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Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan: Whose legacy is greater?

Coming off spectacular run to the Finals that was tantalizingly close to a fifth title, Tim Duncan has reignited the argument of who is the greatest player of his generation. The question is simple: whose career has been greater, the Big Fundamental or the Black Mamba?

Ronald Martinez

One roll of the basketball, and this would be a short article. In an epic Game 7 last Thursday, Tim Duncan had the ball in the post for his San Antonio Spurs, staring elimination in the face. Time was running out--48 seconds to be exact--and the team's all-time franchise player made his move to the center of the key, and attempted a right hook shot over the 6'8" Shane Battier that would tie the game. This shot was the very same one he'd make 99 out of 100 times, maybe even 999 out of 1,000 times. But that night, that one odd number seemed to rear its ugly head. The shot rolled off the back iron, into the outstretched fingertips of Duncan, who managed to tip the ball back towards the hoop...another maneuver that's defined his long career of dominant offensive rebounding. But if the original miss was a 1 out of 1,000 chance, the second shot double downed on bad luck.

The ball popped wide over the rim, and Chris Bosh secured the rebound. Seconds later, LeBron James nailed a 19-foot jumper over Kawhi Leonard, and it was all over. Had Duncan's shot simply gone in moments earlier, the Spurs would have tied Game 7 with two possessions left on the clock. The possibilities were endless...including sealing the argument of who the best player of his generation was. It would have been Tim Duncan. And it wouldn't have been close.

But thanks to that fateful roll, the debate is still wide open. With Tim Duncan performing so admirably on basketball's highest stage at the age of 37 and Kobe Bryant dragging a lifeless Lakers team to the playoffs this past season, the discussion is just as relevant as ever.

Poring over the awards, statistics and team records, these two have some of the most sparkling resumes of all time. Their accomplishments are massive no matter who you look at, and should no doubt result in a top-10 standing in NBA history for both men. In fact, the tale of the tape is so close here that I'm tempted to call it a tie.

But this isn't soccer. This is basketball. We don't do ties.

So, whose career has been greater? Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan? Let's break it down piece by piece.

Individual Awards & Accolades

Kobe Bryant Tim Duncan
17 seasons 16 seasons
5 NBA Titles 4 NBA Titles
1 MVP 2 MVPs
2 Finals MVPs 3 Finals MVPs
4.206 MVP Award Shares (11th all-time) 4.261 MVP Award Shares (10th all-time)
5 Top-3 MVP Finishes 5 Top-3 MVP Finishes
11 Top-5 MVP Finishes 9 Top-5 Finishes
12 Top-20 MVP Finishes 14 Top-20 Finishes
11 First Team All-NBA (02-04, 06-13) 10 First Team All-NBA (98-05, 07, 13)
2 Second Team All-NBA (00-01) 3 Second Team All-NBA (06, 08-09)
1 Third Team All-NBA (99, 05) 1 Third Team All-NBA (10)
(15 All-NBA Teams) (14 All-NBA Teams)
9 First Team All-Defense (00, 03-04, 06-11) 8 First Team All-Defense (99-03, 05, 07-08)
2 Second Team All-Defense (01-02, 12) 6 Second Team All-Defense (98, 04, 06, 09, 10, 13)
(12 All-Defense Teams) (14 All-Defense Teams)
15 time All-Star 14 time All-Star

The race is extremely close here--for every edge that one player has over another, there's just as big of a counter. Kobe has more All-NBA nods, but Timmy has the advantage in All-Defense teams. Timmy has slightly more MVP award shares, but Kobe has more top-10 finishes. Kobe has more titles, but Timmy was the best player on 3 of his 4, not to mention (rightfully or not) has more regular season MVP awards.

We can twist these trophies and accolades any way that makes one man look to have the advantage over the other, but with all the ebbs and flows of this grid, let's call this one a draw. It's been 200 words, and I've already contradicted myself.

Edge: DRAW


All-Time NBA Rank
Kobe Bryant Tim Duncan
Minutes 45,390 (12th) 41,447 (20th)
Field Goals Made 11,024 (6th) 9,207 (17th)
Free Throws Made 7,932 (3rd) 5,343 (26th)
Offensive Rebounds 1,430 (195th) 3,496 (15th)
Total Rebounds 6,575 (121st) 13,219 (13th)
Blocks 619 (174th) 2,652 (8th)
Steals 1,828 (15th) 872 (204th)
Assists 5,887 (32nd) 3,612 (125th)
Points 31,617 (4th) 23,785 (22nd)
Player Efficiency Ranking 23.4 (19th)

24.7 (9th)

The numbers dictate exactly what you think they should: Duncan has had a career built on rebounding and defense, while Kobe is a stone cold killing scorer at heart. At their respective strengths, both players are titans in NBA history.

