I have no idea who’s going to win the NBA Finals. I don’t even know if part 3 of the Warriors-vs.-Cavaliers trilogy is going to be any good. For every Dark Knight, Bourne Identity or Iron Man trilogy, there’s an Austin Powers or Star Wars prequel trilogy.
What I do know is this: No matter how the finals play out, they have ended a 15-year debate—a debate that has caused angry text messages, endless hot takes on sports shows and countless argument-induced crooked lineups at the barbershop. Now, the Jordan-vs.-LeBron debate won’t be settled in this finals, no matter what LeBron does. But even before the first tipoff, the first Steph Curry 3-pointer, the first Draymond Green dick punch (or pic), the first Kyrie Irving crossover, we know, definitively, that LeBron James is better than Kobe Bryant.
Heading into these finals, everyone is talking about whether a victory by the Cleveland Cavaliers will make LeBron James the greatest NBA player of all time. Whether it would tie the King with his Airness, or at least make him 1A to Michael Jordan’s undisputed No. 1, you know who isn’t in the conversation anymore? Kobe Bryant. For years, the argument was this:
“How LeBron gonna be as good as Jordan when he ain’t even better than Kobe???” says the guy at the barbershop who refers to women as “females” and thinks the earth is flat.
This argument was understandable at one point. There was a two-year run, from June 2010 to February 2012, that launched Kobe-stans into the “Kobe as the Gandalf You Shall Not Pass” barrier to the true Jordan heir. Peak Kobe happened to cross over the Nadir of LeBron. In June 2010, Kobe beat the hated Boston Celtics in a seven-game throwback to the ’80s series and won finals MVP.
When asked about how it felt to win his fifth championship, Kobe told reporters, “I just got one more than Shaq,” catapulting him to second-best shooting guard of all time and a member of the Sports Petty Hall of Fame all in one comment. Black Mamba got No. 5 (rings). LeBron? A few weeks after Peak Kobe, he made his “Decision” to take his talents to South Beach, and kicked up a racial and cultural firestorm in Comic Sans (how dare that black guy control his own career?!).
Then LeBron wilted in the 2011 finals against the Dallas Mavericks despite the Miami Heat being favored and leading the series 2-1. A year later, in the waning seconds of the 2012 All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant was guarding LeBron and challenged the King to take the game-winning shot against him. LeBron passed to an open Deron Williams, who missed the shot.
LeBron was labeled “Nonclutch” and was derided by Kobe and even Carmelo Anthony after the game. The die was cast; LeBron was never going to be the greatest. In fact, during that time and his early years with the Heat, many argued that he was Scottie Pippen to D-Wade’s Jordan, and Kobe fans were ecstatic. However, a little something happened in the six years that followed.
Basically, since that fateful All-Star Game, LeBron has ripped off the greatest six consecutive years of any basketball player in the modern era. Six straight NBA Finals; two gold medals; three finals MVPs; bringing the Cavaliers back from being down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors in the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history; a few really good seasons of Survivor’s Remorse; and that’s before facing Golden State for a record third-straight time this year.
The Warriors are so afraid of LeBron, they added Kevin Durant (the Real MVP of 2014), which is akin to bringing your brother-in-law, Marshawn Lynch, to the office flag football game. No matter how you spin it, LeBron has dominated the league for six years, with questionable help, against better competition than anyone has ever faced (LeBron’s teams have been Vegas gambling underdogs six out of eight times in the finals), and succeeded at a rate that no one, short of Jordan, and definitely not Kobe, has even come close to.
As LeBron’s greatness is cemented heading into these finals, Kobe fans have sort of degenerated into the NBA’s equivalent of Bernie Bros heading into the NBA Finals three-match. No matter what LeBron does, they think Kobe would win everything, all of the time.
Hall of Fame 1987 Celtics with Larry Bird at his best? Kobe’s 2001 Lakers would beat them. Michael Jordan’s 1991 Bulls team? Kobe woulda hit the game winner over Jordan in a five-game gentleman’s sweep. Ball at the half-yard line with 30 seconds to go in the Super Bowl? Kobe would’ve run it in for a touchdown. Down 15 percent to Donald Trump in Pennsylvania on Nov. 7, 2016? Kobe rallies the Philly suburbs and dunks into the White House.
However, the legend of Kobe can no longer match up to the reality of LeBron. That’s why, on every single sports show (you know the ones: where the black guy and the white guy yell at each other about sports – as opposed to Trump; that’s Fox News), LeBron haters are stumped. With Kobe fading in historic relevance a year after retiring, the Skip Baylesses and Rob Parkers of the world have to resurrect the ghost of Jordan because there are no more contemporary road blocks to justify not crowning LeBron. Tim Duncan? No impact beyond the court. Steph Curry? He’s not a two-way player. Kevin Durant? He joined the best team of all time just to chase a ring. Kobe was the last hope. And now he’s gone, too.
Over the next four to seven games, LeBron will do one of two things: add to his legend by beating the Golden State Warriors, arguably the best-assembled team in the history of the NBA Finals, or get crushed by that Frankenstein sports monster from Oakland, Calif., and still put some distance between himself and every other player of his era.
No matter what, LeBron James is a better overall player than anybody else who’s played the game not named Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Kobe Bryant, he of the five rings and stans, is no longer in the conversation.
This article originally appeared online at The Root.