The Best the Game Offers: Kobe Versus LeBronOne of my favorite basketball articles of all-time is "The Best the Game Offers," a 1982 Tom Callahan piece for Time about Julius Erving and Larry Bird. Erving was then a 32 year old, 11 year veteran coming off of an MVP season in 1981, while Bird was a third year player who had finished second in that year's MVP voting. Callahan lyrically explained why they were the two best players in the league and how similar they were in the ways that really count even though they were quite different from each other in some superficially obvious ways.
It may sound at first like a bit of a reach to say that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are reprising the Erving and Bird roles from back in the day but a closer look reveals some intriguing similarities:
1) Erving is six years older than Bird; Bryant is six years older than James.
2) James is considered a pass first player despite being a big-time scorer, while Bryant is known primarily as a scorer despite being a very good passer; Bird and Erving respectively were perceived in a similar fashion.
3) Bird was bigger and more physical than Erving; James is bigger and more physical than Bryant.
One difference is that Bryant and James play in different conferences and thus only face each other twice per season. Cleveland rallied from a fourth quarter deficit to post a 94-90 home win versus L.A. in December and on Sunday the Cavaliers once again came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Lakers, this time by a 98-95 count. Both players were magnificent: James had 41 points, nine rebounds and four assists, while Bryant posted 33 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. James scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including Cleveland's final six points in the last 1:16 and you can bet that the headline for most stories will be that James outdueled Bryant or words to that effect. In one sense, that is true: James' team won the game. However, the deeper reality is a bit more complex. Plus/minus stats can be noisy and are not definitive but they do give a broad idea of how well or how poorly a team performs while a given player is on the court; of course, the ideal scenario is to adjust the raw numbers to account for who else was on the court at the same time and how they performed. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Bryant had a positive plus/minus number in both losses (+8 in December, +8 again on Sunday) and that James had a negative plus/minus number in both games (-7 in December, -3 on Sunday). I don't believe for one second that James makes the Cavaliers worse but one thing that these numbers suggest is that Cleveland's bench performed better in these games. Indeed, on Sunday all four Cavs reserves who played had positive plus/minus numbers, while three of the four Lakers reserves who played had negative plus/minus numbers.
Bryant and James each made some mistakes on Sunday. Both players went 0-2 from the free throw line late in the game. James had a game-high five turnovers and shot just 1-5 from three point range, while Bryant lost his composure and cost his team a point by getting whistled for a technical foul in the third quarter. During one sequence when Bryant was being guarded by James, Bryant repeatedly tried to shake James with dribble moves before missing a fadeaway jumper that seemed a bit forced. When Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson sat Bryant down for a 1:22 stretch in the fourth quarter, ABC announcers Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy speculated that Jackson may have been sending Bryant a message. I don't know if that was the case, but the message that ended up being sent was probably not what Jackson intended, because the Lakers led 86-85 when Bryant sat down and they trailed 90-86 when Jackson put him back in the game. The Lakers outscored the Cavs 9-8 the rest of the way but could not overcome the quick, negative swing that happened when Bryant was out of the game. Van Gundy noted that despite Bryant shooting 6-6 from the field in the first half the Lakers actually trailed 49-40 at halftime but that in the second half the Lakers stormed in front with Bryant shooting more often and less accurately (Bryant shot 10-21 from the field for the game, while James shot 16-32). Van Gundy's explanation for this is that when Bryant is aggressive he draws fouls (Bryant attempted a game-high 18 free throws), which enables the Lakers to shoot the bonus sooner; Van Gundy likes the energizing effect that Bryant has on his team when he shoots a lot, even if he misses some shots. Studio host Stuart Scott kept mentioning how well the Lakers have done this season when Bryant scores fewer than 20 points (8-1) but that stat at best only tells part of the story: some of those games were routs in which Bryant set the tone early by scoring a lot before he took a seat for the night. Also, the Lakers are 12-3 when Bryant scores 30-39 points. What all of those numbers put together tell me is that Bryant does exactly what he says he does, namely read the defense and make the appropriate play, shoot or pass. On nights that they need his scoring, he drops 30 or more and they usually win; on nights that some of his teammates shoulder the scoring load he scores fewer than 20 points and they usually win.
