Kobe and Jordan are wrong, rings don't equate to greatness

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Kobe Bryant agreed with Michael Jordan’s recent comment that “five beats one every time I look at it.” Two of the most famed NBA champions agree that titles define a player’s greatness. But look a little deeper into that comment and the validity begins to unravel...

If the simple claim that “five beats one” held true, then surely six or more championship titles beat five, right? This means that players like Robert Horry, Scottie Pippen, more than a handful of players from the 60s Celtics are better than Kobe Bryant. Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr would be considered equal to Kobe. I have a strong feeling that it’s going out on a limb to say that Kobe and Jordan would say few (if any) of those players are on their level.

Realistically, greatness is not easy to define and will always involve subjectivity. No single statistic or award can put a player over the top as the single greatest or even one of the greatest. Part of the reason that Jordan is hailed as the greatest of all time is because of his dominance in so many categories (MVPs, regular season success, statistics, and yes, championships, too). It takes a well-rounded effort to be mentioned in the GOAT debate. Four point guards have more career assists than Magic Johnson but the Laker superstar is nearly unanimously regarded as the greatest point guard of all time. Thirteen players have at least as many championship titles as Michael Jordan, but he is nearly unanimously regarded as the greatest player of all time.

I have been in many a debate regarding Kobe Bryant even here on Bases and Baskets (check out my comparisons of him to Michael Jordan and LeBron James for two). Like many, I am not convinced that he is even in the same discussion with Michael Jordan even though he only has one fewer ring than Jordan. The main reason that I will reiterate here: for three of those championship titles, Kobe Bryant was not the best player on the team!

If we apply the same logic as to why Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and others don’t belong anywhere near the debate for greatest NBA players of all time then three of Kobe’s rings are tainted. He was not the best player on his team. The Finals MVPs in the Lakers three-peat: Shaq 3, Kobe 0. Now, what I am not saying is that Kobe Bryant was a useless, interchangeable piece that had the luxury of riding on Shaq’s back. In Game 4 of the 2000 Finals, Kobe came back from an ankle injury that sat him out of the previous game to put up 28-5-4. In the 2001 Finals, he had back-to-back 30 point shows. And so on.

What Kobe had was the luxury of playing with other great players. This is what it takes to win an NBA championship. Basketball is a team game with five players on the floor and 12 on the team and it takes a team to win a ring—not just a singularly great player. LeBron James nearly did it in 2007 with Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and a host of other average players…if you could call them that. But the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs took LeBron James and made him look like the average one. San Antonio swept those NBA Finals, 4-0. Even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen and other capable players to fill out the other four positions on the court.

The flip side of the coin is John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Charles Barkley, three players that co-founded the list that nobody wants to be on: great players to never win a ring. The truth is that they are, in fact, great players to never win a ring. You put them on teams with better players or in different eras and they would have probably gotten a ring. So what do you do? Account for their other accomplishments and value them above players like Adam Morrison who have won a ring.

Now, let’s talk LeBron since he was the main subject of the original comment by Michael Jordan. LeBron does only have one ring at this point, and the simple math does show that five is more than one. But that does not mean that five “beats” one and certainly does not prove that (as our discussion thus far has elucidated) five is “greater” than one.

Like already mentioned, greatness is subjective. As such, it involves things like hypothetical scenarios, and one I find particularly relevant to this case is this: insert LeBron James in the early 00 Lakers with Shaq. Would LeBron have more than one ring? More than three? The affirmative answer is something that I for one would put money on if presented with the opportunity. Now let’s put Kobe on the late 00 Cavs—would he have won a title? Doubtful, and he probably would not even make the Finals like LeBron did. This is part of the reason that LeBron is better (here I am marking a differentiation between better and greater). If all other player personnel is equal, who would win a best-of-seven series, Kobe or LeBron?

I would argue LeBron, but the point here is that there is a debate. Why? Neither player has or can ever play with the exact same caliber players against the exact same competition so to say that measuring championships against different competition with different teammates is somehow equal is just plain ludicrous.

Greatness is a holistic measure that is based on a career’s effort. Finals MVPs are a better measure than championship titles, and regular season MVPs add something else important to the debate. Statistics are also something very much necessary and worthy of consideration.

Greatness is defined by the impact that the individual had on the team. Championships are the result of the team’s impact with the individual.


  1. Hello Bases and Baskets

    First of all I would like to say just another great article and I really enjoy your stuff.

    I would like to point out by saying I think because the NBA is the ultimate team sport. Look at the Trail Blazers who have one of the best starting 5's in the league. Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, just that starting 4 should be able to win them games. They have one of the worst benches in the league and are not even a 500 ball club. This goes to show you that even with great starters the NBA is the ultimate team game.

    Which is why I want to add the point of I don't think having championships hurts anyone great player, but having championships adds extra credit to that teams best player or those that add the most value to that who won it.

    Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain is a perfect example of this. Bill Russell dominated Wilt in rings, but Wilt won most of the 1-1 battles. The fact that we sit here today and put Wilt in discussion for one of the greatest ever and debate whether he was better than Russell just goes to show you that Rings can only bring somebody so far.

