Tex On Kobe Vs. MJ
But that’s what everyone — team owners, fans, reporters, publicists, advertising and broadcasting executives, even players and coaches — wanted, someone to thrill them in the way that Jordan had.
Phil Jackson and his assistant coaches were no different.
Even before they truly settled in their offices in Los Angeles in 1999, they began the comparisons.
MJ vs. the Kobester.
After all, the public debate had started as early as 1997 and ’98 when the teen-aged Bryant was breaking on the NBA scene and gunning to take on the master. Like every hot-handed young whippersnapper, he elicited comparisons to the professional game’s standard, the incomparable Jordan.
After all, that question had raged for years unanswered, who is the next Jordan?
The klieg lights had blinded one young candidate after another in the 1990s. USC’s Harold Miner, the “Baby Jordan.” Ron Harper before his knee injury. Grant Hill. Vince Carter.
It enraged some fans that the audacious Mr. Bryant seemed to openly court such comparison. He would deny it, of course, but this only seemed to fuel their rage.
They cursed and shook their heads when his youthful affectations seemed intentionally Jordanesque.
Today, a lot of fans consider the debate beneath themselves, because it’s “so nineties.”
I wrote a little column last week about how Bryant has finally earned the kind of respect from Phil Jackson that the coach once accorded Jordan.
Henry Abbott’s megafun ESPN blog, True Hoop, linked to the column and it elicited a staggering 258 (and counting) comments from jacked-up readers and posters in a raging debate over the merits of MJ or Kobe. Those figures don’t include the thousands of readers quietly seething over the issue, readers who simply don’t vent in a blog.
Some readers spew that it’s the stupid media causing all this, that it’s trite to compare the two, that there is no comparison.
Such debates are the reason we follow sports. They’re just an extension of the competition. In fact, they’re the essence of NBA lore.
Russell vs. Wilt.
West vs. Oscar.
Bird vs. Magic.
Hakeem vs. Patrick.
Mention any one of those and it sets fans to woofing.
Even 85-year-old Tex Winter likes to jump in the fray.
A few years back, the Lakers coaching staff concluded Bryant and Jordan were much alike, almost eerie, in fact, when it came to the alpha male qualities of their competitive natures.
Kobe and Michael were ruthless when it came to winning, everyone agreed.
And their skills were similar.
Except Michael’s hands were larger.
The major difference between the two came with college experience. Jordan had played in a basketball system for Dean Smith at North Carolina, thus he was better prepared to play within a team concept.
Bryant had come into the league directly from high school with stars in his eyes.
This week I again raised the issue with Tex Winter, who spent years coaching each man.
“I tend to think how very much they’re alike,” he replied. “They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don’t know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best.”
Observers like to point out that Jordan played on a Chicago Bulls team with no great center, but Winter always countered that Jordan was a great post-up player and in essence was the premier post weapon of his time.
Bryant himself came into the NBA with amazingly good post skills, but there was never room for him to play in the post with Shaquille O’Neal occupying the lane during their years together with the Lakers.
In a lot of ways, Bryant is Jordan’s equal as a post player, Winter said, except for one critical element. “What’s happened to Kobe and his post play — and he is a great post player — is that he’s catching the ball just out of the lane and the defenders are forcing him out toward the wing.
“It’s hard for him to get a deep post position,” Winter explained. “Michael had a knack for holding his ground a little better than Kobe. Those strong defenders force Kobe out of there. When that happens, we need to go away from Kobe, instead of challenging the defense there. You don’t want him to start on the post and end up out on the wing.”
The situation leads some to wonder if Bryant’s difficulties in the post don’t lead him sometimes to an over-reliance on the 3-pointer.
“I like to see him take 3s when he’s got ‘em,” Winter said. “He’s an excellent 3-point shooter. I like to see him take them when the floor is spaced and the defense is not closing out fast enough. If the ball is moved quickly, then he has a chance at a good look. Plus defenders foul him on the close-out and he gets a chance at a four-point play. He would get more four-point plays if officials called it when defenders fouled him on the 3.”
