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Thursday, February 05, 2009

NBA TV Panel Weighs in on Kobe Versus LeBron

I 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

19 comments

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19 Comments:

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Ziller said...

"[S]tat 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.

Because people come to a different conclusion and have a different method of disseminating said conclusion does not mean that said people do not understand basketball analytically.

For example, I offer original analysis and graphs to display the information as I interpret it. You ... quote Kenny Smith? And you're the one implying people like me don't understand basketball analytically?

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 11:04:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Hi Dave,

There's a little bit of a stat controversy brewing over Lebron's triple double, and surprise! it doesn't involves assists, but rebounds. In the play-by-play Lebron gets credited with for a defensive rebound with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But if you watch the video, Ben Wallace clearly gets possession of the rebound and then flips it underhand to Lebron James. It's a little crowded under the basket, but your eyes can easily what transpired after multiple viewings. It's only one rebound, but I just thought you'd want to know.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 12:17:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

FYI -- here a couple rather dumb "analyses" of the Kobe & LeBron games:

http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news;_ylt=Akp9cTOB9U2CL5ENxTdXssc5nYcB?slug=aw-lebrongarden020509&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

http://uponfurtherreview.kansascity.com/?q=node/563

To be fair, the second one isn't truly terrible, it's just brief and assumes the absolute awesomeness of the pet "efficiency" number. And, in terms of the limited question of "which was the better game performance," it is tough to ignore LBJ's big advantages in the Reb and Ast categories. Of course, as noted, those categories are far from perfect in capturing every piece of value a player adds, but it might well be correct to argue that LeBron had the "better" all-around performance.

Of course, that's an entirely different question from "who is the better, more complete player," and, as you noted, this game adds additional confirmation to that. As you noted, he Knicks had some limited measure of success when they sagged off of LeBron, denying him the paint and forcing him to shoot longer/mid-range jumpers, which he missed. Kobe makes those at a much higher clip, and accordingly defending him is more difficult. Tho, of course, LeBron is probably more explosive/quick-to-the-basket and arguably a better finisher.

But that's all the more reason for sharing in your view that, whoever is better, it's clear that these two are head & shoulders above the competition in the League at the moment (no disrespect to D-Wade, who is also a truly excellent player, but just not quite on their level).

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 1:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

lebron to me is right there with kobe probably slight edge kobe for now lebron only 24 he got alot of time to catch kobe.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 1:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks David for the refreshing article. Kobe does so much that goes unnoticed or that people unwillingly want to recognize because of "hater-ism." There's this huge double-standard that is not spoken of when comparing Kobe and Lebron. When kobe does anything great, critics always have something to say, i.e. 62 in 3 quaters, 81 points, or even being a distributer...It's either kobe is shelfish or he's trying to be like Lebron. And when Lebron does something crazy, even if kobe's done it before, it's deemed the greatest thing to happen for the NBA. So reading your article helps ease my anger towards the unfair rap that Kobe gets and that those who play the game, including GM still recognizes the difference in greatness with Kobe vs. Lebron.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 4:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ziller:

I agree with your first statement--people can legitimately reach different conclusions about a particular issue.

My criticism in this instance is directed toward people who are blindly relying purely on numbers to make their player evaluations. LeBron got his 10th rebound falling out of bounds with the clock expiring; Kobe could have had a defensive rebound on one possession but pulled back and let Odom grab it. If LeBron had nine rebounds and Kobe had one then their ratings would have changed but would the value of their respective performances really have been that much different? All a formula can do is plug in raw numbers and spit out a conclusion but by watching games with understanding it is possible to have a deeper, more nuanced take on things.

Kobe and LeBron are both great--the two best players in the NBA in my opinion. Their MSG games were also both great and I would never denigrate either performance, but when it comes down to comparing the two players I don't believe that the best, most complete answer can be found in numbers alone, whether those numbers are raw box score numbers or "advanced" metrics.

Also, I honestly was not thinking of you/your site specifically when I took my shot at sites with "flashy pie charts"; I was making a general observation that in some quarters a greater value is being placed on superficial effects than on substance. There are sites that have great graphics but contain pedestrian (and, at times, grammatically incorrect) writing and foolish commentary.

