Black Mamba vs. Big Fundamental

Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have won nine of the last 14 NBA titles. But who's had a better career? AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have combined for nine titles, three MVP awards and 27 All-Star appearances. Not too shabby. Which future Hall of Famer has been more impressive this season? Where do they rank among the best players in history?

Our crew discusses the careers of two of the league's all-time greats ahead of the Lakers-Spurs showdown (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

1. Kobe or Duncan: Who has been more impressive this season?

Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Kobe. Have to give the edge to Bryant, mostly because he's having a strong statistical season while trying to settle a house of chaos. Duncan is having a renaissance season but it's still within familiar surroundings. Plus, Kobe's playing nine more minutes a game.

Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Duncan. Kobe's numbers have been great this season, but we've seen this level of production from him recently. With Duncan, the performances he's had this season were supposed to be a thing of the past. The Big Fundamental is putting up box scores harking back to his prime.

Daniel Nowell, Portland Roundball: Duncan. For all the well-deserved plaudits that Kobe is receiving this season for maximizing his efficiency, Duncan is playing better ball on a better team at an older age. Advanced metrics suggest that both Duncan and Kobe are turning back the clock in extraordinary ways, so this is the smallest of leads for Timmy.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: Kobe. What both are doing at this advanced stage of their careers is phenomenal, but Kobe has been slightly more efficient in terms of PER and has shot better when you account for free throws and 3-pointers. Add in that Kobe is playing nearly 10 more minutes a night than Duncan, and I lean toward No. 24.

Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: Duncan. His return to form is more impressive because of how unnatural it seems. Could anyone have expected that Duncan, who will be 37 by the end of the season, would be a leading candidate for defensive player of the year while posting per minute averages that rival his career best?

2. What do you most appreciate about Kobe?

Gutierrez: I've always appreciated his work ethic above all. His desire to perfect every element of his offensive game means there's no shot he hasn't practiced. You can feel almost as good about him tossing up a left-handed hook as you do him shooting a fadeaway because you know he's hit that shot a thousand times on the practice court.

McNeill: The attention to detail. Kobe's game is like one of those handmade, high-quality items you buy, where years after your purchase you keep noticing the little details that make it so good. That's Kobe. The footwork, body control, pump fakes -- his skill level is so much higher than most players, it's no wonder he's still playing at an elite level.

Nowell: His magician status. Kobe has consistently combined volume shooting with historic charisma to create the appearance of a legend no matter what deeper analysis might suggest. This quality has made him one of the most absorbing, entertaining players of my lifetime.

Soriano: The unyielding drive to continue to improve and the work it has inspired him to devote to his game and keep his body in peak condition all these years. For all the greatness bestowed upon him through his 6-6 frame and lineage, Kobe has also put in the hours to make himself the all-time great he is.

Varner: That he's the best pure scorer the league has ever seen. He's a great basketball player in all respects, but when one thinks of Kobe, they first think of his unmatched ability to get a hoop.

3. What do you most appreciate about Duncan?

Gutierrez: His unspectacular consistency. His body combined with his mastery of the small details of the game have made him the ideal power forward. Every season from his rookie season to this, his 16th season, you could legitimately include his team among the elite. His teams have never had a winning percentage below 61 percent, with a 50-win 2008-09 season being the worst of his career.

McNeill: I'll always appreciate Duncan's dedication to defense just as much as offense. He never cared all that much about his numbers -- the most points he's averaged in a season is 25.5 per game -- but he's always strived to be an elite defender. Physical limitations hindered him on D the last couple years, but we've seen his defensive performance rebound this season.

Nowell: There will probably never be another wide-eyed, dry-witted, publicly silent Chinese literature-studying four-year college player that becomes one of the game's all-time greats. Tim has peeled back just enough of the curtain to let us see he is a true original.

Soriano: The selflessness and underrated competitiveness that never seems to clash in how he plays the game. He gives his team what's needed when it's needed. He's able to dominate or recede to the background with seemingly equal ease and never seems out of place.

Varner: Duncan's most charming characteristic is his mind. Relative to other great big men, he's nothing athletically. But he's the best big man of his generation because he's far more cerebral than any of his peers.

4. Where does Kobe rank among the NBA's all-time greats?

Gutierrez: He's the second-best non-center ever to play. He wanted to be just like Michael Jordan, and he got as close as anyone could. That means he's right behind Jordan, then lands somewhere in the mix with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal and Bill Russell.

McNeill: At this point, it's hard to argue that there's more than one shooting guard better than Kobe in the history of the NBA. He's got pretty much everything you want from a historical perspective: individual numbers, team success and word-of-mouth buzz. People will be talking about Kobe long after his career is over.

Nowell: I'm aware that, for most, this question is settled, and Kobe is a top-tier all-timer who slides right behind Jordan in the shooting guard hierarchy. And I will accept that ranking in terms of "greatness" as in "meaningfulness to the game" while acknowledging that he has only one season among the top 100 all-time Win Shares, and it ranks 93rd.

Soriano: Kobe stands beside (or, right behind) Magic and Jordan as one of the best guards to ever play the game. His career accomplishments both as a member of a team and as an individual combined with his insane longevity make him one of the very best players ever.

Varner: Kobe is one of the best two wings to have played in the NBA. If not for Michael Jordan, that title would be his outright. Historically, his game is full of more mastery and genius than all but two or three players. We'll miss him when he's gone.

5. Where does Duncan rank among the NBA's all-time greats?

Gutierrez: He's the best ever at the power forward position, if only because his presence immediately turned every one of his teams into a contender for 16 years. As time passes, he'll probably be discussed in the same vein as Russell and Abdul-Jabbar, especially if he wins another title or two. Already, though, he's firmly in the top 10 of all time.

McNeill: He's a Top-10 player for sure. The tougher question is where he ranks at his position. Is he the greatest power forward of all time or one of the greatest centers of all time? The competition is much tougher at the center position. Either way, Duncan is one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history.

Nowell: Duncan is a little difficult to place, as "all-time greatest PF" is a little bit of a cheat more driven by his idiosyncrasies than his play style. Still, Duncan compares well, and often favorably, to every big not named Kareem or Wilt.

Soriano: Duncan is clearly one of the best 10 players to ever play and is right on the fringes of the big man group that includes Russell, Kareem, Wilt and Hakeem. Duncan's longevity and ability to anchor the paint on both sides of the ball put him in that class of player and establish him as the best big of his era.

Varner: Duncan is, arguably, the best big to ever play basketball. He's done more with less individually and collectively -- Duncan's career win percentage and championship rings are far more impressive when one considers the relative lack of talent he's played alongside -- than any player in history.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Israel Gutierrez covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Andrew McNeill, Daniel Nowell, Darius Soriano and Timothy Varner are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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