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.
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.