When people talk about "the best player in the game," two names come up more than any others these days: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
With LeBron's Cavs hosting Kobe's Lakers on Thursday, we asked our experts to compare and contrast the NBA's greatest individual talents.
Here are their thoughts:
1. Fifteen seconds left, down by 2. Who do you want with the ball?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: I'll take Kobe Bryant, because of the experience factor. He might jack something wild with a defender's hand in his face, but I know there is absolutely no chance whatsoever that he will get rattled, panic, lose track of the clock, let an ounce of doubt enter his assassin's psyche, nor give the ball to Donyell Marshall.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: For a "must-score" possession I'd take Kobe Bryant over LeBron James or any current or historical NBA great. Yes, even the Managing Member of Basketball Operations for the Charlotte Bobcats. If the play breaks down, Bryant has the resourcefulness and athletic ability to create his own shot. And he's the best tough-shot shooter in the game. Ever. Case(s) in point.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: Kobe. He's proved time and time again on the biggest of stages that he can come through in the clutch. This is no knock on LeBron, but right now, Kobe's the clear answer. Obviously, Kobe can score under pressure, but he's also got all the tools to make a great pass or create for a teammate as well.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: Kobe, because, as Stephen Jackson recently noted, he has no tendencies. He can score in every way imaginable. LeBron doesn't even have a consistent midrange game yet and his 3-point range remains streaky. Getting him to give up the ball isn't even all that hard because he'd rather make the pass than the shot.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I'd want Kobe in this situation, for a couple reasons. First, he's a little better as a pure scorer. Second, he's a better foul shooter, which in this situation is pretty important since I'd need him to make both just to tie. Third, I have a better shot at getting a 3 with him and winning the game outright.
Kobe vs. LeBron
It's your turn to chime in. Who rules the here and now? Who is the better leader? Who would claim victory in a fierce game of H.O.R.S.E.? What if they were traded straight up? Vote!
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: On the road, I go with Kobe because he's the guy who is going to be best able to free himself for a 3-point shot, and since we're on the road, we're going for the win. If I'm at home and I'm playing for the tie, I want LeBron, because he is going to be able to either get to the bucket, get to the line or draw so many defenders that it'll leave a shooter open at the 3-point line.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Remember Game 4 of the Phoenix series in 2006? From the second Kobe chased down that ball in the backcourt, you knew he was going to win the game at the buzzer. If you were there or just watching on TV, you knew what was coming and you knew the shot was going in. No other player inspires such a feeling of inevitability in the clutch.
2. Who's the better leader?
Abbott: Their teammates would know best. I'm quite certain that if you had dosed Andrew Bynum with truth serum last summer, and asked him this question, he would have quickly said, "LeBron James."
Adande: We haven't seen the implied dismissal of teammates from LeBron that we did from Kobe all last summer -- despite the fact Kobe has more to work with than LeBron. It was as if Kobe did not realize that saying you wanted better players around you was a slap in the face to the guys who are already wearing your uniform. He must have missed that leadership lesson.
Broussard: LeBron. His encouragement of, and belief in, his teammates clearly lifts their level of play. Because he exudes so much confidence in them -- whether they miss the shot or not -- they play with a confidence, a certainty and a swagger that players of mediocre ability often lack. Kobe's improved as a teammate this season, but LeBron's the easy winner here.
Bucher: Kobe, because he doesn't take plays or games off. LeBron has made huge strides since last season, but just when I was ready to take a seat on his wagon, he missed two weeks with a sprained knuckle on his nonshooting hand while Kobe didn't miss a minute with shoulder and groin injuries.
Hollinger: LeBron by default. Not because he's a great leader, but I mean has he ever lobbied for having his franchise center traded (or failed to lobby against it, depending on whom you believe)? Has he ever mailed in the second half of a Game 7? Has he ever given the impression that he cares about being the star more than winning?
Sheridan: I'll take LeBron, although I wouldn't say either of these guys is a traditional leader. But James is the better player in terms of getting his teammates involved and making everyone around him a better player. Kobe is more of a one-man, I-am-the-show type of player.
