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Kobe and MJ

Posted by Neil Paine on December 8, 2008

I have to say that I'm really enjoying FreeDarko's new book, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. It's one of the most unique basketball books I've ever read, and the artwork is nothing short of, well, macrophenomenal. But the purpose of this post isn't simply to plug FD's book -- though you should really check it out -- rather, it's about the Almanac's chapter on Kobe Bryant. They start it off thusly:

Check the résumé -- it's absolutely impeccable. A 6'6" shooting guard with limitless physical tools, a hell-bent perfectionist, Kobe Bryant works tirelessly to condition his body and enhance his game. He's fearless in the clutch, voraciously competitive, and serious to the point of bleakness.

If the parallels to Michael Jordan weren't clear in the opening paragraph, they go on to characterize Bryant as a man with a similarly obsessive need to win as MJ (except without the mentorship of a Dean Smith to provide balance in his personality), and they list as Kobe's player comparison "a smarter, more neurotic Michael Jordan". Now, certainly FreeDarko is not the first to make the MJ-Kobe juxtaposition, as it was practically tailor-made for Bryant by the media from the first moment he stepped onto an NBA court. But reading that chapter made me think further about the Jordan-Kobe comparison, one which is almost tacit at this point, so ingrained as to be a fundamental assumption of today's NBA landscape. Looking at the stats, exactly how "Jordanesque" is Bryant?

Let's examine the respective progressions of Jordan and Bryant's careers through age 29, using some of the stats in Dean Oliver's seminal book Basketball on Paper. Specifically, we're going to take a look at each player's offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions used), the % of team possessions they use when on the court, and their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 opponent possessions). I'm also going to adjust these numbers for the era in which the players played, with a little help from our old friend the pythagorean expectation.

If you recall, a team's winning % can be approximated by the following formula:

Pythagorean Win % = (ORtg14 / (ORtg14 + DRtg14))

Well, we can also apply this to individual ratings, as a means of calculating offensive and defensive "winning percentages":

OW% = (ORtg14 / (ORtg14 + LgRtg14))

DW% = (LgRtg14 / (LgRtg14 + DRtg14))

With these numbers in hand, you can use simple algebra to rearrange each equation and solve for ORtg and DRtg, which you can then use to "translate" an OW% or DW% to its equivalent ORtg/DRtg in any given season, using the league's rating:

Translated ORtg = (LgRtg * OW%1/14) / ((1-OW%)1/14)

Translated DRtg = ((LgRtg14 - (DW% * LgRtg14))1/14) / (DW%1/14)

In this example, we're going to translate Kobe and MJ's numbers to the environment of the 2007-08 season, when the average team scored 1.075 pts/possession:

Age  Player  Year  Tm   trORtg  %Poss  trDRtg  Player  Season  Tm   trORtg  %Poss  trDRtg
21   Bryant  2000  LAL  114.1   26.3   101.2   Jordan  1985    CHI  117.4   29.5   106.4
22   Bryant  2001  LAL  116.8   30.6   109.6   Jordan  1986    CHI  109.5   35.8   107.3
23   Bryant  2002  LAL  115.0   30.0   105.8   Jordan  1987    CHI  115.7   35.9   103.5
24   Bryant  2003  LAL  115.6   32.0   106.4   Jordan  1988    CHI  122.3   32.4   100.8
25   Bryant  2004  LAL  117.4   28.5   106.1   Jordan  1989    CHI  122.2   31.9   102.8
26   Bryant  2005  LAL  112.7   31.6   112.9   Jordan  1990    CHI  122.4   32.4   104.9
27   Bryant  2006  LAL  115.0   36.5   106.7   Jordan  1991    CHI  124.9   31.3   101.2
28   Bryant  2007  LAL  116.5   32.6   110.2   Jordan  1992    CHI  120.4   30.2   101.0
29   Bryant  2008  LAL  115.0   30.6   104.8   Jordan  1993    CHI  118.7   32.8   101.9

As you can see, out of necessity Jordan was taking on a large offensive responsibility early in his career; as his teammates got better, he slowly eased back on the workload, and his efficiency improved as a result. Kobe's story is the opposite: with great teammates early, he didn't have to do as much, but when Shaq left before the '05 season, Kobe was actually forced to take a larger role in the offense than even Jordan ever had to.

It's more interesting, though, to look at the efficiency levels the players maintained vs. their % of possessions used. The mark of a truly great offensive player is to maintain a high level of efficiency while taking on a large share of the team's offensive responsibility, and even though Kobe's numbers are impressive, Jordan is consistently more efficient than Bryant no matter if he's using more possessions or not. Also, note the translated defensive ratings: aside from their age-21 seasons, MJ is better (sometimes vastly so) at every turn.

