** This was originally written for The Hoops Forum at the end of 2009**
** Before you ask, no, my opinion on this argument has not changed even with Kobe getting ring #5**
Over the next few months, several debates will start in every major sport (many already have) over what was the team of the decade, who the player of the decade was, etc. For the last decade the two most dominant players in the NBA have been Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. In terms of statistics, accolades and titles (Sorry KG), Duncan and Kobe have been head and shoulders above everyone else in the since the 1999-2000 season. Especially because of his recent individual and team success, many fans and members of the mainstream media have anointed Kobe as the player of the decade. What those fans don’t realize is that in every aspect of the game, Tim Duncan has been the premiere player in the game since the Jordan era.
I’ve broken my argument down into three categories. Statistics, individual accolades and team success. Stats are nice, certainly they’re important, but they should never be the determining factor of deciding who the better player is. But since we’re here let’s look at the numbers:
Kobe Bryant: 28 ppg, 5.3 apg, 6.4 rpg, 25.26 per (1999-2000 season to 2008-2009 season)
Tim Duncan: 21.4 ppg, 3.5 apg, 11.7 rpg, 25.52 per (1999-2000 season to 2008-2009 season)
Pretty even, right? Especially when you look at the player efficiency ratings. I think on the surface you could even give the statistical edge to Kobe. I think offensively Kobe has been a more dominant player, but Duncan has always been more capable of imposing his will on offense and defense.
This is where the argument really starts to turn in Duncan’s favor. Individual accolades are still close, but Duncan has a clear edge here. Take a look:
Kobe: 1 MVP, 1 Finals MVP, 7 All-NBA 1st Teams, 2 All-NBA 2nd Teams, 1 All-NBA 3rd Team, 7 All NBA Defensive 1st Team, 2 All NBA Defensive 2nd Teams, 10 All Star Selections, 4 NBA Titles
Duncan: 2 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs (3 including ’99), 8 All NBA 1st Teams, 2 All NBA 2nd Teams, 8 All NBA Defensive 1st Teams, 2 All NBA 2nd Teams, 10 All Star Selections, 3 NBA Titles (4 including ’99).
Again, what part of those numbers tell you Kobe is better? We should also keep in mind that Duncan averaged 19 points a game, 11.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game during the 2007 finals when he had at least 2 players draped all over him, paving the way for Tony Parker to drive the lane early and often to earn the 2007 Finals MVP. So Duncan should have 3 finals MVPs this decade and 4 total. His defining moment probably came through during Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals. In a close out game, Duncan had 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks. Find a better game Kobe had a more important stage? It’s also important to mention that Duncan was the best player on all of those championship teams. Kobe was only the best on one of them. In the 2001-02, 2002-03 seasons, when Tim Duncan was the only All-Star on his team, the Spurs finished with the second best record in the league one season and won the NBA title the other season. The three seasons Kobe was the only All-Star on the Lakers, they got bounced from the play-offs in the first round twice and missed them the other year.
I don’t think it can be argued that Duncan throughout his career has made his teammates better. He has had no problem letting the offense flow through Tony Parker. Could you ever see Kobe Bryant willfully letting the offense flow through someone else? Could you ever see Tim Duncan holding an organization hostage and demanding this player be traded or that player be traded? No, Duncan is a leader through and through. With the exception of complaining to officials (we all know what the stunned Tim Duncan face looks like), Duncan keeps his mouth shut and leads by example. The difference between Duncan and Kobe is players want to play with Duncan because he’s a great leader and great teammate. The seasons from 2004 to 2007 show Kobe is far from a leader. I think it’s the leadership quality more then anything that separates Tim Duncan from Kobe Bryant.