This past season we witnessed the finales of two of the greatest players in NBA history. Both Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan will forever be remembered as great champions, each capturing five world championships in their time in the league, more than a quarter of the championships won in their combined nearly four decades of basketball. But the question we plan to answer isn’t whether or not the two future Hall of Famers are great; that’s obvious. The argument is instead which player is better.
I am not sure how this is even an argument. Sure Tim Duncan is a good player, and his fifteen All-Star selections are a testament to that. But if those fifteen years as an all-star are a show of just how great Duncan was, then the eighteen All-Star games Kobe played in show him to be that much better.
Of course, maybe the reason Kobe Bryant has been more of an All-Star than his Spur counterpart is because as good as Tim Duncan was, he was no Kobe. While Duncan did a good job of scoring 19 points a game, it was nowhere near the 25+ that Kobe was able put up. And considering Duncan will be remembered forever as one of the best passing big-men of all-time, while Bryant will always be thought of as arguably the biggest “ball-hog” ever, it is interesting that it is Bryant who has more career assists (6306-4225) in fewer games (1346-1392).
And in those fewer games that Kobe has played, he has had to deal with instability that Duncan was never forced to deal with, coaching changes. While both players laced them up for only one team during their careers, it was Kobe’s Lakers that dealt with much more front office adversity during his tenure in the league. During his 20-year career in LA Kobe played for ten different head coaches, and even played for one coach (Phil Jackson) on two different occasions. So while Tim Duncan was playing with a great team under future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich his entire career, Kobe was carrying a franchise to greatness with scrubs like Frank Hamblen and Mike Brown on the sidelines.
As for the Kobe haters of the world that claim his statistical success was just based on putting up a high volume of shots, they may be right. But the fact of the matter is Bryant was forced to take the number of shots he did. Unlike Tim Duncan, who played his entire career on a playoff caliber team with Hall of Fame teammates like David Robinson and Tony Parker, Kobe was not always on good teams, meaning he was forced to be the team’s offense. Bryant has only had one Hall of Fame teammate in their prime, and that was Shaquille O’Neal. Other than those few years, the offense was totally dependent on Kobe to score as much as possible. For those of you who still don’t understand, think of it this way: would you rather have Kobe Bryant taking 30 shots or Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, and Smush Parker sharing equal shots with Kobe? That’s what I thought.
And of course all of those shot attempts allowed Bryant to do something that Duncan has never come close to. Bryant was the league’s leading scorer not once, but twice. And although his scoring output and straight up assassin-like demeanor on offense might be what most remember Kobe by, it’s actually his play on the other side of the ball that helps separate him from Duncan even further.
Bryant was a First Team All-NBA player 11 times (one more than Duncan), not just because there was no better scorer in the league, but because when it came to defense he was one of the best. In fact his nine times making the First Team All-Defensive squad is not only more times than Tim Duncan made the cut, but more times than any player not named Jordan, Garnett, or Payton made the list.
So just in case the offensive numbers weren’t enough, maybe it’s the unparalleled defense that helps you understand this. Tim Duncan is good, very good. But he is no Kobe Bryant. Heck, maybe only Michael Jordan can say he is better. He is definitely the only name and the only brand bigger than Kobe. The only player with more iconic moments than Kobe. Surely you can’t say the same for Tim Duncan.
So when asking yourself who was greater, ask yourself this: Do you remember any famous Tim Duncan games? Did he ever score 81 points? Or drop 60 in his final game? Did he knock down free throws with a torn Achilles before walking off the court? No. And that’s because as good as Duncan was; nay as great as Duncan was, he was no Kobe. He was no Black Mamba.
Before we go into whether or not the great Tim Duncan is better than Kobe Bryant, let us first recognize this: Tim Duncan is EASILY the greatest power forward in the history of the sport. Now where does that place him in relation to a Kobe Bryant who is not the greatest at his position? Well it puts him ahead of his fellow 5-time NBA champion. Well ahead.
Although many may see Kobe as a great player who helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships during his career, this writer sees it quite a bit differently. This writer sees the story of Kobe Bryant’s career titled, “The Least Efficient Player in History”. And it’s not just me who sees it this way. The stats do too.
