FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine posted a definitive comparison of the careers of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on Friday.
The two of them have been popping up in the news lately because Bryant is within 30 points of passing Jordan for third place on the all-time scoring list.
Statistically speaking, Paine argues, the two players aren’t even close.
Offensively, Bryant can’t hold a candle to Jordan, mainly because of a disparity in efficiency. After translating both Jordan’s and Bryant’s stats to a league-wide offensive efficiency level of 106 points per 100 possessions to account for the changes in the game (the NBA’s overall average since it merged with the ABA in 1976), Jordan posted an offensive rating of 118.4 between the ages of 21 and 34, while Bryant put up a rating of 112.4. For a top scorer like Bryant or Jordan, an offensive rating boost of six points per 100 possessions can mean an extra four wins for his team in an 82-game season.
Meanwhile, on defense Bryant looks like the Derek Jeter of the NBA — soaking up defensive accolades on reputation rather than performance. Over his career (which includes 12 All-Defensive team nods) the Lakers have only been 0.6 points per 100 possessions better than average defensively, and Bryant’s long-term regularized defensive plus/minus of -0.9 is below average. Synergy Sports, the video-tracking service that classifies every play a player is involved in, has the most favorable view of Bryant defensively but still considers him to be just a 55th percentile defender on aggregate since it began tracking full-season data in 2006-07 (a span over which Bryant was named to six All-Defensive squads).
We don’t have Synergy numbers for Jordan defensively, but what evidence we do have suggests that he was better than Bryant at that end of the court. Jordan posted higher rates of steals, blocks and defensive rebounds than Bryant, and team-based defensive metrics like Dean Oliver’s defensive rating consider Jordan far superior (101.1 to 105.4; lower is better on defense) over the age 21 through 34 span after translating for era.
Paine lays it all out in this graphic, which is pretty conclusive:
Here’s some more reading on the MJ-Kobe debate: