Commentary

Can Kobe Bryant ever catch Jordan?

If Kobe can win a championship with these Lakers, he might match MJ's greatness

Updated: February 6, 2013, 10:04 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Kobe Bryant is chasing after history like he chased after that monster dunk in Brooklyn, and this sinkhole of a season might just give him a chance to catch it. If Bryant can somehow save these Los Angeles Lakers from themselves, and win the most improbable title of his career, maybe he matches Michael Jordan as an all-time great.

Maybe.

"It definitely makes it a more compelling conversation," said Rod Thorn, the executive who drafted Jordan in Chicago.

"If he can win one with [Mike] D'Antoni," said Jerry Krause, the executive who built Jordan's dynasty, "yeah, that would be a big plus for Kobe."

[+] EnlargeKobe sign
AP Photo/Michael DwyerKobe Bryant is taunted by fans comparing him to Michael Jordan.

Of course, D'Antoni has never won one. Of course, Jordan won his six and Bryant his five on the watch of Phil Jackson, the world's most pompous gym teacher and yet the smarter choice for the Lakers than D'Antoni, the coach who escaped from New York.

But that mistake at the top and the ill-fitting roster of big names do give the 34-year-old Bryant an opportunity to pull off a near miracle, to elevate a 23-26 team into the playoffs and beyond. Jerry West, the executive who acquired Bryant after the '96 draft and who built another Lakers dynasty around the guard and Shaquille O'Neal, told ESPNNewYork.com he believes the Lakers will reach the postseason and possibly make a deep run once there.

"Nobody is going to want to play them in the first round," said West, a consultant with Golden State. "With the veterans the Lakers have, I don't think it's going to make a big difference to them if they creep in as the 6, 7, or 8 [seed]. In the playoffs, they're going to be dangerous."

They were sure dangerous in Brooklyn, where Bryant threw down that dunk out of his wildly athletic youth in the final minutes of the Lakers' 92-83 victory, blowing by Gerald Wallace and down the lane and slamming it right in Kris Humphries' face.

"Everyone has been drinking the Kobe-pass Kool-Aid," Bryant said. "It parted like the Red Sea. I was feeling like Moses."

The Lakers made do without the injured Dwight Howard and the suspended Metta World Peace, claiming their sixth victory in seven games, but couldn't get out of town without confronting another unwanted bulletin. Pau Gasol heard a pop in his foot and left Barclays Center on crutches fearing the result of a scheduled MRI on his plantar fascia strain.

"I'm very, very concerned, to say the least," Bryant said.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMichael Jordan and Kobe Bryant talk at the 2003 NBA All-Star Game.

It wouldn't be the 2012-13 season if Bryant wasn't very, very concerned about something with a team that could sure use Howard back on the court, bum shoulder and all. The Nets represented an important road conquest for a team in desperate need of reassurance, but for Bryant it was Game No. 1,430 (playoffs included) in Season No. 17 of a career worth measuring in Brooklyn, announced again before tipoff as Jordan's place of birth.

Way back when in New Jersey, the Nets of John Calipari (new coach and executive) and John Nash (general manager) were all set to take the high school prom king, Bryant, with the eighth pick of the draft. Calipari and Nash had dinner with Bryant's parents the night before, when Kobe's father, Joe, a former pro here and abroad, predicted his 17-year-old son would be an All-Star by his second year.

Calipari was taken aback by Joe's expectations, and then blown away the following day when Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem, threatened to send his client to Italy (Bryant had done some growing up there with his father) if the Nets dared to pick him. Bryant's sneaker benefactor, Sonny Vaccaro, would later confirm that Kobe's reps wanted him in the Los Angeles market and that the Lakers had a prearranged deal with Charlotte (holding the 13th pick) in the event Bryant fell in the draft.

Nash wanted to call what he believed was Tellem's bluff, but Calipari didn't want to risk his first significant transaction devolving into a Same Old Nets disaster. The Nets selected the safe four-year collegian, Kerry Kittles.

"And sure enough, Kobe made the All-Star Game in his second year, just like his father predicted," Nash said. "I think about not drafting Kobe all the time, and you always wonder what might've been."

Howard I have seen Kobe grow from a scary athlete into a scary basketball player, and there's a big difference between the two. But as much as I've admired Kobe, Michael is still the greatest player I've ever seen in all facets of the game.

-- Jerry West

Bryant pieced together a remarkable career in Los Angeles, forever playing with the same ferocity he showed while playing with a broken nose in his high school state tournament, and while sending a Lower Merion teammate into a concrete wall (and into the hospital for stitches) in pursuit of a loose ball that kept alive his unbeaten streak in a four-on-four drill.

