Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant? Who has had the better career?

It’s no secret that THE GREAT MAMBINO features a number of Simmons disciples here. We drink the Kool-Aid, heavily so, and listen to the musings of a man who spends an impossible amount of time thinking about basketball as a mere hobby.

Of course, with a false prophet, you’ve got to have the good book. And of course, in this sacriligious perversion of an analogy, the bible is The Book of Basketball. For the uninitiated, Simmons wrote a mammoth 700 page dissertation, the premise of which was that the Basketball Hall of Fame should be organized into a pyramid. In this concept, Simmons sets 96 players into five groupings, moving numerically upwards from several-time All-Stars, to the immortals of the NBA. In other words, Bill found a neat, clean (and profitable) way to rank the greatest ballers of all-time from bottom to top, with justifications, disguised as chapters, for each man.

It shouldn’t surprise any loyal reader of MAMBINO that we’d naturally gravitate towards the particular ranking of one Kobe Bean Bryant. Simmons begrudgingly respects Kobe, though every part of his green and white being is dead set against ever truly liking the Black Mamba. Thus, when I read the updated paperback rankings in 2010 after the Lakers’ 16th championship, I was surprised to see that Kobe had been elevated from the 16th spot, all the way to number 8. Just behind Tim Duncan.

And thus the debate started. While I have the utmost respect for Tim Duncan, who rightly wears the Barkley-ian badge of “Best Power Forward Ever” proudly upon his lean shoulder, I simply don’t believe that he could ever outrank Kobe on the pyramid. The King, an infrequent contributor to MAMBINO and Boston-area scumbag, heartily disagrees.

This debate raged throughout the playoffs, and as both men were unceremoniously dumped from contention (is there any other way?), the stage was set for a late-August post where we scrap for any reason at all to talk about basketball. So here it is: Kobe or Duncan? Who has had the better career?
The King: To answer this question, I think you have to define what makes a player great. To me there are four factors that make a great player:

1)     He is a winner who is essential to his team’s success

2)     He played well during the most important moments
3)     He individual performance was strong
4)     He made his teammates better
Let’s look at how Kobe and Timmy compare to each other on the four characteristic listed above:

He is winner who is essential to their team’s success

If we were talking about beating rape charges, Kobe would be the clear winner here (Editor’s Note: First of all, alleged rape charges. Second of all, low blow, man). However, since we’re talking about basketball, Duncan gets the edge.

Yes, Kobe’s five championships are one greater than Timmy’s four, but when we are talking about all-time greats, the role on the championship team matters. There is no questioning that Kobe Bryant was the alpha dog on the2009 and the 2010 championship teams. The 2000 – 2002 championship teams on the other hand?   Any non-biased fan has to admit that Shaq was Batman and Kobe was Robin. On all those championship teams there were at least three other players in the league you could replace Bryant with and still win the championship. There was only one player in the league you could replace Shaq with and still win the championship. That player is none other than Tim Duncan.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not only was Timmy the alpha of all four Spurs championship teams from 1999 – 2007, there wasn’t a player in the league who could step into Timmy’s shoes and still lead the Spurs to the championship. For that reason, Duncan gets the slight nod over Kobe in the this category.

He played well during the most important moments

The regular season is important but coming up big when it matters the most, i.e. the playoffs, is part of what separates the all-time greats from the rest of the pack. Both Kobe and Duncan have had their playoff successes, but when you really analyze their playoff careers, Timmy has consistently stepped up his game more than Kobe. Bold statement. Here’s why:

First, Timmy’s advanced playoff statistics are better than Kobe’s. Timmy has a higher player efficiency rating (25.3 vs. 22.4), more win-shares (30.6 vs. 28.3) and a higher win share per 48 minutes ratio than Kobe in their playoff careers.

Second, the advanced stats show Tim has elevated his game in the playoffs (slightly higher PER and slightly lower WS / 48 minutes against vastly superior competition) while Kobe has not (PER slightly down and WS/48 significantly down from regular season levels).

Finally, Duncan has had the more dominating playoff performances. Bryant has never crushed the competition for four playoff rounds like Tim Duncan did in 2003 (which included the Spurs 4-2 victory over theLakers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals) .With the exception of Game 7 of the 2010 finals, Kobe has never had a masterpiece like Tim Duncan’s 32 pts, 20 rebs, 7 blks, 6 assists, 3 steals and only 1 TO game to open up the 2003 NBA Finals. 

