Every 3-4 years we hear the same comment or question. Is this guy the next MJ? Harold Miner, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and countless others. Too many to name. Has anyone even come close? And what makes you the next Jordan? Hops? Spectacular dunks and fadeaway jumpers? Championship rings? Facial expressions that show true grit and desire? Marketing power that only few people have ever come close to? That is way too many questions and thus, more criteria than is needed. Can we just accept the fact that His Airness is one of a kind? Let's be honest, Magic, the Big O, Jerry West, Wilt, Kareem, Larry B, and the rest of the great ones all had their skills, moments, and big wins but no one has put it together like Michael.
But...what about Kobe? Is he even in Michael's class? I heard an announcer last week say that when Kobe passed Moses Malone on the scoring list that he may be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Wait, back the truck up...may be a first ballot Hall of Famer? Kobe may be the most disliked and liked player the NBA has right now-wearing both the villain black hat and the hero white hat. He can be Batman and Joker combined. It just depends who you vote for. But let's get real and understand the if he hasn't already, Kobe has approached the career level that few players have had. He is in the upper echelon right now. No ands, ifs or buts. Don't however, mistake this as an affirmation that he is on the same level as Michael. With all the criteria that may be impossible. Yet, he is the closest thing we have, so let's sit back and enjoy. Why should we you ask?
Michael won championships, hit clutch shots, pushed his teammates in various ways, and was as competitive and stubborn as any player wanting to win. He scored in a variety of ways, knew what plays to make, and could be a lock down defender. He was an all around super talent. Guess what? So is Kobe...more so than anyone since Jordan. LeBron needs to win a few titles before he can even starting to be in the same conversation. Carmelo-c'mon, give the guy a break and let's see wha the can do in the Big Apple. There really is no one else that can meet this criteria. Tim Duncan, great winner and great guy, but stats aren't there and the killer instinct is often left to Tony Parker or Manu. Derek Rose, Chris Paul and the exciting point guards are just that...point guards. They take over games in different ways and again, they need to win some championships. When was the last champion with an elite point guard with all around skills-closest would be Chauncey Billups, Rajon Rondo, or Tony Parker. Again, c'mon, great players with some great skills but not all around hoopsters who dominate every aspect. So that brings us back to Kobe.
Kobe wins championships. He takes the big shots. He is uber/ultra competitive and stubborn to win and in motivating his team. No one really takes shots like him. He makes the difficult shots look routine. He can lock down a point guard (ask Russell Westbrook in the 2nd half in their last game) and he can play everyone but a center and trust me, he would do that too. Five championships, offensive skills off the chart, great hops even for a veteran, competitive fire, and super talent puts him near Jordan's level. What keeps him from being on the same level?
They both played for Phil Jackson, but Michael never lost a championship...Kobe has lost 2. Michael is a marketing machine. Nike, Spike Lee, Gatorade and countless firms can say he carried them in lean and great times. Just like Jerry West with the NBA logo everyone knows his logo from Nike. Michael's brushes with controversy, while not always pretty (gambling accusations and marital woes) were not at the level of Kobe. No need to rehash the Colorado incident, but for better or worse, it was very controversial and hurt Kobe's reputation for awhile and turned away some fans. Also, while Michael did complain about ownership and some teammates, he never really came across as whiny or as a bad teammate. At times, in his career, Kobe, whether right or wrong has said things about teammates that either get blown out of proportion or were not timed very well. Just ask Shaq or Andrew Bynum. The important thing to see is that these are off the court issues, not on the court. Which is a testament to Kobe's focus, another thing in common with MJ.
So, off the court Kobe is not the marketing icon with a strong, close to sterling reputation. On the court, he is a few wins shy and few losses ahead in championships and that affects the comparison. Let's see how Kobe does as he ages and moves past basketball. Does he come back and play at a reduced level for bad team (see Wizards) or does he try to own a team and frown from the stands every time a young player makes a mistake (see Bobcats). If Kobe gracefully retires with integrity, tells us what he is going to and sticks with it than he might move a few notches up the comparison ladder. If he wants to own a team and does so with success and respect than raise a glass and say "good job Kobe".
In the end, it is pretty much like Kobe has said alot of the time. Don't compare. Different eras, different players, different environments. Look at the collective body and realize that without Cousy or Mikan there would be no Wilt, Russell, or Baylor. Without Sharman there would be no West. You have to understand that the players that come before stars of the future set the table and set the bar, sometimes really high, but that is good for the game. If Mikan hadn't been so successful than who would we compare Wilt and Russell to? If Cousy, Pettit an Schayes hadn't succeeded, than would we think West, Robertson, and Baylor were so exciting and talented? I mean Julius Erving was a high wire act, but Elgin Baylor was too. Michael took that high wire act to a different level and expanded his whole game. Kobe did the same thing. He is the most successful player to come straight out of high school to the NBA in the history of the game. But he is who he is and he is comfortable with that. We should be too. Root for him if you like him or the Lakers. Root against him if you don't. But remember, he is right now, the best player of this era and that is accurate.
The best way might be to look at eras...Mikan was king of his. Cousy and Russell were the "winners" of their time and West, Robertson, Wilt, and Baylor were the skilled performers. In the 70's, Kareem was supreme with Dr J right there. IceMan George Gervin and David Thompson helped bridge the gap, but it is pretty easy to see that Magic and Bird carried their eras. Then comes Jordan and sat on the throne for his time, over and above some great talents like Barkley and Malone. When Kobe and Shaq teamed up with Phil, well welcome to the current era. Teams with good chemistry ON the court win today. LA certainly was as disfunctional as any team and they won 3 in a row. San Antonio may be the closest thing to the Waltons the NBA has ever seen and they won. But ultimately in this era you look at Kobe and realize he won 3 out of 4 with Shaq and 2 of 3 with Pau and his current team. So celebrate what he has done and have your own opinion. Realize that His Airness was special and probably will always be number one in the NBA galaxy, but being your own universe or cosmos in someone else's galaxy isn't too bad. Kobe won't complain-unless it is to the ref about an uncalled foul. Tomorrow, are the Lakers ready to make some moves for future succes or take a chance that this team doesn't age over nite.