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Monday, June 15, 2009

Maestro Bryant Orchestrates Lakers' Championship, Wins Finals MVP

"I don't have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore."--Kobe Bryant, the 2009 Finals MVP trophy by his side, at the press conference after game five of the NBA Finals

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 30 points, led the L.A. Lakers in assists (five), blocked shots (four, tied with Pau Gasol) and steals (two, tied with Trevor Ariza) while also grabbing six rebounds and committing just one turnover as the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86 to win the NBA Finals 4-1. Bryant earned Finals MVP honors after averaging 32.4 ppg, 7.4 apg and 5.6 rpg in the series; only Allen Iverson (35.6 ppg in 2001), Jerry West (33.8 ppg in 1965) and Shaquille O'Neal (33.0 ppg in 2001) averaged more points in a five game NBA Finals.

The Lakers won the championship one year after being bounced out of the Finals in six games by the Boston Celtics; don't underestimate the significance of a team having the mental toughness to pull that off, because the last time a Finals loser won the championship the next season was 1989, when the Detroit Pistons swept the Lakers after losing to them in seven games in 1988.

Lamar Odom contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds off of the bench after subpar performances in games three and four. Trevor Ariza added 15 points, five rebounds and two steals, while Pau Gasol had a very efficient stat line: 14 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and the aforementioned game-high tying four blocked shots. Game four hero Derek Fisher scored 13 points on 4-7 field goal shooting. Starting center Andrew Bynum played his usual limited minutes (16:54) but fired up 11 shots during that time, making just three of them. The Lakers' much vaunted depth was scarcely evident, particularly if you count Odom as a de facto starter (Odom played 31:43): only three other reserves played and they combined to score just four points.

Rashard Lewis led Orlando with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he shot just 6-19 from the field; the hero of the Cleveland series shot .405 from the field versus the Lakers, had just two good games out of five and shot 2-10 from the field in both game one and game four. Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston scored 12 points each. Dwight Howard, who punished Cleveland inside to the tune of 25.8 ppg on .651 field goal shooting--including a playoff career-high 40 points in the clinching game six--finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Magic shot 8-27 (.296) from three point range and even that number is inflated, because it includes some late three pointers that boosted their percentage but did not really threaten to alter the outcome of the game.

Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy mused earlier in the playoffs that most members of the media come to games with two preconceived storylines and that after a game is over they just run with whichever one fits. For instance, if a well-rested team is playing against a team that just finished a grueling seven games series then these writers have a "rust" storyline ready and a "rested" storyline ready and simply use the one that proves to be relevant. The storylines before game five for those kinds of writers most likely revolved around the Magic either being "resilient" (if they won) or "devastated by the game four overtime loss" (if the Lakers won). Reality is not so cut and dried. The Magic have long since proved their resiliency, so anyone who imagined that they would just meekly submit to the Lakers is not very intelligent. The Magic took a quick 15-6 lead and were ahead for most of the first quarter. Bynum shot 0-6 during Orlando's initial burst, prompting ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy to note, "Sometimes you're open for a reason." Even more worrisome for the Lakers than Bynum's bricklaying was that Bryant reinjured one of the damaged fingers on his shooting hand when Lewis stripped the ball from Bryant--but, as is almost always the case with Bryant, the injury quickly became a nonstory and he did not miss any game time or seem to be the least bit impaired (Bryant has not missed a game in more than two years despite logging heavy minutes and enduring a host of ailments, including two significant finger dislocations on his shooting hand). As iron man quarterback Brett Favre once said about injuries, they are simply a case of "mind over matter": "if you don't mind, they don't matter."

Bynum finally scored midway through the first quarter when he got an offensive rebound/putback. Van Gundy observed, "Here's another byproduct of the double teaming of Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard had to rotate out (leaving) the smaller Hedo Turkoglu on Andrew Bynum." This is a nuance of the game that many fans (and most "stat gurus") fail to understand; they look at Bynum's shooting percentage (when he is healthy) or the shooting percentages of Gasol and Odom and say that those guys should get more shots and Bryant should shoot less frequently--but the Laker bigs shoot so well precisely because Bryant creates easy shots for them but he cannot create 25 easy shots a game for each player. Meanwhile, Bryant's shooting percentage is dragged down by having to take shots at the end of the shot clock and in other scenarios when the offense has broken down. If Gasol, Odom or Bynum shot 20-25 times per game their shooting percentages would drop and the Lakers would not be as effective as they are with Bryant as the main scorer/facilitator and the other players in complementary roles.

