Is LeBron James threatening Kobe Bryant's legacy?

Ronald Martinez

If the Miami Heat prevail, what is the effect on Kobe Bryant's standing in NBA history? And on the Los Angeles Lakers as a whole?

Last season, with the Lakers well out of the playoffs and primary nemeses in the Boston Celtics and Clippers out of contention, I shifted my ire towards the remaining final four teams. Like everything else in my life, my passion was directed against all that may do my beloved Lake Show harm. Contrary to the emotional slings and arrows of my purple and gold loving brethren, I almost didn't mind seeing a Miami Heat victory in the Finals. But watching another chip going to Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs? Nothing would upset me more.

I conveyed my thoughts in a lengthy post, centered around the notion that we as fans should be most concerned about the clear and present danger to the legacy of Lakers and one Kobe Bean Bryant.That of course, was the Spurs.

With a fifth title for Timmy and Pop, San Antonio would tie LA for the most chips this millennium and Duncan--with two MVPs, five ‘ships and what would have almost certainly been three Finals MVPs--would supersede Kobe for the informal title as player of his generation. Double stampies, no takebacks.

However, thanks to a most unlikely (and mostly hated) source--a Ray Allen three-pointer--the Spurs and Timmy couldn't add those accolades to the argument. The Miami Heat prevailed in an epic seven-game classic, giving LeBron James and Allen their second titles and Dwyane Wade his third.

This year, the conversation should be largely the same for me, no? Duncan has already built his resume to the point where I don't even know if you could call Bryant the player of his generation anymore, especially after Kobe's lost 2013-2014 season. Another championship would etch this in stone.

As a Kobe Bryant fan, I can't root for the Spurs in this Finals matchup. On the surface, they are still the clear and present danger to the Lakers (and Kobe's) legacy. Those things, more than any lingering hatred I have for The Decision, Jesus Shuttlesworth or Wade's errant elbows, are what dominate the frontlines of my protective basketball fandom.

However, in adding another ring to the ever increasing weight of their bejeweled hands, are we--am I--discounting how quickly James and his Heat are mounting an assault on the Lakers' and Kobe's place in history? Or are they already right here, at the gates? With this title, the Miami Heat would join these squads as the only threepeat champions:

1952-1954 Minneapolis Lakers
1959-1966 Boston Celtics (8 titles in a row. Woof)
1991-1993 Chicago Bulls
1996-1998 Chicago Bulls
2000-2002 Los Angeles Lakers

Encompassing 60 years of NBA basketball, that is an extremely exclusive list that includes arguably the two greatest coaches ever (Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson) and 7 of the 30 greatest players to ever live (Michael Jordon, Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen, George Mikan and John Havlicek). These were parts of legendary dynasties that simply controlled the NBA during their tenure, perhaps a painful reminder of just how much more dominant the Bryant/O'Neal tandem could have been if they could have only tempered their personal quibbles.

With another championship, the Miami Heat would enter that elite circle of basketball deities. They'd tie the Spurs for fourth most championships in history with four (only behind Boston's 17, LA's 16 and Chicago's 6), they've already joined the 1957-1966 Celtics, 1982-1985 Lakers and 1984-1987 Celtics as the only teams to ever make four straight Finals. This particular team's history is already one of the NBA's very finest. But a third title in four straight trips? That would put them on equal (or perhaps greater footing) with the Shaq/Kobe teams of last decade.

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However, even with a third straight chip, I'm not ready to put the LeBron/Wade/Bosh Heat on par with Magic and Kareem's Lakers, the Bird/Parish/McHale Celtics, Russell's near-mythical teams or even quite above the Bryant and O'Neal-led juggernauts

So then, what's the most palpable and real threat to anything we here at SS&R HQ care about? LeBron James and his inevitable assault on Kobe Bryant's historical standing.

With a third championship, comparing the legacies of James and Bean isn't just an exercise in NBA trivia--it's an all-out argument. The facts?

LeBron would be a three-time champion, with the corresponding individual hardware that rivals Bryant's: 4 regular season MVPs, (presumably) 3 Finals MVPs, 8 First Team All-NBA berths, 2 Second Team All-NBA berths, 5 First Team All-Defense, 1 Second team All-Defense, 10 All-Star appearances in 11 seasons.

Meanwhile, Kobe doesn't look too bad himself: 5 NBA titles, 1 regular season MVP, 2 Finals MVPs, 11 First Team All-NBA, 2 Second Team All-NBA, 2 Third team All-NBA, 9 First Team All-Defense, 3 Second Team All-Defense and 16 All-Star appearances (though one dubious selection this past year) in 17 seasons.

If LeBron were to retire at age 29 with a three-peat, he'd stop well short of Bryant's accomplishments overall, but as almost an equally celebrated individual player. With 3 titles and 3 corresponding Finals MVPs, as well as 4 regular season trophies, he would dwarf Kobe's 1 MVP and 2 Finals MVPs. Yes, Bryant would have the edge on James in All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defense teams, but that's largely a function of Bryant having six more full seasons in the league. On the flip side, that makes LeBron's regular season and Finals runs of dominance all the more impressive in his much truncated time as a pro. One could argue that James's teams in his prime are much, much better than Kobe's from 2004-2007, but then again, maybe it's just that LeBron was simply a better, more efficient player to build a team around during his prime. Quite frankly, I would take this prime James over prime Kobe each and every day. I said it, I meant it, I'm here to represent it.

Moving past the trophies and accolades, statistically there's no doubt--if James continues on anything resembling this trajectory, he will surpass Bryant in almost every offensive category. I won't bore you with the numbers, but minutes (with Bryant at over 45,567 and James at 33,276) might be the only record that could be safe. Field goals, points, rebounds, assists and steals are all well within striking distance, unless Kobe completely defies modern medical science and goes HAM in what should be his final two seasons.

If you were to ask me now, who has had the more impressive career up to year 12 of his career, I would say hands down, it is LeBron James, and it's not even close. The King's dozen year run, with so much regular season and postseason dominance, both in the record books and in the box scores, is equally as striking to me as Kobe's whole body of work. Let's not discount the simple aesthetics of this as well--Kobe's prime resembled a world class boxer moving smoothly across the ring, painting a cascading ceiling with punches and jabs into a masterpiece of a fight. James's prime? More like a running back ripping and tearing for 2,500 yards in a season on his way to 40 bruising touchdowns. The look and feel of LeBron's dominance has been so much more impactful on a purely visceral level, emblematic of his physcality, though not necessarily of his deadly efficiency.

However, over an entire body of work? It's obviously Kobe Bryant with the edge. I have no doubt that James will one day eclipse Kobe's accomplishments, both in banners, record books and stat sheets. But he's got to do the work before he earns the prize.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat beating the San Antonio Spurs this June won't threaten the Lakers franchise's place in history, but then again, how could it? It will, however, make the team's 2000-2002 accomplishment of a three-peat less special just by virtue of the fact that it's so incredibly hard to accomplish. Nothing could take away the luster of what that Lakers team did, but this Miami team could certainly be considered "the greater" of the two squads with another ring.

And in terms of Kobe and LeBron? A King with three rings makes this anything but an outrageous conversation. Kobe has the longevity, but LeBron's accomplishments, the difficulty in achieving them and the dominant manner in which he did them, could already have moved him past the Black Mamba. Could.

Go Heat? Go Spurs?

I don't know which is worse anymore.

Go Lakers.

--MAMBINO

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

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