Kobe vs. Lebron. LeBron vs. Kobe. It’s not quite Magic vs. Bird. Or even Wilt vs. Russell. But NBA fans love arguing over who is the better player. What characteristics define who the better player is? Kobe’s the better scorer. LeBron’s the better all-around player. Kobe has a mean streak. LeBron’s doesn’t match Kobe’s. One supposedly is the game’s ultimate closer, while the other doesn’t have the closing mentality (however, that may very well be wrong). LeBron has won 11 of their 13 head-to-head match-ups. But Kobe has the rings. And they’ve never faced each other in the NBA Finals.

In 2007, LeBron got his first taste of the NBA Finals, but his Cleveland Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The following season, thanks to the acquisition of Pau Gasol, Kobe was back in the finals, losing to the Boston Celtics. In 2009, it seemed to be inevitable that we’d finally see a Kobe vs. LeBron finals. But LeBron’s Cavs were upset by the Orlando Magic and Kobe was able to win his first ring without Shaq. In 2010, LeBron failed to keep up his end of the bargain again as the Boston Celtics beat the Cavs in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. Kobe would win yet another ring that season. And last year, LeBron took his talents to South Beach and in his first season with the Miami Heat, they clinched the Eastern Conference championship and headed for the finals. Yet it was Kobe’s Lakers who struggled with the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, getting swept in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Will this finally be the year that we see a Kobe vs. LeBron NBA finals? Let’s hope so.

Big Money, Mike A., Charles, Jay, and myself poptificate on this very issue.

GG: I want to get into this Kobe/LeBron deal that seems to be the one of the stronger storylines in the NBA season for the last three or four years.

Who do you believe is the overall better player today? Not Kobe at 27 vs. LeBron at 27. But how both are today. And give me your reason why.

Big Money: That’s a rough one.

I think in terms of actual all-around skill set, I’d probably go with LeBron. He could theoretically give you a 35-10-10 on any night with a few steals and a blocked shot or two thrown in. Kobe’s a better scorer, but LeBron is a more *efficient* scorer and I’d argue he probably makes his teammates better, which isn’t necessarily something you can say for Kobe, who has so far (at least) almost always had one other superstar on a team with him.

However, one thing LeBron lacks so far that Kobe has in abundance is the killer instinct. LeBron will give you better stats, but Kobe will stab, shoot and maim to win a championship.

So, I really haven’t answered the question, have I?

GG: I think you’ve answered it, but that’s why it’s a question that probably won’t go away. People are still arguing over who was better between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. That debate never ended. If LeBron wins a few rings, I think this debate will be similar, at least to non-biased NBA fans. LA Lakers fans feel like Kobe will always be the better player. And LeBron allows that by coming up short in big situations, which is so weird to me because when he was a young player, he had a ton of big moments. I remember that fourth quarter against Detroit when he went insane (scoring 29 of the last 30 points for the Cavs).

Charles: Just saw a line that made me step back and think a little harder for a minute. Without looking at Kobe or LeBron’s careers in a whole, just focusing on right now definitely gives me pause. Youth is certainly on LeBron’s side, and with that skill set the sky is the limit. But what is he now… 8 years in the league I think? (2012 is his 9th year.) Some great moments (he and Pierce game 7 Eastern Conference Finals) for sure, but he has definitely shown an affinity for shrinking as the stage gets taller. I give young guys a pass in that area… but a guy in his 8th year and those skills? Gotta step up.

Kobe on the other hand… look, I’m not comparing the two, but when I watch Kobe play I see Jordan ‘lite’. I think Mike makes a point that can’t be ignored… can Kobe make teammates better? The great ones always do, but Kobe hasn’t shown that consistently yet. It seems he can’t separate the killer mentality and his need to do it himself. He’s done it in flashes, but it’s definitely not an attribute you would say he has. Kobe is lethal offensively, and one of the few players in my life I’ve feared going against my Celtics. As time on the clock nears 0.0 I expect Kobe to hit game winning shots while I expect LeBron to kick the ball out.

I sure wrote a lot without answering anything, haven’t I?

