Jordan vs. Kobe… an attack on the past?


On Truehoop, I caught a link to this interesting article regarding not specifically Kobe & Jordan but the notion of using statistics to compare players across generations. I largely agree with the author and find his take to be fairly original on the blogowebrastratonet.

I have to ask, is it fair to compare the current crop of players with past players using something like PER? The one thing today’s players in their prime have in common is that they’re not done playing. No one has had the time to base statistical measures on their play. But the giants of the past — greatness is defined by their performance. The statistics that we use to assess and predict the impact of today’s players are calibrated, significantly, by how well they match up against our subjective impressions of yesterday’s heroes.

He has a point. Who’s to say a 15 PER in 1990 is equal to a 15 PER in 2000 is equal to a 15 PER in 2010? The numbers are all normalized to fit each season. There are so many factors involved… PER adjusts for minutes and pace but not for defensive styles, rules changes, average player ability.

The vitriol spewed in the comments section kind of caught me by surprise though. A lot of these Lakers fans seemed to think that Kobe was clearly the best player ever, but that the widespread perception of Jordan was so sacrosanct that no one would be allowed to displace him. There’s a little truth to that. The mythology of Michael Jordan is strong. However, the notion that Jordan is only a legend, a myth, bothers me. It’s at once a rejection of conventional wisdom and a slap in the face to people who were there and made up their minds honestly.

I think this is an argument that is unique to Kobe fans. LeBron fans always seemed to be waiting for him to start to eclipse Michael in numbers and accomplishments (to be honest so did I – James has more raw ability than anybody – and it may yet happen). Magic Johnson fans just come out and say he was better and point to his record and game as evidence. There aren’t many other players who have large groundswells of fans fighting the Jordan-for-GOAT establishment. Some Russell backers here and there making the title argument, which has its merits.

Here’s the thing though, the legend didn’t materialize from nowhere. The highlight films aren’t special effects. The dominating numbers aren’t slight of hand mathematics. The clutch moments in playoff situations aren’t bedtime stories for eager young sports fans from some marketing pop-up book. It all happened, and unfortunately the next generation is being judged by it without having the opportunity to establish their own legends first.

That being said, I’ve never, ever spoken to a fan over 40 who didn’t think Jordan was the best. Of all the authorities on the game – players, former players, coaches, GMs, sportswriters, etc. I can name 6 who chose someone else as GOAT – Jamele Hill (Kobe), Mark Jackson (Kobe), Greg Anthony (Kobe), Wilt Chamberlain (picked himself), and Oscar (picked himself). A few abstained – Bill Russell chief among them. Just about everyone else gave it to MJ. These are some of the great basketball minds of all time: Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Bob Cousy, Pat Riley, Bob Ryan, Kobe Bryant, Bill Walton, Grant Hill, Larry Bird… the list goes on.

When you talk to someone who hasn’t seen that much NBA ball, you might get a pick for Kobe or a conjecture for some past giant whose game is almost entirely legend (how many NBA fans today can honestly say that they’ve seen Wilt play in more than a handful of NBA Classics games?). Often they seem to be counterculture choices. But the vast, vast (scary vast) majority of people I’ve spoken with or heard interviewed who actually have the experience of watching (or listening to) ball dating all the way back to the 60’s take Jordan. They aren’t like me, early 30s with no genuine knowledge of ball before Jordan was already on the scene. They’ve seen Wilt and Russell and Oscar. They’ve seen Kareem and Doc. They’ve seen Magic and Bird. They’ve seen Jordan and Hakeem. They’ve seen Shaq and Duncan. They’ve seen Kobe and LeBron. And they overwhelmingly lean to Mike.

I don’t believe that our parents and grandparents have been blinded by the hype or taken in by a myth. Their opinions created the legend in the first place.


One Response to “Jordan vs. Kobe… an attack on the past?”

  1. pmadavi Says:

    To me it’s not even close.

    Kobe is Jordan-like for sure. LeBron is distinctly not Jordan, but seems like he could establish the same dominance one day. Think about him at ages 28-32. Physically and mentally mature. But right now, they are shadows of him. I know this particularly because I was constantly rooting AGAINST Jordan. It was like running into a wall. There was a palpable sense of doom when Chicago was on the schedule in the playoffs. No one else since has established that kind of CERTAINTY. He is BY FAR the best player I have ever seen. And what I know and read and study about the past certainly suggests that he is the GOAT.

    And as far as Russell and his rings (he is my number two GOAT), think about the things that got in the way of Jordan’s run with the Bulls. His father’s senseless murder and the ensuing foray into bases-ball. The cheapness and foolishness of Jerry Reinsdorf led to the team dismantling earlier than it should have. In an age where there are so many forces capable of breaking apart a team, 11 rings has an inflated value over 6.

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