At the start of the season, Lakers' Kobe Bryant looked to be on the path to acquire his sixth ring and tie Michael Jordan. But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation, reality decided to rear it’s head.
Both were successful with multiple title runs with teams built around their talents. But they took two completely different paths to success. These two distinct paths taken have also showed the difference in how superstars conducted themselves in the NBA of the late 1980s/early 1990s and the NBA of the 2000s.
Jordan won his championships by setting a hardworking example, but also by ensuring that his teammates carried their weight. He was notorious for going hard in practice, and making sure that his teammates matched his level of focus and intensity.
One example comes from his time with the Dream Team. There were times Chuck Daly would say enough and end practice, but Jordan would not allow the practice to end until his team won the final game.
You can look at the likes of John Paxson, Steve Kerr, and BJ Armstrong. All were deadly shooters in their own rights, but along side Jordan they were ready to knock down the big shot when Jordan got the double team.
That is what gave Jordan that extra dimension. You could stop him and get the ball out of his hands, but the supporting was ready and able to make you pay.
Bryant has achieved his goals by the sharing the spotlight in the beginning but eventually had to shoulder a larger portion of the offensive load.
In the start the presence of Shaquille O’Neal helped in the development of Bryant. He was able to let the big man do a lot of the heavy lifting as he got accustomed to the league.
As his confidence level rose, he began to take a more assertive role in the offense. Eventually Bryant ended up surpassing O’Neal as the focus of the offense.
Once O’Neal was traded, the focus was to get pieces that would allow the Lakers to keep the game close with Bryant slamming the door during crunch time. There was not a true Scottie Pippen type individual on the team. No one who could take over a game in case Kobe had an off game or was not available due to injury.
Both players tended to their and team businesses in different manners.
Jordan was a more behind the scenes and worked for the better of the team. Rarely did you hear bout Jordan criticizing teammates through the media. Personal matters were attended to behind closed doors.
Bryant took the opposite approach from the jump. During the 1996 draft, he made it crystal clear that he was going to play in Los Angeles come hell or high water. Bryant was not shy about his desire to get O’Neal out of Los Angeles to make the team his.
Another difference was college experience. Jordan had a few years under Dean Smith that showed him how to work in a group and trust his teammates. Jordan learned the benefits surrounding yourself with a team and how that makes you even more dangerous. Teams were not able to focus on Jordan as well as deal with a slashing James Worthy or Sam Perkins and Brad Daughtery down on the block. The presence of Kenny Smith also allowed him to focus on getting to his spots to do what he did best.
Bryant made the jump right from Lower Merion High School and forced his way to the Los Angeles Lakers. It seemed like he got his way from the start. You could see when they were winning titles, that Bryant had that desire to not be content being part of a dynamic duo. He wanted the glory and shine to be all his own.
The bigger his role got the more you could see him grow bolder. The increase in boldness lead to him getting more of the game/momentum changing shots in crunch time. Eventually the boldness ended with him giving the ultimatum of choosing either O’Neal or himself.
Despite Phil Jackson’s best attempts to rein in Bryant, management did little to back the coach and sided with the up and coming superstar. As a result, the team has followed his lead and tied their future to his star.
As Phil said in the book "The Last Season," Jordan always looked out for the best interest of the team. He was willing to putting personal glory aside to help the team win. Whereas Bryant would listen to what Phil had to say, say he would go along but in the end he would do what he wanted.
So although Bryant may catch Jordan eventually and get his sixth ring, the shine on his star may still not be as bright as Jordan’s.