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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sporting News NBA Survey, Revisiting Kobe Bryant's Evolution

The October 27, 2008 issue of the Sporting News contains the results of a survey of 21 former NBA players*. Tim Duncan and Steve Nash tied for first place (four votes each) in the category of "The current player I wish I could have played with is," finishing just ahead of Kobe Bryant (3.5) and Chris Paul (3). Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Shaquille O'Neal received the remaining votes. Gregg Popovich got the nod as the NBA's best coach (7.5 votes), beating out Phil Jackson (4.5) and Doc Rivers (4). The ex-players--like most observers--expect either Boston (9) or the Lakers (6) to win the title. The Spurs finished third (2.5), with the 76ers, Hornets and Pacers (!) receiving the remaining votes; I can see picking the Pacers as a dark horse to make the playoffs but anyone who thinks that they are going to win the title this year seriously needs to be drug tested.

Who are five can't miss future Hall of Famers currently active in the league today? Kobe Bryant received 20 votes, with only Rod Strickland dissenting (he chose Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal). Duncan received 18 votes, followed by Garnett (15), James (13), O'Neal (11), Nash (7) and Iverson (6). Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Don Nelson, Chris Paul, Jerry Sloan, Amare Stoudemire and Dwyane Wade captured the remaining votes. Nelson and Sloan are interesting choices; Nelson certainly won't make it as a player but you could put together a very good case for him as a coach. Sloan was a much more accomplished player than Nelson--though still not HoF caliber--but he too merits consideration as a coach. Restricting the choices strictly to active players, my top five future HoFers would be (in alphabetical order) Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, James and O'Neal. The reality is that there are more than five active future Hall of Famers; Nash will automatically get in with his two MVPs, Kidd is a lock and the Finals MVP cemented things for Paul Pierce if anyone had any doubts. Iverson should make it, too, though he will have his share of detractors. It's too early to say that Howard, Paul, Wade or Stoudemire are HoFers, though they each certainly seem to be on that course (if James got hurt and did not play again he would already make it, a la Gale Sayers in the NFL). Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady will get in eventually, but perhaps not on the first ballot as things stand now. I suspect that Chauncey Billups will make it, too, on the basis of his Finals MVP and "Mr. Big Shot" pedigree.

Without further ado, here is the question that many basketball fans have been debating for at least the past year or so: "If you could have either on your team right now, who would you choose--Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?" Bryant received 15 votes and James received six. Detlef Schrempf gave the most pragmatic explanation: "Kobe for today, LeBron for the future." Johnny "Red" Kerr chose Kobe because of "his defense and his smarts." Strickland gave a somewhat paradoxical answer: "Kobe is the best individual player in the league but I would take LeBron because of his all-around skills."

As for two other popular comparisons, Paul (16) received the nod over Deron Williams (3) as the league's best point guard, with two voters copping out by saying it is too close to call; Duncan (12) defeated Garnett (6) for top power forward honors, with three voters declaring that matchup a tie.

That same Sporting News issue also contains a cover story about Bryant, including a season by season rundown of his career. Some of the season subtitles are quite revealing and the recaps detail aspects of Bryant's career that many fans have probably forgotten. For instance, 1999-00--Bryant's fourth year--is headlined "Defense." The Lakers went 67-15 and won the first of three titles in the O'Neal-Bryant era in Phil Jackson's first year coaching the team; under Jackson's leadership, the Lakers improved from 17th in defensive field goal percentage to first and Bryant earned the first of his six All-Defensive First Team selections (he has also made the Second Team twice). Bryant held Reggie Miller to 1-16 field goal shooting in game one of the Finals. Miller says, "What made him so tough was that he has those long arms and good anticipation. He plays the passing lanes so well. And you can't move him--he's strong. At shooting guard, you have to have strength. He is probably the strongest shooting guard in our game." Bryant sprained his ankle early in game two and missed all of game three but he came up big in the pivotal overtime session of game four after O'Neal fouled out, enabling the Lakers to take a 3-1 series lead en route to a six game victory.

The 2000-01 season is titled "Swagger," the primary example being game four of the Western Conference semifinals versus Sacramento. By halftime, O'Neal was in foul trouble and the Lakers trailed by nine points. Bryant already had scored 20 points and he declared to his teammates, "We're winning this (expletive) game." The Lakers won 119-113 as Bryant played all 48 minutes and finished with 48 points and 16 rebounds, his playoff career-highs in both categories at the time; his next game was not too shabby, either: 45 points and 10 rebounds in a 104-90 game one victory over San Antonio.