Stein: They both have leadership questions to answer. The claim that other players don't want to play with Kobe is overblown -- I know plenty who do -- but he does get down on some teammates and hasn't gotten L.A. out of Round 1 sans Shaq and L.A.'s other three-pe
at vets. LeBron, meanwhile, was undeniably brilliant against Detroit, but the Cavs' ride couldn't have extended to the Finals if they weren't in the East. I think even LeBron would concede that he still has lots to learn here.
3. What is the key difference between them?
Abbott: They are both essentially perfect, so it's hard to nitpick. But age, size, health, strength and team focus all favor James. In part because of that size, James can make a living getting to the cup, whereas Bryant is living on a diet of long balls, pull-ups, breakaways and lobs.
Adande: The key difference between them still was best expressed by LeBron himself in an interview with ESPN The Magazine: He doesn't have that instinct to go out and (metaphorically) kill everyone the way Kobe does. If Kobe smelled blood he'd want to dig deeper into the wound; LeBron would want to get the person a bandage. That would make LeBron more of a humanitarian. On the basketball court, it's better to be coldhearted.
Kobe vs. LeBron Head-to-Head
Broussard: They're totally different players. Kobe is more of an individual performer (like MJ), and LeBron is more of a team performer (like Magic). Kobe's game is far prettier, much more graceful and he's a better defender. LeBron's got more power and better court vision. Kobe's got more of a killer instinct, but LeBron's growing in that department.
Bucher: LeBron is bigger, faster and arguably stronger with every skill imaginable. But he doesn't have Kobe's fire or anything close to his ability to adjust at a moment's notice and general knowledge of the game. This whole comparison is at least a year and maybe two, too early.
Hollinger: Size. Kobe looks like an NBA shooting guard; LeBron looks like an NFL defensive lineman. This translates into their playing style -- LeBron on the drive simply overpowers people, while Kobe relies more on his leaping and improvisational skills.
Sheridan: Basketballwise, probably their shooting ability -- although LBJ is light-years ahead of where he was when he came into the league. Off the court, there is a likability issue with Kobe that doesn't seem to exist for LeBron. Don't get me wrong, because they're both likable in general. But Kobe has a side of him that is dislikable to some people; whereas those who don't like LBJ do not necessarily dislike him.
Stein: Experience is a biggie, obviously. LeBron has the physical gifts to do more damage than Kobe (especially as a passer and rebounder) and achieve pretty much anything in this game. But Kobe has seen so many more situations. Work ethic is worth mentioning, too. Not because LeBron's is subpar, but I'm pretty sure Kobe would be a landslide winner if we did a survey seeking out the NBA's most driven player. Which feeds into Kobe's assassin rep, something LeBron doesn't have.
4. Choose one: Kobe's previous 10 years, or LeBron's next 10 years?
Abbott: I'm an optimist; I'll bet on the unknown. (Although if I'm thinking like a GM, the argument for taking Bryant is strong, because at least you know he stayed with the team for the full decade.)
Adande: I'd rather have Kobe's first 10 than LeBron's next 10. If I get Kobe's first decade I'm assured of getting three championship-worthy performances. Yes, they came with Shaquille O'Neal around, but in every case Bryant showed he was capable of playing at the game's highest level when it was demanded. We have one trip to the Finals for LeBron, in which he shot 36 percent. He should do better next time, but will he? Will there even be a next time? I'll take the known. Kobe.
Broussard: LeBron's next 10. Statistically, LeBron's putting up numbers that only Oscar has matched. And the scary thing is that as great as he is, he's still got much room for growth. He can still develop a dominant post game and improve his jump shot, foul shooting and defense. Plus, he's absolutely terrific at making his teammates better. Last season, he took a would-be lottery team (without him) to the Finals. And even though Kobe's got more offensive weapons in his arsenal, LeBron can score as well as him and anyone else in the league. Case in point, he's averaging a league-best 30 without even trying to be a huge scorer.
