The 2015/16 NBA season will be known for three things: LeBron James finally winning a Championship for his home city of Cleveland and two of the greatest players of all-time retiring, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant.
In a team issued press release this past Monday, the San Antonio Spurs said their long-time best player and heartbeat of their squad, Tim Duncan, wouldn’t be returning for another season. It marks the end of an era for Spurs basketball. It was a typical exit for a player as low-key and under the radar as Duncan. He didn’t even release a quote until a few days later, where he kept it short and sweet:
— SLAM Magazine (@SLAMonline) July 13, 2016
Now, the aforementioned Bryant went the complete opposite direction when announcing his retirement from the game of basketball. In a Players’ Tribune article released late last November, Bryant announced that this past season would be his last. From then on, the fanfare and gifts just came flooding in for the Los Angeles Lakers great. Virtually every city that the team visited featured endless praise and cheering for the Black Mamba. Don’t think that Bryant wasn’t aware this was going to be the reaction from the basketball world.
With these two great players leaving the game forever, what better way to celebrate them than to pit them against each other and see exactly which one is the “greater” player. Comparing two different player’s careers and which one was greater is definitely a subjective debate. It depends on what you value and take into account when considering who the all-time great players are. Is it which player captivated fans more? Is it which player was the most consistent over the entirety of their career? Is it which player was the better teammate? There are so many different factors you need to consider.
One main, albeit obvious, factor that needs to be discussed is each of the player’s individual statistics and whether or not one separates themselves through the numbers they put up.
Tim Duncan: 19 ppg/10.8 rpg/3 apg/2.2 bpg/0.7 spg, 50% fg/69% ft
Kobe Bryant: 25 ppg/5.2 rbp/4.7 apg/0.5 bpg/1.4 spg, 44.7% fg/83.7% ft
Comparing a guard’s stats with the stats of a big man is always a grey area because of the vastly different play styles. Bryant was relied a lot more heavily on to carry the offence of the Lakers. Especially during those few years where he didn’t have someone named Shaquille O’Neal or Pau Gasol in the post. While Duncan was a major scorer for a lot of his years, he wasn’t relied as heavily on to carry the offence like Kobe was.
Duncan’s numbers definitely don’t tell the full story about just how dominant he was during his prime. From the ages of 21 (when he entered the league) until 2013, at the age of 36, Duncan put up 20 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks and shot 50% from the field. Until the last few years where all of the miles on his body finally caught up with him, Duncan was playing at an all-time pace. Statistics only tell half the story about the impact that Timmy D had on the game. He was constantly doing things that didn’t show up in the boxscore, whether that is: diving for loose balls, taking charges, or shot altering opponents layup attempts, Duncan did it all.
In the context of all-time shooting guards, Bryant’s numbers are arguably at the very top, just a notch below Michael Jordan, and a couple notches above Dwyane Wade. Kobe sits third all-time in total points, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan. Statistically Bryant is in a league of his own over the past twenty years. The Black Mamba had an absolute killer instinct on the offensive end of the court, and his numbers reflected that.
Looking strictly by individual statistics, Kobe gets the edge strictly based off of the mass quantity that he offered.
However, the greatness of a player is never just decided by the stats that that player put up. If that were the case, then Charles Barkley would be one of the top five greatest players ever. Individual accolades as well as team success are equally, if not more important than player statistics.
Duncan has two Most Valuable Player awards, while Kobe only has the one. One could argue that Steve Nash straight up stole the award from Bryant in 2006, but that is a question for another day. As far as Finals MVP awards go, Duncan also has the upper hand in that respect. The Spurs long time big man has three Finals MVP awards, while Kobe can only say he has two. The category that Bryant can say he has the advantage on Timmy is in the All-NBA team selections and the All-NBA Defensive Team awards. Timmy has 10 first team All-NBA nods and eight All-Defensive team selections while Kobe has him beat at 11 and nine respectively. However, this last tidbit might be a little misleading in my opinion. No one can say that Kobe is a better defender than Tim Duncan. Over the course of the two careers, Duncan was by far more impactful on that end of the court. Kobe was given some late career favouritism when it came to his defensive abilities and it definitely showed in the awards he received.