However, Kobe's profound impact offensively eclipses what Duncan's defense has been able to do numerically. As a scorer, Bryant is one of the most ruthless, cunning and deadly that this league has ever seen. As impressive as Duncan's block and rebounding numbers have been, Kobe has few peers in regards to putting points on the board--truly only Kareem and Jordan come to mind (though Karl Malone is 2nd in points all-time, he was much less a great scorer than he was a finisher on Stockton-provided pick and rolls).

True, the measure of Duncan's value is largely in defense, most of which cannot be quantified by individual statistics. However, it's important to note that until 2008, all of Timmy's Spurs teams ranked in the top three of defensive efficiency, which he anchored as a defensive presence in the paint. Until there's more accurate archival data from over a decade ago, it's hard to tell statistically just how great either Duncan or Kobe were defensively other than anecdotal evidence, five-man plus/minus numbers and team defensive measurements. It's not easy to dismiss Duncan's defense so readily, but it's just too hard to quantify defense right now--not the case on offense. Just as sabermetrics have had a belated effect on how we examine baseball players decades later, perhaps we'll be able to put Timmy under a different microscope in a few years.

A highly contested argument here has to be Finals MVPs. Some would make the case that it's a matter of chance--Kobe and Duncan can't necessarily help the match-ups they've been given year after year that would help propel the team as a whole to the Finals. By definition, it's a circumstantial award, like the All-Star Game MVP (though by no means as insignificant--please note that I've yet to mention All-Star games as true accolade. Joe Johnson is a six-time All-Star. It can't be that hard to get to that game). However, in my interpretation, the award is given out to the best player on the best team. Very rarely does the best player on the team not win the Finals MVP award--only Cedric Maxwell and James Worthy in the 80s immediately come to mind as examples of that happening. Duncan has the edge as the recipient of 3 Finals MVPs to Kobe's 2, but Bryant was very clearly the second best player on three more title teams. The 2000-2002 Lakers dynasty had a fragile balance of greatness, and I simply don't buy that those teams could have contended with a lesser shooting guard (say, Ray Allen or Tracy McGrady). It's hard to compare the two through that prism, though Duncan has the slight edge.

There's also the argument that Bryant and Duncan shouldn't be compared because there's no comparing a "big and a guard". That's a completely bogus argument--unlike baseball with a pitcher and a hitter, or football with a defensive player and skill player, or even hockey with a goalie and a rotation player, in basketball every player can have just as much of an impact on defense as he does offense. Every man can score, rebound, block shots and assist. There's no divider that sets differences. It's all a matter of what strength each player has, rather than a line that separates the two. More to the point, would anyone say "You can't argue that Michael Jordan was a better player than Wilt Chamberlain or Hakeem Olajuwan! There's no comparing a big and a guard!"? No. That's stupid. Michael Jordan is the greatest player ever, even when compared with big men. There can't be a universal consensus that MJ is the greatest and still have an argument that bigs can't be measured against guards. Stop it. Stop it.

Back to the matter at hand: Kobe's historic scoring acumen and numbers help him take this round, but only slightly when considering Duncan's regular season and Finals MVPs. Ultimately, it may come down to two cases of simple math, the first being 3,943 minutes. That is how much more court time Kobe has put in over Duncan, equivalent to over 48 minutes per game for 82 games. Timmy can't necessarily help some of that; after all, Gregg Popovich sitting him with DNP-Old isn't his call. But the fact that Bryant has been able to accumulate the statistics he has under so many more minutes is extremely impressive.

The other case for Kobe? 5 > 4. Simple math.


Team Accomplishments

Team Accolades
Kobe Bryant Tim Duncan
Win-Loss Record (Regular Season) 878-468 (.652) 888-376 (.702)
Win-Loss Record (Postseason) 137-89 (.606) 133-83 (.616)
Finals Record 5-2 4-1
Lost in Western Conference Finals 1 (1998: 4-0 to UTAH) 3 (2001: 4-0 to LAL, 2008: 4-1 to LAL, 2012: 4-2 to OKC
Lost in Western Conference Semifinals 5 5
Lost in Western Conference 1st Round 3 3
Head to Head Postseason Series Wins 4 (2001, 2008 WCF; 2002, 2004 WCSF) 3 (1999, 2003 WCSF; 2013 1st Round)
60-Win Seasons 3 3
50-Win Seasons 15 11
Missed Playoffs 1 0

As the debate wages on, the facts become more and more tricky. After all, how can you accurately measure one man's impact on his team's success? Was Kobe more responsible (for better or worse) in his early career with Shaquille O'Neal for the Lakers' success than he was as a 30-year old? How much did Duncan affect the Spurs' fortunes when he was with David Robinson versus Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker? It's not a cut and dried argument because we're talking about a team sport. However, we'll call everything a wash in the end: both players have been either the best or second best players on every squad they've been on, and one could argue the most impactful players on all their championship teams (note that I wrote you could argue that. Not that you'd be right).

