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Friday, March 30, 2007

Tex Winter Compares Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan

Roland Lazenby, the fine editor of Lindy's Pro Basketball--for which I have written several articles during the past two years--recently posted an interview with Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter on the subject of the similarities between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You can read the complete interview here. Winter concludes, "I tend to think how very much they’re alike. They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don’t know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best." He also dismisses the idea that Bryant took bad shots during his recent scoring binge: "We study the tapes. Actually, for the most part, he’s not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in. He’ll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them." These statements come from the person who invented the Triangle Offense and helped Phil Jackson implement it as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to six titles; then, Jackson utilized the same Triangle Offense to win three more titles in L.A. with Shaq and Kobe--and Winter says that Jordan and Bryant are "very much alike." The one caveat that Winter offers is that Jordan held his ground on the post better, while Bryant sometimes allows himself to get pushed off of the block and toward the three point line on offense.

Of course, these statements are perfectly in line with what I've written about Bryant for quite some time. Not surprisingly, someone who adds up 32 points and 16 assists and thinks that this is greater than 65 points would bypass the bulk of the article that equates Bryant with arguably the greatest player ever and zero straight in on something that Winter says near the end of the piece. "I’d like to see him play better defense," Winter comments, referring to Bryant. He added that he told this to Bryant directly but is not sure that Bryant will change his recent approach: "You know Kobe. He has his game plan. I think he heard me. But he feels there’s a certain way he’s got to play the game. But it doesn’t involve a lot of basically sound defense. He’s basically playing a lot of one-man zone. He’s doing a lot of switching, zoning up, trying to come up with the interception. The way Kobe plays defensively affects the team. Anybody that doesn’t play consistently good defense hurts the team. That’s not only Kobe. Our other guards tend to gamble and get beat. Another problem is that the screen and roll is not played correctly." Note that Winter did not call Bryant a poor defender; he wants Bryant to more consistently play "good defense." He also singled out the Lakers' number one defensive problem, which I have been harping on for months: poor screen and roll defense.

If Tex Winter thinks that Bryant can/should play better or more sound defense, I certainly would not argue the point--but what Winter said is a long way from saying that Bryant is a poor defender or that he has been a poor defender for some time. I think that the reason that Bryant "feels there's a certain way he's got to play the game" is because of the Lakers' overall defensive deficiencies. He knows that there are going to be miscues by the frontcourt players, so he can play "basically sound defense" until the cows come home but all it takes is one breakdown by someone else to turn that into wasted effort. So, Bryant is gambling in the passing lanes.

It is important to keep in mind that Winter, who has an absolutely brilliant mind for basketball and should be in the Hall of Fame, at times argued with Jackson and even Jordan during the Bulls' title runs. Winter is a perfectionist, as all great coaches are, so the slightest deviation from his fundamental view of the game will meet with disapproval.

Roland Beech's 82Games.com site tracks every player in the league and how his team does with him on and off the court. Bryant's offensive rating is 103.3 and his defensive rating is 101.2; his net value of 2.1 is better than anyone else on the team except for Brian Cook, who does not play nearly as many minutes. Bryant's +/- rating of 116 total points is by far the best on the team, meaning that the sum of his offensive and defensive contributions is greater than anyone else's. His "certain way...to play the game" is working better than anything else the Lakers have going, even if in theory it could be tightened up in certain areas. Just as significant as Bryant's 2.1 positive value is the stunning -7.4 value when he is not on the court, which gives him a net total of 9.5 (his 2.1 positive value plus the 7.4 his team loses when he is out). As most people can figure out by watching the Lakers play, the team is pretty crappy when he is not in the game--a -7.4 point differential means that you are a lottery team. The Memphis Grizzlies have the worst record in the league and their point differential is -5.3. How do Bryant's numbers in this regard compare to some of the other top players? LeBron James is 4.8 on and -4.0 off, for a net of 8.8. Dirk Nowitzki is 11.9 on and -3.0 off, for a net of 14.9. Steve Nash is 11.7 on and -2.3 off, for a net of 14.0. Tim Duncan is 12.5 on and +.1 off for a 12.3 net (there must have been some rounding here...). Beech stresses that these ratings are most useful for assessing a player's value to his own team and not necessarily for determining who is the most valuable player in the league. It is interesting to see that the Lakers are far worse without Bryant on the court than the Cavs, Mavs, Suns or Spurs are when their main guy sits. By extension, one would assume that when Bryant is on the court he also has to shoulder a greater load then those players; if the team is just bad when he is out, that suggests that when you sub him in for one player he is still "stuck" with the other four guys who were not doing enough to move the numbers in a positive direction. Bottom line: maybe Winter is right that the Lakers would be better off if Bryant got in a fundamental defensive stance on every possession and never gambled in the passing lanes--and maybe Bryant, who is carrying a greater load than any other superstar in the league who is on a playoff team, is right that he has to take some chances, whether to preserve energy or simply to disrupt the other team, because the other four guys will break down defensively sooner or later. If Bryant can get a steal or a deflection or force the offense to go in another direction--buying more time on the shot clock--this may not be "sound" but it may be the best chance that a flawed Lakers' team has. On the other hand, if Bryant's gambling is influencing the other guards to do the same thing then that is not good, because his instincts and skills are much better than theirs, so a decent gamble for him is probably a poor one for someone else.

Of course, over at "Basketbawful" headquarters there is much rejoicing that I have supposedly been proven wrong (even if you have to quote Winter out of context, ignore the rest of the article and disregard Bryant's statistical impact to come to the conclusion that I am wrong about Bryant). Apparently, they are unaware that Winter has said for quite some time that Bryant is the best player in the game. Last year's NBA Finals performance caused Winter to alter that opinion slightly and place Dwyane Wade equal to or even slightly ahead of Bryant but I've yet to hear Winter say that he would take Basketbawful's beloved Nash over Bryant. So, in the main issue at hand, Winter's comments comparing Bryant to MJ reinforce what I have said all along.

Interestingly, the comments section over at Basketbawful doesn't seem to be working--at least for me; maybe I've been blackballed. Maybe somebody else could pay them a visit and read the rest of Lazenby's article to them--slowly, so they can follow it--so that they understand that Winter sees many similarities between Jordan and Bryant. While they're at it, maybe we could also hear why Bryant's 43 points versus Golden State were meaningless--even though they came in a victory--but those same Warriors just ran the Suns off of the court.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:01 AM

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