Settling the Debate: Tim Duncan vs Kobe Bryant

Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are no strangers to one another. (Credit)

I don’t know a single person who prefers Dunkin Donuts to Krispy Kreme. You probably don’t, either. Yet there are easily 10 Dunkin Donuts for every Krispy Kreme you might be lucky enough to spot.

We’re blasted with Dunkin Donuts imagery. If you live in a major city, you see it everywhere; if you watch any TV, you’re bombarded with their commercials. In a world that favors quantity over quality, flash over substance, Dunkin Donuts can dominate the competition by selling egg white sandwiches and spending copious amounts of money on advertising, while Krispy Kreme just quietly does its job and makes consistently amazing, hot and fresh doughnuts. If forced to live in a world with only one, nobody would take Dunkin Donuts over Krispy Kreme in a vacuum. But we don’t live in a vacuum; we live in the very flawed real world.

In a vacuum, nobody would take Kobe Bryant over Tim Duncan. It’d just be stupid. Tim Duncan is better at basketball than Kobe Bryant. I can (and will) argue that using pretty much every metric, statistic, analogy and anecdote we have available. It’s as close to historical fact as you can get when arguing the merits of two legends.

Again, we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in the very flawed real world. Here, it somehow matters that Kobe Bryant played for the Los Angeles Lakers while Tim Duncan played for the San Antonio Spurs. We care that Kobe’s face is plastered all over ESPN whereas the casual basketball fan might not be able to identify Duncan in a police lineup (and to his benefit, he’s never been in one).

These things matter because the majority of sports media outlets out there aren’t interested in truth, they’re interested in selling a story, and what makes an interesting story: the quiet, fundamentally sound big man in San Antonio, or the controversial carbon copy of Michael Jordan in Los Angeles? ESPN pushes Kobe down our throats for the same reason they won’t shut up about Tim Tebow: it drives ratings.

What do I care about ratings? What do you care about ratings? Nothing, so we don’t have to let their propaganda brainwash us. We can look at this objectively, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

Duncan beats Bryant in nearly every significant metric. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 24.7 tops Bryant’s 23.4. His 184.2 win shares top Kobe’s 173.3 by double digits, despite Bryant playing in 59 more games. The gap is even larger in defensive win shares, where Duncan holds a 93.5 to 49.5 edge. Duncan’s ridiculous defensive rating of 95 (and to show you how absurd this is, Hakeem Olajuwon, the widely accepted greatest defensive player of the modern era, had a rating of 98) beats Bryant’s by 10, as he comes in at 105.

Their true shooting percentages (which measure every shot including free throws) are nearly identical, with Bryant admittedly holding a 55.5% to 55.2% lead, but that is quickly erased when you notice Duncan’s effective field goal percentage (which assigns more value to more difficult shots) is 50.8% compared to Bryant’s 48.7%.

Those differences become even more pronounced in the playoffs. Duncan’s PER lead increases to 25.0 over Bryant’s 22.4. He owns a 3.9 win share lead and a 7.8 defensive win share lead despite playing 16 less playoff games. He takes the true shooting percentage lead 54.6% to 54.1% and continues his lead in effective field goal percentage 50% to 48%. Duncan’s lead in defensive rating drops, but is still enormous at 98 to 106.

So, you tell me: do you still think Kobe is the better playoff performer?

In terms of accomplishments, both have stellar resumes. Bryant has one extra ring, but that hardly means much when you consider how small the difference between four and five titles really is. Duncan’s extra MVP award means a lot more, especially when you consider that, besides Shaquille O’Neal, all of the other players in the same stratosphere as these two have multiple MVPs. You could argue that Kobe deserved to win it in ’05-’06, which I’d agree with, but he didn’t deserve to win it in ’07-’08. That was a lifetime achievement award unfairly stolen from Chris Paul.

Ah, yes, that legendary ’05-’06 season. Kobe defenders love pointing to that and how high it proves his peak was. What they refuse to acknowledge is that Duncan’s peak was higher. Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers:

Kobe Bryant ’05-’06 35.4 5.3 4.5 0.4 45 28.0 15.3 3.7
Tim Duncan ’01-’02 25.5 12.7 3.7 2.5 50.8 27.0 17.8 7.1

What do you notice about those numbers? A few things should jump out at you. First of all, Kobe shot 45% from the field. What is his career shooting percentage? 45.4%. Kobe wasn’t playing markedly better, he was just shooting more! His 27.2 field goal attempts per game prove that. Is averaging 35 points per game absurd? Absolutely, but let’s stop it with the Jordan treatment when you remember that LeBron has averaged 30 points on 50% shooting and Kevin Durant could very easily do the same, a much more impressive feat.

Second, look at the assist numbers. Kobe, who is a guard and had a usage rate (meaning percentage of plays he used) of 38.7, couldn’t even average a full assist more per game than Duncan, a big man who touches the ball far less? Seriously? That really doesn’t help the “Kobe isn’t a ball hog” argument.

Finally, consider the astronomical difference in defense. Duncan nearly doubled Kobe’s defensive win shares totals and beats him in blocks six times over. Kobe barely managed to beat Duncan in assists, the guard oriented statistic, whereas Duncan dominated Bryant in rebounds 12.7 to 5.3, the big man’s statistic.

