Two weeks ago, Kobe Bryant passed former teammate Shaquille O'Neal for fifth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. The milestone prompted lots of discussion about who is the greatest Laker of all time, with Kobe's place in franchise history being mooted alongside Magic, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem and Shaq, among others.
In his last Baseball abstract, Bill James, the pioneering baseball statistician and godfather of the Sabermetric revolution had a righteous rant about the fact that Andre Dawson was named the NL MVP in 1987. James opined about Dawson's selection "there are occasions in your professional life that make you think you're not making any progress. The election of Andre Dawson as the National League's MVP is one of mine." James noted that people criticized him all the time for an over-reliance on statistics at the expense of "intangibles" and the "little things." James pointed out, however, that Dawson's selection had nothing to do with intangibles or the little things (particularly since the Cubs finished in last place in 1987) -- it had to do with the fact that the "Hawk" hit 49 homers and drove in 137 runs and that MVP voters overwhelmingly voted for players with high RBI totals. In other words, whether they admitted it or not, their votes were based on statistics -- and really, one statistic. And James argued, if we're going to rely on stats to evaluate players, we should understand what it is we're relying upon. James insisted that if you took all of Dawson's measurable contributions into account as well as the context in which he was playing -- Wrigley Field -- you'd know that he wasn't one of the thirty best players in the National League in 1987.
Baseball writers and analysts have come along since 1987 in how they think about statistics. Basketball commentary and analysis is not as far along. And this has a lot to do with how Kobe Bryant could widely be considered to be a greater player than Magic Johnson. For all of the talk about Kobe's intangibles, about which more in a moment, we are having the discussion about Kobe's greatness because he scores a ton of points. Yes, his teams have won five championships, and that can be part of the discussion, but what leads off almost every story about almost every basketball game is what individual scored the most points. And the sports economist Dave Berri has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that what gets players all-star votes, MVP consideration and large contracts is, more than anything else, how many points they score. It's not "heart," or "killer instinct" or "will to win" that draws the accolades -- it's filling up one particular column on a box score. So, when we talk about basketball greatness, the fact is that people use statistics or, all too often, one statistic, to identify those worthy of praise. Whether we should or not is a separate question. But the fact is -- we do. All the time. Whether people admit it or not. And when you look at the stats properly, Magic simply destroys Kobe.
Before we get to the statistical comparison between the players, let's compare them on intangibles and being a "winning" player. The championship count is a wash - each has five. No one can seriously deny Magic's insatiable will to win, or that he made his teammates better, or that he would fill whatever role necessary to win (lest anyone reading this not know: as a rookie, in the final game of the 1980 NBA finals, with the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar sidelined by injury, Magic jumped center and merely lit up the Sixers for 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Lakers to the title. Out-intangible that!).
Among Kobe's greatest intangible assets is said to be his legendary late game fearlessness. But ESPN's Henry Abbott looked at the numbers in depth last year and found that Kobe's record in taking end-of-game shots with the game on the line is actually not good at all, that the Lakers clearly wished he would do less of it and that the frequency with which he takes those shots hurts his team. (Abbott also has a good discussion of the uses and limitations of statistical data). Kobe is, by all accounts, ferociously competitive, he's an extraordinarily gifted athlete, has a reputation as a great defender (but that's simply not the reason he gets the attention he does). But there is no real way to argue that he out-intangibles Magic. (Greenberg tried to downgrade Magic a notch by noting that he had Kareem on his teams. But, um, Kobe won his first three championships with a guy named Shaq, an utterly dominant player during those years. And Kareem was a shadow of his former self by the time of Magic's last two championships).
