Who's better: Kobe or LeBron? Not sure if anyone else read this article, food for thought

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Who's better: Kobe or LeBron? Not sure if anyone else read this article, food for thought

Who's better: Kobe or LeBron?

The league's two best players do battle in our side-by-side analysis

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Palmer By Chris Palmer
ESPN The Magazine

Kobe and LeBronAndrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesKobe and LeBron are the best in the biz. But who comes out on top?

Who (Else) is Better?

In this space we'll break down the best individual matchup of the week to see who's the better player. But toss out career accomplishments or potential. This is about ability -- strengths, weaknesses, intangibles -- and who gives his team the best chance to win. It's about the only thing that matters when you step on the court on any given night -- who's better right now.

Sure, there's not much at stake when Kobe Bryant takes the floor opposite his friend and rival LeBron James at Sunday's 60th NBA All-Star Game, but it is a perfect opportunity to compare the two most dominant players in the game.

Bryant has long been regarded the greatest player of his generation and is certainly its most decorated. But as the tail end of the Bryant era merges with James' prime, the lines of superiority blur and the picture becomes fuzzy as to who's the better player.

Here's what's crystal clear. The winner of this epic clash and the best player in the game are one in the same. For many years, Bryant has worn the tag of the world's best. But eventually Kobe will have to pass that torch. Or has he already?

Kobe Bryant
Los Angeles Lakers
PPG: 25.1
RPG: 5.4
APG: 4.8
FG%: 46.0
3FG%: 31.5
PER: 24.07

LeBron James
Miami Heat
PPG: 26.1
RPG: 7.4
APG: 7.3
FG%: 48.5
3FG%: 34.5
PER: 26.56

Bryant possesses an overstuffed war chest of moves that seems to grow each year. Combined with the cunning and quickness to get quality shots off against a variety of defensive looks from virtually anywhere on the floor, Bryant is the league's most complete scorer. His moves start from the ground up -- he spent time learning the intricacies of advanced footwork from Hakeem Olajuwon -- and are modified thanks to endless film study sessions. "It's crazy how much he studies," says Lakers forward Matt Barnes. "Every time you look up he's breaking something down trying to find a new way to score."

James is arguably the game's best athlete and uses his physical gifts to simply overwhelm his opponent. Foul line to foul line he's the fastest player in the game for his size. He can pick up his dribble at the 3-point line and still finish at the rim. He absorbs contact in the air like a sponge and still has the strength to get off a good shot. "He's a more athletic Magic Johnson," says Matt Barnes. "You can't force him in any one direction, you just have to try to keep yourself between him and the basket." James' public image may have taken a drubbing in the past six months but it hasn't made him any less guardable.


From the moment Kobe was drafted he was among a small handful of the very best athletes in the league. No more. No Laker in history has played more minutes than Bryant. Nearly 21 percent of his career minutes are from the postseason. (Only four players have logged more playoff minutes.) This season, Bryant's averaging 33.8 mpg, his lowest since his second season, which was his last as a non-starter. The good news is that his diminishing athleticism has led directly to that ever-expanding arsenal of moves. "He probably won't dunk on you," says one Western Conference scout, "but he'll still kill you one way or the other."

James has yet to fully embrace his size in the post. With all of that brawn and power he could dominate in the pivot, but his forays on the low block still feel somewhat experimental and a tad reluctant. That's largely a function of the fact that James relishes handling the ball up top, where he can see the entire floor and make progressive reads. He's been ignoring the post when it comes to moving without the ball, too -- he has fewer assisted baskets at the rim than he did a year ago. James gets quality touches down low but prefers to pass, mainly because he can so easily create scoring opportunities for himself and others off of dribble penetration.


Never leave your feet to pass. It's a fundamental rule. But Bryant is the rare player who can get away with it. Off of penetration in the lane or driving baseline, Kobe often leaps toward the rim as if he's going to shoot, which draws the defense, before passing to a teammate spotting up on the perimeter. Call it drive, jump and kick. This little oddity was born out of his shoot-first approach -- a last-second bailout when he had no shot -- which he has turned into a weapon. Since Kobe often faces triple teams in the lane, leaping to pass gives him a better passing angle to find shooters.

LeBron is a master of the jab step. When he catches the ball anywhere around the perimeter and goes into his triple threat position, he turns almost sideways and sticks out his right leg, which creates space and gives him time to make reads while the play develops. The lower he crouches, the further out he can jab his foot. Sometimes he'll rock it back and forth and puts the defense to sleep, forcing more than a few defensive three-second calls. By contrast, Kobe often begins plays on the wing standing straight up and down with his back turned, allowing the defense to press up completely.


Bryant's will is fierce and unbending. As a brash rookie it rubbed people the wrong way, but 15 years later it's made him an all-time great. On a nightly basis, his determination is unmatched. "He's the most competitive player I've ever played with," says teammate Lamar Odom. "It's almost kind of scary, but his passion affects everybody." That fire extends to the final seconds of the game, where Bryant has built a rep as the best closer in the business. But that same will can still morph into the individual stubbornness that plagued Bryant-led teams earlier in his career and never seems to be too far from the surface.

Not since Magic Johnson has anyone enhanced the abilities of the players around him more. Case in point: Of the nine remaining Cleveland Cavaliers who played with James last season, all have seen precipitous drops in their field goal percentages. A staggering six are having career-worst seasons shooting the ball. It's not just his willingness to distribute the rock, either; guys generally enjoy playing with him and he relishes the leadership role. James is popular in the locker room and respects his teammates equally regardless of role. "He treats guys right," says Heat forward Chris Bosh. "And in return they're loyal to him."

"Kobe has so many different little tricks you never really know what he's going to do. He's got moves that you didn't even know about. He's always got something crafty. The toughest thing is that he's so quick in the post. He moves his feet and gives you a lot of different fakes and he's just waiting for you to bite. [Kobe and LeBron are] both two of the greats, but in my opinion, Kobe is still the best player in the world right now. I think he's right up there with Michael Jordan when you look at his place in the game."
-- Kenyon Martin, PF, Denver Nuggets

"LeBron is probably the best athlete I've ever seen. Definitely the best in the game right now. There's really nothing he can't do with his speed and quickness. And I can't even begin to tell you how strong he is. But the way he understands the game is just as impressive. He sees the whole floor and is constantly trying to set people up. That's a mark of greatness. Being a point guard, I have a good understanding of his game because he plays a point guard type role. To be that size with that kind of game is just amazing to me."
-- Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans Hornets


LeBron can't match Kobe's greatness or place in the game yet. But he's the clear-cut better player right now. The two-time reigning MVP could have arguably claimed as many as four statues by age 25. The utter demise of the Cavs only illuminates James' status as the best all-around player in the game.

For the past several years, Bryant's game has been transitioning to a more skill-based approach. The result is the best array of moves anywhere. But it's a game too dependent on shooting. If his shot isn't falling, Bryant's effectiveness can nosedive. James, unlike Bryant, can profoundly impact the game without shooting.

LeBron has overtaken Kobe on the defensive end as well. Several years ago, James realized he wouldn't acquire true greatness without dedicating himself to becoming a stopper. Now he's become a credible weakside shot blocker, and his come-from-behind blocks in transition epitomize defensive effort. No player has made more gains on the other side of the ball in the past few years than James.

Bryant still strikes fear in the heart of defenders and is capable of gaudy numbers, but he has to work much harder than James for the same stat line. These days, Kobe keeps those five shiny rings locked away safely. They'll get him to Springfield but they won't help him guard LeBron.

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