So, really think about it: are those extra 10 points per game worth it when you consider that you’re giving up Defensive Player of the Year caliber defense, 7.4 rebounds, far more valuable passing for his position (when you consider that Duncan’s passing is well above average for a big man while Kobe’s is nothing to get excited about for a guard) and several free possessions per game off of Kobe’s extra misses?

Kobe fan boys are going to argue that the only reason he had to average 35 points per game was because his team sucked, and that Duncan should lose points in this debate because of his “better” supporting cast. You’re really grasping at straws if that’s your argument. Kobe’s supporting cast sucked for three years out of 17.

The other 14 years? He had Shaq, one of the 10 best players of all time and someone far better than anyone Duncan has played with (and yes, that includes David Robinson, who wasn’t quite David Robinson by the time Duncan arrived) and Pau Gasol, someone who also is better than any of Duncan’s teammates.

Don’t bother mentioning Gregg Popovich because Kobe had Phil Jackson. If anything, Duncan would have done far better with Kobe’s supporting cast than Kobe would have with the situations reversed. Stick a rookie Duncan with Shaq hitting his apex and they win at least five championships, realistically closer to six or seven. This isn’t only because of the impossibility of defending two such dominant big men, but also because of Duncan’s most valuable asset: his personality.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kobe Bryant is a sociopath. That’s what makes him so great, but it’s also what makes him so volatile, what makes it so easy for him to alienate his teammates, and what is ultimately the biggest blemish on his career. He couldn’t coexist with Shaq because he couldn’t accept the idea that someone else was perceived as the best player on the team. Think that’d be a problem for Duncan? I’d argue that he’d thrive as Shaq’s sidekick because of his humility, allowing the big fella to take all of the credit as he slowly took the reins with O’Neal aging a la Magic and Kareem.

Kobe Bryant has demanded a trade. Kobe Bryant destroyed a potential Lakers dynasty (admittedly with help from Shaq). Kobe Bryant was once called “uncoachable” by Phil Jackson, the greatest coach of all time. HOW ARE THESE NOT MASSIVE RED MARKS ON HIS HISTORICAL RESUME?!?!?!?

Tim Duncan never caused these problems. In fact, he’s arguably the greatest teammate of all time. Guys like playing for and with Tim Duncan; they play in spite of Kobe Bryant. Bryant wasn’t the leader of those last two Lakers championship teams, Phil Jackson was, and anyone who argues the contrary is simply a blind Kobe defender.

Somehow all of this works in Kobe’s favor. People give him credit for evolving from a team-killing baby into a barely neutral teammate, yet completely ignore Duncan’s consistent brilliance as a teammate and leader. They prefer Kobe’s flashiness and call Duncan boring just because he doesn’t dominate the ball and dunk from unnecessarily long distances. Duncan isn’t boring, he’s just not flashy. That doesn’t make him a worse player, that makes him a worse story, there’s a difference.

ESPN loves marketing perimeter guys because they’re flashy, and they’ve managed managed to brainwash the basketball-watching majority into thinking star perimeter players are more valuable than big men. They aren’t. Michael Jordan is more valuable than star big men. There’s a difference. Kobe Bryant isn’t Michael Jordan.

There’s a reason 23 of the first 25 MVPs were centers. If you take away Jordan’s five, only seven MVPs have been won by players shorter than 6’8’’. Every non-Jordan dynasty either had one legendary big man (Russell’s Celtics, Kareem’s Lakers, Shaq’s Lakers (and, as a parenthetical within a parenthetical, those were Shaq’s Lakers, not Kobe’s), Duncan’s Spurs) or two Hall of Famers (Bird’s Celtics with McHale, Parish, and for one year, Walton). Big men are simply more important to winning basketball games than little guys, they just don’t do it as excitingly.

Tim Duncan’s argument over Kobe Bryant is that he’s a better teammate, a more efficient scorer, a better passer for his position, a vastly superior rebounder and defender, plays a far more important position, and has better career statistics in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant’s argument over Tim Duncan is that he’s a better scorer. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. I defy any of you to prove otherwise. And please, say the word clutch, I’d love nothing more than to break out Kobe’s surprisingly bad crunch time stats (and when I say surprisingly, I also mean horrendously).

Just because you hear Kobe Bryant’s name more than you hear Tim Duncan’s doesn’t mean he’s a better player. Just because Kobe Bryant plays a more exciting brand of basketball doesn’t mean he plays a better one. Bryant is a media darling because he plays in LA and gives them something to talk about, the complete antithesis of Duncan, who just goes about his business and leaves it at that. That’s not what they want out of a player, but that’s what you should want out of one.

That’s the guy I want. I want the one who does his job at an exceptionally high level without making me deal with the outside crap Kobe does on a daily basis. I want the big man who dominates in every facet of the game, not just one. I want Tim Duncan, the best player of his era.

By: Sam Quinn
Twitter: @Rhinos_Cry_Too

  • Lorraine Chavarria

    Love this. Excellent points AND I happen to agree with you. :-)

  • Tong Zou

    Kobe fans are irrational. The gap has only grown wider since this article was released and STILL people say Kobe is better? SMH

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