But as much as a young Tiger Woods chased after Jack Nicklaus, a young Kobe Bryant chased after Michael Jordan. Kobe sounded like Mike, played like Mike, even cradled and kissed the championship trophy like Mike. When they met in Bryant's first All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, the youngest participant ever (Kobe was 19) took it to the soon-to-be-35-year-old Jordan, who was fighting a cold and treating this '98 season as his last.

"If I see someone that's maybe sick or whatever," Jordan said then, "you've got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude."

That attitude drove Bryant to the five rings and the 30,834 regular-season points, only 458 behind Jordan's sum. Kobe will pass Michael on the all-time scoring list in short order, but baskets alone won't vault him past Jordan on the unofficial ranking of NBA legends.

The four surveyed executives with roles in the Jordan/Bryant narrative all gave the nod to Jordan in their comparisons, even West, who called Kobe the best Laker ever and the best prospect he'd ever worked out. Here's a summation of their thoughts:

Jerry West: "[Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar might've been the greatest Laker if he'd played his career there from start to finish, and Magic [Johnson] has to be at the top of the list. But Kobe was an all-defensive player for a long time and few Lakers have done that, and his skill level, longevity, tenacity and ability to play through pain make him a bit different from other players we've had.

"I have seen Kobe grow from a scary athlete into a scary basketball player, and there's a big difference between the two. But as much as I've admired Kobe, Michael is still the greatest player I've ever seen in all facets of the game. Michael was the best offensive player in the game, and Scottie Pippen didn't even defend like he did."

Jerry Krause: "Phil [Jackson] made it easier to score for both of them by running the triangle; neither one could score from the post before Phil put that in. I never saw Kobe practice, but I do know Michael practiced so hard that he made Scottie a Hall of Fame player just by bringing out his toughness. If Michael didn't retire to play baseball, I think we could've won eight straight championships.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Elsa/Getty ImagesKobe even kissed the Larry O'Brien trophy -- like Mike.

"You couldn't ask a tougher question than 'Michael or Kobe,' but I'd go with Michael. Nobody was close to Michael in his era, and in Kobe's era you had [Tim] Duncan winning four with the Spurs. And now you have LeBron James, who might be better than them both."

Rod Thorn: "Kobe is the closest thing to Michael we've seen, but with all due respect to him, Kobe isn't quite Michael Jordan. I think Michael is just a little bit better across the board, even though Kobe might end up as the leading scorer in the history of the league by the time he's through. Both have been really tough on teammates, and in a good way, but I think Michael as a leader is probably a little ahead of Kobe. I drafted Michael, and if I had a choice of these two, I'd take Michael again."

John Nash: "In their prime, if you said to me I could have one or the other, I'd take Michael. They're very similar, two remarkable players. Kobe's the better shooter and Michael's stronger, and I'd give Michael the edge defensively. It's pick your poison with them, but I'd lean toward Michael. Some teammates didn't like him, either, but I think he was better at pulling them along than Kobe was."

Jordan couldn't have pulled along this mismatched group of Lakers any better than Bryant has over the past seven games. If Kobe wasn't quite the same pass-first playmaker against the Nets that he'd been in the previous half-dozen games, he did probe his way to four first-half assists and did come up with one of his four steals in the final minute to slap a punctuation mark on his throwback dunk.

The legions of Lakers fans in the crowd went mad for Kobe, who finished with 21 points and 8 rebounds; they even honored him with an MVP chant. In fact, Bryant has only one MVP to his name, or four fewer than Jordan's sum. Michael has six Finals MVPs to Kobe's two, a 6-0 record in those Finals to Kobe's 5-2, and 10 regular-season scoring titles to Kobe's two.

Spoken or not, Bryant's goal is to beat Jordan's six titles; it's the way the all-timers always keep count. Only when he won No. 5 did Kobe finally concede to reporters, "I just got one more than Shaq. So you can take that to the bank. You guys know how I am. I don't forget anything."

In pursuit of Jordan, Bryant's time is running out. LeBron James is closing hard from the rear, the Lakers are all over the place, Howard is in street clothes and now Gasol might be gone for who knows how long.

"Their team definitely has some holes in it," said Thorn, the guy who drafted Jordan, "but it would be an absolutely incredible story if Kobe found a way to win with them."

And a story Michael Jordan wouldn't want to read.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

EDITORS' PICKS