co-star and you know what; it might not even matter.
As great as James is on the court, he’s equally impressive off of it. His contract with Nike calls for him to release several signature shoes, but it also requires him to do several endorsements. Consequently, we have been treated to the best basketball commercials in the past few years, courtesy of the Nike-LeBron partnership. Whether it’s seeing Bernie Mac preach about court vision in a church with LeBron James throwing no look passes or just seeing “Business LeBron” dive into a swimming pool with his suit on, the commercials are imaginative and humorous.
For all his talents and gifts, as well as his personality and commercials, LeBron’s biggest asset so far in his professional career is his squeaky clean image. What’s the biggest controversy that you can think of involving LeBron James in the NBA? As ridiculous as this may sound, the biggest failures that LeBron has had to answer for were his refusal to participate in the Slam Dunk Contest this year, and his inability to shake hands with his opponents after being eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Easter Conference Finals.
With all these facts, I ask the question again: would you prefer to have Kobe Bryant’s career or LeBron James’? After wrestling with the question for a few days, I came up with an answer in one of the most bizarre places: the movie A Few Good Men. Kobe Bryant’s 13 year NBA career is highly decorated with championships and individual honors that others could only dream of. He reminds me in that sense of Colonel Jessep (played by Jack Nicholson). In the movie, the colonel was one of the most decorated individuals in the Marines and yet his attitude and his decisions made him seem unlikable, self-righteous and with an overestimated sense of self. Nonetheless, the American government trusted him because he was the best at what he did. LeBron James on the other hand has had a shorter career (six years) but has shown tons of promise as well as the ability to be The Man. LeBron James is the equivalent of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise). He has all the gifts required for his craft as well as the personality and the intellect. He never backs down from the guys at the top and actually encourages the people around him to challenge them. Every time that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James match up, it brings the same level excitement of Kaffee questioning Jessep on the stand (possibly the best criminal trial movie ever) in one of my favorite movie scenes ever: “DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?!?” By the end of the movie, Jessep is arrested and taken to jail; whereas Kaffee is free to go on and pursue his life but we’re not sure what he makes of it. Right now, that’s the story of LeBron James. The man that people are saying is part Karl Malone, part Magic Johnson and part Michael Jordan all wrapped in one. I’m not sure where the rest of his career is headed, but I would definitely pick his career at this juncture. No active NBA player is as dominant on and off the court and can captivate the public quite like he can. Game, set, match. Give me LeBron James career for now. By the way, remember to tune in tonight on TNT; where we’ll be asking once again: “DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?”
Photo by: Harry How/Getty Images