    Bill Russell had Bob Cousy for a good portion of his career a top 10 PG of all time, and John Havlicekc a top 10 SF of all time borderline top 5. And many other hall of famers.
    Bill Russell was the greatest defensive player of all time but at the end of the day he was based almost soley on defense. If your talking all around player give me Wilt anyday of the week.

  2. Matt - Thanks for stopping by again. Really appreciate the kind words and loyality you've been giving my writing.

    You made some great points and I don't have much to add...Wilt is my second greatest player of all time as well. What he was able to do on an individual was unparalleled - except for Jordan.

    The one thing that I would probably disagree with is your mentioning of NBA as the ultimate team sport. Having followed the NFL and MLB as well as the NBA, I would give the edge to both the MLB and NFL when it comes to a team sport. Both have more players on a roster (25 and 50 or so) and one great player doesn't have as much of an impact as the NBA - see Tom Brady lack of late season success in recent years, the 2010 SF Giants WS run, and the 2011 Stl Cardinals WS run for a couple recent examples.

  3. finals mvps?? FOR REAL? shaq was in the nba for 8 yrs n never won until kobe started. he played with 4 all stars like penny hardaway, nick anderson. nick van exel n eddie jones with the lakers n DIDNT WIN TIL KOBE became a starter.. MAGIC NEVER WON without kareem who ius arguably the GOAT. 6 mvps 6 titles, magic only got 2 finals mvps while worthy n kareem got the rest, magic wasnt even the 2nd leading scorer in his own team so why does he get all the credit n is top 3 greatest of all time?? I WONDER IF MJ HAD PLAYED WITH SHAQ would he have all those scoring titles? or mvps? i doubt it.. YOU SHOULD LOOK UP ALL THOSE SPURS N KINGS SERIES vs the lakers in 2001 n 2002 n tell me is kobe aint the best ALL AROUND PLAYER ON HIS TEAM?!

  4. even SHAQ called kobe the BEST PLAYER ON THE PLANET in THAT 2001 2002 RUN.. they played vs eastern conference teams in the finals the pacers, the sixers n the nets who had NO BIGGS to even compete with SHAQ.. but when duncan n david robinson faced shaq or when rasheed wallace with sobonis faced shaq or when chris webber n vladi divac faced shaq, guess who came to the rescue?? KOBE just look at the 2001 n 2002 numbers in the playoffs.. IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE ROLE U PLAY FOR UR TEAM.. keep in mind kobe was the best defender, lead his team in assist n was the closer 4TH qtr guy for all those championship yrs.. but individual awards wont show u that... but just ask Phil jackson..LOL like i said SHAQ in 8 yrs bfore kobe never won playing with all stars like penny, nick anderson, eddie jones n nick van exel.. n we all KNOW kobe should have more then 1 mvp in his career.. THAT AWARD IS A JOKE is all about likeability NOW IN DAYS.. nash twice n dirk won over kobe while KOBE WAS MAKING HISTORY n doing things MJ had never done.. 50PTS in 5 straight games 62 in 3 qtrs OUTSCORING A WHOLE TEAM. 81pts, 40 plus pts in 9 straight games..avg 35 plus pts for a season BUT THE MEDIA HATED KOBE.. just do the eye test

  5. oh I get what your saying I shouldn't have said the ultimate team sport, but its a still a BIG TIME team sport even though it may not be on the level of Baseball or Basketball. And no problem.

  6. Kobe and Jordan are Greater then Lebron ,u can't sit here and say championships do not make Greatness, sure people like Robert Horey and Fisher might have more ,but they were jus pices to the team ,,Kobe and Jordan were the main reason, without them there wouldn't have been any chamionships ,regaurdless if shaq was there. And you say if you put LeBron in Kobe's 00' spot with Shaq that LeBron would also get a ring ? Well put LeBron in Kobe's shoes when Shaq was not there ? When Binum and Gasol was there ? Better yet put Kobe with Dwade and Bosh ,wht would happen ? Truth is a player can be Great with out a RING ,but when there's more then one player in the catagory that's how you measure who is Greater ,, Championships are a Great achievement in its self ,,so FIVE or SIX rings ,in the NBA ? Come on now ..

  7. As Elijah states:

    "Now let’s put Kobe on the late 00 Cavs—would he have won a title? Doubtful, and he probably would not even make the Finals like LeBron did. This is part of the reason that LeBron is better"

    Or you could just put Kobe on, hmm, let's see, the 2004-2007 Lakers maybe? Oh wait... He was on those teams, where he managed to get 4 playoff wins in two first round exits against the suns (almost swept in 06), and demanded to be traded while LeBron was on the Cavs 2004-2010, managed 23 playoff victories (19 wins from 04-07), a trip to the finals in 06, and played through his contract.

  8. Rings indeed do matter, but only to differentiate the Great from the Elite.

    Without question, some of the greatest players that ever played never won a ring. That's true in all sports. It's the combination of Stats, Rings, and Accomplishments that separate players.

