“Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 5: The Kobe-Jordan Conversation

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.


Ethan: This meme isn’t the bane of my existence–it’s the bane of existence itself. It’s the enemy of history, of logic, of statistics, truth and morality. And it’s insidious. Once the idea of Kobe as “great” cements into accepted, we’re forced to build on that quicksand foundation. Beckley, the meme hurts. It deep-fries my heart like memories of a long lost lover.

Why does the charade exist? I look to the roots of political opinion. When a large, vocal, motivated group loudly espouses a fallacy–that Kobe Bryant is the greatest player of all time–conventional wisdom trudges towards the falsehood. Kobe’s aesthetically-pleasing game meets a huge LA fanbase, and they beget a roving monster of screeching, fire-breathing, hyperbolic praise. And the monster is scary, so you’d better accept his reality as legitimate–even if you know better.

Opinion arbiters split the difference between shouted myth and quiet truth, so public conception lands somewhere in between. And when that happens, the unabashed sanity-defenders get ridiculed as nuts. It’s why commenters chase after Hollinger with pitchforks and torches. It’s why Pau is called “Robin” to a less-productive Batman, and how DARE you say otherwise. Well I say otherwise, Becks. Pau’s better. Wade’s better. Bron’s better. I’m not a “hater,” I just watch games and see stats–not to mention small fractions like 6/24.That numerator over denominator is indicative of how Bryant is far from dominator. As in: Kobe Bryant is a tiny fraction of what Michael Jordan was.

Beckley: This one’s more slippy than a greased Biedrins, Ethan. Even in our attempt to disprove this perception, our attention legitimizes the fallacy. As Don Draper rages over Teddy Chaw “they put our names in the same article and suddenly we’re equals?!” Slowly, over the last decade, Kobe and Michael have been mentioned together so many times that the comparison has snowballed from laughable to legitimate. This is a significant part of Kobe’s legacy– his persistence as one of the NBA’s greats over the last 12 years. But longevity does not a genius make. During Kobe’s prolonged reign of excellence, he’s never lead the league in Win Shares (something Jordan did 9 times in 10 years).

There is also a school of thought that says, above all, winning is the measure of a player. Kobe could very well win a sixth NBA Championship, which will prove to many that he has accomplished as much as Jordan. However Kobe has never led his “own” championship team in regular season WS, and has led in Playoff WS only twice out of his five rings (3.8 in 2002, 4.7 in 2008). Meanwhile, Jordan was unquestionably the most productive player on every one of his championship squads, leading the league in Regular Season WS 5 out of 6 championship years and Playoff WS all 6 years. Suffice to say, not all champions are created equal. No matter how many rings Kobe’s teams win, at most only two can so far be said to be “his” in a Jordanian sense.

Kobe mimics Jordan’s post moves, fist pump, willingness to “take over” games, and even had the gall to rebrand himself 1 better than Jordan, 24. But playing the Jordan role for Jordan’s coach only reinforces Kobe’s mythology of Jordanesque greatness, it does not result in Jordanesque production.

Statistics are just the beginning, but here are some unbiased numbers to support your equation of greatness:

Passing Career Best 5 Years Peak
Jordan 5.3 AST/gm, 24.9 AST% 6.4 AST/gm, 29.36 AST% 8.0 AST/gm, 34.7 AST%
Bryant 4.7 AST/gm, 23.6 AST% 5.64 AST/gm, 26.3 AST% 6.0 AST/gm, 28.5 AST%
Rebounding Career Best 5 Years Peak
Jordan 6.2 RB/gm, 9.4 RB% 7.0 RB/gm, 10.46 RB% 8.0 RB/gm, 11.6 RB%
Bryant 5.2 RB/gm, 8.2% RB% 6.26 RB/gm, 8.72 RB% 6.9 RB/gm, 9.3 RB%
Defending Career Best 5 Years Peak
Jordan 2.3 STL, 0.8 BLK, 103 DRating 2.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 101 DRating 3.2 STL, 1.6 BLK, 101 DRating
Bryant 1.5 STL, 0.6 BLK, 105 DRating 1.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 102 DRating 2.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 98 DRating
Career Jordan 30.1 Pts/gm 49.7 FG% 32.7 3pt FG% 56.9 TS% 50.9 eFG% 27.5 PER
Bryant 25.3 Pts/gm 45.5 FG% 34.0 3pt FG% 55.7 TS% 48.8 eFG% 23.5 PER
Best 5 Jordan 34.1 Pts/gm 51.5 FG% 26.4 3pt FG% 58.98 TS% 52.64 eFG% 30.7 PER
Bryant 30.8 Pts/gm 45.7 FG% 34.8 3pt FG% 56.22 TS% 49.18 eFG% 26.3 PER
Peak Jordan 37.1 Pts/gm 48.2 FG% 18.2 3pt FG% 60.3 TS% 53.7 eFG% 31.7 PER
Bryant 35.4 Pts/gm 45.5 FG% 34.7 3pt FG% 55.9 TS% 49.1 eFG% 28.0 PER
Win Shares Career Best 5 Peak
Jordan 9.99 OWS, 4.27 DWS, 14.2 WS MJ: 14.7 OWS, 5.44 DWS, 20.14 WS 15.2 OWS, 6.1 DWS, 21.2 WS
Bryant 8.0 OWS, 3.18 DWS, 11.22 WS 8.7 OWS, 4.00 DWS, 12.7 WS 1.6 OWS, 5.7 DWS, 15.3 WS

When we analyze all of these traditional and advanced statistics, we see that Kobe is only slightly inferior to Jordan in most categories. However his production does not exceed that of Jordan’s in any area other than three point shooting. Even there, Jordan’s best distance shooting year is 42.7% (1996), and Kobe’s is 38.3% (2003).

