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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Who is the "Best Player," Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash?

ESPN's Ric Bucher recently said that the NBA does not provide specific criteria for MVP voters because the league wants there to be a lot of debate and buzz about the award. I don't think that anyone in the NBA actually thought this issue through that carefully and deliberately but Bucher has a point that the lack of a clear definition of what an MVP is makes for very lively discussion. Should the award go to the best player on the best team? Should it go to the best player, period? Should it go to the player who is best at "making his teammates better"? Should it go to the most efficient player? Those are just some of the criteria that are bandied about by broadcasters, writers and fans. Even when people agree on which criteria to use they still may disagree about which player best fits that particular mold. My take has always been that the MVP should be awarded to the best player, regardless of his team's record. I define the best player to be the one who is the most skilled--or, in certain cases, the most dominant; I think that Shaquille O'Neal should have been the MVP in 2004-05 because of how dominant he was in the low post. If he had come back sooner this season and played at his current level he would be a viable MVP candidate this year, too. In the absence of a truly dominant low post threat who distorts team's defenses, this year's MVP should go to the most skilled player in the league: Kobe Bryant.

I just read a post that asserts that Steve Nash is a better player than Kobe Bryant. The author starts by comparing Steve Nash's "64 point game" to Kobe Bryant's 65 point game. He asserts that Nash had a 64 point game if you add his 32 points against Dallas to his 16 assists (times two). Then he goes a step further, noting that some of the assists were probably on three point shots, so that Nash actually was worth perhaps 70 points in that game. Nash's performance came against the team with the league's best record, while Bryant's 65 point game and his subsequent 50 point game came against teams with losing records. Looking at their season averages, Nash produces 42.1 points per game (19.1 ppg plus 11.5 apg, times two) and Bryant produces 41.0 points per game (30 ppg plus 5.5 apg, times two). He adds that he looked at Nash's game log from last season and thinks that Nash's 28 point, 22 assist game is more impressive than Bryant's 81 point game. He concludes by saying that he is literally pained by the idea that so many people believe that Bryant is the "best player in the game" and he says that they are fooled by Bryant's "flying through air, and dunking, and hitting crazy reverse layups and ridiculous 'I can't believe he just took that shot' fadeaways. In short, it's all about looking good in the highlight reel."

Valuing each assist at a full two points gives a lot of credit to the passer. This is a good "quick and dirty" way to count up what I call "tangible points" and I used this method myself in an earlier post--but this is a very thin reed on which to base one's entire conclusion about who is the best player in the game. If we give two points to the passer then do we give zero to the player who actually scored? Clearly, the more one thinks about this the less sense it makes. I don't know how many 32-16 or 28-22 games there have been in NBA history but there have been a lot more games like that than 81 point games. Bryant is also the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to follow a 60 point game with a 50 point game. Has nobody else in history ever played against two bad teams in a row? Bryant's shooting percentages in the 81, 65 and 50 point games are fantastic, his team won all three games and anyone who watched those games knows that if Bryant had not scored that way his team would have lost all three. Bryant's scoring feats, from a 35.4 ppg season average to his two months of 40+ ppg to his 81 point game to the 65-50 duo, can only be compared to those of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan.

We are supposed to believe that Nash is doing things that we have never seen before but, as Bill Walton might say, I am old enough to remember John Stockton, who averaged at least 14.4 ppg and 10.5 apg for 10 straight years. During that time he missed a total of four games and never had a "true shooting percentage" (which factors in three point shooting and free throw shooting) below .584. In most of those years, he had a tsp better than .600 and averaged more than 15 ppg and 12 apg. Stockton's career numbers--in 19 seasons, mind you, not retiring until the age of 40--are 13.1 ppg and 10.5 apg, with a .608 true shooting percentage. Nash's career true shooting percentage (not including this season) is .591 and he has averaged 13.5 ppg and 7.1 apg.

I looked up some Stockton game logs and found these numbers (points-assists): 21-23 (also, 10-13 from the field), 20-19, 27-17, 24-19, 25-19. Those all come just from 1991-92. Stockton had higher ppg averages in the preceding three seasons--and presumably more such stat lines--but those box scores are not available online. Remember, you have to go back to Wilt Chamberlain--and only Wilt Chamberlain--to find a 65-50 or a game with more than 80 points. Based on scarcity, I'm taking Bryant's scoring explosions over Nash's points/assists combos. Allen Iverson just had a 44-15, which is just the fourth 40-15 game in the last 20 years--so Nash's 32-16 is not even the best points/assists line of the month, let alone being comparable to the second best scoring outburst of all time. Is it overkill to add that Bryant scored his 81 in regulation and his 65 in a one overtime game, while Nash needed two overtimes for his 32-16?