Although the Magic clearly had the right mindset entering this game, the Lakers withstood the initial flurry and only trailed 28-26 by the end of the first quarter. Bryant's prowess as a closer is correctly respected and feared but in this series he also proved to be a good "opener," keeping the Lakers in contact in several first quarters when the Magic came out smoking and the other Lakers could not get much going; in this instance he had 11 points and one assist. Bryant rested for the first few minutes of the second quarter and the Lakers fell behind 34-28 before rallying to trim the margin to 34-31 just prior to his return. Then, Bryant almost immediately sparked the run that, essentially, decided the outcome of the game, registering three assists (all on three pointers) and nailing a jumper as the Lakers outscored the Magic 11-0 in 1:20, turning a 40-36 deficit into a 47-40 lead. Though the Magic obviously were still in contact, they did not seem to have quite the same spirit the rest of the way; after several rounds in the famous "Rope a Dope" fight, Muhammad Ali famously asked George Foreman if that was all he had and Foreman recalled thinking, "Yeah, that's about it" before Ali moved in for the kill. Something similar seemed to happen to Orlando in this game--not that the Lakers were intentionally using a "Rope a Dope" approach but rather that the Magic hit the Lakers with their best shot, the Lakers withstood the blow and then it seemed like the Magic grasped the disheartening reality of trailing 3-1 versus a team that has answers for everything that they do. The Lakers led 56-46 at halftime.

The Magic briefly got to within five early in the third quarter but then the Lakers went up 73-57 and were ahead by double digits the rest of the way. Odom hit back to back three pointers during that burst. One of those treys came after a double-teamed Bryant passed to Ariza, who swung the ball to Fisher, who kicked it to Odom in the left corner; Fisher got the assist but Bryant created the shot by drawing the double team.

Although the Lakers enjoyed a comfortable lead for most of the second half, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson did not take any chances with his inconsistent reserves and opted to give Bryant just 1:14 of rest at the tail end of the third quarter with the Lakers leading 74-59. Bryant returned at the start of the fourth quarter and then played the rest of the way, scoring nine points in the final stanza to make sure that the Magic did not pull off a comeback.

The relative lack of drama down the stretch gave Jeff Van Gundy and fellow commentator Mark Jackson plenty of time to wax poetic about Bryant. After Bryant hit a tough jumper, Jackson said, "I really don't think that people appreciate how great this guy is." When play by play announcer Mike Breen mentioned in passing how much better of a teammate Bryant has become in recent years, Van Gundy interjected, "I think it's overplayed how hard he was to play with. He plays hard, he works hard in practice; when he is single covered he takes a shot and when he is double covered he passes. I think that a lot of that (stuff) about him not being a good teammate had as much to do with the guys he played with."

Jackson added, "If you go out and compete the same way this guy competes in practice and in game situations he's not a problem to you because he is not talking to you when he demands that you raise your level of play."

Van Gundy concluded, "He will have problems with guys--and rightfully so, just like a coach would--who compete to a point but maybe not has hard as is necessary to win it all."

Over the years, I have caught some flak from uninformed hacks--some of whom write for prominent publications--for stating that Bryant is the league's best player because he has no skill set flaws; I don't say that as a fan but rather as someone who watches the sport with an educated eye--and I have talked to enough coaches, scouts and players to know that they are seeing exactly what I am seeing. As Mark Jackson said during the third quarter, "He has no flaws as a basketball player. People got upset with me for putting Kobe Bryant in the same discussion with Michael Jordan. At the end of the day, just look at this guy's body of work. Look at the great players and listen to the way that they acknowledge that he's the best. It's incredible." The disconnect between how some fans and self proclaimed experts perceive Bryant and the way that informed basketball people view Bryant reminds me of the disparate perspectives about Scottie Pippen: basketball purists understand just how great he was but casual observers act as if he was an innocent bystander to Michael Jordan's brilliance.