Bucher: LeBron could and should be the first player in the modern era to average a triple-double. His leadership and D have improved dramatically from last season and he certainly could be the league's best player some day. But Kobe has won three rings. Kobe has been the best player in the league three years running, at least. Will LeBron win three rings? The odds are against it. Erase the drama -- and admittedly it would take a big eraser -- and give me Kobe's last 10.
Hollinger: LeBron. At age 22 he had a better PER (player efficiency rating) than any season of Kobe's career, and this season he's widening that gap. He doesn't even need to improve -- he just needs to play like he is now for a decade and it will be an easy call.
Sheridan: It depends a lot on where the next 10 years take LeBron, and there are no guarantees he'll remain in Cleveland, so I'll have to go with Kobe and the three championships he has already won.
Stein: NBA GMs are always seduced by the unknown. And with LeBron's seemingly limitless ceiling, I imagine most teams would pick LeBron's future compared to what we've already seen from Kobe, banking on the idea that LeBron's shooting
from the perimeter and the line and his defense can only improve from here and
make him even more special.
5. Who is the better player now? Is he the greatest player in the NBA now?
Abbott: The other night, Bryant caught the ball on the perimeter. Andres Nocioni did something strange: He put his stomach right into Bryant's right side. Translation: Go left, and the world is your oyster, but I will not allow you to go right. Allowing Kobe Bryant to get loose on his way to the hoop? Never! What did Bryant do? Steam like a freight train for a dunk? Not even close. He took a bunny step to the left, picked up his dribble, and pump-faked a 3.
Nocioni wasn't interested, and now Bryant was stranded with no dribble. So Bryant faked again. Still the defender would not cooperate by fouling him, or getting airborne. Finally Bryant launched the same shot he had faked twice, with a hand in his face. Air ball.
Bryant may be a little hurt. He may be coasting in this part of the season. But no way is he playing better than James right now. If I had first pick of current NBA players, I'd do what I did in my fantasy draft, and that's select LeBron James.
Adande: Kobe is a better player but LeBron is playing better. It's like Alicia Keys; she's a great musical talent, but she has not made any truly great songs. Bryant has a more complete skill set. However, over the past calendar year, James has put his talents to better use and done a better job of performing the ultimate task: taking your team as far as possible.
As the reigning champ, Tim Duncan still gets the nod overall. But this season LeBron has been playing like Oscar Robertson, while Kobe has been playing more like LeBron. That gives the edge to LeBron.
Broussard: Kobe would win a game of one-on-one and a checklist of skills, but all things being equal (including age), I'd rather have LeBron on my team. A few weeks ago, I would have said LeBron without hesitation, but Kobe has really been a great team player this season. Like LeBron has always done, Kobe's scored more in the flow of the offense and made his teammates better. Still, LeBron's better statistically and superior in the intangibles. Kobe's often surrounded by team-distracting drama. Not so with LeBron.
Bucher: For anyone who plays or coaches or manages in the league -- including LeBron and every other member of the Cavs' organization -- this is not even a point of contention. But here's stating the obvious: Kobe.
Hollinger: As you could probably guess from my previous answer LeBron. It's commonly said that Kobe is the game's best player, and there definitely have been nights where that's true (the 81 game, for instance), but let's look at full seasons here. There's only one season in his entire career where you could even argue that Kobe was the game's best that season, which was 2005-06 and LeBron was just as good. Kobe is a better on-ball defender and a superior scorer, but his advantages aren't large here and LeBron beats him pretty soundly in the other phases.
Sheridan: Kobe is the best player in the NBA and the better player of the two, but not by much. And if LeBron continues to work on his game with the same vigor as Kobe has always shown, LeBron will be a better player at the peak of his career than Kobe was/is at his peak.
Stein: Don't see how anyone could dispute that Kobe is more fully formed at this stage and thus "better" than LBJ. But "greatest player in the NBA" means "greatest winner" to me. And that's Tim Duncan. TD has four rings, with at least three different supporting casts, and essentially prevented San Antonio from losing the Spurs. No active player has done more for a franchise.