For a long time, Phil Jackson avoided comparing Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as players. But when you get asked the same question over and over again, people wear you down. In the end, Jackson wrote about them in his book and started sharing the differences he saw coaching MJ and Kobe. Here's a summary of the differences.
Jackson puts both players in the context of their careers. MJ was 27 years old when he started coaching him, already a formed player and person. Kobe, on the other hand, was a kid, only 21, when Jackson started coaching him. That's why Kobe was a lot more "malleable" and willing to make major changes in his game. That's why Jackson describes Jordan more like a brother and Kobe as a son.
“With Michael, it was 'Let's do this'; with Kobe, it was 'I want you to do this.'”
You may not rank MJ and Kobe as the two best to play the game, but there is no dispute they are top two when it comes to competitiveness. Both guys took every second on the court or preparing for the court as a life and death situation. It didn't matter if it were a practice against NBA players or playing against kids at a basketball camp. But, according to Jackson, there was one difference.
Kobe's competitiveness stopped at the basketball court. MJ was different, everything is a competition with him - playing cards, on the golf course, whatever it may be.
What was clear before, and especially after the tragedy, was how much Kobe was appreciated in the basketball community. Players that played against him all agree they never played against a player who was as skilled as Kobe. Footwork, ball control, inside game, outside game - Kobe had every move and counter-move on the court. Phil agrees with that sentiment and gives Kobe an advantage in this regard.
If Kobe had more skill, MJ was the better leader according to Jackson. Both were hard on their teammates and expected excellence, but Jackson had no doubt in his mind that MJ was much more in control when it came to the atmosphere he would create in the locker room. In all his NBA championship, MJ was the best player on the team and the obvious leader. Kobe had Shaq for his first three rings, and you could tell it left a mark.
“Michael was masterful in controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a lot to go to make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had.”
MJ didn't look at record books as much as Kobe did according to Jackson. Jordan would bring his A-game to defeat a particular player or a team that was a challenger for the title - MJ's best nights were personal. Kobe would have a streak of 10 games scoring 50, or the 81 point game - his motivation was more often about making history.
Kobe's dad was a professional player, so he had insight and experience about the professional game from very early on. But, MJ spent 3 years in North Carolina with the great Dean Smith as his coach, and James Worthy and Sam Perkins as teammates. Jackson felt that MJ's experience at college, something Kobe didn't have coming to the NBA straight from high school, gave him an edge when comparing the two.
“The joke was, of course, who could hold Michael under 20 points? Nobody but Dean Smith.”
Running the triangle
The basketball pedigree Jordan had with Dean Smith made him receptive to the triangle. It was a major change to the way the Bulls have played, but MJ was willing to listen and accept the principles of the system. Kobe came straight from high school, where there weren't a lot of systems involved and he could do whatever he wants. But, being so young made him receptive to Jackson and he picked up the principles quite quickly. In this regard, Jackson had only words of praise for both players.
Jackson had no doubts about this one, MJ was a better, more efficient shooter than Kobe was. Basketball-Reference supports this claim - MJ has an FG career average of 49.7%, while Kobe is at 44.7%. Jordan had six seasons when he averaged over 50% from the field - Kobe never did.
When it comes to strength, imposing his will straight on, MJ gets the nod. Jackson describes him and bigger and stronger than Kobe. But, Bryant had more agility and flexibility which enabled him to use angles more when taking on a guy. The main conclusion here is that both players recognized where they had an advantage and developed a game that could use that advantage.
When comparing the two, this is most often mentioned by Jackson. Jordan has larger hands than Kobe, and it was a big advantage on the basketball court. Being able to pick up the ball with one hand, and control it with ease is a major advantage on MJ's side.
“He [Michael] had these incredible hands, and those hands were million-dollar hands.”