I find it odd that the writer emphasizes that the season totals of ppg plus apg (times two) only slightly favors Nash, who has won the last two MVPs and probably will get more MVP votes than Bryant this year. It's hard to be considered the underdog when you already have won two MVPs. Bryant was a distant fourth last year. Since his production is, according to this writer, virtually identical to Nash's and since Bryant clearly is passing to vastly inferior teammates--leading to fewer assist opportunities and more double teaming of Bryant because the other four guys cannot shoot--it would seem that the writer should be bent out of shape because of how the voters disrespected Bryant last year. Based on his logic, the voting should have been a dead heat between Bryant and Nash, not a Nash runaway.

The reality is that Nash for MVP advocates should be hiding the numbers under the table, not bringing out a spotlight. There simply is not a good statistical case for voting for Nash as MVP. His candidacy is based on intangibles such as "making his teammates better." Supposedly, Nash is more "efficient" than Bryant, based on shooting percentages and assists. Wait a minute, though: according to the NBA's official efficiency statistic, Bryant ranks fourth in the league and Nash ranks twelfth. What about John Hollinger's PER rankings? Bryant is again fourth, while Nash is ninth. I would not base my MVP voting just on numbers--but if I were stumping for Nash's candidacy, numbers would be the last thing that I would bring up.

Bryant is the game's best and most skillful player because he has no weaknesses. He can score in the post, in the mid-post, from three point range and on the drive. He can finish with either hand. He rebounds, defends, passes well and can handle the ball with either hand. No other player is as complete. Tim Duncan and LeBron James have free throw weaknesses. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are not as good defensively as Bryant, nor can they guard multiple positions as well as he can. Dwyane Wade has no three point shot and is not as good of a ballhandler.

The much replayed three point shot that Bryant hit from the corner against Portland is a perfect example of why Bryant is so great. That play combined athleticism with perfect footwork. Find a video of that shot, rewind it and play it forward in slow motion. Watch his pivoting, how he set up the defenders. The final execution of the shot was aided by his strength and jumping ability but he freed himself with good footwork. He is a technician in that regard, just like Jordan was. The reason that so many well informed people call Bryant the "best player" is because he is, in fact, the best player. A lot of those same people would not vote Bryant as the MVP because they believe that the award is not necessarily meant to honor the "best player." Charles Barkley, Greg Anthony and the numerous other former players who are now talking heads and who say that Bryant is the "best player" are not being fooled because Bryant is "looking good in the highlight reel." When I interviewed Dave Bing, one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, he said of Bryant, "I think that he is probably one of the most gifted players that I have seen in a long time. Kobe comes to play and he's got all the skills." I've spoken to a number of current and former players about Bryant and they are all amazed by his abilities.

My MVP ballot this year would read Bryant, Nowitzki, Nash. I don't have a big problem with Nowitzki or Nash winning, if the criteria used emphasizes team success--just don't tell me that either one is "better" than Bryant or that a 32-16 game is somehow "better" than an 81 point game or a 65 point game.

The funny thing about the Kobe Bryant haters is that facts never get in the way of their zingers and they can shamelessly tailor their attacks to "fit" any situation. Remember when Bryant outscored Dallas 62-61 for three quarters? That is the same Dallas team that made it to last year's Finals (that might be better than 32-16...). Did that win over Bryant's haters? Nope; he should have stayed in the game and gone for 70 or 80--he cheated the fans of a chance to see history. So, when Bryant placed a dead in the water Lakers team on his back, dragged them from way behind to a win and scored 81 points, that must have won over the critics, right? Nope; that just showed that he is a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than anything else. I think that Bryant's haters are the children and grandchildren of the Chamberlain haters who will insist to your face that Chamberlain's team lost in his 100 point game.

Many of the people who "analyze" Bryant's abilities as a basketball player could save a lot of time, paper and/or bandwidth by simply writing "I hate Kobe Bryant and if he averages a triple double for six seasons in a row and wins the championship each year I will still hate him and never give him his due. The end."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM



At Thursday, March 22, 2007 9:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be VERY happy if the MVP Award went the way of Comeback Player of the Year. The arguments never end, and the league can't be bothered to establish clear criteria.