Julius Erving's words of wisdom after this year's Hall of Fame press conference proved to be prophetic when he answered a question about what separates Kobe Bryant and LeBron James: "The years of experience, the fact that there is no substitute for that. In terms of his individual ability, he does things in a little bit more of a traditional sense to get it done. LeBron is kind of like a bull in a china shop. He is a fantastic talent. I don't think he knows how good he is. Looking at him coming full speed at 270 pounds, that is like Shaq playing point guard. It's like, 'All you little boys need to move out of my way.' But, the combination of offense and defense, finesse and power, Kobe is the package--and I think that LeBron would probably admit that. Well, maybe because of their egos neither one would admit anything! But, that is part of it, don't give anybody any quarter or do anything that will put you at a disadvantage. Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line."

James was my choice for regular season MVP this year, narrowly edging out Bryant; though the national media selected James in a landslide, I concluded my article on the subject with these words: "This year's playoffs may reveal whether Bryant truly passed that torch to James for good in March or if Bryant merely needed to get his second wind in order to recapture the torch during the crucible of postseason competition." During the 2009 playoffs, Bryant averaged 30.2 ppg, 5.5 apg and 5.3 rpg while shooting .457 from the field, .349 from three point range and .883 from the free throw line, mirroring the outstanding numbers that he posted in the 2008 playoffs: 30.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.7 rpg, .479, .302 and .809. Bryant led the NBA in total playoff points scored both years and had the highest playoff scoring average in 2008 (he ranked second to James' 35.3 ppg this year).

James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.

In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the 2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.

It is fitting that Bryant joined West on the list of Finals MVP winners and that he is the first recipient of that award since it was officially named in honor of Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the league's history (11 championships in 13 seasons) who, ironically, never won the Finals MVP (West won the first Finals MVP during Russell's final NBA season); no rational person can exclude Bryant's name from the short list of the greatest players in the history of the sport. When I wrote my five part series about pro basketball's Pantheon I limited the discussion to retired players but in part five I mentioned four active players who have performed at a "Pantheon level": Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Interestingly, prior to game five, TNT/NBA TV commentator Kenny Smith said that a fourth championship for Bryant would cement Bryant's place on Smith's list of the top 10 NBA players of all-time (this is the order in which Smith mentioned the names, though it is not clear if this is the order in which he ranks these players): Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant. It is difficult to take anyone's name off of that list but it is also difficult to leave out guys like Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving.

Bryant's Finals MVP caps off an extraordinary season in a special career: last summer, Bryant's clutch fourth quarter scoring carried Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, in February he shared the All-Star MVP with Shaquille O'Neal and then Bryant finished second to James in regular season MVP voting after leading the Lakers to the best record in the West for the second year in a row. Only Willis Reed (1970), Michael Jordan (1996, 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) won the regular season MVP, the All-Star MVP and the Finals MVP in the same season, so Bryant's second place finish and two first place finishes in voting for those three awards in 2009 are impressive. Bryant is also on a very short and distinguished list of NBA players who have won at least four championships, one regular season MVP and one Finals MVP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

While this is Bryant's fourth NBA championship--not his first, despite what you might have heard--Lakers Coach Phil Jackson passed Red Auerbach by claiming his 10th NBA title and after the game he proudly wore a cap designed by his children and adorned with the Roman numeral "X." Jackson is renowned for his ability to make adjustments during playoff series and this year's playoffs provided more evidence of that, as the Lakers won two of the final three games in the Houston series and three of the final four games in the Denver series, including the last two. During this year's playoffs the Magic proved to be a team that provided a lot of matchup challenges but in game five the Lakers managed to simultaneously limit their three point shooters and hold Howard well below his usual scoring average, a most impressive defensive accomplishment that speaks both to Jackson's gameplanning and to how well his players executed what he designed. Of course, it helps to have a player like Bryant bringing those chalkboard designs to life while also exhorting his teammates to match his energy and effort even if they cannot match his skill: on one possession, Bryant very effectively double-teamed Howard on the left block and then sprinted all the way to the right corner to contest Lewis' three pointer and harass him into shooting an airball. Players know which players just talk about hard work and which players actually are willing to sacrifice, so when Bryant plays that hard on defense that attitude becomes contagious. As Van Gundy and Jackson noted during the telecast, Bryant's attitude and work ethic had precisely that kind of positive effect for Team USA, too.