What’s interesting is that the area in which Jordan blows Kobe away is Win Shares. It’s true that Jordan played on five 60+ win teams, Kobe has been a member of only two. However in their best 5 years by WS, Jordan’s teams won an average of 57 games, Kobe’s 55.6– it’s not as though Jordan’s numbers are simply inflated by his more successful teams. So while we can say that Kobe approaches Jordan’s production in many areas, the combination of Jordan’s slight advantages in each category results in significantly more victories.

Ethan, this statistical comparison is comprehensive. Are there other players that can serve as a better analog for Kobe’s phenomenal success than Jordan?

Ethan: Did you spell Teddy Chaw’s name from memory, or did you look it up? Or did you write it in this space, then tell yourself, “I’ll fix it later, brain juice just squirted out of my ear like unshaken mustard”? Either way, I like the analogy, and your point is pointy: We’re giving free advertising to the Kobe myth, not exposing its mythology. To even this out, HoopSpeak needs a “Kobe: Better than Marbury?” article.

You made the argument that Kobe’s longevity inflated his status. And you also asked for an analog. I give you…John Stockton!

Beckley: Stockton?! I look forward to deciphering your twisted logic, which will no doubt rely on jargony BS to explain how Gonzaga’s finest provides a means of comparison. They didn’t play the same position or listen to the same music, and I’m pretty sure Karl Malone never hit on Stockton’s wife.

Beckley GChat: i think it is Chaough

Ethan: Comparing point guard to gunner is apples to aliens, but, behold the mighty Stockton! He, of bursting body hair, tightly folded into a Jazz wrestling unitard. With shorts that were shorter than tighty-whities and tighter than tights on Shaq. Stockton beat Kobe in peak WS (15.6), and John performed to the tune of 14.3 WS over a five year peak. That compares favorably to the Kobe’s 12.7 WS that you posted, though can I trust the calculations of a man who can’t tell his Chaws from his Chaoughs? That’s a tawf call.

So why isn’t Stockton allowed to gulp Kobe’s rarefied air? First, JS looks like a joyless time capsule. While Kobe evoked “Jordan 2.0!” with his twisting fade-aways and graceful circus layups, Stockton evoked, “This is the 12th man on the 1963 Boston Celtics.” Speaking of MJ, you’re right that Kobe benefited immensely from Jordan’s impact. His Airness was so influential as to alter our very idea of star quality. MJ’s wake left our lexicon replete with “alpha dog,” “closer,” “killer,” “assassin,”–terms that define the play of perimeter scorers. The lingering effect of Jordan’s dominance is that we judge all players against him, even as his tangible greatness fades to the background. And this gives Kobe a unique historical window. If Kobe’s Jordan facsimile sees a 6th title, many will see Kobe as Jordan. Bryant will be “in the Jordan conversation,” because we water recency bias under MJ’s umbrella.

Beckley: You raise an interesting point: does “in the conversation” mean we are allowed to discuss whether Bryant is Jordan’s equal, or just that Bryant is in a hypothetical conversation about all-timers (as he should be)? Is that conversation about shooting guards only? Can I interject that Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were the superior players for much of Kobe’s prime? How do we even have a conversation about two players, TD and MJ, that seem to share so few comparable traits when it comes to tangibles?

Can we compare Duncan’s role as defensive anchor to Jordan’s as defensive disruptor? The Spurs entire defensive game plan is centered around funneling paint penetration to #21, but we can’t exactly quantify that crucial responsibility (although leading the league in DWS five times helps).

Kobe is compared to Jordan on the basis of size and skill set as much as his impact on the league. The real debate should be over how Bryant measures up against his own generation and the likes of Garnett, O’Neal and Duncan. This is tricky for the same reasons comparing Jordan and Kareem seems impossible. Bryant is certainly the class of his generation’s wing players, so it seems logical to compare him to Jordan. But if Kobe wins his sixth title, it will be the only way in which he and Jordan are equals.

Ethan: What does “in the conversation” mean? It’s an admission that we’re at the point where non-crazy people can hold an incorrect belief.

(And with that, Stephen Curry twists his ankle, hurtling Ethan into a despair dumpster)

Beckley: That’s what you get for comparing Kobe to Stockton.



Related posts:

  1. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 2: Beat those Heat!
  2. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 3: B-A-N-A-N-A-S!
  3. Would Michael Jordan Really Score More In 2010?
  4. Kobe’s Conundrum: Can Kobe Master His Individual Instinct?
  5. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 4: The Preseason Analyst Blues


  1. [...] to ever play the game. This debate has been so heavily discussed that it even has its own name; ‘The Jordan Conversation.’ Even though statistics prove Jordan as the better player, many argue that the level of competition [...]

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