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Monday, January 28, 2008

The Best the Game Offers: Kobe Versus LeBron

One 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:05 AM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Monday, January 28, 2008 11:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

lebron outplayed kobe especially in the fourth quarter when it counted he leads the league in 4th qtr points proveing he is a closer like kobe is. the plus minus i dont care about the result is what matter his team won he had 41 14 when he had too have it everything else doesnt matter. kobe played great in the game as well james just played better. james said he thinks kobe is the best player i know he doesnt think that anymore as jalen rose said last night on fastbreak he knows now he is the best and a game like this proves that. bird was better than erving i think when it all said and done james will be better than kobe so that is a good analogy. both of these guys are great players and yesterday game was a great game what does skip bayless got to say now.

 
At Tuesday, January 29, 2008 5:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Overall, I think that Kobe and LeBron performed equally well. The significance of the plus/minus stat--though it is far from definitive--is that it shows how well or how poorly a team did with a certain player in the game. From that standpoint, Kobe actually outperformed LeBron. They both played virtually the entire game and were largely on the court together, which is why the plus/minus stat has more meaning in this instance. It doesn't make sense to compare Kobe and LeBron based on what the team's bench players did while they were out of the game. LeBron got more done individually in the fourth quarter but he also had more help on defense and his coach did not foolishly bench him for a decisive minute and a half during which there was a five point swing in the score. With Kobe and LeBron both on the court in the final four plus minutes, the Lakers outscored the Cavs 9-8.

It is interesting that LeBron fans like to cite his rpg and apg edges over Kobe but in the wake of this game no one seems to be talking about Kobe's advantages in those departments. As I pointed out in the post, in free throw line rebounding situations Kobe consistently beats LeBron to the ball even when LeBron has inside position. If you watched this game purely from the standpoint of skill evaluation then you can see that Kobe still has an edge over LeBron. That said, the overall gap between Kobe and the number two player (which LeBron clearly is now) is smaller than it has been in the past two-plus seasons.

Here is how I evaluate Kobe versus LeBron from a skill standpoint, based on this entire season and not just one game:

Kobe has better range as a shooter and is a much better free throw shooter. The rebounding is no worse than a draw; Kobe is a shooting guard whose defensive responsibilities take him away from the paint but when he is called upon to rebound he is just as good as James, if not better. Kobe is still better defensively but LeBron has made up a lot of ground here. Some people may disagree but I say that they are equally skilled as passers; their roles are different, which accounts for their differing apg averages, but Kobe has been the leading playmaker on championship teams so any thought that he does not know how to pass is sheer fiction.

LeBron is stronger than Kobe and is generally a better finisher in the paint.

 
At Tuesday, January 29, 2008 6:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

lol there is no way kobe is as good a rebounder or passer as lebron theres no way he leads him in those is categories and lebron usually guard a perimeter player so he is just as far from the basket as kobe. and the vision lebron has is magic and bird like theres no way kobe can pass with him. kobe a good passer like jordan was but magic was a way better passer than jordan like james is kobe. free throw kobe better shooting kobe slight edge from a farther distance. lebron better finisher clearly kobe better closer slightly even on d lebron getting better there, scoreing even now i think lebron could score somewhat like kobe if he took as many shots. like magic and bird could somewhat with jordan if they shot as much as jordan but jordan and kobe get hot like no other players i ever seen when there on but both great scorers i like james i think it's even from a skill standpoint if got to pick a player i go with lebron he younger got alot more years left kobe only got a few years left, and i think lebron will win more than kobe since he has more time.

 
At Wednesday, January 30, 2008 2:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

If LeBron were a better rebounder than Kobe than Kobe would not be able to beat him to the ball when LeBron has inside position. A small forward generally has more rebounding responsibilities than a shooting guard and that is the main reason that LeBron averages more rpg than Kobe.

Name a specific kind of pass that LeBron delivers more effectively than Kobe. From a skill standpoint there is no difference between the two players in this area. I understand that conventional wisdom says otherwise but conventional wisdom is wrong. I don't evaluate passing ability purely based on apg numbers. Kobe can make any kind of pass and deliver it well, as can LeBron.

LeBron has more good seasons left than Kobe (barring injury) but when talking about the MVP or best player (which is the same thing to me) the point is who is the best right now, not who will be the best five years from now.

 
At Wednesday, January 30, 2008 8:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

lebron is a better rebounder than kobe bryant is he consistenly has more rebounds than kobe and averages more than kobe. he's on the perimter on defense like kobe is and kobe usually runs down the court lebron stays back to rebound.

covential wisdom is right lebron way bettter passer meaning he has flare with his passes and can throw a pass from anywhere and any postition on the court kobe first instinct is too score he's a good passer at very best lebron is a legendary passer like magic johnson was theres no comparison in this area lebron better passer he can throw a no look pass from anywhere behind the back pass form anywhere ive never seen kobe throw that many no look passes at all in his career he is a basic passer.

lebron to me is slightly better now and will only get better kobe has peaked and is at the peak of his career now he is not going to get no better was my point. lebron better passer rebounder stronger better finsher, faster, jump higher more agilty better fg% as well, he is better right now.

when i say better i mean all around as bill walron said the other day on shoot around i woulndt trade lebron for kobe i would trade kobe for lebron i know you wouldnt cause you a kobe fan i would though.