While always giving Gasol the credit that he deserves for his well-rounded skill set, I have also insisted that Bryant has played a major role in bringing out the best in Gasol. Jerry West, who acquired Bryant for the Lakers and ran the Memphis franchise when Gasol was that team's number one option, recently said of Gasol, "His effort is certainly greater than it was in Memphis, I'll tell you that, and it's because Kobe Bryant has driven him to that point." Anyone who follows the NBA closely and understands the game realizes that even though the trade that brought Gasol to L.A. looks lopsided on the surface, the method to Memphis' "madness" is that the Grizzlies seriously doubted that Gasol could ever be the main performer on a championship caliber team; that is why they dumped his salary in exchange for young players and draft picks in order to basically hit the "reboot" button and start over. Gasol has found a perfect niche with the Lakers as the number two option; this is definitely not a case of the Lakers having two "alpha males," as Bryant rightly described the situation when he and Shaquille O'Neal were the two best players on three Lakers' championship teams from 2000-02: as Bryant said in his postgame press conference after game five, those teams were unique precisely because they had two "alpha males" instead of the more clearly defined hierarchy that typically exists on teams.

Although the middle three games of this series were close, the Lakers routed the Magic in L.A. in game one and then eliminated the Magic in Orlando with a decisive game five win. Not coincidentally, those were Bryant's two best games of the series, as he dropped 40-8-8 in the opener and 32-6-5 in the finale while only committing one turnover in each of those contests. A lot will be said in the coming days, weeks and months about how this performance will impact Bryant's legacy--and if it was not immediately obvious how foolish it was for John Krolik to suggest that Bryant's career would be defined by game seven versus Houston it certainly is glaringly apparent now; all of the excessive attention paid to Bryant's facial expressions was also silly: as West said, when it came time to win championships you did not see Michael Jordan laughing and giggling, either.

Perhaps Kevin Garnett, who had his own critics to answer after spending most of his career getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, put it best last year as he exulted just moments after his Boston Celtics won the championship over Bryant's Lakers: "What can you say now? What can you say now?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM

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68 Comments:

At Monday, June 15, 2009 7:35:00 AM, Anonymous Jack B said...

David,

I wonder how stupid the TNT guys feel now for saying that the Lakers didn't deserve to win the NBA championship back in that Rocket series. Not a lot people can imagine what was going to the mind of these players. They spent the entire Nba season looking ahead to the NBA finals, it's only when they faced adversity that they play in the present. That 39 point loss to Boston must have ate at them for them to be so consume with it. I think thats one of the main reason why they struggled against Houston.

On Barkley: Did you also think that charles seemed bitter about putting Kobe in 10 players of all time? not only his stats but how many players have made all nba 1st team and 1st defensive team over 7 times each in their career? You look it up and you'll find that the list is really really really small.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 7:35:00 AM, Anonymous jack B said...

David

-------------------------------------
David what do you think of this passage by ROLAND LAZENBY, and why hasn't the media reported on that more as the basis of the rift between Shaq and KObe?


Damn, he was one lonely boy. Ambition will do that to you.

I was speaking to a group of high school kids last year and trying to give them a little bit of an idea about Kobe Bryant.

I asked how many of them had jobs. Several hands shot up. One kid was 17 and had just started working at a grocery store.

I asked him to imagine going into work that afternoon and announcing to your bosses and co-workers that you may be just 17 but you plan on being the greatest grocery store worker who ever lived.

Imagine telling them that you’re just 17 but you have plans on one day running not just the grocery store, but the entire chain of grocery stores.

Imagine telling them, “I just want to be the man.”
And to make that happen, you’re going to stay extra hours after work each day, practicing so that you can get faster at bagging the groceries and running the cash register. You’re going to walk through the aisles after work memorizing the thousands of products and studying late at night for ways to make them sell faster.

You are going to work insane hours to be the world’s greatest grocery guy.

Not only that, but you’re going to invite your older co-workers to stay overtime with you, to work for free to get better and better at what they do.

I asked the young student how he thought the co-workers would respond. He gave me a blank, sort of stunned look.

That, I explained, was how 17-year-old Kobe Bryant had approached the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996-97.

It didn’t take long, of course, before Bryant was alienated from his teammates. Some of them soon came to express a hatred for him. Raw ambition will do that for you.

The Kobe Bryant I got to know was this pretty miserable person. He told me he was determined to be the greatest. He knew he was going to be, but he just didn’t know how it was going to happen.

They laughed at him behind his back, derided him and despised him. As veteran teammate Rick Fox explained to me, the older players saw Kobe as the punk kid in the school cafeteria who was trying to jump ahead of them in the lunch line. They spent their time thinking of ways to teach him a lesson.

