For much of the past decade, the debate over the title of the NBA's top player revolved around the Association's two marquee superstars; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. They will be remembered as two of the best players the game had ever seen, and the hoop gods had aligned the stars so that their peaks overlapped for a stretch of time. Fans became entrenched in two separate camps (I've always been the Bryant side), and passionate arguments reminiscent of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird days ensued. Bryant's supporters claimed that their guy was a superior pure shooter (especially from the line and downtown), a lights-out closer in the same vain as Mariano Rivera and above all, a winner with five championship rings, the Derek Jeter of the NBA. The King James disciples, and there were a lot more of them two years ago, replied that their guy was a better passer, rebounder, defender, and more efficient scorer. Bryant fans rebutted that James played for weaker teams and could pile up counting stats more easily, and James fans fired back that Kobe was selfish and a poor teammate, while LeBron made the other four guys on the court better. Statistically speaking it was very close, but you had to give the nod to James because of his more impressive all around numbers. But if you measure players by the number of titles they've won, and many people do, then the Black Mamba held an overwhelming advantage over his ringless peer.
But last year, the arguments died down as the two players seemed to be heading in opposite directions. James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and immediately promised myriad championships, while Bryant battled age and ailments during Phil Jackson's final season. His creaky knees prevented him from practicing with the team, and at 34 minutes a night he was getting the lowest amount of PT in his career since becoming a full time starter in the '98-'99 season. While James seemed poised to win multiple rings, Bryant's numbers dipped across the board and it looked like his best days were behind him. Miami absorbed all the attention and media coverage, whereas LA seemed to have been surpassed by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and an up-and-coming Thunder team. During the postseason, LeBron's Big Three made it to the NBA Finals, Kobe's Lakers got swept out of the conference semifinals by a Dallas team on its way to an unlikely championship. And for the first time since 2006-2007, neither Kobe nor LeBron walked away with the league MVP trophy (apparently some guy named Derrick Rose won the thing).
At the age of 33, when many of his contemporaries are beginning to slide down the slippery slope of their career arcs, Bryant has re-emerged as an MVP candidate and is back on LeBron's level. His offseason knee surgery in Germany has rejuvenated him and an early season wrist injury hasn't derailed Bryant's white hot start to the lockout shortened season; Kobe's currently leading the Association in games played, minutes played, field goals made, field goal attempts, free throws made, points scored, and points per game, pretty good for the seventh best player in the NBA according to ESPN. His usage rate is higher than it was in 2005-2006, when, at the peak of his selfishness, he averaged 35.4 points per game and jacked up more than 27 shots a night because the Lakers surrounded him with Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Chris Mihm (seriously, other than Lamar Odom and an 18 year-old Andrew Bynum, Kobe had zero help. He would have killed for the Mo Williams, Antawn Jamisons and Anderson Varejaos Bron Bron left behind in Cleveland). And even though Bryant is taking nearly 25 shots a game, he's still racking up nearly six dimes per game, too, so he's not playing like a total ballhog. But because he's handling the ball so much in an attempt to carry the offense, he's also leading the league in turnovers, which is pretty hard for a non-point guard to do.
Even so, Kobe's not the only one who's getting better. James returned this year with a much improved post game and is scoring more efficiently. He stopped hoisting up threes, too, and is down to 1.5 attempts per game. He's picked up the slack with Wade sidelined and has re-established himself as a frontrunner in the MVP race, along with Bryant and Durant. As long as Kobe can stay healthy (a tall order given his age and 37 minutes per game), there should be a three-way battle for the honor as the top player in the NBA. No matter who you prefer, at least Bryant has made things more interesting, allowing us to debate the merits of Kobe vs. Lebron once again.