It is an age old debate, this one. Kobe Bryant, a fierce competitor molded in the likeness of Jordan, versus Tim Duncan, a freakish athlete, who even at 39 continues to lead one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
The arguments seem fairly identical: 19 vs. 18 seasons, 5 vs. 5 titles, never got traded from or left the team that they started their career with.
No debate, however, is fair if the arguments do not dig deeper. Detailed and researched comparisons, such as this article aims to be, are important because 40 years from now we do not want a 13-yr old seeing Robert Horry’s name next to Jordan with six titles and wonder, “Wow, Horry was good, eh!”.
The Kobe vs. Duncan discussion, while fairly old, only ever simmered at best. There are a few reasons for this: Kobe is a guard, and Duncan is a forward; Kobe got a head start by entering the league at 18, while Duncan was 21 when he suited up for the Spurs; both have fundamentally different styles and personalities. However, as soon as Duncan won his fifth ring in ’14, tying Kobe in the process, there was renewed vigor and reason to resurrect the comparison.
Considering that the relevance of the number of rings is debatable (refer to aforementioned Horry example), the way to solve this is by establishing how critical either player was in winning the Championship(s).
In Kobe’s case, it sure is easy for his detractors to say that Shaq brought him his first three Championships. But let’s step back for a moment and consider: maybe Kobe brought Shaq the ’01 and ’02 Championships? As dominant as Shaq was, he wasn’t the best option if the team was down two points in the waning seconds of a close game. He was woeful from the line, could barely dribble to save his life, and could not spot up from anywhere beyond 6-8 feet. Kobe covered all those bases for him. Before Kobe’s rise, Shaq led the Lakers to a Western Conference Finals spot at best. As soon as Kobe found his zone, he and Shaq unleashed hell on the league, trotting three Championships back-to-back. With a happy* (hold this thought for Legacy) Shaq and Kobe on the floor, it didn’t matter who else suited up for the Lakers…the trophy might as well have been gifted to them every season.
Two legendary (for the wrong reasons) “What If?” seasons later, Shaq decided to part ways with the Lakers, moving to Miami and promptly wining a ring in ’06 with the Heat. Kobe’s never could quite take the team over the hump post-Shaq. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs the year Shaq left and did not hit 50 wins for (the first time since Kobe’s rookie year) for three consecutive seasons.
An increasingly frustrated Kobe began showing his displeasure publicly, with insiders strongly hinting at his exit from LA. It didn’t help that the Lakers foolishly traded away one of Kobe’s all time favorite teammates Caron Butler, who instead of teaming up with Kobe and Lamar Odom (then just off his career peak) to create a terrifying Big Three, was burning it up in Washington with the Wizards where he became a legit All-Star. It also didn’t help that Phoenix or Chicago, both considered Kobe destinations, had the pieces and picks to make the trade.
…in one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NBA, the Lakers made a mid-season trade for Pau Gasol (Feb 2008), sending Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, two 1st round picks and one second round pick to Memphis.
After losing 2008 Finals to a historically great Boston team, Kobe and the Lakers would have none of the losing that had become characteristic over the past three seasons as they went into overdrive and trotted two back-to-back titles, the first team to do so since well, the ’02 Lakers, once and for all cementing Kobe’s case for the greatest guard since Jordan, a legacy he cherished since the day he suited up for an NBA team. Pau Gasol’s presence helped, but the ’09 and ’10 Championships were unmistakably Kobe fighting his way to five rings and the Jordan-esque legacy.
Tim Duncan, the Wake Forest phenom, was the most sought after prospect in what was believed to be a poor ’97 draft. So after nearly a decade of top tier dominance in the NBA, the Spurs were the last team anyone would have considered to be in the mix for the Duncan Sweepstakes, Daivd Robinson’s back however had other plans, giving out in the ’97 preseason and rendering Robinson useless for the season ahead. Robinson did try, suiting up for six games under new head coach Gregg Popovich who replaced Bob Hill after a 3-15 start. The Spurs finished with a franchise worst 20-62, the worst record since their 21-61 record in 1988-’89 that netted them, you guessed it, David Robinson. Armed with the third worst record in the NBA a 21.6% chance at landing Duncan, the Spurs became the topic for a fairly insubstantial claim that they tanked for Duncan. Against all odds and the Celtics who had a League worst 15-67 record (technically the expansion Grizzlies were worse at 14-68, but waived their draft rights), the Spurs landed Duncan at number 1, and the rest as they say is history.