"Passing" is the theme for 2001-02, something that may shock people who think that Bryant did not become a good passer until 2007-08 (the reality is that he was the leading playmaker on all three championship teams). Bryant averaged a then-career high 5.5 apg in 2001-02 (a figure that he has since exceeded twice and nearly matched in each of the past two seasons). That was the second of six seasons in which Bryant averaged at least 25 ppg, five apg and five rpg; as I noted earlier this year, only Oscar Robertson (nine) and Michael Jordan (seven) have more 25-5-5 seasons than Bryant does.

Magic Johnson says, "Kobe is an amazing talent. His basketball IQ is off the charts. I thought, from Day 1 when I saw him, he could always pass. But I, and the media, we didn't shine a light on his passing because he could score so much. He has shown, though, that he can dominate the game with his passing. He sees the floor so well. I think that is why, now, he is an MVP. He showed everybody he has a well-rounded game. He can make passes off the dribble, he knows his teammates and knows how to find them. He understands the angles of the game."

The 2002-03 season is titled "3-point shooting." Up to that point, Bryant had yet to establish himself as a great shooter behind the arc but in the summer prior to that season Bryant made 1000 three point shots a day. That work paid off in a January 7, 2003 119-98 win over Seattle when Bryant drilled a league-record 12 three pointers, breaking Dennis Scott's mark. Scott recalls, "It would be one thing if I lost the record to a guy who just popped up, got lucky, then went on to do nothing else. But I had a chance to see Kobe in training camp. I watched how hard he was working to make himself a three point shooter. It wasn't something that came natural to him. It was hard work. I remember the night he broke the record. I was at home watching it and I wasn't surprised. I was smiling. I said, 'This guy earned it.'"

Bryant was a 23 year old six year veteran prior to the 2002-03 season. James is a 23 year old going into his sixth season right now and his three point shooting percentage has declined for three straight seasons (his free throw percentage has also been trending downward, from .754 as a rookie to .698 in 2007 and up slightly to .712 last season). Although the NBA does not officially keep stats for midrange jumpers, James is very erratic from that area as well (when NBA TV recently aired a Cavs season preview and showed James' "hot spots" as a shooter the paint was red hot but everything outside of the lane was ice cold). I know that James has been working diligently on his shooting touch with Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent, though I'm not sure if James is on a 1000 makes per day regimen from any range, let alone solely on three pointers--but that is an example of what Bryant did to become the league's best player and a worthy model for James to emulate.

* Otis Birdsong, Phil Chenier, Dave Cowens, Bobby Dandridge, World B. Free, A.C. Green, Lionel Hollins, Marc Iavaroni, Eddie Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Johnny "Red" Kerr, Mitch Kupchak, Bob Lanier, Jamal Mashburn, Bob McAdoo, Sam Perkins, Micheal Ray Richardson, Detlef Schrempf, Rod Strickland, Nate Thurmond, Buck Williams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 6:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An exceptional blog about an exceptional Sporting News issue. Nice work, David.

Roland Lazenby

 
At Saturday, October 25, 2008 2:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Roland:

Thank you very much. That truly means a lot coming from someone whose work I have followed for so long and who has written so many books about the NBA.

 
At Monday, October 27, 2008 12:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Up to that point, Bryant had yet to establish himself as a great shooter behind the arc but in the summer prior to that season Bryant made 1000 three point shots a day."

More Kobe....

I think it's actually pretty well established that Kobe is not a great three point shooter. The best mark he has posted in his career (in the season mentioned) wouldn't have gotten him into the top 40 in 3pt shooting last year. His career mark of 34% is pretty mediocre. He has other talents to be sure, but his outside shooting is nothing special.

If you had to ask me, I would say Kobe's best offensive skill is his ability to get to the line and convert there, especially lately. He has gotten to the line more than 10 times per game and converted more than 85% in 2 out of the last 4 seasons.

Allen Iverson will certainly go to the Hall of Fame, although he probably shouldn't. Shawn Marion would be my bet for most deserving player who won't make it in.

Owen

 
At Monday, October 27, 2008 5:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The point is that Kobe took an aspect of his game that had been a weakness and improved it to the extent that he could not only set a single game record but that teams would have to defend him differently, opening up other avenues for him to attack defenses. Kobe's three point percentage reflects some shots that he ends up taking after the offense has broken down but no opposing team would be foolish enough to give him a steady diet of open three point shots.