Personal accolades are one thing when comparing two players head-to-head, but winning is the most important thing. In head-to-head games between the Spurs and Lakers during these two players’ careers, Tim Duncan is beating Kobe 43-39 overall, 31-21 in the regular season. Mamba fans will argue that this is only due to the fact that the Spurs had better teams; but shouldn’t that attest to the fact that Duncan is a greater player? That shows that good players wanted to go to San Antonio and play with them because they had such a great system in place, with Timmy being at the focal point of that system.
Personal awards, and statistics might be favoured towards the Kobe Bryant camp, but Duncan separates himself with the more legacy driven aspects of the game. Winning in basketball takes a lot more than just presenting a player that can score a bunch of points. Duncan consistently took pay cuts as a member of the Spurs because he wanted to help put the team in the best possible position to be able to sign the necessary players to keep winning. It shows in the fact that the Spurs never won less than 50 games in a season that Duncan played (besides the shortened 1998/99 season where they finished 37-13). To add to that, in Duncan’s very last season, San Antonio fielded the best squad the city had ever seen record wise (67-15). The Lakers that Kobe played for? They finished 17-65… Kobe’s worst season by a large margin. What was Kobe’s salary last season? A whopping 25 million, which, I’m sure, could have been put to better use during the free agent period/trade season.
Along with taking consistent lower salaries, Duncan was also one of the best teammates the league has ever seen. This was embodied in 2015 when Duncan won the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award. While Duncan was winning basketball games and being chummy with his teammates, Bryant was publicly feuding with Shaquille O’Neal, which broke up an inevitable dynasty. Then three years later, Bryant came out of the Lakers 42-40 season with a trade demand to the Chicago Bulls. To go along with Kobe’s checkered early 2000s run, he was always great to his former teammates when chatting to the media (Hint: he’s a bit of an asshole).
Many, not as educated, NBA fans will look at the fact that each of these players have five championships and leave it at that. The conditions of which each of these players won those championships needs to be considered, however. Kobe Bryant won five titles, and that is amazing, but three of those were won with Kobe being the second best player on his own team. That other player, the Big Diesel as he’s known, was in his prime from 2000-2002 and was arguably a top three most dominant player ever during the stretch. Bryant was most definitely second fiddle to Shaq during those three title runs. Also, Kobe’s other two championships (2009 and 2010) came when the Lakers had Pau Gasol, who was extremely underrated for how important he was to those teams. Gasol led each of those two winning teams in win-shares. So that means that Bryant never once led his team in win-shares during any of his title runs.
While Duncan didn’t win any of his titles on his own, he did win three Finals MVPs in dominating fashion and could have made a legitimate argument for winning his fourth in 2007. If it weren’t for Tony Parker putting on a career defining performance, Duncan would more than likely have his fourth NBA Finals MVP. Then again in 2014 when the Spurs beat LeBron James and the HEAT, Duncan had another great series at the age of 37 where he averaged 15 and 10 with a block per game. So if you’re keeping track, Tim Duncan put up an efficient all-star level double double, over five dominant games by the Spurs, at an older age than Kobe is now.
The main and biggest argument for Tim Duncan over Kobe Bryant in the conversation of what player should be considered “greater” is simply: longevity and consistency. Since tearing his Achilles in 2013, Bryant has consistently shot under 40% from the field, and under 30% from the three-point line. His teams have all been awful and he never seemed to be able to lead them how you would expect a player of his stature to. While on the other side, Duncan made the All-NBA third team and All-NBA Defensive second team as recently as 2015, at the age of 38. Win-shares are another very telling statistic in the conversation between these two players. Duncan led the Spurs in win-shares in 12 of his 19 seasons with San Antonio. Bryant never led the Lakers once when Gasol or O’Neal were playing there.
To reiterate a previously made point, the discussion of which player is greater than another is completely ridiculous because of how subjective it is. There are plenty of arguments for both sides of this discussion but with all of that said, Tim Duncan is a greater player than Kobe Bryant.
Kobe was polarizing, he was a star, he broke new ground constantly, and he built a brand that could only be rivalled by Jordan before LeBron came around. Duncan lurked in the shadows. He was the quiet old man who just did what he had to do and didn’t complain about it. He won games, he won awards, he won titles, and something I’m sure he treasures the most, he loved his teammates and his teammates loved him. As the patient leader of one of the best franchises in NBA history, Duncan cemented himself in infamy as one of the truly greatest basketball players the league has ever seen.
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