Duncan’s insurmountable legacy, which we will leave for later in the article, cannot be tarnished or doubted. Yet, the ’99 NBA Championship, which came amidst the worst NBA season: a shortened 50-game season, with players woefully out of shape and teams in disarray due to the uncertainty of the impending season following the 1998 lockout, carries an asterisk whichever way you look at it. Yes, all teams had the same situation to deal with and the Spurs dealt with it the best, but with all due respect to Coach Pop and Duncan, both of whom I have the highest respect and admiration for, it is hard for an NBA fan to take this season and the consequent Championship seriously.
The championships in ’03, ’05 and then ’07 present a total different story. At no point in time during their tear of 3 championships in 5 years could you count the Spurs out of the race. (actually, it’s been two decades since the arrival of both Pop and Duncan, and you STILL cannot count them out. But that is for another time). As long as Duncan (and Pop) was around, the Spurs were title contenders.
Can it be argued that Duncan needed both Parker (drafted in ’02) and Ginobili (drafted in ’03) to take him over the Championship hump? Sure…if we lived in a world where elephants could fly. While the timing of their arrival coincided with ’03 Championship, that two European rookies, a point guard and a sixth man, were critical to the ’03, ’05 and ’07 Championships, is the same as Rick Fox and Horry being critical to the ’00, ’01 and ’02 Championships. Yes, they were cogs in the wheel, but to even suggest that the above four players were crucial in Kobe’s and Duncan’s Championships is arrogantly ignorant to the greatness of both players. Oh by the way…the team that beat the Spurs twice between their ’99 and ’03 Championships? The indomitable Lakers.
That brings us to the ’14 Championship. In my opinion, the greatest comeback season in the history of the NBA. To fully understand why, we have to trace our steps to the 2010-’11 season.
Duncan was 34 and put up his worst career numbers (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg) since his rookie season. Ginobili put up solid numbers (17.4 ppg, 49. apg) but turned 33 and was a shadow of his efficient acrobatic self. Parker was also solid (17.5 ppg, 6.6 apg), but was coming off a long, lengthy, difficult and very public divorce with TV Star Eva Longoria. Their next three best players? George Hill (a solid backup guard who played 28 productive minutes a game), Dejuan Blair (drafted in ’09 and fairly effective at best) and well, Richard Jefferson (at least two seasons off his career peak and declining fast). That’s it. That is what Pop had to work with. And work he did, until they ran into the up and coming hard-nosed tough-as-nails Memphis Grizzlies and lost 4-2. It all went downhill after that…or so it seems.
The season following the Grizzly defeat, the Spurs were counted out of Championship contention. Every leading “expert” felt the Spurs were too old, too injured, not motivated enough, missing the right pieces, too dependent on the aging Big Three, and (insert every conceivable reason why they should not be considered serious contenders). The Spurs? Well, they had other plans, silencing doubters by destroying the Jazz and the Clippers 4-0 each, before taking on an losing to a much younger and more resilient Thunder team in a slug fest that lasted six games.
Losing to a younger team was all the fodder that the “experts” needed to once again count out the “old” Spurs from contention in 2013, declaring their window for a championship “closed” for good. This was the Thunder’s time to shine (despite losing their third best player in one of the worst trades in NBA history), and there was no way the Spurs could keep up with the running gunning Thunder and the record setting defending Champions Miami Heat. Well, not only did they keep up, trotting out a 58-24 record, second best behind the Thunder in the West, but proceeded to wreck havoc in the post season trampling their opponents with a 12-2 record through the first three rounds, and making their first Finals appearance since their ’07 Championship.
Unless you were living under a rock, you know what happened. Ray Allen hit one of the greatest shots in the history of the game to cap off one of the greatest quarters in Game 6 of the series. The Spurs, just 7 seconds away from their 5th title, came back to fight a terrific Game 7 (so valiant in fact, that Pop said this was the first game towards the quest for the 2014 championship) , but this was LeBron’s year, and he wasn’t going to lose.
