LeBron Has To Chase Down Kobe Bryant Before He Can Catch The GOAT

When the Golden State Warriors slayed the King, LeBron James, in five games of the 2017 NBA Finals the hot takes went flying. There were two major sides of the LeBron argument heading into the Finals–one side believing LeBron is the GOAT and the other believing he is not.

With the Finals loss LeBron’s record in the NBA Finals is now 3–5. That is certainly nothing to scoff at. As Damian Lillard said, a lot of guys are 0–0. To get to seven straight Finals and win three of them is impressive. But the record also indicates something else–he still has not passed Michael Jordan. Jordan was six for six in the Finals and never reached a Game 7.

Every great player’s implicit mission is to chase down the ghost of the GOAT, regardless of the sport or profession. Kobe Bryant remains the closest to Michael Jordan with LeBron lurking. LeBron sits at three rings but is in a talent pool that seemingly gets exponentially better by the year.

The LeBron vs. Kobe debate is one that can actually be had given their arrival into the league at the same age(both entered out of high school) and they actually faced each other. Both are in the pantheon of league greats which makes ranking them even more difficult. Given they are both top ten all time there has to be a way to split hairs.

Unfortunately the only logical way to split hairs is by counting the rings on their fingers. Kobe holds the edge five to three. None of their head-to-head meetings happened in the June. Their best chance to meet in the Finals was back in 2007, but the San Antonio Spurs put an end to that.

We did get a taste of how good that potential Finals matchup would have been. The Blue vs. White game in 2007 might be the greatest duel that didn’t count for anything.

That scrimmage best described the rivalry. Their best matchups rarely counted for anything other than bragging rights. They were always the best players on the court and when it came time to win both stepped up. The elder Kobe got the best of LeBron in this scrimmage and always seemed to get up whenever he drew LeBron in any scenario.

To borrow a line from Jay-Z–Kobe is not better than Jordan but he’s still the closest one.

Kobe tends to take a lot of shit from the numbers guys that watch NBA games through Basketball-Reference versus a television. Luckily for fans of the game (stat sheets are always good for context just not the whole story), basketball is something you watch more than you study.

But in case you want to get your stats fix, here’s one for you–Kobe’s Finals record is 5–2 including a three-peat, something only a handful of players can say they also did. And here’s one more you–33,643. That’s how many points Kobe scored in the league, good for third all time and right above Jordan.

In order for LeBron to catch Kobe (and Jordan) in rings he has to become more like them. What pushed Kobe is probably what pushes LeBron–the drive to be the best on the floor.

The main difference is Kobe channels his energy much differently than LeBron. Kobe is at his best when he is angry, LeBron on the flip side plays better when he’s happy or at least that’s how it used to be. We have seen LeBron embrace his dark side (most notably in Game 6 against Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals).

We saw LeBron’s dark side again in 2016 when he was pushed to the brink by the Warriors and the result was historic. In order for him to make that final leap into the GOAT talk he will have to channel that dark energy all the time or as Kobe stans would say, LeBron has to embrace his Mamba mentality.

Kobe’s main key of dominance lies in the fear he struck in opponents. While LeBron is the beloved star–unless you’re on his team–Kobe is the guy no one wanted to cross, regardless of what jersey you were wearing. As Sonny from A Bronx Tale said, it’s better to be feared than loved because fear lasts longer.

Even when you go down to the core of each of their games LeBron’s style is to get everyone involved on the fun while Kobe is a one-man army. Both saw the full chessboard, but Kobe knew more times than not the best chance to win was him.

That is what opponents feared most about Kobe–even if you took his teammates out of the game he could still beat you by himself.

Doc Rivers perfectly captures this feeling when reliving the final moments of the 2008 Finals:

“We were up 1,000 [points] in Game 6 and the guy who you would least expect walks over to me during the game — Tom Thibodeau — and he asks me, ‘Are you going to sub out? There’s six minutes and we’re up 42 points.’
Of all the guys to say that, it’s Tom Thibodeau. And I looked over there at the Lakers and Kobe was still on the floor, and I actually said, ‘When Phil takes that guy out, I take my guys out.’ And Thibs said, ‘You’re safe.’ And I said, ‘Not with that guy on the floor.’
I was dead serious. I had obviously lost my mind because it was a 42-point lead. But he put that fear in you, man. He could run off threes. I was obviously not good at math, so I was worried about him. Then finally Phil took him out so I could sub. It was good.”

This was the type of fear Rivers was referring too:

Nothing puts the fear of God in a basketball player’s heart like getting torched. The worst case scenario when playing ball in any scenario is being the guy who gets dogged all game.

Every time Kobe stepped on the floor that fear was present in his opponent. His 81-point explosion against Toronto was an embodiment of that fear as well the ruthless and relentless attitude he brought every night.

It’s still the second highest scoring total for a regulation game of all time behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points back in 1962. The best part of that game was how little Kobe celebrated. He was in such a zone he didn’t think to pump his fist or mock his opponent.

While it took LeBron time to reach peak self-awareness Kobe seemed to be born with it. He always knew he was the best guy on the floor, even from a young age.

When he was growing up in Philly kids would talk about him as if he were an urban legend.

From Jonathan Abrams’ Boys Among Men:

“The legend of Bryant, only 16, was already spreading. Most heard about him through word of mouth, doubting the hyperbolic description until confirming it for themselves.”
“The stories of Bryant’s competitiveness would become legendary….Bryant was maniacal. He often called on Rob Schwartz the benchwarmer, to shoot with him at 5 a.m.”

The reason for Kobe’s moody behavior and psychotic approach stem from him knowing how much work he puts in. His self-awareness of being the best guy on the floor starts with him being the only guy in the gym before the sun is up.

He was (and still is) obsessed with being the best basketball player ever. That’s why he studied Michael Jordan’s game down to the tongue hang. It’s why he would opt to watch film instead of mingle with teammates. It’s why he knew a rim is off by 1/4 of an inch after getting up a couple shots. No, seriously that actually happened.

Kobe ended his career by emptying the clip. LeBron will have to do the same, no matter unnatural it may feel. It is the only way to get past the Warriors.

Maybe that is all LeBron has to do–think that he’s Kobe.

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