Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan: Who Is the Greatest Player of His Generation?
Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan
As Tim Duncan retreated to the visitors' locker room with a piece of confetti cruelly fixed to his forehead following the San Antonio Spurs' game seven defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat, I cast away my instinctive hatred for the black and grey Spurs uniforms born of my seventeen years as a diehard Los Angeles Lakers fan and felt nothing but pity for a player whose greatness has always been qualified by his perceived "boring" style of play.
The image was Duncan in a nutshell: stoic in the face of flashiness, no evidence of the crushing disappointment that must have been roiling within him ever since his missed baby hook in the final minutes, just Timmy quietly going about his business, much as he has over the past 16 seasons. Disappointment was written all over his bowed head during the postgame press conference, but Duncan's remarkable integrity in the midst of defeat was a fitting compliment to his workmanlike, calm consistency on the court throughout his entire career.
The other player who has a legitimate claim to the "Greatest Player Who Emerged Immediately Post-Jordan" crown could not be more different from the goofy, affable Timmy.
As a diehard fan of both Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers (at times it is difficult to tell which of those two allegiances reign supreme), it is indisputable that Bryant is the most homicidally competitive, emotionally driven player that this league has seen since His Airness' departure, and perhaps ever. Duncan's vacant gaze remains the same whether the Spurs are up 30 or down 30; Kobe's withering stare has always been a harbinger of an offensive onslaught to come. And when that onslaught arrives, it is flashy, emotionally crushing and athletically dynamic, in short, everything that Duncan's game is not.
Sure, a Duncan-Kobe comparison is doomed from the start for a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that the two have played different positions and occupied very different roles on their respective teams. Nevertheless, each has defined greatness in his own way, and whose version of greatness you prefer probably depends on what you believe basketball ought to be in its purest form. The two legends arrived in the league at roughly the same time (Duncan a year after Kobe), and have both been afforded the luxury of defining their legacies with the same teams for their whole careers.
As one who bleeds the purple and gold, I cannot possibly make an unbiased choice between the two. I have defended Kobe through some of the most indefensible moments of his career, much as a Boston fan is forced to defend Kevin Garnett despite his thoughts on cancer and Honey Nut Cheerios. Nevertheless, I hope to lay out a thorough inventory of what has made these two player so special. The rest, as they say, is for history to judge.
With that, we begin on offense.
This may be the point of comparison likely to reveal the greatest difference between the two players.
When Timmy finally does retire, it won't ever be quite the same seeing another big man set up shop in the mid-to-high post, where Duncan has quietly gone to work and frustrated opposing teams to no end with his minimalist, efficient attack. Whether facing up for his patented bank shot, backing down a smaller defender, or venturing out to the wing to run one of the thousands of pick-and-rolls he and Tony Parker could run in their deepest sleep at this point, Duncan never seems all that unguardable. Yeah, he doesn't seem dangerous at all until you look up at the scoreboard and realize he's dropped 25 and 15 on your team to put the Spurs up by double digits.
In fact, that can be used to argue both for and against his claim to all-time greatness, Duncan, perhaps more than any other great player besides Magic Johnson, is undeniably a product of the offensive system in which the curmudgeonly tactful, wizard-like Gregg Popovich has kept him all these long years. Though the Spurs that played in this year's finals relied heavily on side-to-side action and constant ball movement, standing in sharp contrast to the plodding, rugby-like offense of the Spurs teams from the last decade, Duncan has unleashed his standard arsenal of heavy picks, mid-range jumpers and putbacks at the rim that have accounted for most of his 20.2 points per game career average. Say what you will, there has never been a scorer as predictable as Duncan who has remained as predictably great as Duncan. And that is precisely what makes him so special at this end of the floor.
With Bryant, on the other hand, you never know how he is going to get his points, and somewhere out there is a graveyard of defenders who thought they had Kobe pegged only to get burned by one of the infinite weapons in his offensive arsenal (see Patterson, Reuben and Bowen, Bruce). Creep up on him and he blows past you like the minor inconvenience that you are (though we will see if he loses this ability following the tear of his Achilles tendon). Sag off, and he will calmly bury a jumper right in your face. Stay glued to him and do everything perfectly, and he'll do this anyway (watch out for the Mamba Face at 2:00).