Bryant also gets a lot of excellent looks when he charges up in transition and the defense is slow to react to him, Winter said. “He’ll bring the ball up. If they back up on him, he’ll move right to that 3-point line and hit it.”
Bryant has always faced questions about the quality and quantity of his shots.
“We study the tapes,” Winter said of Bryant’s recent scoring binge. “Actually, for the most part, he’s not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in.”
What constitutes a forced shot for most players is not necessarily a bad shot for Bryant, Winter explained. “He’ll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them.”
Long known as the innovator and developer of the triangle offense, Winter acknowledges that of recent Bryant has done much of his scoring while “not really running the triangle sequence options” that define the offense.
“But he is running out of the triangle format and making use of the offense’s spacing and ball movement,” Winter offered.
When the team does run the offense, Bryant finds most of his success at small forward, which allows him to work “behind the defense,” as Winter has often explained. “He gets the ball in position where he’s isolated and can attack the basket a little better. He gets more isolation that way. The triangle creates opportunity for him and he knows that.”
Even with all of Bryant’s offensive success, Winter said the team needs to keep the ball moving, that Bryant’s teammates still defer to him too much.
The main message that Winter, a Lakers consultant, would like to get across to Bryant is that the problem is not his offense.
“I’d like to see him play better defense,” Winter said, adding that he had addressed the issue recently with Bryant but didn’t come away with the idea that Bryant was intent on changing his approach.
“You know Kobe,” Winter said with a chuckle. “He has his game plan. I think he heard me. But he feels there’s a certain way he’s got to play the game. But it doesn’t involve a lot of basically sound defense.”
Because the Lakers need so much of his effort at the offensive end, Bryant has adopted a save-energy plan on the defensive end, Winter said. “He’s basically playing a lot of one-man zone. He’s doing a lot of switching, zoning up, trying to come up with the interception.
“The way Kobe plays defensively affects the team,” Winter added. “Anybody that doesn’t play consistently good defense hurts the team. That’s not only Kobe. Our other guards tend to gamble and get beat. Another problem is that the screen and roll is not played correctly.”
Winter offered some opinions on my recent columns.
Last week I wrote in “Blood In The Water” that Phil Jackson had begun displaying the kind of respect for Bryant that he once offered only to Jordan.
Winter agreed with that assessment: “I think Phil is appreciative of what Kobe is and what he can do for a team. He’s given him a lot more green light recently than he would ordinarily.”
Asked if Bryant now has the same kind of green light that Jordan once enjoyed, Winter replied: “Pretty much.”
Another of my recent columns said Bryant’s four-game streak of 50-point games was more impressive than Wilt Chamberlain’s seven-game streak in 1961-62. Winter again agreed: “It is more impressive. Wilt’s streak was more about gimmickry that season. Kobe’s gotten these points against tough competition (Winter thinks just about all NBA team offer superior competition in this age, including the Memphis Grizzlies), which is something else Wilt didn’t face, not consistently.”
Other than Bill Russell there weren’t many quality big men in an NBA that featured fewer than a dozen teams, Winter offered. “He just out-manned most of the centers in those days.
“Kobe is not a 7-foot-1 giant. He’s a normal-sized 2 or 3 man. For him to go off on the kind of scoring tear that he did is remarkable. It was necessary for this team to win five straight games. Without it, I doubt seriously if we could have won.”
Winter, of course, felt compelled to mention that his Kansas State team in 1958 ended Chamberlain’s season early at the University of Kansas. Winter’s State team also beat Chamberlain and the Jayhawks on their own floor.
“When Kansas got Wilt as a recruit, everyone just assumed they’d win three straight championships,” he recalled.
After losing to UNC in triple overtime in the 1957 NCAA championship game as a sophomore, Wilt’s team lost to Winter’s team in the playoffs his junior year. Frustrated, Chamberlain left college ball to tour with the Harlem Globetrotters during his senior season and joined the NBA a year later, in 1960.
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers. Mindgames, Lazenby’s biography of Phil Jackson, has just been released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in a new special edition.