Hubbard: Kobe v. LeBron; Advancing The “Next Jordan” Debate

When men and women possessing immense basketball knowledge once assembled in places that invited great debate – places, for example, where liquid spirits flowed freely — the popular question was: Who will be the next Michael Jordan?

That topic first presented itself sometime in the ‘90s when players such as Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway and Vince Carter arrived in the NBA. So desperate and fruitless was the search that it briefly included a player known as “Baby Jordan,” which seems pretty comical today since Harold Miner managed to score 1,801 points in his four-year career. That would be a good 50-game stretch for Michael.

It is a compliment of the highest order to Kobe Bryant that after a few years in the NBA, the discussion was no longer who would be the next MJ, it was whether or not Kobe was better than Jordan.

If you think about it, Bryant actually answered the question with his play. He was, in fact, the next Michael Jordan. And that advanced the debate to the next level, which was: Was Kobe better than Michael?

Kobe says the answer is no, which is good enough for me.

LeBron James showed up at a time when Bryant was unquestionably the best player in the game. But with a refined skill set, a huge body, uncommon quickness and speed for a man his size, the countdown began: When would LeBron pass Kobe as the best?

Jerry West said it happened in 2009 – amazingly, almost four years ago. While no one outside of James Naismith and John Wooden has more basketball credibility than West, the Kobe boosters among us respectfully differed. I got to a point where I wrote an annual column making the case that the torch had not been passed.

When Jordan was asked to join the fray in the week preceding his 50th birthday, a big deal was made out of what he said. But the words in print came across far stronger than they did when you heard them on NBA-TV.

Jordan did in fact say that five rings for Kobe beats one for LeBron, but by the time he said that, he’d already said that James was the most dominant player in the NBA today. What was he supposed to say? LeBron’s one ring was more impressive than Kobe’s five?

Rather than making so much out of the ring count, the major point should have been that Jordan was officially joining the LeBron camp by saying he was the dominant player in basketball. He did not in any way minimize Kobe. In fact, he paid Bryant another huge compliment – saying Bryant is “cursed as much as I am.”

By that, Jordan meant Kobe has a savage, almost unhealthy need to win.

“He wants it so bad and he’s willing to go to the extreme – guarding the point guards at the age of 34, playing 38 minutes, 40 minutes,” Jordan said. “That’s ludicrous.”

While everyone rushed to James at All-Star events to get his take on what Jordan said, it was the way Kobe reacted to the comment that was fascinating.

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  1. says

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  2. Fanatic/Basketball Fan says

    I have absolutely seen enough and heard enough, LBJ is the greatest ever. He finds more ways to win and tear down the opponent than anyone in the history of BB.

  3. BasketballFanatic says

    Lebron is the best ever, he is the most complete player, LBJ does so many things well that by the 4th quarter most of the time the game is over. One thing that ppl don’t mentioned about LBJ is his strength, that man bench presses 500lbs and he regularly outmuscles and wears out players much bigger and taller than him. Some mentioned that he is the best conditioned athlete that they have ever seen,true. This yr his 4th quarter shooting percentage is over .600 and Kobe and MJ’s long career they never even averaged that in a whole season.

  4. Maraz says

    Lebron is the best all around player in the league today and could retire as the best all around player ever but being a jack of all trades does not make you the best player ever. If you were to ask people who understand the sport which player they would want on their team in the last few minutes of the game you would hear Jordan, Bryant, Magic, Bird maybe a few others. Stat lines aside these players are just the best. Incredible combinations of skills and intangibles. Lebron is amazing and will probably have incredible career stat lines but he doesn’t have the presence of a Kobe or a Jordan. Players do not fear playing against him like they do Jordan or Kobe. Lebron could beat you but Kobe or Jordan would demoralize you and make you wish you didn’t come to the court that day. That type of domination is reserved for a select few players and they are the greatest of the great.

  5. Ron says

    Mark and Jim thanks to both of you for the level of intelligence and civility you demonstrated in your postings. I used to follow the ESPN Lakers Blog but the comments section’s level of obnoxious and uninformed opinions (“Kobe is OBVIOUSLY the GOAT”… “Kobe SUCKS”) got on my nerves. You both make great points in regard to LeBron and Jordan and I agree with Jim that LeBron is the best combination of physical specimen and multi-talented player ever BUT I also agree with Mark that he has a ways to go to catch what Jordan accomplished on the court. I am hoping that he does.