Why is quoting Kenny Smith a negative thing from your perspective? Smith was a top notch collegiate player who enjoyed a long, successful NBA career and played an important role on two championship teams. He has studied at the feet of some of the top basketball minds ever (Dean Smith, Bill Russell to name just two). It is more than a bit presumptuous for you to simply dismiss his opinion out of hand--and that is part of the larger problem here: there is a paradigm shift going on in NBA coverage in which self proclaimed experts with spreadsheets simply disregard the learned opinions of veteran NBA observers. Is Smith always right? Of course not, but his opinion deserves respect and it is the lack of respect among some "stat gurus" that I find jarring. Over at WoW, they not only believe that it is possible to understand basketball without watching any games but that it is preferable to analyze the sport that way because the "eye" is biased--never mind that the formulas that WoW uses are demonstrably flawed/biased.

As I have said before, Dean Oliver, Dan Rosenbaum, Roland Beech and a few others are doing stat work that I respect and I commend them for the measured tones in which they convey their opinions/observations. I most assuredly am not an anti-stat Luddite but I object to the excesses that are taking place in some quarters of the basketball stat analysis community.

I would not barge into a conference on quantum mechanics and tell the people there that they don't know anything about the subject, so unless someone is really and truly a learned student of the game there should be a certain humility that sets in before one simply dismisses out of hand what GMs, coaches and players think.

I realize that your answer to the latter point may be a laundry list of all of the bad moves that various GMs have made over the years but no one in any field has a perfect track record--and sometimes GMs make moves not for basketball reasons but for economic reasons or other non-basketball factors. It is a lot easier to "run" a basketball team on a spreadsheet than to manage a corporation in the real world and the NBA is like any other industry: there are some really savvy executives, there are some average executive and there are some below average executives. The mistakes committed by the below average executives do not prove that the opinions of all NBA insiders should be summarily and contemptuously dismissed.

Finally, it is also wrong to suggest that the sum total of basketball analysis that goes on at this site is simply quoting Kenny Smith. I have interviewed Hall of Fame coaches, scouts, Top 50 players and a variety of other people who have devoted their lives to this sport and who have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the game. I cannot think of another site--even the "big name" corporate sites--that has as many high quality, in depth interviews and basketball profiles as I have in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout. As I said in a post a while back, there is literally a treasure trove of basketball history and analysis here, from the wisdom of Pete Carril to the story of Roger Brown; these are substantive stories and a valuable contribution to basketball research and I look forward to the day when what I have accomplished here is recognized in that light. I am putting together first hand the kind of basketball encyclopedia that I always wanted but never quite found and I hope to share this with as wide an audience of basketball lovers as possible.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 4:47:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Mr. Ziller,

The title of this particular post is "NBA TV Panel Weighs in on Kobe versus Lebron". If you wanted original analysis all you had to do was scroll down the page and look at Mr. Friedman's multiple posts comparing the skill sets of Lebron and Kobe - comparisons he can make without resorting to statistics as anything more than supplemental information to his analyses.

There is nothing wrong with charts and graphics, it just that they they don't translate very well to explaining the nuances of basketball. The fact that you would put it in a graph assumes you can quantify it in such a manner. The way Mr. Friedman analyzes basketball using qualitative measures and prose, what could he do? Draw a picture of the player? Perhaps Mr. Friedman could include video (assuming the technology is feasible) to show exactly what he is describing in his analysis, but otherwise you are off point in your criticism.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 5:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

I did not notice that particular play when I watched the game but this does not surprise me. Although I have done several posts about the subjectivity involved with assists, rebounds are another stat category that can be manipulated by the official scorekeeper, particularly in regards to taps/tips on the offensive glass and back taps to a teammate; this is a stat that players can also manipulate: it has been said that Moses Malone used to just throw the ball on the glass, go get it and then score (thus padding his offensive rebound total, albeit at the expense of his field goal percentage) and when the rebounding race is close the two combatants inevitably manage to get 15-20 or more rebounds in the final game of the season. In fairness to Malone, sometimes there was a valid strategic reason for what he did: if he did not have a good shot angle, then he could (legally) "pass to himself" off the backboard, beat his opponent to the ball and thus create a better shooting angle (passing was not Malone's first--or second--option when he got the ball on the block).

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 5:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

LeBron obviously had more well rounded box score numbers in his MSG game than Kobe did but Kobe scored nearly 20% more points while playing significantly fewer minutes and shooting better percentages.

