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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

NBA Coast to Coast Crew's MVP Choice? Kobe, Kobe, Kobe

During Tuesday's telecast, three members of ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast crew offered their takes on this year's exciting MVP race. All of them unhesitatingly chose Kobe Bryant as MVP.

Tim Legler said that Bryant has no weaknesses offensively and that on a nightly basis he guards the opponent's toughest player. Legler added that it is "unfathomable" that Bryant has not yet won an MVP but he expects that oversight to be corrected this season. Legler echoed points that I have made here on many occasions. The fact that Bryant has no weaknesses is very significant. Even LeBron James, as great as he is, has weaknesses: he is a below average free throw shooter, a poor perimeter shooter and not yet a consistently good defensive player. During last year's Finals, the Spurs contained James by cutting off all driving lanes and forcing him to shoot jumpers. That resulted in James shooting a poor percentage and committing a lot of turnovers. That kind of defensive strategy would simply not work against Bryant. In my post titled Why Blogging is Booming and Newspapers Are Scrambling to Catch Up, I listed several specific areas that I mean when I say that Bryant does not have any weaknesses (this list is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive; there could be further, more specific subcategories in several of these areas):
  1. Finishes at the hoop with either hand
  2. Dribbles well with either hand
  3. Has excellent post moves and footwork
  4. Draws fouls and shoots FTs very well
  5. Has three point range
  6. Can get off a good shot attempt even against good defense
  7. Rebounds well for his position
  8. Reads double-teams well and makes the correct passes, which don't always lead to assists for two reasons: the second pass out of the trap often leads to the assist and it is not possible for anyone to get an assist if the shot is not made
  9. Excellent defender, as acknowledged by the league's head coaches in All-Defensive Team voting
  10. Tremendous inner drive and will to win
Greg Anthony boldly suggested that James may be the most talented player in the history of the NBA but quickly added, "He is not the most skilled or the most valuable," two distinctions that Anthony bestowed upon Bryant. Anthony also emphasized that Bryant has no weaknesses.

Jamal Mashburn said that Bryant "is playing with passion, purpose and intensity." He also referred to Bryant's "pursuit of perfection," which is the same phrase applied to the New England Patriots during their unprecedented 16-0 season.

Notice how these analysts--each of whom played in the NBA--emphasize the importance of the fact that Bryant has no weaknesses. Determining who is the best player is not just a matter of crunching numbers or ranking who has racked up the most SportsCenter highlights. What we see with elite athletes in many sports--from the Patriots to Tiger Woods to Bryant--is that mastery of the "little things" (the fundamentals) leads to the ability to be a dominant performer. Look at how Bryant scored his 52 points against Dallas: three pointers, hard drives into the paint, a hook shot over 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki, an offensive rebound of a missed free throw, turnaround shots off of postup moves, pullup jumpers, drives after splitting double teams. Those things require a host of different fundamental skills, ranging from ballhandling to shooting to various kinds of footwork. Scoring 52 points does not prove that you are the best player in the NBA--but the skills that Bryant displayed while scoring those 52 points, not to mention that 30 of those points came in the fourth quarter and overtime, against a good Western Conference team, provide a snapshot of why Bryant is such unique player. It also should not be forgotten that while Bryant put his full scoring repertoire on display he also rebounded, passed and defended at a very high level.

While the Coast to Coast crew unanimously chose Bryant, over on NBA TV "Tuesday Night With Ahmad" played off of the presidential election theme and had Frank Isola "debate" Rick Mahorn about the merits of Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James for MVP. Isola argued for Kobe, while Mahorn took LeBron's side. To be perfectly honest, neither guy made the best possible case for his player but the most interesting thing about the whole segment is what Isola and Mahorn admitted after it was over: the "debate" was basically a sham, because both of them think that Kobe is the MVP. Mahorn joked that he "took one for the team" because Isola cried and whined to have the opportunity to present Kobe's case.

While it is heartening that people are belatedly figuring out that Kobe Bryant is not only the best player in the NBA but also in fact the MVP, it is amusing to hear how Bryant has supposedly changed or evolved this season. Bryant is not playing differently this year than he has for the past several years. The difference is that he has better teammates, players who catch his passes and then finish plays. It is so laughable to suggest that Bryant has suddenly learned how to share the ball. Do people really not remember that he was the leading playmaker on three championship teams? The funniest thing about the "Kobe Bryant has transformed" stories is that they are evergreen: the media plows this same ground every year whenever there is a portion of the season when Bryant's teammates play well. For example, last year Jackie MacMullan wrote a piece titled "The Transformation of Kobe Bryant." Her article is actually pretty good but the "transformation" theme is forced. Obviously, people evolve over time but Bryant did not suddenly "transform" into a team player. Bryant even mentioned to MacMullan how he had to sublimate his ability to score during the championship seasons in order to get other players involved, a statement that refutes the whole "transformation" theme; Bryant's smooth on court chemistry now with Pau Gasol is an outgrowth of playmaking skills that Bryant mastered years ago--and Bryant did not "transform" back into something else against Dallas when he scored those 52 points: he just read the defense and responded accordingly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 10:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your thoughts most of the time, but you are clearly just wrong on Kobe here, great as he is. Specifically ...

"During last year's Finals, the Spurs contained James by cutting off all driving lanes and forcing him to shoot jumpers. That resulted in James shooting a poor percentage and committing a lot of turnovers. That kind of defensive strategy would simply not work against Bryant."

I beg to differ. It already has. For example, the Finals series against Detroit in 2004. I would note that in this case, Bryant had a rather large advantadge that James did not enjoy against the Spurs last year -- one Shaquille O'Neal, he of the 26 pts and 10.8 rebs a game in that series. And yet, precisely the strategy you say Bryant is immune to worked. He DID shoot a low percentage(40.2%), he WAS kept off the free-throw line(5 atts a game), and he had nearly as many turnovers(3.6) as assists(4.4).

Compare that with LeBron in the finals against the Spurs(35.6%, 6.75 apg, 5.75 topg). James had a lower shooting percentage, but also was more of a playmaker, had fewer targets to pass to by a country mile, and had a very similar assist-to-turnover ratio -- while contributing mountains more in the rebounding department.

This just doesn't make any sense. Comparing previous years is irrelevant to an MVP argument anyway, or at least it should be, but the facts simply don't bear out this mythical superiority on Kobe's part.

 
At Thursday, March 06, 2008 12:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I knew that it would only be a matter of time before someone brought up the 2004 Finals. It is important not to confuse the results with the strategy. If you watched the 2004 Finals, the Pistons assigned Prince to Bryant and Prince stuck to Bryant like flypaper. In fact, as Phil Jackson mentioned in "The Last Season," Bryant and the Lakers contended that Prince repeatedly fouled Bryant when Bryant attempted jumpers. I'm not making excuses for Bryant or taking sides on the issue of whether or not he was fouled. My point is that the Pistons most assuredly did not let Bryant take uncontested jumpers. They played tough man to man defense, whereas the Spurs basically zoned up areas of the court, steered James away from the paint and lived with him shooting jumpers.

Having O'Neal overall is obviously an advantage to the team but it is not always an advantage for a perimeter player on his team who wants to drive (Nash and the Suns are dealing with this right now but I think that they will work it out come playoff time). Shaq's presence clogged up the lane in the 2004 Finals. Unlike Dallas, which double-teamed Shaq and dared Wade to beat them in the 2006 Finals, the Pistons played much more straight up, because Larry Brown does not like to double-team. Also, when assigning "blame" for the Lakers' loss it has to be mentioned that Shaq's screen/roll defense in that series was terrible. When assistant coach Tex Winter called Shaq out about that in a meeting before game three of the Finals, Shaq told him to "Shut the **** up" (Jackson recounts all of this on pages 229-233 of The Last Season). Three other major factors in that series were injuries to Karl Malone and Derek Fisher, plus Gary Payton's complete inability to guard either Billups or Rip (the Lakers' veterans from the previous championships met with Jackson prior to game four and begged him to bench Payton, as Jackson recounts on page 239 of "The Last Season).

I mention all of these details because most people either don't know what happened in the 2004 Finals or they deliberately misrepresent what happened.

The 2004 Finals are not relevant to the 2008 MVP debate because they took place four seasons ago. The 2007 Finals are relevant because the same strategy that the Spurs used against LeBron would still work now--at least when executed by a team that has the personnel to pull it off. The Pistons were not able to do this in the 2007 ECF because they did not have Ben Wallace to play the Duncan shot blocking role.

I've got Kobe and LeBron ranked pretty close together at this point; I'm not running some fanboy site where I say "Kobe rules, LeBron sucks." LeBron is a great player but he is still not quite as complete a player as Kobe is.

 
At Thursday, March 06, 2008 2:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman, I wouldn't accuse of you being a Kobe fanboy, and I'll give you the last word on this but a few more things on what you mentioned. I think the very same thing(inability to consistently make jumpers) was central to both James and Bryant in the situations here. Kobe was 4 of 25(16%) from 3-point range in the 2004 finals, and there's no question that it would have been a different series. Detroit gave him less room than San Antonio gave James certainly, but the fundamental issue is still the same.

Take it forward to this year. If you look at what Kobe has done against top defensive teams it again isn't all that dissimilar. For example, in his three games against the Spurs(one without Duncan present), he's shot a decent rate(44%) but hasn't been able to force them to respect his jumpshot(2-11 from three), hasn't gotten his teammates involved(3.3 assists vs. 3.7 to) and hasn't gotten to the line much(4.7 free-throws a game). This is not to say he's played badly of course, but I just don't see the results that one would expect if your analysis is correct, and the lack of assists compared to James with better talent to pass to(pre-Gasol even with Lamar Odom) is pretty significant in my opinion.

Thanks for your thoughts, and keep doing what you do, I really enjoy it :).

 
At Thursday, March 06, 2008 7:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The short answer to the statistics that you are cited is two-fold:

1) Those stats are a small sample, while the season-long and career stats for Kobe and LeBron show Kobe's superiority in free throw and three point shooting.

2) Just like LeBron can have a very good three point shooting night (like yesterday versus the Knicks), Kobe can have a bad three point shooting game. My point is that a team cannot successfully defend Kobe on a consistent basis by letting him shoot open three pointers. What this means is that defenders have to stay close to Kobe, which opens up opportunities for his teammates.

As for the longer answer, in the first LAL-Spurs game (11/13/07), the Spurs won 107-92. Kobe had 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three blocks, two steals and three turnovers. He shot 9-19 from the field, including 0-5 from three point range. He led the Lakers in scoring, assists, blocks and steals (tied) and was second in rebounds. The other Lakers shot 27-63 from the field. Kobe had an off night from three point range but shot well overall and was not having the ast/to problem that LeBron had throughout the Finals.

In the second LAL-Spurs game (12/13/07), the Lakers won 102-97. Tim Duncan did not play. Kobe had 30 points, seven rebounds, three assists, four steals, no blocked shots and one turnover. He shot 10-24 from the field, including 1-4 from three point range. In my post about that contest (which you can find in the archives on the right hand side of this blog), I wrote, "Bryant had seven points and one assist during that game deciding stretch, while Ginobili shot 0-3 from the field and had the ball stolen from him once by Bryant, after which Bryant drove down court and made a slick feed to Ronny Turiaf for a dunk that put the Lakers up 97-86."

In the third LAL-Spurs game (1/23/08), the Spurs won 103-91. Kobe had 29 points, a team-high (tied) 12 rebounds, five assists and nine turnovers. He shot 12-27 from the field, including 1-2 from three point range. Obviously, in a small sample size that game really skewed Kobe's turnover average versus the Spurs. Here is part of what I wrote about that game: "In the first half, the Spurs aggressively double-teamed Bryant and he consistently made excellent passes that led to scores or free throw attempts. He scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting and had six rebounds and four assists and the Lakers led 54-45." The Lakers were done in by a horrible third quarter plagued by turnovers and missed shots (Kobe contributed in both categories but he was not the only one). One quarter of one regular season game does not convince me that teams can defend Kobe the same way that they can defend LeBron or that LeBron is as good a free throw or three point shooter as Kobe.

Again, I have Kobe first in the MVP race with LeBron right behind. LeBron is such a great driver and such a skilled passer that he often can make up for his inconsistent outside shot and his below average free throw shooting--but in ranking the best of the best, LeBron comes up just short of Kobe in terms of his overall skill set. Most informed NBA observers understand this and I think that even unbiased fans intuitively get this by watching them play. Obviously, someone who really roots for LeBron or really dislikes Kobe is not going to look at things this way (I'm not putting you in either of those camps; I'm just making a general observation).

 

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