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Kobe Bryant: Why He Can't Touch Jordan in Playoff Greatness

D.S. CorpuzCorrespondent IMay 6, 2011

Kobe Bryant: Why He Can't Touch Jordan in Playoff Greatness

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    MJ and Young Kobe in 1998
    MJ and Young Kobe in 1998Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    In the vein of comparisons, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are a good match for many reasons.

    Their playing styles, physical stature, certain statistics, history and charisma all stand up—eerily, at times—to one another.

    But for the sake of who's greater?

    Bryant comes up remarkably short in what is likely the most important category:  playoff performance.

    Yes, Bryant won the 2009 and 2010 Finals MVP Awards—his first two—but in a game-by-game playoff analysis his play wasn't in the consistent frame of Jordan's performances.

    Nor did he command the outcome of the games as great as MJ. 

    Ahead we'll look at several reasons why, in the ultimate player comparison argument of our time, Bryant can not, and may not ever, stack up to Jordan's playoff magic.

1997 Origins and Clutch Play

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    10 May 1997:  Guard Kobe Bryant (left) and center Shaquille O''Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers walks down the field during a playoff game against the Utah Jazz at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.  The Jazz won the game 110-95. Mandatory Cr
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    In May of 1997 19-year-old Kobe Bryant had a chance to pull off what would have proven to be one of the most remarkable wunderkind plays in NBA history.

    Given the ball in the closing moments of Game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals versus the Utah Jazz, Bryant is placed in the highest pressure moment of his life.

    Three air balls later - one in regulation and two in overtime—the Lakers hopes were dashed all to pieces and the faithful had to wonder if this kid could eventually prove himself in the clutch.

    More importantly, playoff clutch.

    Indeed Bryant has won several playoff games a the last second. Most notably he did it twice in the 2000 playoffs.

    First, he vanquished the Suns 97-96 on a last-second jumper, and then finished the Pacers in overtime of Game 4 of the NBA Finals (though he likely wouldn't have if Shaq hadn't fouled out).

    Then from the '00-'06 Bryant hit two more playoff game-winners, for a total of four. Jordan finished his career with seven. 

    Also, Jordan hit three in the Conference Finals or better, while Bryant's hit just one.

    Still, a more telling stat from '06 to now—within the championship years—is that Bryant has missed all of his game-winning playoff shots.

    It seems the ugly head of past playoff memories is rearing up.

    With last night's brick against Dallas, Bryant has racked up seven (seven!) game-winners in a row.

    Jordan never had this disparity.

    Now whether it's a chemistry issue within the team, good defense or just plain fear and doubt, Bryant's failure in this regard puts him much lower than Jordan, who made it look like second nature.

    If Bryant wants to be on that level he must hit the most crucial shots when called on. Not in the drudgery of the regular season, but in the intense spotlight of the playoffs.

Playoff Shooting Percentages

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    1988:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls jumps to shoot the ball during a game against the Detroit Pistons. NOTE TO USER: It is expressly understood that the only rights Allsport are offering to license in this Photograph are one-time, non-exclusive
    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Here we're looking at Bryant's straight misses and makes in the playoffs compared with Jordan's accuracy.

    Overall Bryant's shot a shade under 45 percent from the floor in his playoff career.

    Jordan shot close to 49-percent, and that dipped quite a bit after shooting roughly 46 percent in his last three fatigue-filled playoffs.

    If you look early on Jordan was a sure thing, shooting well over 51 percent from '89-'92—during two championship runs—and ending the '93 playoffs with his five-year low of 47.5 percent from the floor.

    For a shooting guard with as many double-teams and targeting as Jordan received in the playoffs, this stat is truly off the charts.

    Back to Bryant, he's had some wildly inconsistent shooting performances in the postseason.  For example, in '04—the last Kobe-Shaq Finals run—he shot a near horrendous 41 percent (one big reason they didn't win that year).

    In fact in his early playoff runs in '97 and '98, Bryant shot an ugly 38-percent and 40.8 percent, respectively.  He was very young, very brash, and simply bricked too many for an NBA shooting guard.

    Subsequent to the '04 Playoffs his shooting improved, but only to the level of Jordan's worst shooting performances—with a minimum of 18 games played.

    True to form Bryant has faltered in these recent playoffs with sorrowful 3-for-10 and 5-for-18 showings in the first round versus New Orleans.

    That's not to say that Jordan didn't have bad shooting nights, which he most certainly did. It's just that Bryant's good shooting nights don't quite cover the bad ones.

    All in all Bryant is streakier than Jordan and relies on more parts game rhythm than making his own beat, which Jordan did all too well.

    When and if Bryant finds his confidence he is unstoppable.  Though not any more so than Jordan at his peak and definitely not with the undeniable flair for playoff dramatics—at least not in rounds higher than the semifinals.

