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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Will Laker Improvement Help Kobe Bryant to Win his First MVP?

On the surface, the MVP is an individual award but, as ESPN's Chris Broussard points out (subscription required), team considerations factor in heavily because voters frown on selecting a player from a team that did not win at least 50 games; if that were not the case, Kobe Bryant would most likely have won the MVP the past two seasons. The 17-10 Lakers are on pace for about 52 wins, which would be enough for Bryant, widely acknowledged as the league's "best" player, to finally earn recognition as its "most valuable." The ironic thing is that Bryant's numbers are actually worse this season than they were in 2006 or 2005 but this may be the season that the voters finally honor Bryant's excellence as opposed to looking for excuses not to do so.

Many casual NBA viewers don't really appreciate how good Bryant is; they reflexively dislike him because they don't root for the Lakers or because they just don't watch the game analytically. However, executives, coaches, scouts and players literally speak in awed tones about Bryant. Broussard reports that a scout recently told him, "The crazy thing is that he's so far and away the league's best player. It's not even close. It's like he's playing a different game than everyone else." This scout told Broussard that Bryant is one of the top eight players in NBA history and challenged Broussard to name eight players who are better than Bryant. The only players who this scout would definitely place ahead of Bryant are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Broussard adds that this scout placed Bill Russell and Larry Bird below Bryant and that Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan were not mentioned in the discussion. I don't have Bryant in my pantheon of the ten greatest players of all-time--yet; right now, Bryant would be in my top 15 all-time but with each year of MVP-level play he is moving up and it is certainly possible that Bryant will be in the top 10 before his career is over. However, this scout is not some lone voice in the wilderness when he proclaims how great a player Bryant is. Mark Jackson adamantly maintains that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has a chance to be the greatest player of all-time and Dan Majerle, who played against both Jordan and Bryant, recently told me that "Kobe's just like Jordan"--and not just in style, but in ability. That is why it does not surprise me to read what this scout told Broussard, because when I talk to insiders around the league I hear similar things about Bryant. Any doubts about Bryant's status as the league's best player should have been erased last summer when his work habits, skill level and defensive intensity raised Team USA's play to a level that it has not reached in many years. LeBron James, who may eventually become the best player in the NBA, consistently says that Bryant is the league's best player; he reiterated that statement yet again when he was interviewed by Mike Tirico during the halftime of the Monday Night Football game, adding that he has always looked up to Bryant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 26, 2007 12:20:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Another super game from Kobe today.

I think that if the Lakers keep up their current pace, Kobe will have a good chance to win the MVP. However, if LeBron goes back to putting up numbers similar to those he put up before his injury, and if the Cavs end up with a comparable record to the Lakers, I have a feeling LeBron will end up with the MVP. The media just seems to like him more.

It seems like the scout who contended that Kobe is Top 8 all-time was evaluating things more from a skills/ability perspective and less from an "accomplishments" perspective. In that sense the scout may be right (as sacrilegious as it may sound). Kobe plays better defense than Magic, Bird or Baylor did. He's a better shooter than Dr. J ever was. He's a better offensive player than Russell was. The four guys he placed ahead of Kobe could do virtually anything on the court at very high levels for their positions (save for Wilt and his free-throw shooting). The scout may be right from such a perspective, but I think accomplishments should matter a bit more. I agree more with your take and would place Kobe in the Top 20 for now, at about the same level as the Rick Barrys and Moses Malones and John Havliceks.

By the way, I've noticed that you've stated several times that you don't think Kobe is as good as MJ. In this assessment, are you factoring in accomplishments, or are you looking at it from a skills/ability perspective? If it is the latter, in which specific areas do you think MJ had more ability than Kobe does? I don't necessarily disagree with you, I'm just curious.