  6. Bobby says

    I also enjoyed this article. But Jim while I agree with some of your points, I disagree with Lebron being better than MJ. He has all the tools and could potentially prove to be, but I feel he already ruined his case. The day he decided to join the super friends he tarnished his legacy. I know Jordan played with Pippen and Rodman was no slouch either, but they were drafted and traded for. The heat have made the NBA change the free agency rules completely. In Jordan’s first couple of seasons he wasn’t exactly playing with a cast of greatness either, so those arguments don’t make sense to me. Lebron went to Miami to take the pressure off of him and lean on Wade and Bosh. The worst part is when he wants to be he can dominate at will like MJ, the problem is he rather defer. That’s nothing that can be taught. MJ was a stone cold killer. If Lebron had that drive it would probably not be much of an argument as Lebron is just a physical freak. I think Lebron is obviously going to end up being top 3, but not taking MJ out of top spot if for no other reasons than having to join Wade, Bosh, and every other late end of career all star that wants to ring chase with them. In a couple of years Lebron will try to make up for his mistake and head back to Cleveland to play prodigal son, but now he has a safety there. He has Kyrie. Lebron doesn’t like pressure. He’d rather defer. And that unfortunately is why he will probably stay as top 3 of all time.

    • Jim says

      Hey Bobby,

      I both agree and disagree with your statement regarding Lebron hating having the pressure one him. When he signed with Miami I wasn’t mad that he spurned my Bulls, and I never thought he owed the Cavs anything, and I also did not mind him leaving to play with Wade and Bosh. What made me mad is when Lebron said it will nice not having the pressure on him in Miami as he as other teammates who can take away from his burden. This statement made me angry because I knew Kobe or MJ would never say something like that, they would never shy away from pressure. And if anything, they both love the pressure, they eat it up. So his first year on Miami I couldn’t have been more anti-Lebron.

      But, after they lost to the Mavs, Lebron completely changed his mental mindset in my book. He realized that to win a title he needed to be the guy, that he had to take the team on his shoulders, and that is exactly what he has done the last year and a half. He is taking it upon himself to lead, to be the guy, to not care about pressure anymore and actually embrace it. And if anything he has helped Wade still be thought of as a star, not the other way around, as Wade his a little slower and it takes him a little longer to get up.

      I agree Lebron was not always the greatest under pressure, but he now accepts it and thrives under it.

      Thanks for commenting on what I said though, I enjoy conversing with smart people.

  7. hunter says

    no matter how dominant lebron is he will never have important on the nba like mike did. i watched both of them and they are similar in quite a few ways. 1. they both get to the lane and to the free throw line at will.2 both are excellent defenders but lebron might not be the best defnder at his postion while michael could make a case as the greatest premieter defender ever. Michael was a muche better 1 on 1 defender. michael was the best offensive player on the planet and even pippen didnt guard like him. not to mention the intangilbes. i would also like to put ou the fact that jordans carrer high in rebounds(8) is higher than lebrons (7.9).

  8. Mark says

    Kobe’s 1 MVP is as much an indictment for him not being in the Jordan conversation as Lebron’s lack of Rings. Kobe has always been in the conversation as the best in the league but rarely was it universally accepted. Shaq, Duncan, McGrady, Penny and others were often considered when discussing who the best was for the 1st decade of Kobe’s career and LBJ has clearly been the best in the world for the last 5 years. There was never a moment when Kobe dominated the basketball universe like Jordan did for so long and LeBron is now. I’m not insinuating this small fact proves anything definitively but its an under made point. Every one talks rings but rings are a team award. Being the best player on a championship team is huge but not everything either.

  9. Jim says

    Article is well written, and I really enjoyed reading it.

    But now to my argument.

    I was 16, 17, and 18 years old as I watched Michael Jordan during the Bulls/his second 3-peat, and every time I watched Jordan played I marveled at the way he was able to impose his will to win on the whole game/his whole team/the apposing team. There was something about him mentally that was astonishing to watch, and I haven’t seen anyone come close to the way he altered the game just by being on the court, not even counting any actual basketball metrics, just mentally changing the game.