Heck, I remember Rick Barry writing about the need for an additional "Most Outstanding Player" award in his autobiography ... and that was 35 years ago!

At Thursday, March 22, 2007 11:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This was a well written piece. You provide a very strong case for Kobe Bryant as the best player in the NBA based on a sound rationale.

Eric Poch

At Thursday, March 22, 2007 11:49:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

I usually dont comment on your post with Bryant because you are overboard with his praise.

But look, David, after watching him hit the Grizzlies for 60 even a hoops fan like myself has to comment. I didnt see all of the top scorers ever but I have seen all of them in the past 25 years. Bryant is definitely number 2. Of all time he is 4. (Wilt, Mike, Baylor, him) Thats just right now though. (laughs) The best player in the league.........please its no contest. Bryant is way better than anyone in the league. Its not because he can score 60 but its because he is smarter than everyone else and he wants to kill.

First of all, ever year he gets better. He doesnt get that many offensive fouls which means he is in control. He doesnt take bad shots anymore like he used to (and he used to take a lot of bad shots.) The key difference that separates him from all of the all-time great scorers is the fools gold, or 3 point shot. When he gets hot from 3, forget it.
In a previous post when he got suspended I said he would go off. I was a few weeks late but it took the witch hunt and the elbows to get him going. Its a shame he couldnt get Kidd. Thats all he needs. They dont need inside scoring because he scores so well. Kidd would have been perfect.

There is more but Ill end it with this. Before he retires he will score 90 or 100 in a game. Wow what a limb I went out on.

At Friday, March 23, 2007 4:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right about Barry talking about an "Most Outstanding Player" award; he mentioned the same thing to me when I interviewed him. He has talked about this for quite some time and he makes a valid point.


Glad that you liked the piece and thank you for taking the time to comment.


Man, it would be fun to watch Kidd and Kobe on the same team--two smart players, two winners, and Kobe would have the perfect guy to feed him the ball and take care of the facilitator role in the triangle, allowing him to slide full time into the MJ attacking role (which he has done the past few games, anyway).

I used to think that no one would ever approach Wilt's 100 points. Wilt himself never got past 80 other than that game. David Thompson's 73 came on the last day of the season when his teammates were feeding him the ball, as did David Robinson's 71. The best MJ ever did was 69 and he needed one overtime to get it; he had 63 in two overtimes versus Boston to set the all-time playoff record but he looked spent by the second overtime. But when Kobe scored 81 in regulation and looked fresh, for the first time ever I realized that it is at least possible that Kobe could get 90 or 100. It would take a close game, an overtime wouldn't hurt of course, and Kobe would have to be hot from three point range and shoot a lot of free throws, but Kobe has the energy, the skills and the willpower to possibly do this if the circumstance presents itself. Just to be able to make that statement with a straight face is actually quite amazing. I won't go quite on the limb that you did and definitively say that he will score 90 in a game but I certainly think that he could do it if the right circumstances present themselves.

At Friday, March 23, 2007 5:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MVP = Most Valuable Player of the League. However MVP has always meant to me to mean the player if removed from his team would be missed the most. Also you must be on a top team to qualify.

Its a league award, but really is intra-team based. So it goes without saying, this award is for the best team player who without his team would seriously falter.

Kobe Bryant is for by far the most accomplished offensive player in the League, a really good defensive player when he wants to be, a great passer, a very good rebounder and a joy to watch. But he is also the biggest ball hog in the league and thus not the ultimate team player. His team is very good, but not one of the top teams and poses no threat to the other top teams. His team has NO chance of winning a championship this year, thus just based on that he should not be seriously considered for the award.

Steve Nash is obviously a more valuable player to his team, who without would have a tough time. His control from the point guard position is a thing of beauty to watch and is near impossible to stop. Again as his team is one of the top teams and actually has an outside chance for a championship, Nash is clearly a better choice for MVP.

With all this said, either Shaq or Duncan will be raising the League Championship trophy at the end of the year and thus only those two should be considered as the MVP's. Even though hes getting older, Shaq is still the most dominate player, and Duncan right behind him. When these two put their mind to playing during the playoffs, it is near impossible to stop them and have combinded to win 7 of the last 8 championships between them.

No matter how many points Bryant scores, or how many assists Nash dishes out, Shaq and Duncan are the leagues true MVPs and will be for at least the next few years.