Anyway, maybe it is better if people started just ranking players by era. As the years go by, and more and more players have worn an NBA jersey, it will become unfair to older players to try to fit the pantheon in only 10-12 slots. Just like George Mikan is seen as a dinosaur nowadays, pretty soon people will see Wilt, Oscar, Bill Russell, etc. in the same way and leave them out of the discussion. (I think it may have already happened to Elgin Baylor, who does not have a defining stat which forces people to remember and recognize him, like Oscar's triple-double season, or Wilt's 50 ppg, or Russell's 11 rings.)

 
At Wednesday, December 26, 2007 6:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

When the Celtics got off to a quick start, I thought that the MVP would be KG's to lose but he may in fact be "losing" it since his stats are hardly gaudy and his reluctance/inability to produce in the clutch was very evident against Detroit and figures to show up during the team's West Coast trip, unless Pierce or Allen bail him out by hitting a lot of game winners--but is KG the MVP if he has to rely on them to do that?

I get the impression that the media regrets giving Dirk the MVP in light of what happened in the playoffs and I don't think that there is a groundswell to give Nash his third MVP, so it could very well be a race between Kobe and LeBron. LeBron is more popular but Kobe is more widely regarded as the best player (even by LeBron himself). If the Lakers can get to 50 wins and nobody manufactures some kind of controversy to reflect badly on Kobe then this may be Kobe's year.

Although I did not speak with Broussard or the anonymous scout in question, I agree that the scout seems to be looking at things from a "skills" perspective more than an "accomplishments" one.

MJ is definitely more "accomplished" than Kobe, both from a team standpoint (more championships) and an individual one (scoring titles, MVPs, DPoY--even though some of those things are obviously beyond Kobe's control; even if you give Kobe the two MVPs I think he deserves he would still trail MJ in that category). In terms of "skills," I think that they are pretty close. Shooting percentages are somewhat dependent on the context of one's era and the defensive rules in place at that time but I think that MJ was a more reliable mid-range jumper shooter than Kobe is. Kobe has the edge in terms of range but in that mid-post area I think that MJ was a little deadlier. I also think that MJ was just a little better as a finisher in the paint in terms of not getting the ball stripped; Kobe does not have super large hands like Doc or MJ, so when he goes into traffic he does not have the full menu of options that they did and he is a little bit more vulnerable to having the ball knocked away. Kobe is the closest player in the modern game to MJ and there probably is not a huge difference but I'd give the edge to MJ. Also, even though I don't really care about the whole #1/#2 business in terms of who gets "credit" for the Shaq-Kobe dynasty, there is no question that Kobe's stock would go up in everyone's eyes if he wins another title while playing at an All-NBA level.

I agree that ranking by era is probably more fair. You will notice that in my pantheon piece I allude to this and that I don't rank the players within the pantheon; I also don't have a problem with expanding that pantheon at some point to include Duncan and one or two other guys. Duncan actually probably belongs in there now. Baylor is probably one of the most underrated players in terms of what casual fans know but people who understand basketball history will always place him near the top.

 
At Sunday, December 30, 2007 1:47:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I hope that the media realizes that it has gone too far in recent years with the Nash and Dirk MVPs. KG's value is probably more evident on the defensive end. I am very surprised by how well the Celtics have been able to play defensively. I agree though, KG is going to have to have a few big games/moments, or he'll have to raise his stats to get the MVP.

I was actually comparing MJ and Kobe in terms of skills with a friend the other day. We agreed that MJ was quicker and could get to the basket and finish a little better than Kobe, and we agreed Kobe is a superior long-range shooter. He contended that MJ's mid-range game was better, and I disagreed (I didn't see much difference either way). Now that you make the same point, I think I'll have to go back and take another look at MJ's mid-range game.

 
At Sunday, December 30, 2007 4:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

MJ's mid range jumper became an even more important part of his game during the second three-peat, when he was not quite as explosive as he had been when he was younger. The staple of his game really became that turnaround shot in the mid-post area. MJ could still go to the hoop, of course, but his game in, game out bread and butter became that mid-range shot. Kobe has a good mid-range game as well, but we're talking about comparing the best of the best and I think that MJ's was a bit better.

 

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