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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tex On Kobe Vs. MJ

Well before Air Jordan had even finished playing, folks began a feverish hunt for Heir Jordan, as if there could ever be another one.
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.”
Yeah, right.
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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article because its what you want to hear. Every body wants to hear that MJ is better. Even Tex. You can't tell me that if you won 6 rings with a team, you will not favor that team or those players more. That's not vague.

MJ had better help defense and could gamble more, and do more because of it. That's not vague. MJ had more people who understood the offense, and the Lakers do not. MJ had the league leading rebounder, 4 years in a row; the best 3 pt shooter; and the best on the ball defender in Pippen. Plain facts. Let's see Jordan is a Hall of Famer; Pippen will be a Hall of Famer; and Rodman will be a Hall of Famer. That's 3 on one team, and you want to compare only individual contribution, and not take these facts into account?

So it is very difficult to measure greatness, therefore, Magic is the best ever in my book, but Kobe has had greater performances than MJ, Magic or Bird, but I give the edge to MJ right now because college expereince can not be immulated. However, when your name is up there with Wilt, and Jordan, that in itself is a testement of greatness.

Players are bigger and stronger today than when MJ played, that's a fact. More players has Jordan like abilities, that are no longer unique to MJ. More 7 footers are playing in the 3 or 4 spot in the offense rotation, that did not exist in the 90's. However, one player stand heads and shoulders above the Wades' The James, Dirks, the KG's, Cater's, and McGrady, that is Kobe Bryant.


12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with KM, above.
i hope that Lakers Management does
something to enhance the quality
surrounding KB, he has proven to be too good in May and June to waste his last 5 years or so shutting down his season in the 1st
move anyone but KB, Luke and Bynum.
LO looks good, but he cannot seem
to get done what needs to be done.
3 points against Memphis...???...
when KB needed help....???

as KM mentioned...MJ had quality around him....return 1/2 the quality to LA that KB had in 1998-2004....and we will see a title.

roland.....these articles are
worth looking forward to everyday.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Diran Lyons said...

"Players are bigger and stronger today than when MJ played."


That sounds a whole lot like Jemele Hill's fatigued rhetoric... the more I process her thoughts or similar ones, the less I am convinced by these particular arguments. How about these bits of Jemele's:

"Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing will be among the best centers ever, but none of them affected the league the way Shaq and Tim Duncan have. There are two two-time MVPs in Kobe's own conference (Duncan, Nash), which is a problem Jordan never faced during his championship runs."

Right, because Jordan was busy earning all the MVP awards.

"…there was definitely a difference in the level of competition during Jordan's heyday compared to now…Seven-footers weren't launching 3s back then."

Larry Bird's height at 6'9" is nothing to scoff at. 7 footers like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett [technically he is 6'11", a whopping two inches taller than Bird] shoots the long ball, but they are the exception, not the norm for the taller trees. And at 20% from the arc this year and 28.9 percent for Garnett's career, I don't see what strength this point offers to Kobe that a forward who is a little taller [than eras past] shoots at a mediocre percentage from long range.

"Magic Johnson and the Lakers were on a downward spiral, and the Pistons were on their last legs. It was Michael and everyone else. That's not the case for Kobe."

This is an unfortunate obfuscation of history. For example, rather than being indicative of any "downward spiral" or being on "last legs", Magic's performance and statistics were as strong as ever in 1991. Worthy averaged 19.4 points per game that year, better than both his averages in the Laker repeat championship seasons of 1987 and 1988. The Lakers overall had undergone a minor facelift via draft picks and trades [Divac, Perkins, Campbell, etc] at the time they met with Jordan, and perhaps this new chemistry can account for their loss to him in the finals, not aging. The Lakers' demise and downward spiral actually came as a direct result of Magic's retirement soon thereafter, announcing his acquisition of HIV. But there was no "downward spiral" to account for the 1991 loss. The Bulls were just better. And I'm not sure the Hall of Fame classes from the 1990s would agree that "it was Michael and everyone else." That decade produced the second leading all-time scorer, the all-time assists leader, and a rebounding maniac in Dennis Rodman. The decade was far from soft.

