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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Point/Counterpoint With True Hoop's Henry Abbott

Two recent posts at Henry Abbott's True Hoop have recently inspired some discussion in the comments section at 20 Second Timeout. Here are links to the posts in question:

One Shot, with the Game on the Line

Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James vs. Boston's Defense

I have made it very clear that I strongly disagree with certain elements of both of those posts. After thinking things through, I decided to reach out to Henry via email, list my specific concerns and ask him to provide a response that I promised to publish in full here, much like I provided "equal time" to David Thorpe on the subject of J.J. Redick's potential to become a starter for a playoff team.

Here is the message that I sent to Henry, followed immediately by his response (which I have placed in italics):

Henry:

I think that my passion for this game and for doing things the way I perceive to be the right way may at times make me come off as harsh or argumentative and I am continually trying to refine my style to find a happy medium between staying true to what I passionately believe without antagonizing others who believe differently. I had a teacher once who called that kind of self-improvement "working on one's rough edges." So I am reaching out to you to explain exactly why I disagree with a couple of your recent posts. I understand that you are busy and so I usually keep my emails to you brief--this one is lengthier but I would appreciate it if you take the time to read it and I welcome your response if you are so inclined.

I disagree with the methodology/lack of context of two of your recent posts. Taking the second one first, you made a big deal about Kobe's shooting percentage on last second shots but you buried the lede, which is Beech's comment about his own study:

"Ultimately though while this kind of thing is fun, it's not to my mind particularly meaningful, other than indicating that the league as a whole could probably get more efficient in "end game" possessions...one easy place to start might be to try and be less predictable! It's nice to have a go-to guy, but when the other team knows without much doubt that a certain guy is getting the ball, it is going to be a lot easier to defend!" He then added, "For better quality analysis of clutch play, I prefer a filter of "last five minutes of fourth quarter/overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points."

At the time of your post, Bryant ranked first in the league in that category, though when I just checked the updated list a moment ago I see that after the "gastroenteritis game" he has now dropped to third behind James and Anthony. James was first and Bryant second last year.

Yes, your readers can click on the link and find that information just like I did but it seems wrong to me to emphasize the results of the study without mentioning that the person who did the study finds another metric to be more meaningful.

In your post titled Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James vs. Boston's Defense, why did you choose to cherry pick one regular season game out of context as a focal point of a discussion about Kobe and LeBron's relative success against elite defenses? The Lakers were playing their third game in four nights and, while Kobe obviously did not shoot well, his three three pointers in the fourth quarter played a critical role in forcing the game to overtime. Kobe has a proven track record as a very good midrange shooter and reliable three point shooter, while LeBron has a proven track record that is very poor from both of those areas. One subpar game--or one above average game, for that matter--does not materially alter those facts.

I have written extensively about this very subject and I chose to focus my attention on the recent playoff games that Kobe and LeBron have played against the past two NBA champions (the series in question are the 2008 NBA Finals, 2008 West Finals, 2008 East semis and 2007 NBA Finals). In the playoffs, teams lock in on each other's strengths and weaknesses and there are not any scheduling anomalies of three games in four nights. As I noted in Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant Vs. LeBron James: How they compare in the skills that matter:

"James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals; he averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics.

In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals; he averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals."

While this could be called a small subset of games, this subset is certainly more representative in quantity and quality than one regular season game. Also, in discussing Kobe's skill set/shooting abilities you probably should have noted that in the 2008 Western Conference playoffs--which involved teams from the most competitive Western Conference race ever--Kobe averaged 30-plus ppg on .500-plus field goal shooting. I have always said that MJ was greater than Kobe but the Western Conference playoffs were the first time that I really thought that Kobe played at an MJ-esque level for an extended stretch against that type of competition (just to be clear, I'd still take MJ over Kobe).

How can you possibly believe that one regular season game provides a more meaningful basis for comparison between Kobe and LeBron than the accumulated evidence provided by the games that I just cited?

The fact that Cleveland took Boston to seven games while the Lakers lost in six is not relevant to the individual player comparison; LeBron shot a hideous percentage in the first four games of the Boston series but Cleveland split those games because of their great rebounding and defense, qualities that the Lakers did not display in the Finals. I find it interesting that a lot of people reference the Cavs lasting longer against Boston than the Lakers but few people mention that the Lakers beat a Spurs team that swept the Cavs the year before.

I shouldn't even have to say this but let me be very clear: I don't have a pro-Kobe or anti-LeBron agenda; I have written a lot of pieces lauding LeBron's greatness and I defended him in print when some people criticized him for passing to Donyell Marshall late in a playoff game. LeBron is a wonderful talent.