So how does an “old” team that suffered one of the most devastating losses in the history of the NBA, comeback the next season? In classic Spurs fashion. They dust off the loss and proceed to win a league leading 62 games during the regular season, hold off a surprisingly feisty Mavericks team in a 7 game 1st Round series, tidily take care of business against Portland and OKC, before unleashing a can of ass whopping, a crushing 4-1 defeat, on the defending champs Miami Heat and the best player in the NBA that season, LeBron James.
So what does ALL this have to do with Duncan?! Stop ranting Jonathan!!
In 2011-12, Duncan earned US$ 21.1 million making him the third highest paid player behind Kevin Garnett (US$ 21.25 mn) and of course Kobe Bryant (US$ 25.24 mn). Sensing an impending run at a 5th title, Duncan renewed his contract at LESS THAN HALF his previous salary (US$ 9.6 mn), becoming just the fourth highest paid player on the Spurs. With this cut, the Spurs could re-sign both Danny Green and Diaw, and prepare for Manu’s extension in the coming season. Simply put without his sacrifice we would not have had the privilege of seeing this Manu dunk, this Green shooting performance, this Diaw passing clinic, this Mills introduction on Kawhi Leonard, and most importantly this beautiful two part series (Part I & Part II) of a video tribute made for the Spurs by super fan Colin Stanton
Don’t think taking a pay cut is a big deal? Well Kobe disagrees.
Kobe Bryant (5 titles) 1 vs. Tim Duncan (5 titles) 1
Comparing Kobe’s stats with Duncan’s is like comparing apples and oranges. but as a wise man Ronny Chieng put it, you can.
Career – 19 seasons (till 2014-15): 25.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.0 st’ocks* (*blocks + steals), 44–33–84 splits (FG%-3P%-FT%), with a 22.9 PER averaging 36.5 mpg for 1280 games
Career – 18 seasons (till 2014-15): 19.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.9 st’ocks, 51–18–70 splits with a PER 24.5 avg 34.4 mpg for 1331 games
Since both have been playing only sporadically this season due to injuries, and because teams are letting up on Kobe since it is his last season (yes, they are…don’t kid yourself, Kobe fans), I felt it would be fair to consider their careers till last season, i.e. 2014-’15. At first glance and without any analysis, the numbers seem to be in favor of Kobe. Kobe has more points, Kobe shot 3’s, Kobe averaged more assists. Of course Duncan was a better rebounder, has better defensive numbers and shot better from the field. (all of which can be easily attributed to his position. But it is impressive that Kobe’s career average is still 25 ppg, thanks to averaging 25 ppg or more in 12 seasons and 20 ppg or more in 15 seasons, whereas Duncan averaged 25 ppg just once and 20 ppg just 9 times.
Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 1
Let’s dig a little deeper, though…
KOBE (2003-’04 to 2008-’09): 29.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 45–35–85 splits with a PER of 25.0 avg 39.2 mpg for 452 games
DUNCAN (2001-’02 to 2006-’07) : 21.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 st’ocks, 51–22–68 splits with a PER of 26.2 avg 36.6 mpg 458 games
Conventional yet universally accepted knowledge and research peg a player’s peak between the ages of 25 – 30. Kobe edges out Duncan here ever so slightly. At his peak, Kobe was a better offensive player as much as Duncan overshadowed him defensively. Kobe did have the advantage of his 3-pt shot, while Duncan had the advantage of being the last man standing on defense. So is there anything that sets them apart? Yes. Something called championships. At his peak, Duncan won 3 championships, while Kobe won zero. Even adjusting the comparison to provide for the fact that Kobe had a three year head start over Duncan (18 vs. 21), pegging his peak from 22-27, not only do his numbers actually DIP by a fraction, but his title tally is still 2 compared to Duncan’s 3. Duncan wins.
Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 2
CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS. (Reg. Season vs. Playoffs):
KOBE (’00, ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10):
Regular Season: 26 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 46–31–83 splits with a PER of 23.1 avg 38.5 mpg for 369 games
Playoffs: 27.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 45–35–81 splits with a 23.3 PER avg 41.4 mpg for 103 games
Bill Simmons’ 42 Club Appearances: 1 (’01)
DUNCAN (’99, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’14)
Regular Season: 20 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 3.2 st’ocks, 51–18–69 splits with a PER of 24.9 avg 35 mpg 351 games
Playoffs (Championships): 22.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 3.1 st’ocks, 51–0.4–71 splits with a PER of 25.4 avg 38.58 mpg for 107 games
42 Club Appearances: 2 (’01, ’03)
I hate how close this is getting, only because the calculations make my head hurt and finding an edge is harder than finding Leo an Oscar. Oh wait…
Again, too close for comfort. Kobe’s improvement from regular season to playoffs, is marginal compared to some aspect of Duncan’s improvement. What most most people ten to miss though, and the reason I mentioned the years of the championships, is that 37 and 15 years removed from his last championship, Duncan’s number are still pretty solid to maintain a competitive match up against Kobe’s number that span over 10 years. That being said, Kobe was an absolute beast in the ’09 and ’10 playoffs averaging close to a 30-6-5 for both playoffs. Those kind of numbers in back-to-back championships counts over longevity anyday, so..
Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 2
The popular consensus is that Duncan had better teammates throughout his career. This comparison is dicey, so let me make clear my assumptions:
- I will only consider seasons where they played together, so no 1996-97
- Am not a fan of All Star spots. Why? Tell me Lillard was snubbed for this year’s All Star list, and then watch this.also, feel free to read my take on All Star Games.
- Greatness of players will be accounted for against All-NBA Teams, Hall of Fame induction, and other NBA rewards, i.e. Rookie of the YEar, Defensive Player of the Year, etc.
Most of their careers and supporting cast can be argued either ways, that is, both Kobe and Duncan have fair arguments, except in three seasons:
2002-03: Armed with both Kobe at his peak and reigning (3-time) NBA Finals MVP and at the peak of his career Shaq, the reigning CHAMPION Lakers could not make it past the second round, whereas the Spurs with Tony Parker (just one season old), Stephen Jackson (solid but hardly spectacular), Malik Rose (who scored at a career high 10.4 ppg that season. Yes. 10.4 was his career high), Manu Ginobili (honestly, All Rookie 2nd team does not count) and a fast fading Robinson went on to become Champions. This was both Kobe and shaq at their peak. Advantage Duncan.
2003-’04: Despite Kobe and Shaq making it to 1st Team All NBA, getting Gary Payton and Karl Malone, respected veterans with some gas left in the tank taking huge pay cuts for rings, and with very solid role players in Devean George and Stanislav Medvedenko, the Lakers got a beat down at the hands of an underdog Pistons team, losing the NBA Finals 4-1. Again…this was BOTH Kobe and Shaq at their peak! Advantage Duncan. (more like Disadvantage Kobe)
2014-’15: The Spurs, reigning Champions, kept the core intact and improved their second team and bench strength significantly, Yet fell in the 1st round. Yes, this was one of the five greatest frist round match ups ever; yes, this ought to have been a Western Conference Finals matchup; and yes, Chris Paul was not going to lose this series. Advantage Kobe. (more like Disadvantage Duncan).
Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 3
This is it right? This is Game 7. Coming down to the wire. The two greatest competitors of my generation face off for one last time.
Kobe Bryant a.k.a. KB24 a.k.a. The Black Mamba. After Jordan left the game in ’98, the NBA and the world of basketball as we know it seemed ready to collapse. The game’s biggest star has just hung up his boots, the league went into salary negotiations followed by the dreaded lock out in 1998. We did come back to a shamble season in 1999, mooching off a 50-game season as legitimate. Yet, there was no solution to the NBA’s dearth of stars. Allen Iverson had potential, but between his cornrows, tattoos, baggy jeans and practice rant he became the poster child for everything the NBA wanted to distance itself from. Grant Hill was touted as the Heir Apparent, but his ankles could not bear that burden. And, Vince Carter was electric unlike anything the League had seen, but he still had to prove eh could win. Same was the case with Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. Duncan was Mr. Consistent, but hardly possessed any emotion.
And then there was Kobe Bryant.
A guard, standing 2 inches taller than Jordan, he had a body type reminiscent of Jordan. But that was hardly where the comparisons ended. Over his first three seasons Kobe displayed a maniacal desire to improve and become alpha dog on the League. his work ethic was Jordan-esque, and his climbing numbers in his first four seasons are stark indication of this. Make no mistake, it was this very work ethic that was one of the bigger reasons for the Kobe-Shaq feud. Kobe could not stand that Shaq showed up out of shape every season, used the regular season to whip himself back in shape, only to dominate and cruise to the Championship.