There were many interesting aspects of Sunday's game:
1) Bryant got five of his assists in the first half. After he delivered a slick bounce pass off the dribble, Van Gundy said that Bryant is "as good a passer off the dribble as there is in the NBA." One of the reasons that I have maintained for a couple years now that Bryant is the league's best player is that he has no real weaknesses and is able to execute all of the fundamentals of the game at a very high level. People don't want to hear or believe it, but Bryant can make any pass that Steve Nash can. Bryant does not average double digit assists because in the Triangle Offense anyone can make the pass that initiates a play (and thus earns an assist) and because he is not surrounded by the caliber of finishers and perimeter shooters that Nash has. Bryant and Andrew Bynum were just beginning to form the kind of connection that Nash has with his bigs when Bynum got injured. Bryant often gets the so-called "hockey assist" by making the pass out of the double-team that leads to the pass that earns the assist. When I evaluate a player's passing ability, I look not only at assists but also if he can make various types of passes and how good he is at reading situations to know which kind of pass to use.
2) Lamar Odom scored eight points on 4-4 shooting in the first quarter--and managed just six points on 1-5 shooting the rest of the way; Odom also only showed up in the first quarter in the December loss to Cleveland. I wonder when people will finally understand that this is who Odom is. He is not a great player; he is big and multi-talented but he simply does not have the focus and drive to be dominant for long stretches. Anyone who compares Odom to Scottie Pippen or even suggests that Odom can be Bryant's Pippen should be immediately drug tested.
3) After three quarters, Bryant had shot more accurately and less frequently than the "pass first" James and Bryant had more assists than James did. The Lakers led 71-69 at that point and were still clinging to a one point lead when Jackson benched Bryant. As the saying goes, if he wanted to send a message then he should have used Western Union.
4) Late in the December game, Bryant beat James to get a big offensive rebound after Bynum missed two free throws. On Sunday, Bryant and James were matched up several times during free throw situations. Early in the fourth quarter, Bryant again beat James to get an offensive rebound in that situation and he turned that extra possession into two free throws. James is younger, bigger and more explosive, yet Bryant repeatedly gets the jump on him because of his tenacity and superior footwork. Another time, Drew Gooden and James tried to "pinch" Bryant but Bryant spun around Gooden so quickly that Gooden did one of those "Where did he go?" double takes. Bryant ended up right in front of him in perfect rebounding position but the free throw was made, so Bryant simply caught the ball and handed it to the Cavs to inbound. Finally, James had to resort to face guarding Bryant in free throw situations as if Bryant were Dennis Rodman; they grappled so forcefully that both players tumbled to the ground a la Rodman versus Karl Malone. Bryant and James were each assessed a foul on that play. Uninformed people simply look at rpg averages and conclude that James is a better rebounder than Bryant. I don't buy it. Both players are outstanding rebounders for their positions; James (7.6 rpg) is a small forward and thus has more rebounding responsibilities than Bryant (6.2 rpg), a shooting guard who must protect the backcourt defensively. With Bynum out of the lineup, Bryant has taken up a heavier rebounding load, grabbing at least 10 boards each of the past three games after doing so only twice in all of the previous games this season. Years ago, the Bulls went through a stretch when Rodman was suspended and Scottie Pippen was injured and Michael Jordan averaged over 10 rpg. Bryant has that same kind of capability and he has shown repeatedly that he can beat James to a rebound even if James has inside position.
5) Since they play different positions, Bryant and James only guard each other sporadically, though in recent games they have guarded each other down the stretch. Bryant scored his final points of the game on a jumper over James that tied the score at 92 with 2:10 remaining. James made a driving layup, a jumper and two free throws after that to propel Cleveland to victory. It was interesting to see the different defensive schemes used by Cleveland and L.A. The Cavs aggressively trapped Bryant to force him to give up the ball, daring anyone else to make a wide open shot. In the last two minutes, Derek Fisher missed an open three pointer and Odom went up with a very soft layup attempt, failing to use the backboard, missing the shot badly and not drawing a foul. Once when Bryant beat James off the dribble and used a spin move he committed a charge against the perfectly positioned Larry Hughes; Bryant received no such help on defense, as the Lakers pretty much left him on an island to play James straight up without leaving other players open. A big reason that the Cavs made it to the Finals last season is defense and after a slow start to this campaign the Cavs are again performing well at that end of the court: on the final possession of the game, the Lakers inbounded the ball in the frontcourt trailing by three with nine seconds left. They never even got a shot off as the Cavs deftly switched on every pick or dribble hand off.
This was a good road win for Cleveland, sparked by a great individual effort by James combined with solid team defense and rebounding (45-42 advantage for Cleveland despite Bryant's game-high 12 boards); the only down note for the Cavs is that valuable reserve Anderson Varejao sprained his ankle, had to be helped off the court and did not return to action.
We can only hope to someday see the best the game offers in a Finals showdown for the ages.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:05 AM