Since Michael Jordan retired, the closest basketball has come to the mythical “Next Jordan” has been Kobe Bryant.
His skill set was almost a carbon copy of Jordan’s. The post-up moves… the ability to finish in traffic… the little tricks to create space… the footwork on both ends of the court… in many ways Kobe was very very very very close to being “The Next Jordan.”
Kobe even had better shooting range than Jordan, who rarely shot the ball at a high level from distance.
As a defender Kobe was extremely proficient… but Jordan was a few shades better.
And of course as a leader and as a winner Kobe was a poor imitation.
Some NBA fans who are lamenting the loss of the “greatest player since Jordan.”
But I have a harsh truth for Kobe’s legions of fans:
Tim Duncan was the Greatest Player of Kobe Bryant’s generation.
Yes, Tim Duncan.
Boring Old Man Duncan… Big Fundamentals… He-who-shall-not-emote.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Both players have MVP Awards, Finals MVP Awards, Defensive Awards, All-Star appearances, All-NBA teams, Team Awards and records coming out their ears. They’ve played similar minutes and similar games and they’ve each excelled in the playoffs.
It would be pure pedantry to try and separate them on their team or personal accolades…
Other than… you know… Championships…
Because you see, Greatness and Championships are inexorably linked.
Both Kobe and Duncan have 5 NBA Championships to their name… except Duncan was “the man” for all five of his NBA titles. Kobe was a sidekick to Shaquille O’Neal for three of his titles. Only two came with Kobe as the undisputed Alpha Dog on the Lakers.
It matters because Robert Horry cannot claim to ‘Greater’ than Michael Jordan simply because he has 7 Championship Rings, because it matters that Jordan was the Leader of 6 title teams.
Duncan has led his team to 5 Championships. Kobe has led his team to just 2.
That is a glaring disparity.
Duncan was never sidekick. Even when Tony Parker or Kawhi Leonard won the Finals MVP awards on Duncan’s teams, you can bet they knew their personal excellence was build upon a foundation created and maintained by Tim Duncan.
Offensively, Kobe is more talented than Duncan.
Defensively, Duncan is more talented than Kobe.
But here’s the thing…
There are plenty of talented offensive players doing the rounds. There are players in the NBA Development League who could average over 25 points-per-game in the NBA if a team called plays for them and let them shoot the ball 15-20 times a night. That’s not all that unique.
An elite defensive anchor? Those are rare.
An elite defensive anchor who is also elite on the offensive end? There have been a handful. Ever.
Kareem. Garnett. Duncan.
ADVANTAGE: DUNCAN AGAIN
Any sane NBA fan would readily concede that Duncan is a better leader and teammate than Kobe. But it is worth pointing out just how astronomical the gulf between them is on this measure.
Duncan took guys like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and allowed them to realise and capitalise on their own abilities during a time when the league trends were totally against them. A (foreign) point guard who can’t shoot? A (foreign) wing who doesn’t play with blinding athleticism but with guile and angles and craftiness and savvy?
Ginobili and Parker had no business becoming All-Stars during this era.
And yet, thanks largely to Tim Duncan, we live in a world where both those players have multiple championship rings and will go down as greats of the game.
Meanwhile, if you’re trying to list players who Kobe Bryant nurtured and allowed to grow and helped to realise their potential, I’ll save you the time: They don’t exist.
During his time as undisputed leader of the Lakers, Kobe has had a few top-tier teammates.
Gasol and Odom were elite roleplayers whose talents were moulded to fit around Bryant. He didn’t bring out the best in them. They were asked to contribute only what Bryant’s system required of them. No more, no less.
Other than those two, I struggle to find a player that Kobe really took to the ‘elite’ tier. There are far more who were undermined and cast aside.
HUGE ADVANTAGE: DUNCAN
And finally, I have a hypothetical test to demonstrate why Duncan was the greatest player of his era…
If you take out Kobe’s rookie season and threw him into the 1997 NBA Draft alongside Tim Duncan… and knowing what you know now about each of their respective careers… and if you ran an NBA team holding the #1 Draft Pick… who would you choose?
The answer 29 NBA General Managers would undoubtedly give… the answer any impartial observer should give… the answer you should give when you want nearly two decades of complete basketballing excellence, team success, leadership, oncourt ability, defensive and offensive prowess, and general greatness…
… is Tim Duncan.
And at some point during Tim Duncan’s career, LeBron James became the greatest player of a new generation. To deny that is folly, and it probably even happened during his Heat days when he was generally loathed by every other fan base.
But ultimately the truth is that, at no point in Kobe Bryant’s impressive career, was he actually the greatest player of a generation.
So while many will lavish praise upon him as he commences his season-long farewell tour… please remember that the NBA will lose an even greater player on the day Tim Duncan retires… and unlike Kobe there is a good chance that happens with Duncan clutching a Championship trophy.