NBA TV Panel Weighs in on Kobe Versus LeBronI just posted my skill set-based take on the differences between Kobe Bryant's 61 point game at MSG and LeBron James' 52-11-10 performance there (2/6/09 edit: the NBA has taken a rebound away from James, so he officially had a 52-11-9 performance); prior to this season I explained why I still give Bryant a slight edge over James for the title of best player in the NBA. So I listened with great interest to NBA TV's GameTime program as Kenny Smith, Eric Snow and Alonzo Mourning compared Bryant to James (for what it's worth, host Marc Fein chose Bryant, citing his defense and his superior outside shot).
Mourning said that he is partial to defense and so he chose Bryant without hesitation: "Defensively he can have a tremendous impact on the game and offensively he can create his shot at any time. He doesn't need anybody else to hit shots to open up the offensive opportunities for him. He can create a shot any time that he wants to and I think that Boston exposed the weakness of LeBron last year: if you shut down one part of his game, keep him out of the paint and force him to shoot jump shots, then it is going to be a lot tougher night for him, as opposed to Kobe--he can put the ball in the basket any time he wants to." Regular 20 Second Timeout readers will immediately recognize that Mourning emphasized precisely the point that I have been making about Bryant and James for quite some time now; "stat gurus" ignore this, some fans don't want to hear it and perhaps such talk does not make my site as "popular" as the ones with flashy pie charts and "cool" graphics but people who understand basketball analytically see the game the way that I have been describing it here.
In fairness to James, he has improved tremendously on defense since he came into the league and I consider him an All-Defensive Team caliber player now, so Mourning's criticisms of James' defense may be a bit harsh. That said--and contrary to what many fans and non-experts seem to believe--the extra .9 bpg that James averages compared to Bryant does not make James a better defensive player than Bryant. It is interesting that some of Bryant's critics contend that Bryant is the "prettier" or "flashier" player but that James is more skilled, because the reality is the opposite: James has more highlight dunks and more weakside blocked shots but he is neither a more versatile scorer nor a better defender than Bryant--and the latter was shown during the last head to head matchup when Bryant was the primary defender on James for almost the entire game, while James only took the primary defensive duties on Bryant late in the contest. James is a very good defender now and he may be a more athletic defender than Bryant at this stage of their careers but Bryant is still a wilier and more complete defender.
Fein then turned to Smith, apparently expecting him to be an advocate for James, and tried to give Smith some ammunition by noting that James had a triple double along with his big scoring night in New York, while Bryant had three assists and no rebounds. Smith retorted with the old line about "lies, damned lies and statistics" and made it clear that those numbers have no bearing on his thought process. Smith declared, "Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the planet, bar none." Smith cited Bryant's "intangibles," including the "fear factor" that Bryant inspires in opponents and Bryant's ability to raise his teammates' play to a championship level. Smith then added something that would be easy to misconstrue if you did not listen carefully: Smith said that for the way that he played as a point guard, it would have been easier for him to play with James because of the way that James runs the floor and because of the way that James drives and kicks to three point shooters. Smith did not say that James is a better teammate than Bryant, merely that James' style would have meshed with Smith's better than Bryant's (and I consider that debatable, because spot up shooter Derek Fisher won three rings playing with Bryant, so Smith could have fit into that role much the same way that he did while playing in Houston). Smith concluded that if he were a general manager trying to build a championship team that he would take Bryant over James without hesitation, a view immediately seconded by Mourning, who noted that Bryant brings an element of championship experience to the table that James does not have. Smith added that Bryant showed the value of that championship experience when he took over in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game in last summer's Olympics.
Snow went last and as someone who not only played with James but is still technically a member of the Cavaliers one would expect him to make the case for James. Instead, Snow showed admirable objectivity by saying, "I think that Kobe Bryant is the better player (and) the way I see it is like what Kenny said: it's the intangibles. I think there was a time in LeBron's career when he just wanted to be the best player on the team. (Only) last season was his focus more, 'I want to be the best player in the league.' I think Kobe has more of the intangibles from day one 'I want to be the best ever' and then it comes out and you see the work that he puts in in doing that. It's been like that from day one, so when I see LeBron James go and spend time with Kobe Bryant (as members of Team USA), then come back and you see a totally different work ethic now you see that this guy (Bryant) is a little ahead of LeBron because he's made LeBron James realize 'I've got to take my game to another level.'" To a man, the coaching staff and players from Team USA all repeatedly said that Bryant set the tone for the team from day one with his workout and practice habits, so Snow's comments just reinforce that point and also carry the added weight of coming from someone who obviously has firsthand knowledge of James' thought process and work habits.
Smith recalled an interview that James did early in his career during which James candidly admitted that he did not have Bryant's "killer instinct." Smith was surprised by that statement because he does not think that Bryant or Michael Jordan would have ever said such a thing about another player (whether or not it was true).
The segment concluded with Mourning saying that James is still maturing while Bryant is already there at the peak of his game and Smith making the analogy that James is like a cake that has been in the oven for a little while: it smells good and you can peek in the oven and see that it is almost finished.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM