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LeBron and Kobe had different paths to getting buckets

LeBron and Kobe had different paths to getting buckets


Editor’s note: This is the Friday, Nov. 24 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


NEW YORK – There’s a short video the NBA released years ago from a USA Basketball gathering as LeBron James tucked in his shirt into his warm-up pants and did his best imitation of the Black Mamba. 

With his thumbs, index fingers and pinkies of each hand sticking out, James waved his hands back and forth, as the rest of the roster — including Bryant himself — guffawed. It was a signal that James had seen Bryant give to Phil Jackson for years, which he came to learn meant an isolation to the elbow, Bryant’s preferred play to his preferred shooting spot.

“All that means is get the hell out of the way,” James quipped to Bryant. “I figured it out now, Kob. You better change your signals.”

It’s hard to think of a more succinct way to paint the differences of the two men, who are on the cusp of crossing paths on one of the NBA’s most hallowed lists. James is a game-reader, a man whose mind has been arguably his greatest tool to uncoding the right play of the moment. Bryant was a powerful force of will who wanted you to get the hell out of his way — and it was hard to stop even if you knew what was coming next.

This thing is about to happen: LeBron James needs just 18 points to pass Bryant’s 33,643 career mark. It’s one small step for James, who has averaged more than 27 points per game in his career, but it’s a giant leap to No. 3 among all-time scorers and past a player whose shadow looms over him since he joined the Lakers in 2018.

When Bryant passed Michael Jordan in 2014, the parallels were unmistakable. Bryant’s game, in many ways, is a tribute to his ardent devotion to studying Jordan, to mimic his moves, his fadeaway jumpers, his array of spins and fakes to get to the basket any way possible.

James is more a contemporary of Bryant. Their careers overlapped for 13 years. Bryant made an impression on James, entering the league seven years before him and rising quickly as a young phenom.

“Seeing him come straight out of high school, he is someone that I used as inspiration,” James said recently. “It was like, ‘Wow.’ Seeing a kid 17 years old come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation.”

It’s harder to compare the two stylistically. Bryant was incredibly athletic as a young player, and had remarkable explosion that made him a spectacular dunk threat, but he never possessed the bulldozing physicality of James’ unusually burly frame. James developed midrange and long-range shooting touch to develop his offensive game, but he’s never quite had the finesse of Bryant’s elaborate collection of face-up moves.

Mamba mentality? James has taken plenty of game-winning shot attempts, but you’d be hard-pressed to say his ball dominance, which can just as often lead to a pass as a shot, mirror’s Bryant’s confidence in his own scoring ability. And why not, given that Bryant’s best scoring season of 35.1 points per game in 2005-06 took 14 years to be broached again (by James Harden)? At his best, nobody could touch him. The day he scored 81 points against Jalen Rose and the Toronto Raptors is essentially a Lakers Nation holiday.

The two men are in the same lonely neighborhood of the best scorers of all time despite each having a completely different ethos. A reporter Wednesday asked James what he had taken from Bryant and incorporated into his own game. James deferred.

“I can’t sit here and say that I did, because we were just two totally different players,” he said. “His willingness to do whatever it takes to win is something that you admired and love his drive to get better and better every year, but as far as his game, we’re different players. I’m more of a facilitator. He’s a natural-born scorer.”

That idea – that Bryant was born with a prenatural competitive desire that blows away all other competition – is one reason he is lionized among Laker fans. The romantic notion that Bryant was an assassin who wanted the ball in his hands for the last shot is one that has given some select Lakers fans a preference for Kobe over LeBron no matter what James does. 

What might be understated about the way James plays is how much it’s changed over the years while maintaining clockwork consistency. James has never averaged fewer than 20 points per game in a season, yet his shooting depth has lengthened, and he’s become comfortable in every area of the court. During his 2012-13 Miami season, Cleaning the Glass had him in at least the 80th percentile in shooting accuracy in literally every zone of the floor, finishing at least 40 percent from all ranges.

In his prime, he was one of the best finishers at his position ever. Now, he’s developed a game that’s adaptable, still averaging 25.2 points in Year 17 while playing alongside another elite scorer and leading the league in assists (10.8).

It’s hard to choose what’s more remarkable: the total body of work over his career, or the fact that James is still one of the game’s best at putting the ball in the bucket.

“The way he’s been doing it, and how he’s been doing it for so many years without the bumps in the road is the way he’s been able to catch that and it looks like he has a lot of years left to do some damage is what makes it impressive,” Danny Green said. “It seems like he’s still at the top of his game, and it’s Year 17, so he’s got at least three more years left of playing good quality basketball.”

But first: Philadelphia. It’s not lost on anyone that James could break this mark just a dozen miles from Lower Merion High School, where Bryant’s legacy really started taking off. James said he’s not counting points — he hopes to break the mark organically — but you’d be foolish to believe he doesn’t know exactly how many points he needs. He experienced a similar milestone last year when he passed Michael Jordan, coming out a little skittish but eventually finding a rhythm, then shooting his fingers off like pistols when he knew he had overtaken Mike.

The 76ers are expected to stop the game when James passes the mark. Obviously if it doesn’t happen on Saturday, the Lakers will host the Clippers on the 28th, and would surely stop the game then. There’s no word yet on if Bryant will attend either game.

For as much as Bryant wished to smother would-be challengers as a player, retirement seems to have taken the edge off his killer instinct. He told The Athletic last week about James: “I think it’s great for him. I mean, the amount of work he’s put in over his career, consistency, I think it’s awesome.”

James, still chasing Bryant’s five career championships, said something with a similar spirit.

“Kobe’s a legend,” he said Wednesday night. “That’s for damn sure.”

– Kyle Goon


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