Big Money: I guess what I’m trying to figure out here is what exactly qualifies the ultimate basketball player? Is it someone who has the whole package as far as skill set? Is it someone who lives for big moments? I don’t think there’s a real answer for it, but it’s certainly a question worth tossing around.

GG: I think that definition depends on whether you prefer MJ’s style of winning to Magic and Bird’s style of winning. Jordan was win at all costs, I’ll take money from the poor if they bet against me. Bird and Magic did multiple things excellently and were more so the kind of guys you wanted to play with if you were also a good player.

But in the end, a lot of it comes down to simply winning. Who do you want on your team if you needed to win a game? It’s the Wilt vs. Bill Russell argument right? Wilt was the most dominant player of his era, yet Bill Russell had all the rings.

Right now, Kobe has two rings since Shaq left. LeBron has zero. When we talk about who is better right now, it’s not a one-on-one contest. It’s who would we rather have on our team if we needed to win a basketball game. At least I think that’s what it’s about.

Big Money: I’d hate his guts, but I would probably say Kobe.

Jay: Ultimately, it’s a team sport and Kobe’s proven he can lead a team to the championship. LeBron is good at making ads and generating publicity.

GG: But is Kobe necessarily a team player? He sort of, kind of ran Shaq out of town, though Shaq gave him good reason. But here’s what people have forgotten about Kobe:

When he was given scraps (from 2004/05-2006/07) he couldn’t even win a playoff series. His own coach wrote a book about him and called him uncoachable. And he was at his absolute best at this point, scoring 81 points in one game, and just killing everyone. He was the single best player in the league by far. In a deciding playoff game against the Suns, he took three shots in the second half and most people said it was because he was upset. He may have tanked on his own team. He was unhappy that they didn’t trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd. He went on the radio and asked to be traded. For whatever reason, now that he has two more rings, people forget about that.

At the same time, LeBron was given scraps and his team was consistently in contention. So what does that all mean? I really have no idea.

Charles: Great point GG.

He’s really an enigma. Amazing talent plus the killer instinct makes him unstoppable. Yet he has also shown himself to be both self destructive, and ‘cancerous’ to the locker room. (I hate using that cancer analogy, but I can’t think of anything else right now.) He’s shown that he can be both invaluable to his team, and in the case of him tanking… quite less than valuable. He’s been a bit of a contradiction throughout… but man, still… game on the line, season on the line he’s sticking that J. He’s a tough nut to crack.

Jay: I don’t like him, but you’ve gotta count the rings.

GG: Is it that simple? If LeBron was able to play with Shaq in his prime would he have won the same amount of rings? Maybe more?

Big Money: Easily as many, probably more.

Charles: Don’t want to go off topic, but just close your eyes for a sec and think about LeBron and Shaq, together in their primes. Yikes. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

If its all about rings, as we’ve always been told it is, (and I believe it to be) Kobe has to be in the conversation for, dare I say it… one of the greats. He’s got the rings, plus the ability to boast of being the league’s dominant player for a good chunk of time. LeBron has been a hype machine since high school, and the world bought in. A lot of it was deserved. I mean, fourth quarter shrinking aside, he is a supreme talent and dominant player, someone any team would love to build their team around. But it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that ring.

Here’s my question for you guys, and it may be a bit of a loaded one:

Does the fact that LeBron teamed up with this new version of a Big 3 hurt his legacy, even if he wins a few rings? I know he was criticized in many circles when it went down, but does the fact that he orchestrated the moves of D. Wade, Bosh and himself to the Heat still hurt him should they win a ring or 2? Or 3. Or 4. Or 5. Or 6. Or 7.

Big Money: The Heat won’t win more than 1 or 2 championships, tops. If age doesn’t get them, karma will.

Had the Pistons not knocked off the Super-Lakers in 2004 (Shaq, Kobe, Mailman and Payton) would the Lakers have been looked at as a fraud because they loaded their roster with superstars (even if two of those superstars were in the twilight of their careers)?

GG: If playing with one great player and one really good one hurts LeBron’s legacy, then it hurts the Celtics (Bird, McHale, Parrish), Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy), Bulls (MJ, Scotty, Horace/Rodman) and even Kobe’s last two championship teams (Kobe, Gasol, Bynum/Odom) legacies.