Turnovers and Decisions

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 5:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks at his hands as he walks off the court after losing control of the ball while going for the potential game winning shot in the final seconds against the Utah Jazz at Staples Cente
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Bryant hasn't been the most sure-handed player in recent playoffs.

    Last year's title run saw the Lakers' star lead everyone in playoff turnovers with 79 in 23 games—that's just a little under four each game.

    But another little-known fact is that Jordan himself led the NBA playoffs in turnovers twice.

    Once in the '89 playoffs, notching 68 in 17 games (many against the Pistons "BadBoy" Defense), and then in his '92 MVP season, in which he threw it away 81 times in 22 games.

    The difference here though is learning from your mistakes.

    The year after his '92 dump-off, Jordan garnered only 45 turnovers in the Bulls 19-game title run.

    Jordan then, after the sloppy '95 "Return" playoffs, showed playoff poise like no other, shedding less than two-and-a-half-to-two turnovers per playoff game from '96-'98.

    Bryant on the other hand averaged close to two-and-three-quarters during the '00-'02 Lakers' three-peat, and has been closer to four a game the last two years.

    In tight momentum-shifters Jordan was like a steel trap with the ball.

    The only turnovers in his last Bulls' run that were memorable were his errant drive in the '98 Conference Finals versus the Pacers and Stockton's pick on him in Game 2 of the '98 NBA Finals.

    Whereas Bryant needed the bailout plays of Derek Fisher or Pau Gasol to get past his ugly Game Five (seven turnovers) and Game Five (four turnovers) in last years Finals.

    The other issue is that the Black Mamba performs these mishaps in the game's closing moments - turning the blatantly turning the ball over in the final seconds of Game Five of the '10 Finals.

    Do you ever remember a Jordan Finals game where he turned the ball over in the last two minutes of a deciding match?

    He may have but his team could still count on Jordan's decision-making as supreme.

    Jordan's sense of what the team needed in close playoff games was uncanny.

    A steal? Got it. A block? Swatted it.  Force the turnover?  No question. Play the decoy game? Done. Without fail he always made the plays that needed to be made in the playoffs.

    Bryant has the desire to do many of these things, but the extent he controls a playoff game's outcome is limited.

    His decision-making is more a gravitational one, contradictory to the laws of the triangle. Bryant draws two defenders close in, a seeming decoy—perfect many times—then takes the shot himself.

    He is a good man-on-man defender, but galvanizing the team defense isn't his specialty like it was Jordan's. That responsibility lays more in the hands of Derek Fisher or Ron Artest.

    Bryant always gets his shot, which usually looks overtly difficult, but doesn't have the good decision to slow the game down like Jordan did. Many times Kobe rushes the last shot and the outcomes are negative.

    Finally, Jordan honed his skill-level through hard work and experience, but his greatest accomplishment may have been to break through the mental barriers Bryant has yet to cross.

    Those plainly being: knowing full well what you can do on the court at all times and knowing you have the power to do it.

Poise and Leadership

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    20 Apr 1996:  As teammate Scottie Pippen holds him back, guard Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls has words for referee Hugh Hollins, foreground, who called a foul on Jordan with .05 seconds to go in the game allowing Indiana Pacer Eddie Johnson to makea
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    This goes in turn with the previous slide, but there is much more to say.

    Bryant has made huge strides to improve his leadership, i.e. his communication and relation to his teammates, as well as developing a certain ruthless demeanor on the court, full of grunts and fang-showing glares.

    He has developed an aura of greatness, but not one of invincibility or awe at the highest level.

    Other players and coaches have seen Bryant struggle in big games and definitely throw defensive tactics like jawing and frustrating physicality to disrupt him.  

    The problem is that Bryant's psyche is ill-prepared for certain environments.  Those alway being the penultimate playoff game or the too-much-expectancy situation.

    Often times, if you look closely, Bryant seems unsure in the most crucial moments: a face-tick here or non-chalant look there.

    He needs the grunt-gadget—the Black Mamba-viciousness he's developed—likely because of the amazing regular season buzzer-beating bonanza of 2010.  

    The external character and aggression though isn't always the answer when you're good enough without it.

    Look at Jordan in the '97 and '98 Finals, particularly, he is completely at peace with his game. At peace in knowing that he's visualized an succeeded, many times. 

    Jordan's fire in his championship seasons was always like a controlled burn, whereas Bryant's drive seems like a fire started by lightning.

    Creating a persona is dangerous, especially in the playoffs, because much of the tightest moments are so fraught with drama that adding to the intensity can push you unsafely over the top.

    Meaning Bryant seems to try to hard in the biggest games, bringing out all the strike-first Black Mamba-attitude, that is great for the regular season, but unnecessarily added to the motivation-laden playoff atmosphere.

    It's too easy to be unhealthily trapped by a persona that you live up to enough to believe in but not enough to find peace with.