    But, besides pure 1-on-1 scoring, I can’t think of anything Jordan did better than Lebron does now. Lebron is a better 1-on-1 defender, and he can use that skill while covering 4 different positions. He rebounds better, he moves the ball better, and if he was 5 inches shorter he would make Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo look like just normal players at the PG position. Now maybe I notice these skills more as a mature and intelligent basketball fan at 32 rather than a pom-pom waving Bulls fan between the ages of 16-18. I’m sorry, but every part of my brain tells me Lebron is the best player I’ve ever seen. And besides the amount of rings, I don’t ever see writers tell me why MJ is better than Lebron besides just stating it. Make me a case from a on the floor sense, not a rings sense.

    But Jordan, Kobe, and Lebron all have one thing in common. In their primes when you were watching their teams play you knew they were going to win. You knew that no matter what the score, no matter what the series was at, no matter if they were sick or hurt or hungover, that they would find a way to will their teams to win. They are all killers on the court, they want to beat you and then they want to beat you again. So no matter what the order is (and mine is Lebron 1, MJ 2, Kobe 3), they are the 3 best basketball players of my life time, and 3 of the best ever.

    But to Jan Hubbard, and every other basketball writer out there, who continuously tells me MJ is better than Lebron, please give me the reasons besides rings. Tell me what Jordan did better than Lebron does now. And until then I’m good with stating Lebron is the best ever.

    • josh says

      “You knew that no matter what the score, no matter what the series was at, no matter if they were sick or hurt or hungover, that they would find a way to will their teams to win.”

      That statement can not be true if you considered Lebron to be in his prime in the finals against the Mavs or the year before when he checked out of the Boston series.

      I have always cheered for Lebron but watching him essentially quit in the Boston series and get checked by Deshawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd against the Mavs was maddening. Anytime Dallas did not have Marion on him James should have punished whoever was guarding him in the post. But he didn’t, because who knows why he hadn’t worked on the most rudimentary post up game that far into his career. Which to this point is what sets Jordan apart from him to this point. The mental aspect.

      But I’m assuming you are talking about the current Lebron of the past one and a half seasons. In which case, all he has to do is keep on winning. If he does that he will go down as the greatest. He really should have 2 rings though

      • Jim says

        Definitely a fair counter point Josh. The Mavs did frustrate Lebron at times, but Lebron still kept the Heat in that series while Wade and Bosh did little. But I get the point, if Lebron is what I said he is he should have been able to find a way to beat Dallas.

        However, and I know I’m in the minority with this, I will never say he quit against Boston. Plus, who really had the better team? That Cavs team was always a joke besides Lebron, and he got them to the finals one year. Do you honestly think the Cavs ever lost a series to team that wasn’t actually better than them? I can’t think of one time the Cavs lost a series they should have won. Also, Jordan and the Bulls lost plenty of playoff series before finally getting over the hump, but when Jordan and the Bulls were finally the better team and Jordan was the best ever he made it happen.

        And I was talking more about the current Lebron, the last year and a half Lebron. But thanks for commenting, and thanks for being a rational/logical poster.

        • josh says

          Quit is too strong a word. I should have stuck with checked out. He clearly did not attack the Celtics with the same intensity in game 5 (?) as he did the previous 4 games (this is what I remember). I believe he was mentally exhausted at having to be at the peak of his powers every night to give the Cavs just the chance to win. His teammates were a bunch of hot garbage and it got to him, which is understandable. You can only watch Moe Williams brick so many open 3 pointers. This is one of the reasons I had absolutely no problem with him going to the Heat.

          But Wade was actually a much better player than Lebron was during the Mavs series. James actually went 3-11 during the game 4 loss when Wade shot 13-20. Can you imagine the current Lebron going 3-11 against that Mav team? Hell would freeze over first. Which is the main reason I was pissed at Lebron for neglecting his inside game, it was blatantly obvious that he would be unguardable with only one or two moves. Can you imagine Jordan losing his first championship against LA because he didn’t have a full offensive repertoire and was checked by Byron Scott and Terry Teagle?

    • says

      Hi Jordan! You are amazing and befituaul!! I love to listen to your music!! It’s amazing!! My favorite songs by you are It Will Rain cover and Undercover Baby!! Never Too Late inspired me to be strong and stand up to bullying! I can’t even explain how you’ve changed me! I am so proud to be your Jordaneer!! It is an honor to be beside you and support you! Thank you Jordan Jansen for changing my life! Once a Jordaneer, always a Jordaneer<3

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