    LBJ was a first ballot HOF player as soon as he'd won his 2nd MVP. It wouldn't have mattered if he'd never won a ring. But he's not even on the realm of a guy like Kobe or MJ until he gets more rings.

    Also, it matters HOW you win the rings. You have to be the reason your team is great to get full credit for multiple rings. Kobe has 5, but he was definitely "Robin" on 3 of those teams. Pippen was always "Robin". Magic was arguably "Robin" on a few of the teams he won with. MJ, Bird, Hakeem, Duncan, Wilt, and Russell were pretty much always the Alpha Men on their Championship teams.

    Also, using the Finals MVPs as a criteria for greatness discriminates against the players that played when the award wasn't around. MJ has 6, but how many would Russell have if the award was around when he played? The fact they named the award after him supposes he'd have more than anyone ever.

  9. I would have to agree with you on this post. Championships are not the foundation to a player's greatness. It is easy to think that way because so often we only remember the last game of the season and who won the MVP.

    However, like you said there are some great players that are remembered but many people might not realize (or maybe a better word is overlook) the fact that they did not ever win a championship.

    So what defines greatness?

    It might sound cheesy, but I believe that what makes a player great is if he is a team player. A great player not only improves his game, but he pushes his teammates to improve theirs as well. Those are the people that we are most likely to remember. The ones who loved the sport, and the ones who reminded everyone else why basketball is such a wonderful sport.

  10. I think you hit on some of my main points especially with your discussion of "how" you win the rings. Also, when I say using Finals MVPs as a criteria, I'm talking about players within that era of course - just check out my list of greatest NBA players of all time and you'll see that I put Russell right up there with the best who were around for Finals MVP honors. I mean the Finals MVP award was named after Russell so of course the man is up there with the best.

  11. Couldn't have said it better myself.

  12. If we're talking about people calling each other good/bad like you begun your comment with, I think it's appropriate to mention something that the legendary Phil Jackson said, and that is that Kobe Bryant is an overrated defender. And the MVP award isn't a joke - the only reason you say that is because you feel your favorite player got the short end of the stick. 81 points against the Raptors is cool but not nearly as amazing as some people make it out to be.

    And take a look back at the history and stat books. The year that you think that Kobe should have been MVP was actually a year that LeBron should have won it (if Nash hadn't).

    And to say the media hated Kobe...I don't buy it. The Lakers have probably the biggest fan base in the NBA and ESPN is all over the Lakers 24/7.

  13. I actually agree with you. Part of greatness to me is also the ability to make your teammates better. And this is what sets LeBron apart from any player in history...for me. The man has proven that he can score at will and his shooting has improved every year. He's over 40% from 3 this year. Over 56 percent from the field. And his PER is higher than any single season performance by any player in history.

    But what LeBron has is the ability to make players around him better. He took a barely mediocre Cavs team to the Finals (like I mentioned in the article) and has made the Heat look a lot better than they really are - considering they are one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. He plays any position on defense. But his ability to get his teammates involved in a non-patronizing manner is something remarkable for a player as great as he is. It's easy to take the Kobe/Jordan route and demand excellence from your teammates but it's another to be a mentoring-type player who also knows that he is the best player in the world.

    If you have the chance, I think you will like an article I wrote on why we should respect LeBron and how he is the greatest ambassador in NBA history: http://bit.ly/respectingLBJ

  14. He brings up a good point on MVPs, and they are also just another piece to the puzzle in terms of Kobe. Shaq also has only 1 MVP. Steve Nash has two. MVP is a very subjective award and having a ton of them does not necessarily make you a better player than someone who has fewer...

    Also, the media did not like Kobe, due to the feuds he had with Shaq and Phil, and even lesser-known ones like Karl Malone and Ray Allen, in addition to when he was accused of rape. I don't care about other stats, averaging 35ppg is completely ridiculous, especially when you are the only player on your team who can actually score. MJ had ONE season where he averaged 37, and that was it. Kobe should have won MVP that year. Also, if scoring 81 against the Raptors or any other team is "not nearly as amazing as some people make it out to be", why has nobody else, of the thousands of players who have come to the NBA, ever done it besides Wilt Chamberlain?

    Now, the point of your article is well-taken - rings alone are not a measure of greatness. But there is a big difference between being a role player averaging 10ppg and being a key contributor to a championship team. Derek fisher/robert horry are the former, while Kobe Bryant is the latter. Finals MVPs can be a good indicator, but once again, they are only a piece to the puzzle. Magic and Larry Bird, two players who routinely appear on nearly everybody's top-5 NBA players list, only had two finals MVPs, but they were key contributors on two and one more championship teams, respectively. Really, I'm pretty sure the only player since the 60s to be a finals MVP in EACH of his rings (and has more than 2) is Michael Jordan. Kobe is a two-time finals MVP, and was a key contributor on three more championship teams, and in several series (just like Magic/Bird) was the main contributor. So, his rings do matter when discussing greatness. Teams don't just win 5 rings for no reason.

  15. I have a very simple statement: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant know infinitely more about basketball than you do. You are nothing. Stop writing shitty articles

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