Kobe aspired to be counted in the conversation with Jordan. But no one player in the past two decades put in the kind of brutal work in the gym and on the court like Kobe did. And I’m afraid no player ever will.
You see, basketball was always a business. And as that business gets bigger players are getting savvier with business pursuits off the court. Carmelo could’ve gone anywhere in pursuit of a championship, but chose New York for its business potential. LeBron James left Miami to Cleveland because he was worried that the Miami Heat stint and The Decision hit his personal brand hard; does not matter that he won two championships. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have adopted OKC and have become superstars in the a small market, and despite all rumors to the contrary, I do not think will ever leave OKC. Stephen Curry is just now arriving on the big stage, and while he leads an organization that cares to surround him with the right players and staff, it is undeniable that he plays for one of the biggest markets in the country.
All this makes me wonder. Will there ever be a Kobe Bryant again. A fierce competitor that has unparalleled focus on his goal to a championship. A player who, before teams hired trainers and specialists, sought to improve his game just by being the first on court and the last off court during practice, making sure he added a new element to his game every season. A player who, on an 2008 Olympic team filled with super stars, shows up to breakfast at 8 a.m. drenched in sweat with ice bags on his knees and full three hour practice under his belt. A player about whom His Airness said “He wants it so bad, he’s willing to go to the extreme, guarding points guards at the age of 34 playing 38-40 minutes a game. It’s ludicrous. This is what he is battling…he is just as cursed as me (referring to the burning desire to win)”
Duncan’s legacy is yet to be written. Save for a few games off due to injury, he is still starting games for the Spurs alongside LaMarcus Alridge, morphing into the older brother that David Robinson was to him.
Even if Duncan hung up his boots today, there should not even be a discussion on the greatest power forward ever. Karl Malone and Barkley never won a championship; Nowitzki, Garnett and Elvin Hayes won just one championship each but not at their peak; Kevin McHale won three but had one of the ten greatest NBA players ever Larry Bird by his side; Gasol won two championships but has played with three different teams in his career and Bob Petit won just one championship at his peak.
Duncan has won five championships over two decades. In fact he was so dominant till the ’09 season, that it seemed ludicrous anytime the regular season MVP went to anyone not named Duncan. His first and last championships coming FIFTEEN years apart! In fact, Duncan alone could guarantee a 50 win season and that could be said about just three other players in the past two decades, i.e. Jordan, Shaq and (a healthy) Dirk Nowitzki.
Here is the clincher though…
Kobe who has missed four playoffs during his career and more importantly one during his peak at age 26 where, despite having Butler and Odom on his team, the Lakers finished with the 6th worst record in the League that season and the eighth worst record in the 68-year history of the franchise. In his 18 seasons as a professional NBA player, Duncan never missed a single playoffs. Never. Yes, his role has “diminished” (I use the that word with extreme caution here) over the past 5 seasons, but that still leaves us with 13 seasons of Duncan leading the Spurs as the alpha dog.
Alpha Dog for 13 seasons. Five Championships 15 years apart. That is all that should matter.
Now for the last possession…
As good as Kobe is, the Kobe-Shaq feud will always hang over Kobe’s legacy. We will always wonder what could’ve and would’ve happened had Kobe and Shaq set aside their differences in the pursuit of Championships. Why, for instance, couldn’t two grown men keep their focus on the bigger picture? If Shaq was as casual as Kobe claimed, why couldn’t Kobe find a way to get to him and bring him on board. Why, after that whirlwind from 2000 to 2005 would one of the greatest practitioners of stoicism and mindfulness, Phil Jackson, pen a whole book in a tell all about how difficult it was to coach Kobe.
Now ask yourself…have you, or will you ever hear a story like this about Duncan. It’s too late now. In his 18 years as a dominant pro player, there has never been a negative story about Duncan. As a player, as a teammate, as an opponent. Kobe’s greatness, cannot entirely overshadow his difficult times with teammates, coaches and management. 19 seasons is a long time, so some friction is expected. But that expectation is decimated in the case of Duncan. He rose above it all. Basketball was of primary importance; but more important that that? Basketball played the right way. The Duncan way. The Spurs way. Maybe Pop has more to do with this than I am willing to admit. But give yourself a few minutes of quiet, and think to yourself…knowing all you do, if you had to pick a teammate to play ball with you for 20 years, who would you pick. I know who I would.