If we put all this stuff aside, where there is no way to argue that one player has a significant advantage over the other, we are left with the players' actual performances on the court -- the measurable things they did to help their teams win basketball games. On that score, there is simply no comparison between Kobe and Magic. I looked at Berri's Wins Produced (WP), because it does the best job of all the new-fangled statistical measures (including ESPN"s favorite toy, PER, created by John Hollinger) of connecting individual players' contributions to team wins and winning is the obvious starting point for any discussion of player greatness (so Kobe supporters will tell you). Wins produced accounts for all the things you find in a box score. According to WP, and considering all those measurable contributions, for in 2002-03, Kobe Bryant accounted for an estimated 13.2 wins (an average starter on an average team will be in the range of six to eight wins). It happens that that was the best season of his career, according to WP. And it also happens that that figure was lower than every single season of Magic's career, except for his short comeback season in 1995-96 and 1980-81, when he was hurt and missed half the season. Seven times in Magic's career he had 20 or more wins produced. Where the rubber hits the road -- connecting measurable contributions to winning games, Magic simply blows Kobe out of the water.
Let's move beyond WP and drill down into the stats themselves, by comparing Kobe's best statistical year (2002-03) and Magic's best year (1982-83). Kobe averaged about thirty points, seven rebounds and six assists. He also had 2.2 steals per game and 3.5 turnovers. He shot 45 percent from the field, including 38% from distance and 84 percent from the charity stripe.
In 1982-83, Magic averaged about 17 points per game, 10.5 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game. He shot nearly 55 percent from the field (he rarely shot threes that year) and 80 percent from the line. He also had 2.2 steals per game and turned the ball over 3.8 times per game. In sum, Kobe scored a lot more points than Magic, and Magic had lots more assists and an edge in rebounding. Their fouls and blocked shots were a wash. Kobe also played five more minutes a game, so the per game totals are a little higher than the per minute totals would be. Let's go one step deeper. As I said, Kobe's biggest edge is in scoring. What accounts for that? Well, Kobe averaged 23.5 shots per game in 2002-03. Magic took just under 12 shots per game in 82-83. In other words, Kobe took twice the number of shots that Magic did. How'd Kobe do in those "extra shots?" Well, if Magic took the same number of shots per game as Kobe, he'd have to go four for twelve in order to have the same shooting percentage as Kobe. Now it's true that Kobe has to get credit for shooting a high percentage from three and for getting to the line more than Magic, but that only makes up for a portion of that 4-12 gap between the two (for those of you who pay attention to such things, Magic's "true shooting percentage" -- which factors in the composition of a player's shots, including threes and free throws -- was substantially better in the comparison season and over the course of his career than was Kobe's).
In sum, the only thing Kobe Bryant clearly did better in his best season than Magic did in his was take way more shots, which he hit at a much lower percentage than Magic. And please don't tell me that defenses had to worry more about Kobe's shots (see again Abbott about his late game misfires) than they did about all the ways Magic could destroy a defense.
You can try to argue that Magic had better teammates than Kobe, but how can you prove that the difference in their teammates makes Kobe a better player than Magic? As I've already said, the best you can say about Kobe vs. Magic on heart and intangibles is that it was a wash. Kobe has a great reputation as a defender, but he wasn't better at stealing the basketball or blocking shots than Magic. When you get right down to it, there's really almost nothing Kobe actually did better on a basketball court than Magic apart from three-point shooting (and over the course of their careers, the gap in three point shooting percentage is not very big).
Listen to any coach talk about winning basketball. What will they talk about? Intensity and heart and all that good stuff, of course. And again according to their peers, Magic and Kobe were each off the charts in those terms. What next will coaches say? Good shot selection. Rebounding. Being unselfish and moving the ball. And we have good data for evaluating those things -- rebounding, assists-to-turnovers, shooting percentage. And on those fronts, the two players are not comparable.
To repeat, if you want to discount statistics, to focus on championships and intangibles, entertainment value, best scowl, whatever -- that's fine. But even when folks in sports insist that stats don't matter, or they don't explain everything, it's almost always true that they are still relying on statistics to make their judgments. In a way, of course, we have no choice but to rely on stats in evaluating players, because unless we can see every minute of every game played by every player, we have no other means of getting our arms around the totality of their actual performance. And if we're going to rely on actual measurable performance and do so in a way that connects individual performance to winning games the Kobe vs. Magic debate is not a debate at all.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Kobe Bryant became the Lakers' all-time leading scorer two weeks ago. He achieved that milestone in 2010.