I can't stand Kobe Bryant. If there's been a more inflated ego in the history of the NBA, it came in a 325-pound package of rim-shaking mass named Shaquille O'Neal. (It was a clash of these gargantuan egos, of course, that led to the split of the two central figures from the Los Angeles Lakers' three-time NBA champions earlier this decade.) But when I'm pulling for my favorite team, there's no opponent on the planet I dread more than Kobe Bryant. He's heartless in the cold, efficient, driven-by-competitive-fury manner that makes the very greatest athletes — DiMaggio and Jordan come to mind — champions among champions. Even when their teams aren't lifting a trophy.
Having won three rings before his 24th birthday, Bryant has somehow only captured a single MVP trophy (after the 2007-08 season). He has won two scoring titles and been named first-team All-NBA seven times. (Over the last 30 years, only two guards — Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson — have been honored as often.) Still only 30 years old, he ranks among a fab four in Lakers history, having surpassed 20,000 points for one of the most acclaimed franchises in pro sports (the others are Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Once an endorsement kingpin, Bryant fell into disfavor amid allegations of sexual assault in 2003, only to have the case settled out of court when his accuser (a woman other than his wife) refused to testify in trial. That heartless part? He led his team to the 2003-04 NBA Finals despite pretrial hearings that often took him to Colorado within hours of the Lakers taking the court. There is the basketball demigod that is Kobe Bryant, and there is little else to admire.
But what a player. In a league built around stars, Bryant is the supernova, a starter in 11 straight All-Star Games (the contest's MVP three times), an Olympic gold medalist, and the man who scored 81 points in a single game in 2006 (the second highest total in NBA history). In 2007, he became the second player ever to score 50 points in four straight games. And I still can't stand him.
— Frank Murtaugh
LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant? No contest. They are widely — and correctly — considered the two best players on the planet. And if you set aside for the moment Kobe's three titles won as Shaquille O'Neal's sidekick, the surface similarities are plentiful. Each is a versatile, athletic 6'7"-6'8" wing player. Each has, prior to this season, carried a team to one Finals and come up short. Each has won a league MVP award. Each is on a first-name basis with the world. But, on closer inspection, LeBron is clearly superior. And for two primary reasons:
1) LeBron is bigger. Kobe may be versatile and athletic, but LeBron is like something from science fiction. At 6'8" 250 pounds, he's the Evolutionary Earvin. Like Magic Johnson and probably no one else who's ever stepped on a basketball court, LeBron is capable of playing — and excelling — at every position on the floor. He can run a team, see over the defense, and make sixth-sense passes. He can take matters in his own hands, bombarding opponents, Kobe-style, with jump shots and athletic forays to the hoop as a pure scorer. Or he can go down on the block and bang with the big boys. Unlike Magic, he can overwhelm teams with sheer power and speed, sprinting through defenses like a freight train and attacking the basket with no regard for human safety. Kobe is a historically elite player in an established mold. LeBron is a mold-breaker.
2) LeBron is fresher. Even great NBA players have a history of wearing down after their odometer tops 1,000 games. Combining regular season and playoffs, Kobe has more than 1,100 NBA games under his belt and though he'll only turn 31 this summer, his game has clearly changed as a result, becoming less dynamic and more jump-shot dependent. This is reflected in his free-throw attempts: For most of his career, Bryant averaged 7.5-9.5 free-throw attempts in the playoffs. This year: 6.5. LeBron, who has played fewer than half the games Kobe has, is averaging an immense 13.5 free-throw attempts per game this post-season.
The era of King James has arrived.
— Chris Herrington