At Saturday, March 24, 2007 1:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MVP (or as mentioned, maybe another title MOP) should be the best player in the league. Kobe should've won it at least 2 times already.

At Saturday, March 24, 2007 4:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bryant is not a ball hog. He passes the ball a lot and ranks in the top 20 in the league in assists. He would have more assists if his teammates could actually make open shots.

I already said that if Shaq had come back earlier and played this way that he would be a good MVP candidate; I would have voted for him over Nash two years ago but he has not played enough games this year to qualify, in my opinion.

Why is Nash "obviously" more valuable? The Lakers would be a lottery team without Kobe. Kobe's Lakers took Nash's Suns to seven games last year despite the fact that the Suns have much more overall talent. Put Kobe on the Suns and Nash on the Lakers and Kobe's Suns would have won in five games.

At Saturday, March 24, 2007 5:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I completely agree with you! The analysis from bascetballful was just AWFUL!! So that means a guy the averages 0 points & 12 assists would be the same as a guy that averages 10 points & 7 assists????? I would imagine that the guy that AVERAGES 0 would be a non scoring threat, thus, defenders would just play the passing lanes more, what i'm trying to say is, this guy's analysis is not viable from a lot of aspect, & is HORRIBLE, AWFUL!!!!! At least some of us (from the comments) have a clue about what we are talcing about!

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 12:33:00 AM, Blogger phanb said...

Great Article... very concise valid points...

Now I love it when people just shoot themselves in the foot

Kobe is not as valuable as Nash??? but you've just stated that he's the best offensive player, great defender, good distributor and clutch

hmmm let's see... he's not as good of a team player though... WOW what an insane arguement...

why would Kobe need to be a distributor if they already have Odom & Walton making sure people get the ball??? That's like asking Nash to play the post even though you have Amare & Marion... just a stupid thing to try...

Value comes from what you supply to your team, which you pointed out in your assessment of Bean Jr's abilities... he's their only legit and consistent scorer... their only clutch shooter... best ball handler... best post player...

can the same be said about Nash in regards to what he supplies the Suns?? Even Nowitzki and what he supplies the Mavs??

Hell look around the league and the conclusion becomes quite clear, Kobe is more important to his team then any player in the L

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 2:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Welcome to 20 Second Timeout, Phanb. Glad to hear that you liked the article. The funny thing is that Kobe hasn't stopped putting up 50 point games while we are all discussing this. I wonder how many 50 point games it would take before the Kobe haters said "uncle"? My guess is that if Kobe scored at least 50 points in every game between now and game seven of the Finals and the Lakers won the championship that someone would come up with some "analysis" to show that Kobe actually is not the best player.

At Wednesday, April 16, 2008 12:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Kobe Bryant is an amazing player along with Steve Nash. Though, Kobe Bryant has a lot of points per game, Steve Nash has a lot of great shots and many assists which means he is a TEAM PLAYER. Although Bryant is a ball hog, I think thats reasonable because he isn't on that great of a team with a lot of great shooters. Nash, on the other hand, is on a very good team, so he will pass the ball a lot more times because there's actually people that can make the shot. Nash doesn't really HAVE to pass to his teammates, so I consider him a great team player. He was also voted the most basketball smart player in the NBA. Which means he's not gonna take every single shot, unlike Bryant. Although Bryant is once again, on a bad team, he doesn't pass very often at all. Nash has an average of 11.5 assists per game, unlike Bryant, who has an average of 5.5 assists per game. He just takes every shot he can. Overall, I think Nash should be the MVP for this year.

At Wednesday, April 16, 2008 4:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are a bit late to the party, as you posted this comment about a year after I made the original post. Kobe has now led the Lakers to the best record in the West in 2007-08. Kobe has one one-time All-Star playing beside him (Gasol)--and he did not join the team until midseason! Kobe has less help around him than Nash or Paul and Kobe has played the second half of the season with a finger injury that will require surgery. It looks like in 2008 he will finally get the MVP award that he should have already received a couple times.

I don't know who voted Nash "the most basketball smart" player in the NBA. Nash certainly has a high basketball IQ but so does Kobe. Nash is a pg, Kobe is a sg, yet Kobe leads his team in scoring and assists; most sgs don't lead their teams in assists. Kobe most assuredly does not shoot all the time but he has led the league in scoring twice and he finished second this year so it makes sense for him to shoot as often as he does.


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