Also, I really think I’ve changed in the last few years with this one. When Kobe got his team back into contention thanks to the shrewd trade that netted them Gasol, I had him ahead of LeBron. But when LeBron won his MVP and also after the season he had last year, I thought LeBron was the better player. This year, even with the bad knees, the bad wrist, and everything that comes with Kobe (Gasol and Bynum look frustrated as all hell this year), I think he’s the better player right now. Then again, when they just played recently, LeBron looked so much better than Kobe did.

Big Money: Probably not easy to go from “the man” into slightly more of a complementary role.

GG: I kind of think LeBron is more comfortable in a 1A role than simply a 1 role. I think he would’ve catered to Shaq and maybe even gotten more out of Shaq. But he could’ve gotten less out of Shaq too. There were some shady things Shaq was doing back then as it pertained to him getting in shape. He didn’t seem to use the offseason to want to get in shape. He’d use the regular season to get in shape. I think Kobe was both good and bad for him at that time. Seeing how Kobe carried the team when he was out of shape probably made him want to get in shape, but it also probably made him think Kobe was trying to show him up.

Could LeBron completely get the best out of Shaq and be able to push him enough? Or would they have been in all the LA clubs?

I do have another question for y’all. If it’s about rings, and Kobe has many of them (and two without Shaq), how many would LeBron have to win before it wouldn’t be about rings for him anymore?

Jay: Well, one would be a good start. Probably once he’s won more than one, nobody could say he’s a bust. Although there have been plenty of great team players in every sport who haven’t won a ring for one reason or another. Shouldn’t take away from how great a player he is. But certainly when you look at the greatest, you count the rings.

Charles: For me, after that horrible showboat routine they pulled onstage before they ever played a game talking about winning 6 or 7, he better get that or he gets an F from me!

Ha, nah really I think he needs to get that first one ASAP, then at least 1 more. Dominant player with 2 rings is a very nice career. Not everyone can be Russell or Jordan… or Robert Horry!

Big Money: I think LeBron already kinda soiled his legacy by a) hightailing it out of Cleveland and b) making the bold proclamations upon joining the Heat and not following through. His rep is already compromised to a point. Winning a championship will bring him back partially, but not all the way.

GG: Okay, time to make your pick and back it up: Kobe or LeBron.

Charles: Killer instinct, unstoppable desire to win, complete game and rings give Kobe the nod for me.

Big Money: Yeah, I’ll second what Chuck said. LeBron has the complete game, but Kobe has the “dagger” mentality. If you’re on a basketball team, you want the guy who has the skills AND the competitive attitude.

Jay: As much as it pains me, I’d take Kobe. He’s a winner. LeBron hasn’t proven anything yet other than the fact that he’s ridiculously talented and fairly obnoxious.

Mike A.: As a Pistons fan, I have my own personal reasons for hating LeBron. That 2007 playoff series still haunts me. But, to me, when it comes to superstars it is all about the rings. Kobe gained my respect once he got that first, post-Shaq championship. The fact he won another after that just further cemented his legendary status.

LeBron, for all the hype, all the talent, all the ability, has to win a title before he reaches the same level as Kobe in my eyes. And even then, I would have had a lot more respect had he stuck around in Cleveland and tried to finish the job. Yeah he’s free to go where he wants but going to Miami and hoping to surround himself with a Dream Team was the easy way out and won’t impress me as much as sealing the deal in Cleveland as a true leader would have.

I still personally feel Stern will find a way to eventually get LeBron his ring anyways if BronBron can’t seal the deal himself (sarcastic winky).

GG: As a basketball fan, I’d rather watch LeBron play. He’s much more easy on the eyes with his ability to see the floor, handle the basketball, and maybe the best play in all of hoops today is when he breaks up a fast break with a block that comes out of nowhere. He’s like a hawk. But today, all things being equal, I think you have to lean toward Kobe. Basketball is his life. But if Bron wins a title, preferably soon, it completely changes the game. We won’t be able to use the same reasons any longer.

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