When comparing two of the greatest NBA players ever, fans passionately defend their favorites through anecdotes, statistics, and awards. The fact is, there is no singular measurement that fans and experts agree on in determining who’s better.
In particular, fans continue to compare Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two players so similar in style that it is almost impossible to say that one is better than the other. Until you recognize the subtle nuances that make each of them unique and a cut above the other, it is futile to engage in a debate over who the better player is.
If there is anyone in league history who has genuine authority in comparing the two players, it’s none other than Phil Jackson.
Jackson coached both Jordan and Bryant to their first and last championships with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. In fact, Jackson’s 11 NBA titles as a coach have all come with Jordan and Bryant on those title teams. He has six championships with the Bulls and five with the Lakers.
He has a unique perspective as to the difference between these great players while also being able to determine which one is actually better.
Jackson was a keynote speaker at the Domopalooza 2018, Utah tech company Domo’s annual conference this month. While there was nothing conclusive about who he thought was the better player, Jackson provided enough hints for us to piece together a conclusion.
But Jackson pretty much answered who he thinks is a cut above the other a few years ago.
In his book “Eleven Rings,” Jackson drew the line between Jordan and Bryant while appreciating both of them in his own way. His latest analysis of the two merely added to the narrative that he started way back when the book was published in 2013.
Let’s revisit Jackson’s analysis from his book while examining his recent statements.
At the Domopalooza, Jackson differentiated Jordan and Bryant in terms of how coachable they were.
“There was something coachable about Michael that Kobe didn’t have,” Jackson said. “But Kobe had an irrepressible fire.”
Simply put, Jordan is more coachable than Bryant. Despite the complimentary description of Kobe having an “irrepressible fire,” in this case, it was as if Jackson was making an excuse for Bryant as to why he wasn’t as coachable.
Here’s the rest of Jackson’s comments as told by KSL.com’s Liesl Nielsen.
“If Jackson took Jordan out of a game because he was ruining the offense by trying to score all the time, then Jordan would do better when he got back in.
‘He’d know what he’d done,’ Jackson said. ‘He had a conscience.’
Kobe, on the other hand, would stand next to him and incessantly ask if he could go back in. The Lakers’ player had an incredible competitiveness, Jackson said.”
Analyzing these statements, it appears that Jordan understood immediately why Jackson would bench him while Bryant would not. It’s the difference between a kid saying sorry for his mistakes and working to find a solution to do better next time versus another kid apologizing and simply wanting to get back to doing what he was doing previously, but trying harder.
Jordan worked smarter whereas Bryant worked harder.
Moreover, the former Chicago Bull would play better team basketball once he was inserted back into the lineup whereas Bryant just wanted to go back to playing because of his competitive drive.
Jordan is known as one of the most competitive players in all of sports. Players, former teammates in college and even celebrities talk about how Jordan wanted to beat them at anything and everything.
When his father was still alive and Jordan was being scrutinized for his gambling, James Jordan responded to the accusations with an astute understanding of his son. Hearing that people were saying that the younger Jordan was addicted to gambling, his father said that his son didn’t have a gambling problem. He had a “competition problem.” Michael was addicted to winning more than he was addicted to gambling. He had to win no matter what.
Bryant is made from a similar cloth as his predecessor. He’s one of the most competitive players ever. He shows it with his demeanor and the way he talks to his teammates. Basketball is everything to him and putting the ball in the basket is something that he has mastered through countless hours working in the gym in order to win and keep winning.
The man is all business when it comes to his profession which is why he often clashed with his former teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, who was always joking around.
Both players were competitive. Jackson was merely pointing out a reason for why Bryant wasn’t as coachable as his predecessor.
In the book, Jackson described Jordan as a tough leader. He was going to push and prod you to know whether you had what it took to stand up to him and compete at a high level. If you couldn’t handle it, then he knew he couldn’t rely on you when the stakes were highest.
It was hard being Jordan’s teammate but his methods were beneficial to the entire team. He demanded excellence and was able to bring out excellence from his teammates.
Everyone on the Bulls knew who the boss was and the hierarchy was very clear: there was Phil, then Jordan, then Scottie Pippen, and then there was the rest of them.
After Jordan came back from his first retirement back in 1995, he became more understanding and appreciative of his teammates’ limitations because of his short-lived but valuable experience as a baseball player.
Bryant needed to be more vocal early on as a leader but he thought that his primary responsibility to the Lakers was to set an example for them to follow. He had to grow into the leadership role.
“One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader,” Jackson observed. “Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones.”
Jackson also compared the Black Cat (Jordan) to the Black Mamba (Bryant) when it came to their defensive skills. Both were members of the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams multiple times but Jordan was a Defensive Player of the Year awardee as well. He led the league in steals three times, and was the only player history to record 200+ steals and 100+ blocks in a season (twice) until Hakeem Olajuwon eclipsed that when he had 200+ steals and 200+ blocks in a single season.
“No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender,” Jackson writes. “He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense.”
Bryant saw that about Jordan and he virtually followed his example.
“In general, Kobe tends to rely more heavily on his flexibility and craftiness, but he takes a lot of gambles on defense and sometimes pays the price,” Jackson said.
Both number 23 and number 24 were gifted scorers. They had a knack for scoring at a historic pace, culminating in their inclusion to the top five in all-time points scored for their careers.
But Jackson saw in Jordan a player who had a more cerebral approach to offense that led to winning.
“Jordan was also more naturally inclined to let the game come to him and not overplay his hand, whereas Kobe tends to force the action, especially when the game isn't going his way,” Jackson continued. “When his shot is off, Kobe will pound away relentlessly until his luck turns. Michael, on the other hand, would shift his attention to defense or passing or setting screens to help the team win the game.”
Though not an integral part of what made them better players, the Hall-of-Fame coach contrasted the difference in personalities and how it affected their relationship with their teammates.
“Michael was more charismatic and gregarious than Kobe,” Jackson wrote in his book. “He loved hanging out with his teammates and security guards, playing cards, smoking cigars, and joking around.
“Kobe is different. He was reserved as a teenager, in part because he was younger than the other players and hadn't developed strong social skills in college. When Kobe first joined the Lakers, he avoided fraternizing with his teammates. But his inclination to keep to himself shifted as he grew older. Increasingly, Kobe put more energy into getting to know the other players, especially when the team was on the road.”
By mimicking Jordan, from the moves to the mannerisms, Bryant set himself up to be compared to the man most people consider to be the greatest player ever. Every time we see Bryant’s highlights, we are reminded of someone who came before him that paved the way for him to succeed in the NBA.
Jackson was one of the few human beings to have an up close experience with these two all-time greats. He observed closely what made them successful and he was able to make a distinction between them in interviews and in his book.
Regardless of where you stand in this debate, Jackson, for his part, believes that Michael Jordan is the superior player to Kobe Bryant.
Let the debate continue!