If nothing else, the rest of the team bonded together in their dislike for this arrogant young guy.

All of them except for one.

Derek Fisher was a rookie with Kobe Bryant, but Fisher was already 22, having put in four years of hard work at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.

When I first met Fish, he was young, open-faced, and honest, with a maturity that extended far beyond his years.

“Really,” Fish told me, “we should all be the way Kobe is. We should all be working as hard as possible to be the best we can be, to make this team the best it can be.”

Still, he didn’t know quite what to make of Bryant. And Bryant, who had quickly learned not to trust anyone, was wary of him too.

Bryant, though, had a pretty simple way of looking at the world. He gauged those around him based on how hard they were willing to work.

It didn’t take Bryant long to notice that Derek Fisher, while not the most talented guy in the world, worked really, really, really hard. And that became the basis for their trust, and eventually, their friendship.

Fisher’s main talent was his ability to work really, really, really hard.

Suddenly the world wasn’t quite so lonely for Kobe Bryant. He and Fish began working out together.
------------------------------------------

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 11:45:00 AM, Blogger SamiA said...

I agree about Kobe and the difference between skills when it comes to Lebron. Kobe gets to his area above the foul line and does whatever the defense dictates him to do. He has no problem pulling up for the J, or he'll just simply wait for a second body to run at him so he can find a open shooter. You just have to shake your head sometimes.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 1:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

KOBE BRYANT LEGACY SECURE TOP TEN ALL TIME NOW PROBABLY TOP 7 ALL TIME I THINK HE WAS GREAT IN THE LAST GAME AND PUT KOBE HATERS TO BED FOR GOOD. THE LAKERS WAS THE BEST TEAM IN THE NBA THIS YEAR AND COULD BE FOR YEARS TO COME LEBRON IS GREAT AND WAS MV THIS YEAR AND I STILL THINK BEST BEST OR SECOND BEST PLAYER OR HIM AND KOBE COBEST PLAYERS BUT KOBE WAS SPECTACULAR.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 1:16:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

David:

Interesting post as usual. A couple thoughts:

1) Do you think Magic and Kareem (before Kareem slowed down in his last couple years) could be seen as two alpha males? What about Shaq and Wade? Erving and Moses Malone?

2) Various commentators have said that Dwight Howard needs to spend this summer developing some low-post moves and working on his FG and FT shooting. People have identified exactly the same skills for LeBron James to work on this summer, also. Do you think these guys can still add/improve these skills to their arsenal at this point in their careers? If they do not naturally have the instincts and abilities of a Kevin McHale or a Reggie Miller, how much can they develop?

3) I think few commentators have noted that Bryant has now led his teams to an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title with a badly mangled finger on his shooting hand! Wow.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 1:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What can i say now? So many things...

Well, first, how did Kobe really play in the Finals" To my eye, He had two very good to great games, one mediocre game, and two bad games. Overall, pretty average, well below what you would expect from Kobe.

And, "the man with no skill set weakness" get stuffed once and turned the ball over with a chance to tie the game in another. He hardly burnished his reputation as a closer in this one. His teammates did most of the work in the close games actually.

It's not difficult to argue that Gasol put up better numbers in the regular season, in the Finals, and in the playoffs as a whole. Kobe is the big media star, and he took a ton of shots in the Finals, using 156 possessions, but his ts% was just 52.5% in the Finals, which is very very ordinary, just slightly better than what he posted in a losing effort last year.

The idea that Ariza is a journeyman is curious, considering he is still only 23, and considering he proved himself a very effective player long before he got to the Lakers. We knowledgeable Knicks fans regretted letting him go the moment he was traded. His acquisition on the cheap and Gasol's were what made this team what it is.

Finally, Kobe and Lebron. Lebron posted a ts% of 62% in the playoffs and a PER of 37. Which is ridiculous. Kobe is a great player, certainly one of the ten best in the league right now, but what he accomplished with a very talented group of teammates doesn't change the fact that Lebron is in another class as a basketball player.

Owen

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 1:52:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

I eagerly await the Wages of Wins post claiming that Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, or Trevor Ariza was the Most Productive Player of the Finals, not Kobe Bryant. It won't be too long before it happens ...