In other words -- and this should be obvious -- when we watch Kobe play, we're seeing a far lesser version of Michael Jordan in action. Similar in style and mannerism, maybe, but when we translate the statistics for era, it becomes very clear that Jordan was actually the one "playing chess" while Bryant "plays checkers". This isn't meant to denigrate Kobe Bryant or FreeDarko's characterization of him, of course, but rather to highlight the fact that MJ operated on a different level than perhaps anyone else in NBA history (as we've seen time and again, compare anyone to Jordan and they'll invariably fall short). I've found that the more time passes, the greater the temptation is to focus on current players as "this generation's (insert Hall of Famer here)"... Fortunately, by looking at the numbers we can separating hype from reality and more impartially judge the merit of such comparisons.

111 Responses to “Kobe and MJ”

  1. JD Says:

    I want to respond to some of the more ridiculous things said so for. First the Bad Boy Pistons and Knicks were more physical than teams ever could be today and Jordan dominated both: Actually the Bulls lost to the Pistons three straight times in the playoffs before their first championship. Second Jordan would never have let the Bulls get blown out in a game seven the way the Lakers did by the Suns: the Pistons blew out the Bulls in game seven of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, and they were almost the same age (Kobe was a year older maybe). And with Jordan's three point shot being nearly identical with Bryant's, if you take away the years of the shortened line Jordan had three seasons shooting above 30%, Kobe has nine. There is also an argument that Jordan's 63 point game against the 86 Celtics is more impressive than Kobe's 81: Although impressive, that Celtic game was a double overtime game. Kobe scored his 81 within the normal flow of the offense. They were down 18 in the third quarter too. The argument is whether Kobe's 81 is better than Wilt's 100 (I think it is because there were well over 300 points scored that game, which was basically garbage time from start to finish). What was more impressive though is the month before that when Kobe outscored the Mavericks after 3 quarters, 62-61. I've been trying to find this out, but I'm pretty sure in the modern era no team has been outscored by a single player after three quarters (an NBA Finals team to boot).

    I'm not saying Kobe was better then MJ. I'm only saying that when looking back in history people tend to use rose colored glasses. A lot of that has to do with the marketing and promotion at that time. MJ played on a team that won 55 games without him after his first retirement. I doubt any of the non-Shaq Kobe teams would win more than 30 without him (not including this years team or last year's pre-Gasol). When people use examples of Kobe not winning without Shaq so MJ is better they don't mention how bad the rest of the Lakers were. Kobe and MJ are very similar so comparisons and debates are inevitable. It was a different game back then though. Could Kobe handle hand checks better than MJ could handle the zone? Could an MJ team still dominate with Odom, Smush Parker, Luke Walton, and Kwame Brown starting with him? Would people still think MJ was a better teammate if he had to put up with Shaq running his mouth like he's in the WWE are something?

    I would also argue that the average player today is better than the average player of Jordan's era simply because the talent pool is much larger. Back then it was almost exclusively the NCAA, but now it's the whole world. I know foreign talent wasn't there back then, but that changed real quick because overseas you have 15 year old practices their craft for 10 hours a day. They also play against professionals at that age. But that's a different argument.

  2. bigverga Says:

    the greatest laker ever is Magic not this wannabe of Kobe, MJ is far superior not only in numbers but also one on one, you heard it laker fans, MJ at his prime nowadays will destroy your idol. Lets be fair kobe and whatever you want against MJ, and the winner is.... MJ by 10. LMAO

  3. ag Says:

    People have a VERY selective memory about MJ.
    As if he just appeared out of nowhere to lead his team to titles and did it all on his own.
    MJ had a LOT of help, and anyone who will deny this is a flat out moron.
    Watch the entire Finals series against Seattle. Payton SHUT MJ down. I believe it was 42% shooting and 5 of the 6 games he failed to score under 30 points. Was it still MJ who "carried" that team on his back all those times?
    Scottie Pippen goes unappreciated.
    Yes MJ is greater than Kobe, there's no doubt about it. But be realistic. The guy was not flawless in any sense of the word. It was in the NBA's best interests to see the man succeed and they made sure of it. 40% of their income was directly related to MJ. They protected their investment and then some.
    And what's even more sad is Jordan "fans" trying to compare Lebron to Kobe or Wade and saying that Kobe is even inferior to these guys. Give me a break. And I don't believe there's real knowledgeable basketball fan on this earth that believes that Lebron's defense is even in the same universe as Kobe's. Remember, it all boils down to team defense to what you see on the surface. The Cavs are a fundamentally sound defensive team, while the Lakers are not. Just as the Celtics defensive scheme is making Ray Allen and Paul Pierce look like perennial all-defensive players, the Cavs defense is making Lebron and his cast look amazing as well.
    Kobe is a pure defender. He's been an elite defender since his 3rd year in the league, that doesn't change.

