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. 🙂

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

  • Blueblur22

    1999 – Duncan and the Spurs beat Lakers in a sweep because Kobe wasn’t good enough yet to give Shaq the help he needed. Duncan captures his 1st championship after the post MJ era before Shaq and Kobe who many people thought they were heirs to the throne after MJ retired. Duncan leads Kobe 1-0. That year Duncan puts the league on notice and shows that if anyone wants a chance at the chip they are gonna have to go through him. Some criticisms that arrive especially from Phil is that the Spurs benefited from a short season and had to play a Knicks team weakened by injuries

    2000 – Kobe and the Lakers captures his 1st championship as Kobe finally comes of age and is able to give Shaq the help he needs. That year Duncan gets hurt towards the end of the season thus the Spurs get eliminated in the 1st round. Some criticisms that arrive are the Lakers never get to pay the Spurs due this injury thus their championship is hollow due to never having to go through the defending champs

    2001 – Lakers dominate the Spurs in a much anticipated match-up of the last two champions. The series was expected to go the distance however the Spurs soon find that they have no answer for Kobe as he ends up dominating them. Kobe ties his series match-up against Duncan 1-1. Duncan puts in a rather mediocre to poor game and is criticized by the media. Lakers go on to win their 2nd championship and the 1st team to repeat since MJ’s Bulls.

    2002 – Lakers dominate the Spurs again with Kobe once again having his way with him despite the Spurs acquiring Bowen to stop him. Kobe edges Duncan in his series match-up with him to 2-1. Duncan this time played very well but just didn’t have enough help. This is the 1st year Robinson shows his age and that the Spurs are gonna have to retool a bit. The Lakers capture their 3rd championship and become the 1st team to 3 peat since MJ’s Bulls and the last team to 3 peat to this day. Some criticisms that year is the whole Lakers/Kings fiasco.

    2003 – Spurs finally get over the hump and beats Kobe and the Lakers as the Lakers just have no answer for Duncan as he dominates everyone including Shaq. This time the Lakers don’t get enough help from their role players. Duncan finally gets a team to back him up and goes on to win his 2nd championship. Duncan ties the series match-up to 2-2. Some criticisms are that they didn’t have to play a healthy Mavs and Kings team.

    2004 – Lakers come back and beat the Spurs. That year the Lakers acquire an aging Malone and Payton. This time Duncan doesn’t have his way with the Lakers as an aging Malone shuts Duncan down. Duncan misses out on his chance to repeat as the Lakers go on to the Finals but lose to the Pistonss in dominant fashion. Duncan had an amazing shot in the series that would of been historic if not negated by Fisher’s shot. Kobe and Shaq beef finally reaches it’s boiling point in the Finals causing the team to implode and get dominated in the Finals.

    2005 – Lakers are dismantled and are in rebuilding mode. As a result they miss the playoffs. The Spurs on the other hand go on to capture their 3rd Championship as Duncan ties Kobe in ring count.

    2006 – Lakers this year make the playoffs but are eliminated by a much better Suns team. Kobe has a dominant series as he is able to push the Suns to 7 games but just not enough help to get over the hump. Spurs miss out on their chance to repeat once again as they are eliminated by the Mavs. Duncan dominates the Mavs as they have no answer for him. Despite scoring 39 points in regulation time and fouling out both Dampier and Keith Van Horn, Duncan only made one of seven field goal attempts in overtime against Mavericks reserve center DeSagana Diop, and the Spurs lost Game 7. Duncan once again misses his chance to repeat.

    2007 – The Lakers make the playoffs again but once again are beaten by the Suns. This time the Suns dominate the Lakers as they have Amare back 100 % this year. The Spurs end up winning the championship once again this year making it Duncan’s 4th chip and giving him 1 more then Kobe. A criticism in that year is the whole Suns fiasco where the Suns lost key contributors in Diaw and Amare while the Spurs didn’t lose anyone other then Horry even though Duncan stepped on to the court earlier in the game over another issue.

    2008 – The Lakers finally are done with their rebuild and give Kobe a championship contending team. Once again the Lakers dominate the Spurs in the WCF as the Spurs have no answer for Kobe. This pushes Kobe’s series against Duncan to 4-2 giving Kobe the career edge over Duncan in personal match-ups given that is the last time those two play each other. The Lakers then go on to the Finals where they lose to the Celtics due to the inexperience and injuries of Kobe’s Lakers teammates.