Kobe does get an edge for making some big last second playoff shots but even so, Duncan is the better playoff player.

His individual performance was strong

When comparing two of the greatest ever, obviously the discussion around their individual performance doesn’t revolve around if they are great players.  What matters is a) who had a better career and ii) who was best at their peak.  When comparing players who played two different positions, it’s tough to directly compare their games as the skills required for their respective roles are so different. Instead, you have to rely primarily on statistics and what I call the top-5 test.
As far as statistics go, they certainly suggest Tim Duncan has had the better career and better peak (unless you consider unnecessarily contested shots as a positive, then Kobe might have the edge). From a career standpoint, he outranks Kobe in PER (24.7 v. 23.4) , WS (175.9 v. 162.4) and WS/48 (.214 v. .184). Throw in the fact that he was unquestionably a more impactful defensive player due to the position he played (which statistics, even advanced ones like win shares, tend to underestimate) and it’s Duncan in a landslide.

The statistics similarly suggest Duncan was better at his peak. During Timmy’s best 4-year period (2000 – 2004), Duncan racked up 60.6 win shares on his way to two MVPs (and two second place finishes) and one championship. Kobe Bryant during his best four year stretch (2005-2009) produced only 54.8 win shares and one MVP award (with a second, third and fourth MVP finish) and one championship.

As mentioned earlier, the other way I evaluate great players is what I call my top 5 test. Essentially, you look at what the drop off would be if you replaced that person with the fifth best person in the league at their position.  The drop off between Kobe and the fifth best wing player during Kobe’s prime was significant, but they wouldn’t be doomed with an in-their-prime McGrady or Paul Pierce as Kobe’s replacement. Tim Duncan’s replacement during his prime? How about Ben Wallace or a very raw Jermaine O’Neal. Talk about a drop off… as a matter of fact, I think you can reasonably argume that if you replace Kobe with the fifth best wing on any of Kobe’s championship teams, the Lakers’ still go home with the trophy. There’s no way in hell you make that same argument for Duncan and the Spurs.

He made his teammates better

If you were to create the ideal teammate, you would create Tim Duncan. On the court, Duncan improved  his teammates on both ends. Both out of the post and off a rebound, Tim is one of the greatest passing big men of all time.As one of the greatest defensive players of all time, his ability to cover others’ mistakes and overall impact on team defense was tremendous.

Some people claim the Black Mamba’s ball hogging ways prevent him from improving the play of his teammates. I don’t fully buy that as anyone as talented as Kobe improves his teammates by drawing the majority of attention from the opposing team. With that said, Kobe’s lack of vision (or his unwillingness to pass – you decide) means that he has not fully taking advantage of his ability to improve teammates unlike better passing wings like Lebron or McGrady.  As a guard, Kobe’s impact on team defense is nowhere near the impact provided by Tim Duncan.

In case Duncan’s on the court advantage in improving teammates is not enough to sway you, we can look at how teammates view them off the court. I’ll start off by staying that the effect on a team’s performance from having “good guys” is often overstated. With that said, when you have people that are polar opposites in terms of how good of a teammate they are, I can’t help but think it has some effect.  Simply put, Tim = one of the greatest people in NBA history and Kobe = Supreme dick.  Do a simple internet search and you can find many articles on how great a teammate Duncan is (this Sports Illustrated one is particularly good). They all say the same thing: 
–         He is one of the nicest people alive
–         He works hard and does not want special treatment, setting the example for his teammates.
–         He never throws teammates under the bus
–         Is the ultimate team player
Kobe on the other hand? He forced Shaq out of LA because he wanted all the attention, ruining what could have been an all-time great dynasty; throws teammates under the bus regularly, not even sparing star players such as Shaq, Bynum (who Kobe suggested should be traded) and Gasol; has demanded trades due to a lack of surrounding talent and in general, is just a douche bag (which as a Lakers’ fan you are certainly aware of).  Whether it’s on the court or off the court, Duncan had more positive impact on his teammates than Kobe.

For you to claim Kobe is better than Duncan, you have to disagree with me on what makes a player great. Because if you judge greatness by a player’s individual and team performance, his ability to step up his game when it’s needed most and the impact he has on his teammates, Duncan wins in a landslide.  

KOBEsh: First and foremost, I’m not saying that Tim Duncan isn’t a historically great player. Again, he’s the greatest power forward to ever live. Simmons did get it right – he’s certainly one of the top ten guys ever to strap on a NBA jersey. However, to say that he’s not only better than Kobe, but in a landslide isn’t just a massively over-dramatic statement. It’s just plain wrong.