There has simply never been anyone better at making the circus shots than Kobe, and his detractors will argue that this is because he takes far too many of them. They may have a solid argument: Duncan has shot 50.7 percent on his career, while Kobe has shot just 45.4 percent, including a relatively unimpressive 33.6 percent from beyond the arc.
At the same time, It has been a few years since Duncan handed over the keys of the Spurs offense to Parker, while Bryant has still carried the offensive load for the Lakers through year 17 of his career, a year in which he averaged 27.3 points per game (above his 25.5 career average) on 46.3 percent shooting, unthinkable numbers for a perimeter player of his age. Timmy experienced a renaissance of his own this year, becoming an 18-10 guy two years after averaging 13-9.
Whatever you think of the way these two players have aged, just know that what they've done on the offensive end of the court at this late stage in their careers is simply unprecedented, with the notable exceptions of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone's storied, late-career achievements.
Also Kobe scored 81 points in a game. So, there's that to consider.
Defense is another great example of how Duncan and Bryant have forged their legacies as players of different positions who use their unique styles to achieve the task at hand.
Duncan has made the NBA First All-Defensive Team eight times in his career, while Bryant has had the honor nine times. Duncan has been a force in the paint for as long as he has suited up, and he has not lost this ability one bit in his old age, holding his own against the likes of Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard at this end of the floor. He has averaged 2.2 blocked shots and 11.2 rebounds in his sixteen years, while Bryant has averaged 1.5 steals.
While it is impossible to compare defensive stats for perimeter and low post defenders, perhaps the most important consideration on this end of the floor is that of presence. How does a defender get inside the head of his assignment, and shift the action away from him? How can he take the other team out of its game? And, finally, how can he get stops and create turnovers? In all of these areas, Bryant and Duncan have some of the greatest defensive presences the league has ever seen. In his younger days, Bryant consistently hounded the opponent's best small (an ability that is noticeably lacking in his old age), and throughout his career he has been a terror in the passing lanes, routinely snagging lazy passes for easy transition opportunities. Duncan, with his blocked shots, immovable strength in the lane, and length, has been a formidable presence in his own right.
While Kobe's days of hounding younger slashers are over, and Duncan's low-post defense is less in demand in the era of small-ball, both have laid out an impressive body of work that cannot be overlooked.
No area will generate stronger opinions than this. Spurs fans see Kobe as a selfish ball-hog whose greed has cost his teams success and confidence over the years, while Laker fans will defend him as a merely demanding leader who tries to bring out the best in his team in his own way.
This is an area where Duncan's quiet, unassuming demeanor undoubtedly wins him points. Nobody is more coachable than Timmy, and no one will accept his lot more than he. He has never been one to show up his teammates the way Bryant has, and he has been a steadfast source of encouragement for the Spurs throughout his many tumultuous seasons. For instance, does anyone think Kobe would have accepted a seat on the bench in the waning seconds of game six of the finals the way Duncan did? Not a chance.
If you accept Kobe's greatness on the court, as well as the work ethic and impossibly high standards that drive this greatness, then you have to accept the emotional force that completes his dynamic package. The insatiable need to dominate that drives him to nail game-winning shots is the same need that drove Shaquille O'Neal straight out of town in 2004, a move that probably cost the Lakers an additional championship. In other words, you have to love Kobe for who he is, not who you want him to be. It's all a part of what makes him great, though this may come as cold comfort to teammates who have been victims of his notorious, withering stare.
Not that Duncan is somehow bad in the clutch, or that Kobe hasn't missed his fair share of fourth quarter shots, or that Duncan hasn't acquitted himself just fine in key moments (people forget the shot that led to the infamous .4 shot. Look it up), but... just watch this.
There has simply never been anyone less afraid of the big moment than Kobe. Whether his shots go in or not, he wants the ball at precisely those moments when lesser players shy away from pressure.
As the Spurs scrapped for offense in the final minutes of game seven, and Manu Ginobili turned the ball over on possession after possession, I couldn't help but wonder what Kobe could have done in a similar situation.