Bryant is the king of turnovers, ranking 3rd all-time in career giveaways, and ranking in the top 10 in turnovers in nine of his twenty seasons in the league. His 1.56 assists per turnover is terrible for any guard in league history, and further proof that Kobe Bryant may in fact be the least efficient player in history. What helps that argument even more is his 14,481 missed shots, a record that seems nearly unbreakable considering he has missed more than 1,000 more shots than any player in history. As a matter of fact, Kobe has missed more than 4,000 more shots Tim Duncan did in his time in the league. But then again, we are comparing Kobe Bryant to Tim Duncan, one of the most efficient players in the history of basketball.
A player who ranked inside the top-10 in player efficiency for 13 years. A player who according to BasketballReference.com’s NBA Elo Player Rater system is ranked as the 4th best basketball player in history, compared to Kobe Bryant’s rating as the 356th best.
Of course those are just a few of the statistics that show Duncan ahead of Kobe as the better of the two superstars. There is still the big-man’s advantage in shooting percentage (.506-.447) and RPG (10.8-5.2).
But of course Kobe did accomplish things the Spurs legend never did, like leading the league in scoring. However that might not be the accomplishment it sounds like. Bryant was the highest scoring player per game twice during his career, but that was mostly due to shot volume. The truth is Kobe should have led the league in scoring at least six seasons seeing as that is how many times he had the most shot attempts in the NBA. And some would argue that he should have led the league more times than that because more than half of Kobe’s 20 seasons he finished in the top 4 of shot attempts. Of course, it’s hard to lead the league in scoring when you also lead the league in missed shots, something he also did six times during his career.
And as for the previous writer arguing Kobe being the better defender of the two, both the statistics and the accolades beg to differ.
Although it is extremely common for big-men to get more blocks, guards usually make up the difference with steals, but not so much in the case of comparing Duncan to Bryant. The Spurs’ power forward averaged 2.9 blocks + steals per game as opposed to Bryant’s lowly 1.9 per game. Maybe that is why Tim Duncan has been named to more NBA All-Defensive teams than any player in history (15), and why he is the 3rd best defender in history according to the defensive rating statistic. That’s a full 245 spots above where Bryant is ranked as a defender according to the stats. And when you mix in the offensive stats with the defensive to get the all-telling (+/-) statistic, Tim Duncan ranks as the 12th best player of all-time while his Laker counterpart sits no higher than 34th, just behind Chris Weber and Larry Nance. Hardly a fair comparison when talking about overall ability. After all, Duncan has shown to be vastly more efficient offensively, much more productive defensively, and is the obvious choice in terms of rebounding. Maybe that is why Duncan has won more MVP’s than Kobe, because he is far better in the three main areas of basketball importance. But where does he compare when you look at the most important statistic in any sport? Once again, he ranks well ahead Bryant there too.
While athletes are and forever will be judged on winning, and both players have five championships to their name, Tim Duncan is a legendary winner whose winning ways seem to be almost mythical. During Duncan’s 19-year career he never missed the playoffs, leading his team to the postseason for nearly two decades without a single losing season. And in case you missed this year’s Lakers, Kobe Bryant has missed the playoffs. And more than once. In fact Bryant has missed the playoffs five times and four times been a part of a team with a losing record. Now some will look to the roster Kobe had in those losing years and claim that is the real reason for losing, while this writer instead looks at the rosters of his championship years and claims that is the real reason for him having rings in the first place.
Those who love and adore Kobe Bryant will of course claim that he was the true star of those five Laker teams that won championships since 2000, but that is only part of the truth. It is well known knowledge that without Shaq the Lakers would not have won any of their three championships for 2000-2002. After all, it was Shaq that outdid Kobe in PPG, RPG, BLK+STL/G, and FG% in each one of those postseasons. And after Shaq left LA because of Kobe, how did the shooting guard fare? Not too well. The following three seasons without the help of the more valuable Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe’s Lakers missed the playoffs followed by back to back first round losses in the postseason. It wasn’t until Kobe was surrounded again by the best roster in basketball that he was able to win a couple more championships, needing All-NBA big-man Pau Gasol, first team All-Defense SF Ron Artest, and NBA All-Star Andrew Bynum to help him contend for more rings. Compare that to Duncan, who was the best player on his first four championship teams with the Spurs before handing over the reigns to superstar Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio’s 2014 title run. Either way you look at the rings they have, it breaks down pretty simply to Kobe needed superstars around him for his team to win, while Tim Duncan was the superstar of his winning team.
And maybe that is why Tim Duncan is better than Kobe Bryant. It’s not just that he was easily more efficient offensively, or arguably the greatest defender of all-time, it’s that when it came down to winning and being the main reason your team won, Kobe played only a small part in LA, while Tim Duncan is the superstar of winning.