It’s a question that pops up in numerous basketball discussions: who’s the best NBA player of all time? The responses vary and usually depend on which generation is being asked. The older heads may go with legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Jordan. Younger hoopers grew up watching guys like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James. Regardless the choice, it’s a question that can lead to an intriguing, and sometimes hostile, debate. After discussing with several of my own basketball peers, the top 3 favorites appear to be Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron. I decided to compare and contrast the three by breaking down various areas:
Jordan wins this one by his efficiency. During his 13-year tenure in Chicago, he shot over 50% from the field. While not known as a three-point threat, Jordan improved considerably throughout the early 90’s era and was noted for developing a dangerous midrange game from anywhere on the floor, as well as his signature fade-away shot. Simply put, Jordan always took smart shots and stuck to what he knew best. Kobe had the most range on his shot out of the three but wasn’t the smartest shot taker and least efficient, posting a career 44% from the field and 33% from three-point land. LeBron has never been known as a consistent shooting threat. He can make jump shots without question, but takes the fewest long-distance attempts out of three and held one of the worst three-point percentages in the league during the 2016 NBA season.
Being the tallest and most physically dominant one of the trio, LeBron grabs this one. The Cleveland Cavalier has averaged 7.4 boards for his career and finished the 2018 season with a career-high 8.6 a night. Come playoff time, LeBron’s averages go up every year, an example being when he averaged eleven rebounds during the Cavs’ 2015 postseason run and over thirteen once he reached the NBA Finals that same year. However, for shooting guards, Jordan and Kobe have been impressive on the rebounding end as well. Jordan averaged over six boards for his career and Kobe snagged five a night.
LeBron is unanimous here. Having passing skills and court vision that has been compared to the great Magic Johnson, the listed small forward has spent most of his career playing as a “point forward” and ultimately revolutionized the position. Nearing the end of his first tenure in Cleveland, injuries at the point guard position led to LeBron having to dominate the ball full time. He embraced it and ended with averages of 8.6 assists for the 2010 season. He has averaged 7.2 assists for his career so far. A lot of basketball analysts consider LeBron’s passing to be his best skill. You have to really watch him during games to appreciate how tremendous he is in making plays for others. Jordan averaged five assists for his career; an impressive notion considering the dominant scorer he was. As far as Kobe, well, let’s just say we were always expecting him to shoot before deferring.
Most Skilled Offensively
Kobe takes this one. While most can argue that he stole the majority of Jordan’s offensive moves, Kobe has always been superior in creating his own shot with different jabs, shot fakes and exceptional footwork. I would go as far to say Kobe has some of the best footwork of any shooting guard ever. Kobe also succeeded in using his agility and body control to convert difficult layups. His handle also always looked fairly underrated, in my eyes. In all, Kobe was one of, if not the, best at making difficult shots. He made it look so natural it was scary. Jordan was a versatile scorer and LeBron mainly uses his physical tools to his advantage on the offensive end in driving to the basket or posting up. But Kobe was the most unpredictable and lethal one in this category.
Both Jordan and Kobe had un-guardable skills in the post, but LeBron wins this mainly because of his imposing size. At 6’8 250+ pounds, it’s a nightly mismatch for whoever tries to guard him once he gets in the paint. Once near the basket, ‘The King’ shoots close to 55%. His reliable post game started to emerge after spending the 2011 offseason working with Hakeem Olajuwon. While LeBron might not ever have the footwork and craftiness that Jordan and Kobe mastered, he’s the biggest threat to whoever is trying to push him out of the paint. Too big and too strong.
This was a tougher one but I have to go with Jordan. 9x All-Defense First Teamer, 1988 Defensive Player of the Year, 3x NBA steals leader, and top three all-time in steals. Some observers of Jordan noted that they were more impressed with his defensive skills than his offense. Just let that sink in. Combine that with Scottie Pippen’s elite defense and Dennis Rodman’s arrival later on shows why the Bulls were so dominant. Kobe was a fierce defender as well, being named to twelve total All-Defense teams during his career. LeBron came in the league criticized as a poor defender who took plays off but has significantly improved to make six total All-Defense teams of his own and mastered, as well as popularized, the chase down block, which has now become a trademark of his.
All three of these greats have incredible basketball IQ of course but I’ll give the edge to LeBron for his unique approach in understanding tendencies of both his teammates and opponents. In a recent interview, LeBron explained how he memorized each one of his teammates’ preferences in receiving passes, “from the height of the pass to where the seams line up.” This is just one example of LeBron’s basketball intelligence. Former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Larry Drew remarked how LeBron “sees things before they even happen” on the court. During the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, Celtics players reportedly were stunned how LeBron was calling out their plays as soon as the ball was advanced up the court.
“He’s an extension of a coach. He really does his homework,” Drew stated.
Another tough one…but my vote goes to Jordan. A turning point came during a conversation between the shooting guard and, at the time, Chicago Bulls’ head coach Phil Jackson prior to training camp for the 1991 season. Jackson reportedly told Jordan how he may have to sacrifice more on the offensive end to get the other Chicago players more involved, which would lead to more team success. Jordan listened and put it into practice. The result led to his first ‘three-peat.’ Every great team needs a player to lead by example on a consistent basis. Jordan took charge in that even while being the star player. His legendary work ethic and competitive drive fed off of others. Pippen was known for stating how Jordan’s leadership influenced him and improved his game. On a global level, Jordan was one of the most popular athletes during the 1990s decade. He appeared everywhere: ads, movies, cereal boxes, etc. His play and work ethic inspired millions, making kids believe that players really could “fly.” His charisma and professional manner represented African-American athletes positively.
Although I just praised Jordan’s work ethic, I’m giving this one to Kobe. I’ve heard a handful of insane stories that detail Kobe’s drive. Observers would note that he would arrive to the gym HOURS before a practice or game. When he broke his right wrist during the 2000 season, he was seen in the gym before dawn the next morning dribbling and shooting with his left hand, in a full sweat. He went on strict diets and lost up to 16 pounds at one point. He would count and make 400 shots each practice. One time he even had Nike shave a few millimeters off the bottom of his shoes in 2008 to get ‘a hundredth of a second better reaction time.’ Kobe was pretty unusual but it all turned out in his favor. Whatever you thought he couldn’t do, he was out to prove you and everyone else wrong.
It’s a close race between Jordan and Kobe. Kobe was stated to have made 36 game winners in his career. Jordan had around 22. The player with the ‘Mamba Mentality’ should win this category right? Eh, nope, I’m handing it to Jordan. It was how Jordan performed his best during iconic critical moments that makes him the most clutch one out of the three. We will never forget “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo to win the 1989 Eastern Conference First Round. Or, the other shot to win his sixth championship in 1998 over the Utah Jazz. It isn’t just all game winners either. His infamous “flu game” performance had several clutch moments that led the Bulls to victory, which determined the outcome of that series. If Jordan didn’t make a clutch play on the offensive end, you could definitely count on him making it on the defensive side. A true competitor and winner.
The greatest of all time? My pick goes to Jordan. A champion who was one of, if not, the best scorer in NBA history. A top five all-time defender to go along with that. We may see future players that turn out to be more athletic and talented than Jordan but he simply will never be replaced as one of the original greats. His combination of skill, athleticism, hunger, IQ, and demeanor all combine to make him my favorite athlete of all time, personally. Not too sure about right now in this moment of time but I’ve deemed LeBron as the NBA’s best for close to a decade, dating back to 2009. I feel he’s already established himself as a top ten all-time player. It took me years to truly appreciate Kobe’s greatness but I now consider him the second-best shooting guard of all time.
Who’s your pick?