It's not fair to ask Duncan to provide all of the offense in that moment. With adrenaline running high and players flying around on a remarkable defensive team such as Miami, there is simply not enough time or space to keep pounding the ball into Duncan and hoping he can create something. It was not Duncan's fault that the Spurs, exception to Kahwi Leonard, stagnated in the final moments. It's just a limitation of his position.
While fully giving Duncan his due as a great player who has played great in big moments, there has simply never been a buzzer-beating assassin on MJ or Kobe's level.
Both players' greatness has extended to their playoff careers. Bryant has averaged 25.6/5.1/4.7 in the postseason, while Duncan has posted 21.9/12/3.2.
In the six epic, head-to-head matchups between the Lakers and Spurs in which Bryant and Duncan both took the court, Bryant has a 4-2 edge, the two losses coming in the lockout-shortened 1999 season and in 2003.
While Bryant benefitted greatly from the dominating presence of Shaquille O'Neal for the first five of these matchups, his 2001 evisceration of the Spurs is legendary, and there is perhaps no greater example of Bryant in his athletic prime than this series.
Duncan boasts some legendary playoff performances himself, including his ridiculous 34 point, 25 rebound effort in game 5 of the 2002 series against the Lakers in which he had to carry the Spurs' load in the absence of David Robinson.
Though LeBron and Durant may prove otherwise when all is said and done, Duncan and Bryant have by far the best playoff resumes of the post-Jordan era.
Greatness is hard enough to come by for even a brief stretch. True greatness endures, and makes its presence felt year after year.
This, more than anything else, is what sets Duncan and Kobe apart as paragons of excellence and consistency.
Whether you prefer the Kobe flavor of greatness or the Duncan flavor, both players have consistently dispatched all contenders with authority.
Let's look at Kobe's long list of victims: remember Vince Carter? He's now a role player on his way out of the league. T-Mac? Riding the pine for the Spurs, who knows if he'll be back. Allen Iverson? Drunk and bankrupt. Jerry Stackhouse? Steve Francis? Stephon Marbury? All of these perimeter players had brief stretches of greatness, and Kobe has outlasted every single one of them because of his legendary work ethic.
Duncan's place among the great power forwards is no less in doubt than Kobe's is among the guards. Fans and critics alike once debated between Timmy and KG, Malone, Chris Webber, Dirk, and Pau Gasol. Those debates simply do not exist anymore.
To use a musical analogy, Tim Duncan is the Rolling Stones, and Kobe Bryant is the Grateful Dead.
Duncan, like the Stones, established his brand very early on in his career and has not deviated from it since, continuing to perform at a high level across multiple decades. Sure, he has tinkered around the edges of his game at times, adding a move here, dropping a few pounds there, but he has basically been the same old, "boring" Timmy, which is another way of saying the most consistently great big man of his generation.
Kobe, on the other hand, is as polarizing to basketball fans as the Dead were to music fans. He pays no attention to convention or popular opinion, stubbornly doing things his own way and building an obnoxiously loyal fanbase in the process. Dead fans won't hear a word against the Dead, and Kobe fans won't hear a word against him, either, in large part because of the criticism heaped on him by those who don't happen to be Lakers fans. Additionally, Kobe has reinvented his game at various stages in his career just as the Dead went through distinct phases of their sound: from his rookie year until the Lakers' first championship in 2000, Kobe was a pure slasher, a ball of youthful energy who sought to attack the basket at every possible opportunity. Then, he added a post game. Then, a three point shot until he hit his prime from 2001 until 2007. During this stretch, he was the most fearsome scorer the league had seen since Jordan.
Finally, from 2007 to 2010, Kobe settled into a comfortable role on deep Lakers squads, asserting himself only when he needed to, and facilitating the offense. These years were to him as 1977 was to the Dead, years in which both knew exactly what they were and were completely comfortable in their roles.
No one knows what the next few years will have in store for either Bryant or Duncan. Perhaps we will witness a precipitous falloff in their effectiveness, or perhaps they will continue to be the great players we have grown accustomed to seeing over the years. Whatever the future holds, they have given us over a decade and a half of greatness, and for that, we should be grateful.