    But peace is what Jordan found in the last years in Chicago and it emanated onto his teammates and his opposition.

    Now, it should be said that the Bryant in question is 30 and 31 ('09 and '10 title teams), while the Jordan most often spoke of is the 34-and-35-year-old MJ.

    This discrepancy is slightly tempered by the fact that Jordan retired for a year-and-a-half and his '93 campaign, during which he was 30, is comparable in subtle mastery to the second three-peat.

    Jordan simply missed the years Bryant is now playing in.

    That being said, Jordan found a peace in his game that needed no outside persona, besides a little tongue-wagging.

    For that reason his state of mind will always have been better than Bryant, who, despite his two Finals MVP's, acts too much like a spoke when everyone expects him to be the wheel; game five and seven of last year are good measures of that.

    Jordan never left any doubt of his greatness as a series wore on. His leadership became more integral. His communication became more succinct and timely. And, he never once doubted the outcome.

    Bryant, scarily, plays like he wants to go down some nights.

    Like the old myth of his letting weaker high school teams get back in the game just so he could dominate, his talent, to him, probably feels like a burden more than a blessing at times.

    If you just watch Bryant at crucial moments he looks as if the weight of all the detractors of inexperience are resting on his shoulders.  He's just got too much to prove, even at 32. Where's the assured-ness?  By God, he's earned it.

    The discrepancy here is that Jordan carried the "Greatest NBA Player" banner for a long time, while Bryant has had it thrust on him from time to time and he's developed trust issues not just within himself but from the league and even his fan base.  

    Suffice to say his 2003 rape charge and acquittal didn't help his peace of mind one iota.

    Jordan did things on his own terms with enough maturity and grace that his adoring public had no reason to either turn a blind eye or reject the qualities of his character.

    For these reasons Jordan could perform on the highest stage with absolute certainty to a degree that Bryant can not.

    And that's the bottom line.

Defense and Legacy

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    ATLANTA - FEBRUARY 9:  Michael Jordan (Washington Wizards) #23 of the Eastern Conference All-Stars talks with Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers) #8 of the Western Conference All-Stars at the 2003 NBA All-Star Game on February 9, 2003 at Philips Arena in Atl
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Before Jordan was 26-years-old he had already led the NBA in steals, won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and struck inhumane fear into the hearts of the opposition.

    So, you could say he had a decent reputation.

    Bryant's accolades, despite being named to nine all-NBA defensive first team's, don't include a more valuable condition of defensive stalwart and beacon.  

    Those honors usually went to Shaquille O'Neal, Derek Fisher or, most recently, Ron Artest.

    Jordan on the other hand commanded his team and himself as the visible leader of the Bulls defensive approach.

    Like a pack of attack dogs, Jordan had his whole team in the same frame of mind, especially in the playoffs.

    When you watch Bryant it makes you wonder if his defense, remarkable in a man-on-man setting, is truly rubbing off on his teammates.

    More likely they were already the defenders they were before Bryant showed up, whereas Jordan's teammates gravitated toward his particular attacking style.

    Many times in the playoffs Jordan has shown that he could change the momentum and outcome of a game with his defense.  

    Most notably in Game 3 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Jordan stole a Dennis Rodman pass and drove half-court to flip in an amazing acrobatic mood-shifter.

    But it was the set-up of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant as the outside-inside catalysts that gave depth to the Bulls playoff defense.

    Jordan's good scholars played like taller, athletic versions of MJ when on the court - a big reason that they won 55 games in Jordan's '94 absence.

    Forget the regular season though, the playoffs brought out the absolute best in Jordan's defense, i.e. the steal on Karl Malone during the closing seconds of Game 6 of the '98 Finals, and the defense played against the timely Jordan-comparison, Clyde Drexler, in the '92 Finals.

    He stepped up to the challenge both times and left no doubt as to who owned the moment with defense and a supreme eye on the prize.

    Never has Bryant shut down or made a game-ending defensive play with the melodrama and significance of Jordan's masterpieces.

    Just look at the '10 Finals, Pierce and Allen both had above average series while Bryant needed much help.

    Well all the cards are laid out, and the last thing to do is talk legacy.

    Bryant is an amazing talent, worker and fountainhead for the last generation of high school-to-pro-players everywhere, but his breed, his dying breed, will always be limited by the steps they didn't take and the oft-faulty nature of youth and overconfidence.

    It's unlikely that Bryant will attain the peace of game that Jordan had in the later stages of the second three-peat, but the comparison is highly based on upbringing and experience.

    All that can be said is the Bryant's legacy is tarnished by his more incredible regular season performance than his playoff ones.

    Jordan, the G.O.A.T, saw the playoffs as the culmination of his talents and would not led his proper footing be left to slip.

    Also, The 2011 playoffs aren't helping Bryant's case in the least.

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