    2009 – Duncan and the Spurs are eliminated in the 1st round of the playoffs by the Mavs due to injuries. Meanwhile the Kobe and the Lakers go on to capture his 4th championship which once again ties him with Duncan. Some controversies is that the Celtics were injured and had the Lakers had to play them they might not have lost.

    2010. Duncan and the Spurs once again are eliminated in the playoffs but this time by the Suns in the second round. One of the things that cause the Spurs problems that year is that the Suns exploit Duncan in the pick and roll where Duncan is just unable to guard it. Pop gets criticism for being stubborn and sticking with Duncan as the Spurs are beat in just 4 games. Kobe and the Lakers on the other hand go on to capture his 5th championship giving him 1 more ring then Duncan and Shaq as Kobe doesn’t let us forget.

    2011 Both Kobe and Duncan began showing big signs of decline as the Spurs lose to the Grizz in the 1st round while the Lakers get swept by the Mavs who eventually go on to capture the championship. Lakers lose to the Mavs due to injury of their best player Kobe while the Spurs I believe were relatively healthy but just ended up choking. Ginobli might have been hurt though

    2012 Both Kobe and Duncan are a bit better from the previous season however both are eliminated by OKC. Kobe and the Lakers get dominated by OKC as Kobe and the Lakers just appear too old to beat them. Mike Brown takes over the offense which leaves the Lakers with not much of an offensive identity, Kobe and Gasol make some crucial mistakes at the end of some games to close them out and finally Bynum’s ascension as a player begins to push Gasol more out of the offense. The Spurs at 1st dominate OKC but eventually OKC adjust and dominates the Spurs with their athleticism. Remarkable OKC begins to use some of the plays the Spurs were using to dominate them in the 1st two games and the Spurs are unable to guard it and adjust. Spurs once again choke and lose the series.

    2013 Lakers bring Nash and Howard however their whole season is destroyed by poor choice for a coach and injuries. Kobe puts on one of his best perfomance of his career carrying the Lakers into the Playoffs. But unfortunately it causes him to get injured before the playoffs. The Kobe-less Lakers once again face the Spurs in which they dominate rather easily on their way to the Finals. The Spurs lose to the Heat in 7 once again not being able to close despite having numerous chances to.

    2014 Kobe is injured and only plays 11 games if that many, the Lakers lose D12 and once again enter rebuilding mode as they lose 2 key players in Kobe and Nash to injuries while 1 key player in Dwight to free agency. The Lakers begin their descent to mediocrity as they put up a terrible season The Spurs for the 1st time of their career make it back to back to back Finals where they this time win the championship over an LBJ led Heat. Duncan captures his 5th championship tying him with Kobe for most championship of this generation.

    2015 – Lakers lose Gasol to free agency and Nash to retirement leaving Kobe to be the only one left from the championship team. Kobe is once again injured during the season as the Laekrs continue where they left off last season which is make a joke out of themselves. Duncan on the other hand heads into the off season to try and repeat once more. The Spurs once again come up short as they lose to an inferior Clippers team. Spurs lost due to poor coaching decision by Pop(not continuing to use the Hack a DJ strategy), Parker being injured and an old Duncan being dominated by a young Blake Griffin. Not to mention Kawhi couldn’t shut down CP3. Overall Spurs lost that series due to lack of execution.

    2016 – The Lakers are nothing but a team filled with inexperience players and they stand no chance of winning a chip let alone making the playoffs. The Lakers go on a circus side show of a year where everyone can congratulate Kobe’s career. Kobe is absolutely terrible this year putting up one of the worst seasons seen from a superstar in a long time. It appears his injuries has really taken a toll on him as he only on occasion delivers from time to time real good performances. However despite such an awful year Kobe closes it out with one of the greatest Finals performances ever, dropping 60 points on the Jazz and single-handily carrying the team to a win. While it certainly isn’t the way he would of preferred to go out it is definitely one of the greatest exits in NBA history. Duncan on the other hand plays on a Spurs team that goes on a historic win streak itself. The Spurs make the playoffs as contenders but lose once again to an OKC team.Like with the Clippers the Spurs come up short in key areas of the game while Duncan also appears to be too old to play anymore. In the Final game the Spurs appear to get blown out but Duncan goes on one last hurrah where he almost single-handily carries the Spurs back from a 20+ deficit. Unfortunately for Duncan he runs out of gas and the Spurs are not able to get the win and eliminated in the 2nd round