  4. MJ23 Says:

    hope you guys still remember suns-lakers rnd 1 playoffs where kobe let his team down in final game 7...was it 1-3 lakers???and suns wons 3 in a row??? or was it 0-3???

    j_for Says:
    December 9th, 2008 at 7:43 pm
    comparison huh?. how about today’s celtics vs bird-mchale-parish celts. hmmm.
    today’s lakers vs magic-kareem-worthy lakers. This pistons vs dumars-isaiah-laimbeer deeetroit.
    ewing-oakley-starks knick vs this years’ best defensive team. how about them 72-10 bulls to this days competition. ahhhhh, the 80’s and 90’s.

    'nuff said.

  5. MJ23 Says:

    Even the Rockets led by The Dream and Sir Charles can win a ring to any team at this time....imagine rockets '99 vs celtics -08; how the hell kg will handle sir charles, pip and hakeem??? teams today are nothing compared to 80s and 90s....

  6. Jose Says:

    Your bias is pretty clear, JD. You cherry-pick certain things and present them from only one perspective. If that 63 point performance isn't enough because it was in double overtime, then how about MJ having 14 of the top 27 individual performances in NBA history (as of '07 and since the '86-'87 season)? Kobe has 3. The top rated game is MJ's 69 point performance against Cleveland. He also had 18 rebounds and 6 assists in that game. Kobe had 6 rebounds and 2 assists in the game against Toronto. Factor in the potential points scored/saved with those two stats and we're talking about an impact greater than scoring 81 points. Outscoring the Dallas team sounds impressive, but the Mavs have never been a great defensive team, even if they were improved with Avery Johnson as head coach. I'm wondering how their defense could've allowed one guy to outscore their team. Carmelo Anthony recently scored 33 points in a quarter. Is he suddenly in the conversation based on that? I think not.

    Also, nobody has said that MJ could've won without help. But going back to that 63 point game, his team as a whole was FAR inferior to that Celtics team, and a far cry from the championship-caliber Bulls teams. And in 1989 when he made "The Shot", the Cavaliers were a much better team as well, and yet MJ made enough of a difference for the upset. Regarding Detroit in the 1990 eastern conference finals, the Bulls did lose in 7 games, but neither team was able to win on the road. Those guys really did physically beat up on MJ though, and judging from the times when I've seen Kobe get played more physical (like when he's been guarded by guys like Bowen in the past), he seems to struggle much more. That's just an observation, so take it as such, but MJ seemed to have more moves in the paint whereas Kobe relies more heavily on the jumpshot, and that does tend to result in a lower field goal percentage.

    The Bulls had a good setup when MJ left. Putting Scottie in the leading role worked well for them...for a while. The very next season that same team struggled much more, and even when MJ came back to push their record to *I believe* 47 wins, they lost to Orlando in the playoffs. But as to whether or not Kobe needed more help than MJ, I think there's a simple answer:

    MJ had six finals MVP awards. He was clearly the driving force behind each Bulls championship, and even in the one against Seattle where he struggled by HIS standards. (he still made 27 points a game) Kobe has none despite having appeared in 5 finals. Did Kobe struggle in the 2008 finals because his team wasn't as good as any of the championship teams MJ played on? That's probably part of it, but the fact is, MJ could often put together impressive offensive performances in losing efforts just the same. Watching the way that Pierce outplayed Kobe when it mattered most further hammers home the fact that he isn't MJ's equal. Whatever else you can say about MJ, he tended to play his best when it mattered most. Kobe, on the other hand, has been less consistent. History can attest to that.

    MJ had his weaker moments like anyone else. No one is denying that. However, he rose to the occasion more often than any other player in NBA history, regardless of whether or not his team was able to join him. That's why many regard him as the greatest. Not because of hype and marketing. He had to fight for a long time before his team was good enough to win a title. It wasn't handed to him. And if the NBA gave him special treatment now and then with calls, that's something which is also true for Kobe, Lebron, Wade, Magic, Bird and any other current or past superstar, so it's a moot point for this particular comparison. I recall Brandon Roy recently mentioning how superstars get calls more easily and therefore defenders are more hesitant when guarding them and therefore they're even more effective.

  7. Therealdeal Says:

    I wanna see Lebron break these record wish hes on pace to breaking..To see if people still talk trash...

  8. Therealdeal Says:

    lol They dogging kobe out here in these story.. The original one about lebron being like MJ and kobe fans still find a way to be kobelovers anywhere they go........Kobe will Never be close to break that eff per game record or come close to it like Lebron is on pace to brake @24 ..I see how lakers fans always talking how good of a shooter kobe is and he never has shot over 47% from the field...While lebron has shot 50% ......Lebron dont wanna be like Jordan hes got hes own style ...

  9. jj Says:

    Lets not forget about the rule changes that makes Kobe looke so good that Jordan had to play with and he didnt.

  10. storyofgreats Says:

    Woww,bunch of Kobe haters congregation.Being a great side this is hands down pathetic.

  11. Survey Magnet Says:

    We have an interesting debate about this topic going on at the following link:

    Come join the discussion.