I rate Kobe slightly above LeBron right now but certainly realize that a good case can be made for LeBron, but that case is based on his superior power and athletic ability, not on a cherrypicked example purporting to prove that Bryant does not enjoy a skill set advantage that he most assuredly does in terms of midrange and longrange shooting.

Since your post about this issue has attracted a lot of attention--I did not see it initially on my own but found out about it when one of my readers mentioned it--I feel compelled to respond to what I consider to be the post's glaring shortcomings. I offered my take in the comments section to one of my posts when someone asked me about it but I plan to do a full post about this soon, with the gist of the message being what I have just said in the above paragraphs. If you have a response/clarification that you would like for me to include in that post, please send it to me and I would be glad to run it in full, much like I did a while back with David Thorpe when he and I disagreed about J.J. Redick.

Here is Henry's response:

David-

Our issue here is not our differences of opinion, but our differences of topic.

My post about Roland's research was not about Kobe Bryant. It was about Roland's new research. That was the goal of the post, to show people his new work, which was interesting.

The older research, about the last five minutes, has been linked to on TrueHoop probably a dozen times. Like a zillion things out there, it may be more important. But this wasn't the be-all end-all post of Kobe in crunch time. This was hey, look, a new way to look at game winning shots. What do you think?

The topic of my post was the new research. And it happened to have a very surprising and newsy finding: the player everyone agreed was the best in that situation, is actually not all that great. No good reason for me to hide that.

On the post about LeBron vs. Kobe, I had really just one mission: To refute the notion that you can look at highlights and pick the best player. I saw Eric Snow do that on NBA TV the other day. Saw highlights of Kobe, declared LeBron couldn't do that, and therefore Kobe was the best.

That is sloppy thinking. My point, and I'm sure you'll agree with me, was simply that there are boring basketball plays that are often more effective than exciting ones.

And as for the idea that Kobe catches the ball far from the hoop, don't quote me without double-checking it, but I'm pretty sure that comes from Tex Winter. And it's true! He does catch the ball far from the hoop. He does shoot a lot of heavily guarded long shots in key moments. That me makes a lot of them is impressive. But he also misses a lot of them, because they are insanely difficult. A more boring play closer to the rim could well be more effective.

That's all. I have no quarrel with Kobe Bryant. He just happened to pop up as a vehicle to make two points: Roland has new stats, and boring plays can get the job done.

Henry

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM

11 comments

links to this post

11 Comments:

At Tuesday, February 10, 2009 4:09:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

"He does shoot a lot of heavily guarded long shots in key moments. That me makes a lot of them is impressive. But he also misses a lot of them, because they are insanely difficult. A more boring play closer to the rim could well be more effective."

One major problem with this kind of reasoning: against championship-calibre defense, you won't be able to get that 'boring play close to the rim' as often as you do in a regular-season game. That is why LeBron's FG% plummets in the playoffs (it's worse than Kobe's actually). Teams pack the lane and dare him to hit the kind of shots that Kobe buries regularly, and he can't do it consistently. Of course neither Kobe nor LeBron wants to make a living off contested 20-foot jumpers, but sometimes you have to be able to take and make those kinds of shots.

I still think it was misleading for Abbott to base his whole point around LeBron's 2 full games against Boston vs Kobe's shooting only in the 4th and overtime (on the second night of a back-to-back, in the 5th game of a 6-game road trip). Forget about the playoffs, he didn't even reference Kobe's far more efficient performance (13/23 shooting) on Christmas Day! That kind of cherry-picking undermines his argument.

Ironically (and this is not really to attack Abbott's point in particular), I think LeBron might be more of a 'highlight' player than Kobe in the sense that most of what he excels at is easy to identify and also shows up very clearly on a box score. Kobe's game is very fundamentally sound and I don't know if a lot of the things he can do - his footwork being a prime example - are fully appreciated even when his highlights are shown on SportsCenter.

 
At Tuesday, February 10, 2009 7:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have been a big fan ever since i first came upon you site. brilliant analysis of game situations. almost perfect evaluation of players based on skill sets. though i am a lifelong kobe fan, and lbj fan too, i must admit that you do have a bit of bias toward kobe, but everybody does that. but you do it judiciously. you are a true basketball lifer. may i please request you to respond to the article of the sports guy. loved reading all his articles too... a very funny guy. but really extremely biased when it comes to kobe. he just has to justify his previous biases by being even more biased in his most recent article. brings up ridiculous justifications to prove his point (his many "unnamed" friends who emailed him how they hated the msg game... were they watching the game? how many perfect would be assists did kobe throw to teammates that were not converted did they see?) totally shameless excuses for himself... i am writing this as a fan... truth is, i am also a lifelong nash fan... since his first phoenix days... i am a basketball fan... more power bro

 
At Tuesday, February 10, 2009 8:05:00 PM, Anonymous st said...

i think this article sums it up best

http://www.respectkobe.com/?p=60

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 4:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I agree with both of the points that you made:

1) Kobe's ability to consistently hit jumpers is very valuable precisely because elite defensive teams shut down the paint--and regardless of what the intent/theme of Abbott's post was supposed to be, it does not make sense to only cite Kobe's stats from one game when there is a much larger and more representative sample size available.

2) Purely from a "highlight" perspective, LeBron is more spectacular than Kobe at this stage of their careers: LeBron is more explosive, jumps higher and dunks more frequently. I have noticed a recent trend among Kobe's detractors that they begrudgingly acknowledge his shooting ability--all the while criticizing him for supposedly not driving enough--and then they claim that Kobe's game may be more aesthetically pleasing than LeBron's but that LeBron is more productive. This is a backhanded compliment that does not even make sense because LeBron is in fact the more "exciting"--and more media-hyped--player now but it seems like Kobe's critics want to suggest that Kobe's game only has superficial appeal but that LeBron's game is more substantive. I don't find much difference between the two players at this point but Kobe's game is definitely more substantive in terms of his skill set, while LeBron compensates for that somewhat with his raw athletic ability, size and power.

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 4:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ST:

That is an excellent article from a writer who typically produces high quality work.

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 4:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Thank you for your interest in my writing.

Simmons can be entertaining at times but he flaunts his biases as a Boston fan quite openly so I don't consider him to be an objective NBA analyst; therefore, I don't see the need to bother responding to what he wrote: he is just a fan--albeit one who is well compensated by ESPN to articulate his views--explaining what he does and does not like about Kobe. He wrote an opinion piece and he is entitled to his opinion. I doubt that any objective person read what he wrote and considered it to be credible, objective basketball analysis.

I responded to Abbott's two posts because they were presented in a fashion suggesting that they were objectively analyzing the game but I disagreed with what I perceive to be a lack of context in both cases. I appreciate that Abbott took the time to explain his thinking, so readers can now look at what I said and how he responded and make their own judgments.

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 10:19:00 AM, Anonymous mdmills said...

Interesting that Mr. Abbot 'forgot' about the Christmas day game. Guess it didn't serve the purpose of his article.

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 1:29:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

I hate when Kobe "pops up as a vehicle" to make some other point.

I don't know I fully believe Mr. Abbott, but I'll have to take his word for it. For now.

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 2:23:00 PM, Anonymous Jonty said...

David,

You the best man. I am just not saying this because I am an unabashed Kobe fan. I think this entire hoopla around the Kobe-Lebron thing is just making me sick. Even though I am a Kobe fan I appreciate (not love to watch) what Lebron is and can do in the basketball court..but frankly it does not get my juices flowing when I see a truck charging down the lane and putting in lay-up after lay-up. The sheer creativity and brilliance of Kobe is unparalleled. Me and my friends became NBA fans during the Shaq-Kobe era and watched Kobe evolve from a frail, diminutive young man to this offensive juggernaut. So no matter what stats Hollinger and Co. come up with our loyalty will not be swayed. I understand that you being a journalist needs to be more objective than us.

The NBA has always wanted a two man show. I still remember when Grant Hill came into the league he was supposed to be the next MJ..that did not pan out...next during the early part of the decade the NBA was trying to find a potential rival to Kobe and started touting Iverson and McGrady to be his chief rival...neither Iverson nor McGrady had the work ethic of Kobe to even challenge him...so now its Lebron's turn..

What people don't realize is that Kobe has worked a lot to reach where he is.. everyone knew he was talented but without the hard work we probably would not be talking about him in the same breath as MJ. On the other hand till now it looks like Lebron is able to get by, just by his unique physical ability and needs to improve his outside shooting...Can he get to the peak and surpass Kobe, MJ...hell yeah...but does he have the zeal and the work ethic..I will wait and watch...

 
At Thursday, February 12, 2009 8:22:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I dont think James will ever be better than Magic. And its possible (very very difficult) that James might average a triple double in a season. He would have to be very dedicated. But everyone says next MJ and surpass MJ but I dont think James will be better than Magic.

 
At Friday, February 13, 2009 2:15:00 AM, Anonymous DHSmd said...

http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3896242

 

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