    • Blueblur22

      In the end, I would probably give Kobe the edge as he has had much more impact and the more dominant run. If you look at it Duncan should really have more rings in his career when you consider he has had an elite team every year since he has been in the league. Yet he has never repeated despite his organization giving him a competitive team year after year. Kobe has shown that if you give him a contending team not only can he win but he can repeat. Not to mention Kobe has managed to be an elite or top 5 player from 2000 to 20013 while Duncan honestly probably fell out of the top 5 list in about 08. In the end, Kobe is the better winner because of the fact that Duncan should have more rings. People say Duncan doesn’t have things holding him back like being selfish and that you can win more with him then with Kobe. But if that were true then the two wouldn’t have the same number of rings. So the fact that Duncan lacks all the things holding him back that Kobe does yet still couldn’t surpass him in ring count leads me to give Kobe the edge over him. Also the fact that Kobe has the edge over him in playoff series match-ups also leads me to give Kobe the edge over him.

      • cncaliguy

        I could care less what they do in the regular season with # all star or all nbas or MVPs. The real test was playoffs. Playoff stats are more important because teams don’t slack, put in more effort, and teams are better.

        Rings debate is worthless. With a little luck and refs whistles, the Lakers got 3 rings. Big Rob hitting a shot, Fish hitting the sickest buzzer beater. If you take away Ray Allen’s buzz beater, Duncan might have another ring and LBJ one less. Sean Elliot doesn’t hit the second sickest game winner then Portalnd plays NYK and Pippen and Sheed havea ring. Maybe Malone knee’s hold up and Lakers beat a really good Pistons team….The same team the Spurs beat 4-2 a year later. It is the same era and when both teams were healthy they had evenly matched teams.

        So if you look at playoff numbers and who got better or carried the teams weight, it was Duncan. If you look at Kobe’s stats in the playoffs, he is no MJ, or Hakeem like people make him out to be. Based on Playoff Win Share per 48 mins Duncan is at .194 vs .157 for Kobe. Regular season WS/48 Duncan is .209 vs Kobe at .170. Duncan outperformed Kobe and Kobe is basically a fantasy stat whore. Duncan was a monster in his fifth playoff season and he buried the Lakers and the rest of NBA. He had 5.9 win share for the playoffs. Only Dirk and Lebron have come close to carrying an entire team since then. For comparison MJ career playoff WS/48 in is at .255 and .278 with the Bulls in regular season. Hakeem is .189 in playoffs, higher than regular season at .180.

        If you talk about a franchise and you had to pick one, I would pick Duncan. At the end of the careers who was better? Duncan. Who’s team was better consistently? Duncan. The Spurs were in a small market, smaller budget, and not a destination to play. If Kobe was a Hornet and not a Laker he would be another Steve Francis, AI, or another guy with zero rings on a bad team like Vince Carter.

        If I pick to build a team I know for sure I would pick MJ, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Hakeem, Duncan, Lebron, Robertson, and maybe even Bird, Shaq and David Robinson, West and Moses Malone might get picked ahead of Kobe.

        BTW I’m a Laker fan and watched maybe 95% of Kobe’s career, I stopped watching his last 2-3 season because it’s depressing.

        • Blueblur22

          Lol You know I was actually gonna address you seriously but after a stupid statement like Kobe is another Steve Francis it’s apparent that you are an idiot who doesn’t know a thing about what he is talking about and should not be taken seriously

          • cncaliguy

            Okay, Steve Francis is too low of a reach but he was an all star and ROY and had 20/6/6 straight for several years. He also didn’t take as many shots as Kobe.

            My point if West didn’t trade of Bryant he wouldn’t be the player he was. Very few teams and teammates would put up with a rookie throwing up 4 airballs during the playoffs. On a Larry Brown team he would never see playing time again. Kobe benefited from having a great franchise, all star players, and MJs old coach teaching him MJs moves. Kobe didn’t build a franchise, it help build him and then they bought players around Kobe.

          • Blueblur22

            “MJs old coach teaching him MJs moves”

            Lol this sentence shows you are ignorant as fuck as well as dumb as hell. You have no idea what you are talking about

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