I find it interesting that some people are quick to criticize Kobe's lack of rebounds but that Stephen A. Smith (of all people) is the only person I've heard make the observation that for some stretches during the Cleveland game the Cavs' offense stagnated because LeBron was dominating the ball, often missing long jumpers; those shots nearly cost the Cavs the game in the fourth quarter, but the Knicks bailed out the Cavs by giving James some driving lanes instead of continuing to lay off of him and encouraging him to pound the ball and/or shoot from deep.

Nevertheless, Kobe's lack of rebounding and LeBron's ball domination notwithstanding, these were two great, classic performances by the two best players in the NBA.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 5:55:00 PM, Anonymous Basketball Basic said...

James has broke Bryant's record for the youngest player who reached 42,000 points in the NBA history. It is just a matter of time to see James next move.

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 7:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Basketball Basic:

LeBron just scored his 12,000th point, not his 42,000th point...

 
At Thursday, February 05, 2009 10:16:00 PM, Blogger Ziller said...

Dave,

Appreciate the thoughtful response. But I'm not sure of too many others doing a lot of graphic work, especially w/r/t Kobe and LeBron. So I took that as a volley at me. If it was meant for someone else, my bad for stepping in.

I don't question your knowledge of the game and your motor in acquiring more knowledge and perspective from a variety of sources. I do think you underestimate the value of advanced metrics, though. Watching the game, playing the game, investigating the game ... that's how we get those wacky formulas that just spit out numbers. We use math to systemize our observations. I don't know about you, but I can't remember how well everyone in the league shoots on long twos. Math, the metrics ... that helps us keep track and weigh players, strategies and teams. I don't think anyone's trying to replace the game we love with a calculator contest.

 
At Friday, February 06, 2009 2:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ziller:

As I said, I did not have you or your site in mind. My main point with that comment is that I feel like in some quarters of the internet more value has been placed on style/aesthetics than substance. Your site manages to combine both (which is not to say that I always agree with you but you do combine a nice visual presentation with solid content).

I agree that there is value to advanced metrics and I look forward to those metrics continuing to be refined/honed. What concerns me is that some people rely too much on those metrics and act as if the so-called Holy Grail of basketball stat analysis has already been discovered. As Rosenbaum and Oliver know all too well, that has not happened yet.

In many of my posts I use stats as additional evidence to buttress certain points but I am skeptical of anyone who analyzes the game exclusively or primarily with numbers, because the numbers only tell you what happened, not why/how it happened--and sometimes the numbers themselves can be off, as I have documented regarding assists.

 
At Friday, February 06, 2009 8:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David ... love the killer analysis, although at times it can be a bit verbose :)

The Kobe vs LeBron discussion really highlights the large strides the LeBron has made this year. He is clearly motivated to surpass Kobe and has the physical and mental tools to do so.

Let's not forget that he is only 24 years old and has yet to reach his prime.

 
At Friday, February 06, 2009 10:17:00 AM, Anonymous J said...

what is Ziller's site? Clicking his name doesn't get me anywhere, and I'm curious to see it now.

 
At Friday, February 06, 2009 3:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I realize that some of my posts are lengthy but the problem is that it is easy to say something stupid in a few words but proving that stupid statement to be incorrect involves citing facts and observations that often cannot be summarized briefly.

I agree that LeBron has worked hard and is highly motivated. It looks like it is only a matter of time until he surpasses Kobe but I don't believe in announcing the passing of the torch until it has actually happened.

 
At Friday, February 06, 2009 3:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

Sactown Royalty is his site (he writes about the Sacramento Kings).

 
At Tuesday, April 21, 2009 10:24:00 PM, Blogger Harry said...

It's mind blowing why Lebron is not hands down the MVP this year. He reminds me when Jordan was coming up the ranks with the Bulls. What I see in LeBron is a non-arrogant determined individual rallying a mediocre team destined to win the NBA title. He's learned so much about defense and makes strides to block shots that are simply magnificent to watch. Oh...did I mention he scores a lot.

 
At Wednesday, April 22, 2009 11:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Harry:

At the time of this post, Kobe was certainly at least as viable an MVP candidate as LeBron was. Don't forget that the Lakers beat the Cavs 2-0 this season and that the Lakers owned the best record in the league for most of the season even though Bynum missed nearly half of the season. However, in March the Cavs pulled ahead of the Lakers and, in my opinion, this is when LeBron moved ahead of Kobe in a close MVP race.

The Cavs are most assuredly not a mediocre team. Williams is an All-Star. Z, Wallace and Wally are former All-Stars. This team is so deep that Pavlovic, who started in the 2007 Finals, barely gets any run!

 

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