I've made this comparison with LeBron many times but it bears repeating again: elite teams cannot defend Kobe the same way that they defend LeBron, because Kobe is not only a three point threat but Kobe is also a deadly midrange (15-20 foot) jump shooter. In the playoffs, the Spurs (in 2007) and Celtics (last year) defended James by conceding the outside shot (not just three pointers but also the midrange jumper) and closing off his driving and passing lanes; this led to James' horrible shooting percentages and turnover totals in those series. In contrast, the Spurs had no answer for Kobe in the 2008 playoffs. The Celtics slowed Kobe down--though not to the extent that they slowed James down--not so much by stopping Kobe individually but by taking advantage of the ineffectiveness of Kobe's teammates; the way that the Celtics guarded Kobe left other Lakers open but those Lakers did not make enough shots. The key point is that a lot of the Laker players did not even want to take shots, which resulted in Kobe shooting some shots late in the shot clock after the offense had broken down on possessions that should have resulted in baskets for Gasol if Gasol had rolled to the hoop aggressively. You can't just look at field goal percentages; you have to watch the games and understand which options were open and what each player was supposed to be doing.

It is a mistake to become overly fixated on numbers to the point of ignoring how the game is actually played and the manner in which those numbers are compiled--but that error is a fundamental aspect of the Dave Berri WoW approach of which you are so fond and it leads directly to faulty conclusions such as Gasol was the most effective Laker in the Finals or Bynum will be the most valuable player on the team this season.

 
At Monday, October 27, 2008 4:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

pacers arent winning it boston or la is kobe duncan shaq james are lock hall of famers so is ai and paul pierce why like half the people didnt think so is mindboggling.

the celts slowed kobe down almost as much as they did lebron but youre right kobe outside shot is better than lebron why he is slightly better when lebron outside shot get better he will be better than kobe his size is a big advantage over kobe.

also you think lebron hall of famer already like me i see some might say wade because of ring but he had shaq when he won ring lebron has 4 all star and all nba 1st team and youngest to everything.

 
At Tuesday, October 28, 2008 5:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And no need to post this, but I feel sure this is something you would really enjoy and appreciate. I want you to know, i watched it all, trying to assimilate the argument, although I am sure I am going to hear versions of it shortly from you. Still not buying, but hey, i have an open mind...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQaVvf2VOsc

 
At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 8:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

URLs do not show up as clickable links in the comments section but interested readers should copy that address into their browser and check it out; it is a 10 minute video of highlights from the NBA Finals illustrating how the Celtics used zone defensive principles focused on shutting Kobe down and daring anyone else on the Lakers to beat them. In other words, video evidence of many of the plays that I described in my Finals recaps.

 
At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

David,

Not to be facetious because I may have missed an earlier debate, but was there any doubt from anyone that the Celtics sent all 5 players, 2 assistant coaches, the mascot, and a cheerleader at Kobe in the Finals? I'm not seeing anything in the video that I wasn't already aware of...

 
At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 4:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I did not see anything that I was not aware of either but some people are visual learners and some people are verbal learners, so having video evidence of what happened is good (I don't necessarily agree with every conclusion made by the narrator of the footage but the footage itself tells the story very well).

I described in my game recaps what kind of defense the Celtics played but some people still responded in bizarre ways, either blaming Kobe for not stepping up or asserting that Gasol and/or Odom played better than Kobe in the Finals.

 
At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 5:24:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

David,

Thanks for clearing that up. You probably shouldn't agree with everything that guy says either because he seems to have a clear agenda (and we can all guess what it is).

It's hard to understand why people would bash Kobe for being unable to dominate against a 3- or 4-man zone by the best defensive team in the league (look what they did to LeBron at times) but those people generally have their own agenda as well. He didn't have his greatest series by any stretch but his teammates weren't exactly helping to draw attention away from him...

 
At Friday, October 31, 2008 9:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Yes, the narrator seems to be very interested in comparing Kobe to MJ. That comparison does not interest me too much. MJ still ranks ahead of Kobe in my opinion and I am much more interested in comparing Kobe to his contemporaries. That said, the narrator made some very valid observations, even if his conclusions may have been a bit extravagant at times (overall, his take is solid but I don't agree with everything he said).

 

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