Who will go down as a greater player?
Thirty-nine combined seasons played. Thirty-three All-Star appearances. Thirty-two playoff appearances. Twenty-one All-NBA first teams. Seventeen All-Defensive first teams. Ten championships.
Two players: Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
Rivalries are what makes sports unique, and there has been no greater rivalry than Kobe vs. Duncan in the past 20 years.
This past week, ESPN concluded their rankings of the top 100 players of all time. Duncan finished eighth, while Bryant came in at 12th. Ranking individuals as “the best” is very subjective. It’s a combination of individual accolades, statistics, team performance, playoff records, and intangibles. In order to compare these two legends, we are going to start with
Both players have future first ballot hall of fame numbers. Although Bryant’s career scoring average is five points higher, and he will retire third in points scored over a career, he can’t compare to the historic
Duncan is a career 50% shooter through 19 seasons with a higher PER and more win
Next, we are going to evaluate the players in the prime of their careers, which is ages 25 to 30.
Statistics from Age 25-30 Seasons
While Duncan led the league in win shares during his age 25 and 26 seasons and remained more efficient than Bryant, we have to give Kobe the slight edge here. Bryant averaged just shy of 29 points per game during that six-year stretch and was virtually unstoppable when he got hot.
It makes sense that Bryant’s field goal percentage is worse because he takes many more shots from a further distance than Duncan. Bryant’s PER of 24.95 during this stretch is much higher than his career average of 22.9. While Duncan’s absurd 22 and 12 averages can’t be overlooked, Bryant’s ability to single-handedly dominate a game during his prime was truly ”jordanesque,” giving him the edge. He had nine straight 40-point games in 2003, four straight 50-point games in 2007, and once scored 81 points in 2006. His 134 40-point games rank third all time with 72 of them coming from this six-year stretch. Bryant, when hot during his prime, was something no team could handle.
Individual Playoff Numbers:
When you’re San Antonio or Los Angeles, the regular season doesn’t matter. Sure, it’s nice to win games. But if you’re not out there during June playing on the biggest stage in professional basketball, the NBA Finals, then the season was a failure.
Here’s a look at a few measures of how these players performed throughout the playoffs.
Aside from scoring more about five more points per game and averaging about a little over one assist more per game, Duncan dominates the individual playoff category. Although Bryant missed the 2004-2005 Playoffs (which distorts the win shares stat), you could take his best playoff year in terms of win shares outside of his prime, which was in his 2001 season, and he will still be well below Duncan.
As we see above, Duncan was also much more consistent with his win shares and helped guide San Antonio with offensive efficiency and defensive excellence. It does seem surprising that Duncan was so close to Bryant in terms of offensive efficiency, probably because today’s generation doesn’t recall how Duncan used to dominate playoff games.
His averages of 24.3 points and 12.6 rebounds, with a PER of 27.83, were dominating during his prime, and he led his team to the 2003 Playoffs in both offensive and defensive efficiency to his then-third NBA title. Duncan scored 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and eight blocks, almost a quadruple-double, in the clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals to end the season in style.
Team Performance (Regular Season)
The San Antonio Spurs have been a model of consistency for the past two decades. In the past 18 complete seasons (since Duncan was a rookie), the Spurs have finished above 50 wins 17 times, with the one outlier coming when they finished 37-13 in a lockout shortened season.
This season, they will once again hit the 50-win mark, while the Lakers will not even reach 20 wins. The Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in the past two seasons and missed it once during Bryant’s prime. Duncan holds a 31-21 edge in regular season meetings against Bryant, giving him the edge.
Team Performance (Playoffs)
The Lakers and Spurs met seven times in the playoffs during the Bryant and Duncan era, and each time the winner advanced to the NBA Finals. The Lakers hold a 4-3 edge in these head to head battles. These two teams dominated for so many years, as the either Lakers or Spurs won the NBA Championship for five straight years (1999-2003), and nine out of 12 years (1999-2010). They both have five championships, and it’s hard to say who was better during the playoffs. Kobe does hold a 18-12 record against the Spurs in the playoffs, and with seven NBA Finals trips compared to Duncan’s six, we will give Kobe the slight nod. But, if Duncan can get a sixth ring before he retires, it is definitely worth reconsideration.
Duncan may just be the most consistent player of all time. Offensively, he has used a combination of bank-shots, jump hooks, and offensive rebound putbacks to dominate his position. Due to Gregg Popovich’s coaching style, Duncan has seen a decline in minutes per game as he gets older to preserve himself for the playoffs.
But, this chart, courtesy of
While Bryant has continued to score at a high clip throughout his career, we have seen recent declines in terms of efficiency. Bryant currently ranks last in the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting a horrific 35%. Duncan has remained productive, especially defensively, at the later stages of his career.
Kobe clearly has the edge when it comes to ability to go off on any particular night. His 81-point game might be the single greatest individual sporting performance in the past decade. He deserves every bit of praise he is getting in his final season, and our game will not be the same without him. He was the transition from Jordan to the modern age, helping to popularize the game of basketball on a global level. But he also has games where he shot 1-14, and his ability has declined
Duncan continues to be a force at the defensive end for the second-place Spurs, who are in position to compete for another title. Duncan’s consistency over the years is why we rank him above Bryant for “Better All-Time.” They both have five championships, but Duncan may get a sixth. In raw offensive scoring numbers, Bryant is better.
But, if we dig deeper into efficiency metrics and advanced
So we are going to give Duncan the slight nod. As Bryant finishes up the second half of his final season, and Duncan will probably only have one more season, it’s important to not take any moment for granted. The respect that each Bryant and Duncan have for the other is an representation of why the game is so great today and a testament to why NBA basketball is so great.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com/stats and Basketball-reference.com
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