"The Lakers are a lottery team without Kobe."

Other than what it overtly states in the context of the 2007 season, this comment appears to conversely entail that the supporting cast of the Bulls of the championship years were largely the reason for Jordan's success. They were indeed a playoff capable team, but in each of the years Jordan sat out the Bulls found themselves ousted early in the playoffs, in the Eastern Conference Semis. They were not a star-studded team like the New York Yankees. It was a bunch of fundamentally sound basketball players who didn't boast big names, but came to work every day and played extremely hard. For example, Bill Cartwright, underrated, but not a HOF player. Bill Wennington? Come on. Even Pippen, who many will point to in discussions such as these, was a strong player, but was it due to Jordan's presence or was it not? Pippen never lead a team to a championship after Jordan departed, and his production and scoring dipped harshly after Jordan left in 1998.

Aside from these things, it was interesting how Hill started out with very strong claims, boldly asserting in the article's first line that "Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan," but then goes on to develop a case more against Jordan and his era, rather than fortifying her position by centering arguments on Kobe and his accomplishments. When speaking directly about Kobe, her basic premise appears to be that 'Kobe can do things Jordan cannot' and takes it as axiomatic that from this entails the conclusion that Jordan is the lesser of the two.

I suppose the premise 'that Kobe can do things Jordan cannot' can work both ways. Kobe cannot [or has not yet] scored 3000 in a season, averaged 35 or more two seasons in a row, scored 37 points per game in a season, shot over 50% from the field in any season during his career, etc. I suppose that we could make the claim that Larry Bird could do things that Kobe could not, like shoot 50% for nearly his entire career, or shoot several years over 90% from the free throw line. Bird never shot nearly as many attempts, so who knows if 80 would have been possible? He scored 60 once on only 36 attempts [22-36]! Kobe has been often in the mid to high 40s in attempts, and the 81 point effort came from 46 attempts from the field.

I am therefore not sure to what extent 'doing things that others cannot' qualifies as a deal-settler. It would seem one must have the most categories in his favor of 'doing things that others cannot' to be conclusive. It is obvious that Kobe as well has done things that no one else has accomplished in the past 40 years [62 in 3 quarters, 81, and the streak of 65, 50, 60, 50]. Because Kobe has outbursts as he does, he has to be considered the most lethal or explosive scorer, but 'most consistently prolific scorer' at this point is his to earn, given the statistics Jordan put up and a 30 ppg career average. I do not necessarily deny that he can do it because, without injury, he may get better in the next 4-5 years, but we'll see.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Great article. And great comments - both of them. I only have one thing to add.

I think the single most important point in the comparison of their achievements is the quality of teammates MJ had. To say that Pippen couldn't lead the bulls to a ring without MJ doesn't prove anything - rather, it reinforces the importance of having a quality team. MJ couldn't win without Pippen and Pippen couldn't win without MJ. It's clear that though MJ was obviously the superior talent, they both achieved more together (and only won together).

I think that's what everyone misses when talking about Kobe. Give him an intimidating interior defender / rebounder and a capable (and most of all consistent!) defensive backcourt mate and the lakers are a scary team.

When the lakers had Shaq they won. But Kobe was young - at that point Kobe was, what, 5 years younger than when Jordan won his first? So, sure, at that point Kobe was definitely playing the Pippen role - but now that he's at the age where MJ started winning, he needs his own capable (let alone 50 Greatest Ever.. geez.. lets not forget just how good Pippen was) sidekick.

My point is that it's impossible to compare MJ and Kobe by their achievements. The championships argument is out the door until Kobe has some consistent talent around him at THIS stage in his career.

Compare offense, compare defense, compare explosiveness, compare clutch shooting, compare the way's they could take over parts of a game, but you can't compare greatness - that's ultimately a team attribute.