My main argument for Kobe as the better player centers around total longevity, greater career apex and debunking common misconceptions.

Let’s establish some baseline points: Kobe Bryant has been an elite NBA player since the 1999-2000 season. That’s 13 years of dominance, in which he’s amassed 1st, 2nd or 3rd Team All-NBA status every single year. There’s no arguing that. He’s 11th in MVP Award shares (based on voting), right behind Tim Duncan. Also, like Timmy, Kobe has finished in the top 5 of MVP voting nine times, and in the top 10 ten times. As for his career numbers, Bryant ranks amongst the giants of the game: 5th in career scoring, 16th in steals and 41st in assists. Without question, Kobe is the greatest and most accomplished guard of his generation.

As for Tim Duncan, I’d argue that he was an elite player from 1997-1998, until the 2008-2009 season, which was his last All-NBA 2nd Team selection (he’d be selected to the 3rd Team in 2009-2010, but I don’t think that makes him “Elite”). Like Kobe, his numbers rank amongst the very best in league history: 26th in points, 18th in rebounds and 9th in blocks. As I said, Tim Duncan is the greatest big man of his era, and the greatest power forward ever. Period.

Looking at raw numbers, I’d say that they even out in their own ways. Obviously as a wing player whose primary function is as a scorer, Bryant has numbers better befitting of a guard. Duncan’s reflect his excellence as a post player. Thus, I’d call their regular season numbers, as well as MVP award shares and finishes a wash.

However, where I feel Kobe truly separates himself from Duncan is that Kobe was unquestionably the best player in the league from the 2003-2004 season until the end of the 2008 season. In that period, Kobe played on much worse teams than Duncan, but still managed to drag his team of worthless corpses to over .500 records and to the playoffs. For Duncan, I would say that he was unquesitonably the best player in the league from the 2001-2002 season (he was second to Shaquille that that point), up until Kobe took his mantle starting in 2003. Coupled with a few other points I’ll get to, a five year apex as the best player in the league has to give Kobe some extra credit that Duncan can’t even sniff.

Let’s break down your main arguments piece by piece, and then move onto other salient points:

His individual performance was strong: I agree that Duncan has had the best individual Finals performance of the two. A 32/20/6/7 performance is undeniably earth-shaking, but it’s not like Kobe hasn’t had legendary playoff performances either. In 2001, the Mamba dropped 48/16 on Sacramento in the second round, and two weeks later laid a merciless 36/9/8 on Duncan and his Spurs. Comparing individual playoff performances actually won’t further either of our causes here; we could trade off games one at a time for hours and not have an answer.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with your Top 5 test. Yes, the wing position by it’s very nature is easier filled than say, a dominant big man’s spot, like Duncan’s. However, to say that Kobe could have been easily replaced on those three title teams is an absolute farce, for multiple reasons.

Kobe simply couldn’t have been replaced because when you look at the talent surrounding him and Shaq, the downgrade from Tracy McGrady or Paul Pierce simply was too steep of a fall to “cruise” to those three championships. Bryant and O’Neil never had another All-Star with them from 1999-2004, and their three best teammates were, in order: Glen Rice, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox. Nothing against any of those guys, but no one would ever mistake their presence for a fellow superstar to pair with the tandem of Kobe and Shaq. It was simply…Kobe and Shaq. There was no third player to pick up the slack if either of those two failed. After the Lakers’ two stars, Phil Jackson’s bench was filled with role players and washed up vets on their last legs. Anything less than the best big man in the game and the best guard in the game at the time (please don’t argue that Tracy McGrady was ever better than Kobe, at any point. It’s going to make you sound silly), and that team wouldn’t have beaten the 2000 Trailblazers, 2000 Pacers or the 2002 Kings. Quite simply, you don’t seem to understand how pedestrian the rest of the Lakers roster was at the time. Kobe was the best wing player at that time, period. Paul Pierce and McGrady were great players at the time, but Tracy never replicated the big game cajones the Mamba has shown in the clutch, and Pierce was far from his 2008 peak.

More pertinent to your point, to say that Ben Wallace or Jermaine O’Neal were the best alternatives to Duncan is foolish. If you were to place Chris Webber, Alonzo Mourning or especially Kevin Garnett in Timmy’s spot, I’m not going to be bullish and say they still win a title, but they’re still competing.  

