When I saw these two games being aired on the same day, I immediately got excited about a dueling breakdown. Both players shot almost the exact same field goal percentage, but it was striking to me how differently these two players scored their points. While the box score below indicates similar games, there are much more subtle differences in their methods.
Some things to clear up about how different the circumstances were between these two teams. Michael Jordan was playing on a young Bulls team a year away from capturing their first title. Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were just starting to figure out the secret to competing at an elite level, joining Michael Jordan who was in the midst of his 4th straight scoring title. Kobe Bryant, on the flip side, was a year and a half out of competing for a title with Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone. Smush Parker and Kwame Brown were running around out there with him, forcing Kobe to shoulder a much larger load.
The competition was also much different in these two games. While the 1989-90 Cleveland Cavaliers finished just above .500 (42-40), they were still a formidable foe with a tough nucleus of Mark Price, Craig Ehlo, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty intact. Coached by Lennie Wilkens, they were smart, tough, and played with a sense of purpose. Contrast that to the 2005-06 Toronto Raptors, and you’ll see why it wasn’t so surprising Kobe went off on them. Led by Sam Mitchell, who has a career winning percentage of .452, this team featured a young Chris Bosh and not much else. Moe Peterson was forced to guard Kobe, and ended up intentionally fouling him by the end to get out of this assignment. Jalen Rose was at the end of his string and was no match either. Top that off with a distinct lack of defensive philosophy, and it was a perfect storm.
Aside from the circumstantial evidence, the biggest thing I took away from this juxtaposition is how different these two moved in space. Michael Jordan seems so much more smooth and powerful in comparison to Kobe’s athletic ability. Don’t get me wrong, Kobe is an athletic freak of nature, but Michael transcended that like no other player in the league before or since. Michael also seemed steadier with his scoring, without the need to force as many shots, while Kobe had a couple of clunky stretches that wouldn’t seem to indicate he was in the middle of one of the greatest scoring binges of all time.
Whether this comparison is unfair or not, Kobe has done little to discourage it. His career will go down as one of the top 10 of all time, with induction to the Hall of Fame a certainty. Of course, his career still falls short of Jordan’s, both in individual achievement and team accomplishments. From a head to head perspective, Kobe does not exist in the same plane as Michael Jordan. There is no shame in that, since no other player combined raw physical tools with extreme mental domination like MJ did. While this is certainly an entertaining and worthwhile debate, I might go so far as saying Kobe Bryant isn’t even the best Laker of all time.