True, Kobe has won more Western Conference crowns, but that's also tempered against two brutal Finals losses with Bryant playing sub-par in both of them (Look at the numbers kids. They're not pretty). True, Kobe also has the edge in head-to-head postseason match-ups (including a loss he didn't play in), but it's important to note that the Spurs have never missed the postseason, which might be the most important factoid here.

Timmy's spotless record of 50-win season after 50-win season, as well as greater regular season and postseason winning percentage gives him the advantage. Kobe has been on more great teams, and has been on more Western Conference champion squads, but ultimately San Antonio's excellence year over year while building squarely around Duncan's defensive presence is one of the most impressive accomplishments in NBA history. As close as the previous two categories have been, Timmy wins easily here.



The argument here seems simple: Tim Duncan has never publicly asked for a trade, thrown a teammate under the bus with the media, had a very public spat with another All-Star teammate (in the words of my mother, "I don't care who started it, I'm finishing it. It's both their faults") or been accused of a serious crime. The Spurs' big man has largely stayed out of controversy, keeping his spotlight on the court and no doubt helping build his reputation as "the most boring superstar ever". According to all reports, he's been a world class teammate and along with coach Gregg Popovich has helped foster a steady, winning culture in his locker room devoid of drama, selfishness and generally self-destructive behavior for 16 years. That's a gigantic intangible in his favor.

But even as we build up Duncan and his consummate professionalism as his greatest intangible, we just can't dismiss Kobe as a "bad teammate" and be done with it. We also have to look at his greatest strength.

In his 17 seasons, Kobe has been one of the most psychotic competitors in league history, orbiting the same high tension insanity that once belonged to Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Bill Russell--the type of guys that would cut you if shanks were allowed on the court. Very few players have ever worked on their craft as diligently as Bryant, working on nuances in his game all the way from his first year in the league to his latest great campaign. It's a nearly unparalleled work ethic that prevents Kobe from almost ever mailing in a performance (save for one half of basketball in Phoenix), playing every single game as if it were the playoffs. He's tireless in his approach and merciless in his pursuit of perfection. It's this attitude that's disrupted locker rooms and rubbed teammates the wrong way, but it's also the very same attitude that's propelled a group of talent bereft mortals to postseason berths and more gifted teams to championship contention.

Naturally, Kobe's magnetic game, dramatic shots and acrobatic maneuvers have gotten him more press throughout the US and the world. Bryant is 10 times the star around the globe that Duncan is and has become a brand unto himself. Aside from LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, there hasn't been a basketball player whose name and face are more synonymous with the NBA the world over. Kobe is China's most popular active player (even moreso than the recently retired Yao Ming), which only exemplifies the magnitude of his star as the top dog in the world's fastest growing emerging market. Though this might not contribute to his on-court accomplishments, it's certainly a testament to how Kobe is growing the NBA game everywhere on the planet. Much like the "Jordan vs. the bigs" argument, we can't cherry pick here and say that a player's impact on the state of the game isn't important when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have their careers heightened through the lens of saving the NBA in the 80s. There can't be a double standard.

Pertinent to this discussion, Kobe's also taken control of one miscellaneous basketball-related footnote: his time in international competition. Bryant has a spotless international hoops career, helping guide Team USA to two Gold Medals, an undefeated record over a four year span and lest we forget, a 20 point 2008 Gold Medal game in which his fourth quarter heroics pulled the US from a near loss to the Spanish National Team. For all of Duncan's much heralded reputation as a great teammate and peacemaker, he couldn't keep the 2004 USA squad from falling apart. Filled with a teenaged LeBron James, fellow rookies Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and co-captain Allen Iverson, Duncan's Team USA famously flamed out in their only Bronze Medal finish since professionals were allowed into international competition in 1992. Though FIBA basketball isn't officially part of the NBA game, it's place as a career-boosting accolade makes it important to the resume of both players.

Duncan has been the better locker room professional far and away, but Kobe's impact on the international game--on the court and off of it--has been too profound to ignore.



Tallying up the categories, Kobe Bryant has the overall edge as the best player of his generation. Had Duncan won the 2013 title last week, that honor would have gone to him. With a 5-0 Finals record, a probable 4 Finals MVPs, a 50-win season every single year and reputation as a great teammate, there would be no choice but to rank Duncan's career higher. In my mind, it wouldn't have been close. However, with the Finals playing out as it did, Kobe's numbers, competitiveness, global visibility and of course, championship rings tilt the argument in his favor. Keep this in mind: neither man is done. Both have committed to playing next season and will undoubtedly keep on building their gleaming resumes. The debate isn't over yet...though it could have been. If not for one roll of the ball.

Let us know in the comments section who you got: it's closer than you think.

And you all were rooting for the Spurs to win...


--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

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