This all goes back to your first point, that Duncan is winner who is essential to his team’s success. The common misconception outside of Los Angeles is that the statement always should read “Kobe wouldn’t have won those titles without Shaq.” I don’t disagree. But what the statement should read is “Kobe nor Shaq win those titles without each other.” As I wrote above, the talent surrounding the two stars on those two Lakers teams were perfectly suited for each man’s collective talent. Shaq needed a big-game shooter with excellent court-vision (which Kobe has – again, this is a subjective point, but saying that Kobe is anything less than a spectacular passer is just plain ignorant. I can’t justify this other than to tell you to watch basketball) who, most importantly, would have no problem stepping up when the moment was at it’s most crucial. Honestly, as great as McGrady, Allen Iverson, and Jason Kidd were, none of them had the right combination of a lethal mid-range game that fit with Shaq’s dominant post presence AND the testicular fortitude to rise in the clutch.

Plainly, Shaquille was the “better” player of the two during their title run. He was more dominant, and played a greater role in the team’s defense. But the difference between the two is more a gap than a gulf. Kobe’s playmaking (he averaged over 5 assists a game), stifiling perimeter defense (one 1st Team All-Defense and two 2nd Team berths), and of course scoring (25 points on 9-20 nightly, with 84% from the line) were so integral to that team’s success. However, Shaquille’s domineering locquatious presence outside of basketball, as well as his sheer physical size, often suggests that he was far and away the best player on the team. Not so.

The reason why I’ve focused on this point for several paragraphs now is because I think it’s the single most important point to your argument. Duncan was undoubtedly the best player on two title teams, questionably on one (2005, in competition with Manu) and the second or third best on another (2007). Kobe however, was the second-best player on three title teams, the best on another (2009) and questionably, but probably the best on one more (2010, in competition with Pau Gasol). While you believe that Kobe could have been replaced by another great guard on those teams, I’m arguing that the margin between his and Shaquille’s dominance was much smaller. No one on the 1999-2000 Lakers contributed anything above a 13.2 PER and 1.2 Win Shares. On the 2000-2001 team, Kobe and Shaq’s playoff win shares were almost identical. In 2001-2002, no player was even within 6.7 PER rating near Kobe. My point is, that the Lakers teams had such a subpar supporting cast that only a superhuman Shaquille and an almost as superhuman Kobe could have saved them.

That, combined with the fact that he was the best player on two other teams, leading to his five total titles, doesn’t give Duncan an immeasurable edge, like you’re saying. With a better career peark, and the fact that his importance on those three title teams was far more important than you’re suggesting, Kobe has to be considered the better player.
However, I do agree that any superstar also can’t be a detriment to your team. In terms of Kobe being a “good teammate”, I think you’re taking a subjective approach to a completely relative situation. Let’s get this out of the way: Kobe isn’t an easy person to get along with. He’s harsh, sometimes condescending and is disappointed with anything less than perfection. Sometimes he can be an outright dick.

Your arguments against Kobe being a good citizen are again, based on hackneyed common misconceptions. He didn’t “drive Shaq out of LA”, like you suggested. Shaq, as a 32 year-old that was demanding a 5-year, $100 million dollar deal from the Lakers, despite missing an average of 16 games a year with various maladies during his seven seasons in LA. That, not the tiff with Kobe, is what really drove him out of LA. Also, to say that he “regularly” throws teammates under the bus just plainly isn’t true. Yes, he has publicly blamed teammates before, but if you look at his last five seasons with Pau, he’s regularly stood up for and very publicly defended Gasol, Bynum, Fisher, Lamar and company. Of course he’s had his trangressions, especially when playing for a borderline lottery team from 2005-2007, but how “bad of a teammates Kobe is” is completely blown out of proportion.

No, Kobe isn’t a “really nice guy”. He’s a guy who gets on his teammates when they’re making mistakes, works harder than any other player in the league (not an argument there) and leads by example. You know who this reminds you of? Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Neither were particularly nice guys, but they spoke their minds, led by example and demanded excellence. Yes, Kobe has been an asshole at times, but it’s far less of a factor than you’re suggesting.

The biggest point here is that Kobe is still at the tail-end of his prime, while some spectulated that Duncan would retire this offseason. Bryant still has another year of elite play in him and then after that a few years of still being a very good potential All-Star. Barring an unforseen turn of events, there’s almost no question that Kobe will end up having a better career than Duncan when the lights close down on the Mamba’s career. However, the question I’m answering here is that he already IS the better player. It’s close, but the edge goes to the KB24.

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