Phil Jackson: Michael Jordan was better leader, shooter and defender than Kobe Bryant
In his upcoming book Eleven Rings, legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson offers a comparative analysis of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and it turns out there’s really no comparison.
Laying out the players’ relative strengths side-by-side, Jordan, who is responsible for six of Jackson’s 11 rings with the Bulls, consistently prevails over Bryant, who played a leading role with the Lakers in the other five.
The Los Angeles Times has printed excerpts of the book, which is set for release on May 21, and Jackson paints Jordan as the better leader, shooter and defender.
“One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael’s superior skills as a leader,” Jackson said. “Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he’d yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had.”
Jackson noted the “pronounced” difference in their accuracy, Jordan shooting almost 50% — an “extraordinary figure” — while Bryant had been at 45%.
“No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender. He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense.”
Jackson’s takes, they don’t stray too far — if at all — from the general consensus. Jordan’s better shooting numbers can’t be disputed, his defense is widely regarded as meaningfully better and Bryant has been knocked for years for a go-it-alone personality that requires teammates to bend to his will. Jackson’s assessment is in no ways a slam on Bryant — there’s no shame whatsoever in finishing second to Jordan in any basketball assessment — but it does provide an expert eyewitness verification to some of the criticisms that have dogged Bryant over the years.
We shouldn’t understate the historical importance of Jackson’s words, even if they aren’t particularly shocking. Bryant will have the opportunity to pass Jordan for third on the All-Time scoring list, pending a speedy recovery from an Achilles injury, and the two will be linked for decades in conversations about the greatest NBA players of all time. Jackson might very well be the most-qualified person in the world to compare the two players, considering his own professional playing career, his decades of experience on the bench, and his years of first-hand experience with both players during their primes.
Comparisons to Jordan have been a particularly hot topic recently as the Hall of Fame guard turned 50 years old in February.
Just before All-Star Weekend, Jordan offered his thoughts on Bryant and Heat forward LeBron James, expressing a preference for Bryant because of his advantage in championships.
“If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice, but five beats one every time I look at it, and not that he [LeBron James] won’t get five, he may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.”
James at first brushed off that talk — tweeting “I’m not MJ, I’m LJ” — but later made it clear in Houston during All-Star Weekend that he very much seeks the Greatest Of All Time title.
“I want to be the greatest of all time,” James declared, adding later: “As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don’t do it to say I’m better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That’s how I help myself each and every night.”
Back in April, longtime NBA trainer Tim Grover, who has worked for years with both Jordan and Bryant, told SI.com that comparing Jordan to anyone besides legendary Celtics center Bill Russell would be a mistake.
“Michael Jordan was six-for-six in Finals, never lost a Finals, never needed a Game 7 to do that,” Grover said. “Just by saying that alone, that puts him in a category I don’t think anybody else is in, except maybe a Bill Russell. Other than that, I don’t know if you can really put [Jordan] in the same category [with anybody].
“I think what [James] should do, instead of worrying about where Mike was at, he should be trying to get to the accolades, get to the Finals, as many times as Kobe had. … I think the comparison [for James] should be more toward a current player he’s playing against now because of what Michael already did, and LeBron, in the early part of his career, faltered two times in the Finals. I think that [the Jordan/James] comparison can’t be made, just from that alone.”
Last summer, Bryant made headlines when he suggested that his 2012 USA Basketball team could defeat Jordan’s 1992 Dream Team.
“It’d be a tough one, but I think we’d pull it out,” he said.
Jordan responded by telling the Associated Press that he “absolutely laughed” at Bryant’s statement and that there was “no comparison” between the two teams.
Bryant, of course, was asked for a response to that response.
“So what? He knows I’m a bad mother[expletive],” Bryant told reporters after an exhibition game in Las Vegas. “I’m not really tripping.”
Jackson has been in the news a lot recently, launching a Twitter account in March to promote his book, uncorking a great one-liner about Jordan’s famous push-off on Jazz guard Bryon Russell during the 1998 Finals, and serving as a consultant to the Pistons during their ongoing coaching search.
Jackson, 67, was linked in rumors to a return to the Lakers’ bench after former coach Mike Brown was fired following a 1-4 start back in November. Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak reportedly met with Jackson before hiring Mike D’Antoni.
Since retiring in 2011, Jackson has said the possibilities of a return to coaching are “slim and none.” Of course, that hasn’t stopped his name from popping up in rumors. Back in April, Jackson acknowledged that he had spoken with multiple NBA teams about taking on a possible front-office role.