 
At Wednesday, January 30, 2008 11:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

You need to watch some more Lakers games. I've seen Kobe throw plenty of no look passes, behind the back passes, lob passes and every other kind of pass. He is a very skilled passer.

LeBron is leading the league in scoring this year, not Kobe. They are both shoot first players. LeBron averages more assists partially because of who he plays with and partially because of the different offenses that the teams run. Nobody puts up 7-8 apg in the Triangle; Pip averaged 7.0 apg once and no one would say that he was a shoot first player or that he did not pass well--and Pip had MJ as the recipient of many of his passes. On the Lakers, Kobe is MJ and Pip, the scorer and the playmaker. I'm not saying that Kobe is a better passer than LeBron; I'm saying that they are both highly skilled in this area but that Kobe does not get much recognition for this.

LeBron has a 1.5 rpg edge over Kobe this year but half of that edge comes on offensive rebounds. As a guard, it is usually Kobe's responsibility to get back on defense, not to crash the offensive boards (unless he drove to the hoop and is already under the basket anyway). What I'm saying is that when they both are going after the same ball that Kobe often wins, even if LeBron has inside position.

Walton's "analysis" of Kobe versus LeBron left a lot to be desired, namely accuracy and objectivity. When one talks about trading players one has to consider the reason for the deal. If I am trying to win a title this year or next year, I would take Kobe over LeBron. As great as LeBron was in the ECF, his lack of an outside jumper rendered him helpless in the Finals; he couldn't make a shot and he committed a bunch of turnovers. We've seen Kobe perform very well in several NBA Finals because he has a complete game that functions even against elite defenses. Of course, if we are talking about who will be better three years or more from now then it is logical to take LeBron. The gap is not great now, as I have said, and the tide figures to turn once Kobe gets a little older and LeBron (hopefully) improves his jumper.

I think that these two guys are the best players in the NBA hands down, so it's not like I "hate" one or "love" the other. They are just at different stages of their careers.

 
At Saturday, February 02, 2008 2:17:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think this is a very good comparison, David. The Bird-Erving and LeBron-Kobe matchups have a striking amount of similarities.

Breaking away for a moment from who is playing what role in this analogy, LeBron's game actually reminds me a lot of Dr. J's. In particular, his finishing ability, and the way he can explode to the basket without taking many steps or dribbles. Bill Russell once remarked that Erving was deceptively quick because he could take a dribble and a step or two, and all of a sudden he's at the rim throwing down a dunk. LeBron doesn't remind me as much of MJ as he does a combo of Magic Johnson and Dr. J.

I am very impressed by how much LeBron's defense has improved.

 
At Saturday, February 02, 2008 6:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

LeBron is of course much more muscular than Dr. J but I agree that their dunking styles are very similar. When LeBron jumps up to eye level with the rim and buggy whips a windmill dunk it is like watching Dr. J dunking on the Blazers during the 1977 Finals.

 
At Saturday, February 02, 2008 11:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i watch alot of laker games kobe does throw behind the back passes etc not with the same flair as lebron, the same angles or anything he is a good passer lebron is a great passer, he has better vision he makes passes as a fan that dont seem like there possible, kobe a god passer i think lebron more gifted passer.

lebron is shooting more this year but he isnt really a shoot first player he looks to pass first but he takes over when he needs to take over you should watch more cavs game my friend im not trying to knock you but i watch both guys alot thats why i make the observation i make. i live in california so the game they show is the laker game i dont know where you at but i watch plenty of lakers games. you right they the two best players in the league and are real close to each other without question. im more of a lebron fan but i respect kobe as a player and he a pretty good guy, tradeing shaq was a good thing for them they could win multiple titles where the heat banked and got one he could pass the great aristotle leagacy he hasnt yet well see what happens.

 
At Sunday, February 03, 2008 12:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

You need to pay a little more attention to what I write. In addition to watching countless games on TV, I've covered both LeBron and Kobe in person many times; I've been to almost every one of LeBron's home playoff games, plus many regular season games dating all the way back to his rookie season.

"Flair" is a subjective distinction. If you enjoy watching LeBron's passes more than you enjoy watching Kobe's passes, that's fine. I am talking purely about skill level. Some players can only make certain kinds of passes because they lack the size or skill to, say, beat a double team or pass well off of the dribble. Kobe has a complete repertoire of passes, as does LeBron.

LeBron is certainly an unselfish player, but when you are leading the league in scoring you are not a pass first player anymore. The Cavs need his scoring, so I have no criticism of what LeBron is doing, but he is a premier scoring option now in addition to being a great passer. There is nothing wrong with that.

 

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