2:57 PM  
Blogger ooc said...

for diran lyons,

you try to compare kobe's team without him to MJ's team...heh...let me refresh your memory...when Jordan left, Pippen took the team to the Eastern Conference Finals, and was a bad call away from the Finals against Orlando. You claim Pippen never won a title w/o Jordan, but did Jordan ever win one w/o Pippen...from what I recall, Jordan was in the league for about 6 to 7 years before Pippen and what did he accomplish...some scoring titles...back to my take Kobe off this team and they're a lottery team not a play away from the FINALS.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the article, it was very interesting... oppose to the Jemele Hill's article (probably the worst article that I have ever seen on ESPN). Not because she was saying Kobe is better than Jordan, but reading her article felt like reading some essay of middle school kid.

I think Diran Lyons has lots of good points and I do agree with him.

I think players were more tough and stronger in the 90's than the players we see today. We are seeing less and less true post-players. Most of the "star" players we see are perimeter oriented.

One more comment.

"Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing will be among the best centers ever, but none of them affected the league the way Shaq and Tim Duncan have."

Jemele Hill, who in the world do you think you are?? How can you judge HO, RB, PE did not affect the league the way Shaq or TD did? (and yet call them among the best centers ever). I guess people forget, forget the way how these players used to play.

And by the way, Shaq entered the league in 1993... and half of his career, struggled playing against the above mentioned centers.

She also knocked on John Starks and Joe Dumars D. Is she crazy? You know how good one-on-one and team defense NY and Detroit played at the time? And both of them were integral part of it.

People were allowed to push you over and be pesky prior to the recent rule change, and defense was much more better in those days.

As of MJ vs KB debate. I think it is stupid to compare. You can't simply compare different players from different era. KB will never be MJ and vice versa.

I must add though, KB is impressive. I used to not like him and that is prior to the Denver incident. He seemed to worry about the reps more than basketball back than. But he changed after the whole Denver thing. He doesn't care what you think anymore, he's concern is to win games.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

No better people to tackle this debate about MJ vs Kobe than Phil and Tex.

It's a very good debate. It keeps people arguing, woofing, what-iffing, etc...

But please, Kobe's just hit the prime of his career (so we'll see more!).

Mind you, I'm no fan of his. However, I just see all these debates as premature.

See, everything counts, not just how they are/were as players. Rings are blings to show off, and how (and with whom) they achieved it.

Let's do these in probably 10 years time, when Kobe's retired or in semi-retirement, or basically, just not physically able anymore (NBA playing-wise), then we can start the real debate.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous D-Wil said...

Though Hill's article is juvenile, your point skew the information that Hill never elucidates. You mention 7" players launching threes and mention two (and KG is now 7'1" - he maintained after his second year he was "6'12"" because he didn't want to be known as a seven-footer). But let's not get hung up on one or two inches - it's really meaningless to do so.

There's Okur, Bargnani, 'Sheed, Villanueva, Novak, Bonner, Horry, Oberto (on one team!), LaFrentz, Rashard Lewis, Odom, Radmonovic... and that's 12 players 6'10" or over who regularly shoot threes just in the Western Conference!

Lakers were retooling? After Magic retired did their "retooled team succeed? No.

The Bulls w/out Jordan? They won 55 games their first year w/out MJ! Could the Lakers do that w/out Kobe?!

And Kobe as an overall player?

Let's see: He can play three positions on offense and two on defense. He can score at will. He's been named to the NBA 1st or 2nd all-defensive team every year from 1999-00 to 2003-04 and the in 2005-06.... and without him his team is firmly in the lottery.

I'd say that's not too bad.

And I find it odd that you used Hill's piece to do your dirty work on Kobe rather than Roland's. They both make similar points - but Roland's facts are harder to refute than Hill's ummmm, pro-Kobe rhetoric (I'm trying to be kind to her).

Finally, there are extenuating circumstances in Kobe's career that Jordan never had to deal with (Roland touches on it in "Blood in the Water" while I expound on them in a recent post on my blog). And I maintain that a fair comparison between Kobe and MJ can never be made because of those extenuating circumstance......

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:03 PM  

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