When Jerry West talks, people listen. The 14-time All-Star and 10-time All-NBA First Team selection is one of the greatest players of all time. He has also won eight championships as an executive and two NBA Executive of the Year Awards.
As the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Logo was the one who, among other accomplishments, executed the draft-day deal in 1996 to bring Kobe Bryant to LA. West laid the foundation for an eventual Laker dynasty spearheaded by Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, West’s biggest free-agent signing.
But even though West and Kobe had a close relationship, it didn’t stop Mr. Clutch from declaring that a 24-year-old LeBron James had already advanced past the future Hall of Famer.
The LeBron James versus Kobe Bryant debate was the talk of the 2000’s
James and Bryant entered the league seven years apart and played different positions on the court. But that didn’t stop NBA fans from debating who the superior player was between the two.
In 2009, ESPN paneled a group of experts and bloggers to settle the debate. At the time, Bryant was still in search of his first championship post-Shaq, while James had one Finals loss on his resume.
Royce Young, now a writer for ESPN.com, said, “The thing I see in Kobe is a straight assassin. I don’t get that from LeBron. LeBron is a slow cooker — a guy that needs 48 minutes to beat you. He’s absolutely unguardable one-on-one, he can rebound, he can create for teammates and he can man up. But does he have that sense of the moment like Kobe does? Can he just walk on the court and say, ‘I got this’ to his teammates? I’m not sure he’s there yet.”
“Kobe Bryant doesn’t have a single dominant skill that far outweighs all others, as LeBron does,” said former Lakers blogger Josh Tucker. “Instead, he has the most complete, versatile, and polished skill set in the NBA.” In addition, Rob Mahoney, now of The Ringer, added, “Kobe’s fundamentals aren’t just better than LeBron’s when examined closely. They’re superior when viewed through almost any lens.”
John Krolik, who covered James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, was one of the panelists who threw his support behind the kid from Akron.
“If you’re going to try and compare these guys with any sort of advanced statistical analysis, LeBron’s just going to blow Kobe away,” Krolik said. “For years, pretty much any way people have come up with to use numbers to distill a basketball player’s value, LeBron James has been at or right at the top.”
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop also stated, “For me, as a guy obsessed with wins, James is more productive by just about every measure. If I could pick just one player to either start a team with or score a key bucket, I’ll take LeBron.”
Jerry West was asked to pick between Kobe and LeBron … and went with LeBron
While fans and experts argued, NBA greats also got in on the great Kobe versus LeBron debate. That includes West, who had recently retired after a run as the Memphis Grizzlies‘ GM.
Ahead of the 2009 conference finals, Bloomberg‘s Scott Soshnick interviewed West, who answered the question on everyone’s mind.
“Well to me, it’s a no-brainer, it’s LeBron James,” West answered. “He’s a wild card player. He can play four positions if you ask him to do so, and his ability to get everyone involved in the game is just remarkable for someone his age.”
“If you look at basketball today, it’s not always the big guys who win for you, it’s the intermediate size guys. LeBron James is a big guy, I mean he’s 6-foot-8, 260 [lbs.], incredible skill. I don’t know if there’s a better athlete I’ve ever seen play professional basketball.”
West had a hard time picking against Bryant, a player he was very familiar with from their time together in LA.
“I’m very partial to [Bryant] because I was responsible for bringing him to the Lakers,” Wes said. “But to me, LeBron James has surpassed everyone in the game today. And obviously, I don’t love to say that because I love Kobe Bryant, love what he’s contributed to the game, and more importantly to the Lakers organization. But I do think [James] has surpassed them all at this point in time.”
The Kobe-LeBron debate still rages on
After West’s comments, LeBron went on to win four titles and four league MVPs. Meanwhile, Kobe won back-to-back titles and became the Lakers’ franchise leader in total points and games played. But the argument over who is the better player is still ongoing.
Michael Jordan was the latest former great to offer his opinion on the matter. Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson are two more legends who answered the question, joining West. But whoever you choose, both players are in a select group even worth considering as one of the GOATs.
Still, it’s fun to debate.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.