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 4:40:00 PM, Anonymous Clean Cut Media said...

thanks for the great article. It's refreshing to read an article that speaks truth rather than just what the media portrays. I love the game of basketball and the type of criticisms Kobe had received in his career are so frustrating because they come from the uninformed public who simply regurgitate what the media says without actually knowing what is happening in the game. Kobe being Kobe greatly elevates the play of his teammates. Everyone was so hyped about Bynum, but if Kobe was not there Bynum would be lucky to average 10, 5 at this point in his career. The bigs benefit from his play as well as the wide open shooters.

It's great that Van Gundy shone some light on some actual basketball analysis. The semi-squashing of some of the "uninformed talk" brings me great relief...

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B:

I don't know if Barkley is bitter about it, though he certainly seemed to disagree with Smith. Watching the exchange between Smith, Barkley and Ahmad Rashad, I got the impression that initially Barkley misunderstood what Rashad and Smith said--they said that Kobe is in the top ten all-time but at first at seemed like Barkley thought that they had said Kobe is the greatest player of all-time. Perhaps Barkley disagreed with that.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack b:

I have seen that passage and other similar ones by Lazenby, who is a very good reporter and writer. I have been saying for years that the Bryant-O'Neal "feud" was not based on the nonsense that the media reported but rather the fundamental personality difference between the two stars: Bryant is a gym rat, a ferocious worker, while O'Neal is someone who plays hard but has never had the same dedication that Bryant has in terms of preparation.

During one of Phil Jackson's news conferences during the Finals he retold another classic story about Bryant: Jackson met with Bryant early during Bryant's career to watch film and talk about how to read the game and how to balance shooting/getting teammates involved and Bryant declared that he was ready right then to be a captain/team leader. Jackson replied that no one was willing to follow Bryant at that point. Partially, that is an indictment of the other players--as Lazenby noted in the story that you recounted--but partially that is also because Bryant was a young player who had to prove that he did in fact possess leadership qualities. The Lakers have assembled a roster of hard working players who follow Bryant's lead and the result has been two Western Conference titles plus one NBA championship.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

SamiA:

Players, former players, scouts, coaches and executives understand how great Bryant is but (as you will see below) not everyone recognizes the significance of having a complete skill set.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Bryant's "legacy" should have already been secured by three NBA championships, one MVP and his seven selections to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team--not to mention leading Team USA to an Olympic gold medal after a long drought for the United States in FIBA play. However, winning a fourth NBA championship plus a Finals MVP certainly enhances Bryant's legacy.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:48:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Oh Owen, you are reliably hilarious. The juxtaposition of your nonsense with FreeCashFlow's sarcastic comment is priceless.

Owen, your posts are so ridiculous I am almost tempted to believe that you are a figment of David's imagination, a personality he has invented and uses on her to unfairly tarnish the stat gurus. But you're really more or less par for the course.

As to substance, you say "It's not difficult to argue that Gasol put up better numbers in the regular season, in the Finals, and in the playoffs as a whole."

I would be very intrigued to read this "not difficult" to make argument. Please make it.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

I wondered the very same thing that you asked in your first question, though I did not delve into the issue in the post because I knew that it was going to run long already. Kareem was clearly the first option on offense until 1986-87, a span that included three championships (1980, 1982, 1985) plus Finals losses in 1983 and 1984. In 1986-87, Magic became the primary scoring threat and also won the first of his three regular season MVPs. So, while Kareem and Magic each certainly were "alpha males" at particular stages of their careers I am not sure that they were simultaneously "alpha males" as teammates. In contrast, in the 2000-01 season Shaq averaged 28.7 ppg and Kobe averaged 28.5 ppg in the regular season; it is difficult to think of a better example of options 1A and 1B than that. Jackson used them as a one-two punch, softening up the opposing defense by pounding the ball into Shaq early and then finishing the game off by using Kobe as a closer. Of course, because of Kobe's complete skill set (Shaq cannot shoot free throws well or create his own shot off of the dribble) we have seen that Kobe can be both the "opener" and the "closer."

Shaq himself stated clearly that Wade was the first option in Miami and Shaq said that it would be foolish for him to demand more touches than a young, gifted player who can do so much; if Shaq had figured that out when he was playing with Kobe then maybe Shaq would have never been traded and he and Kobe would have won several more rings together.

Erving and Malone certainly were "alpha males" for years on other teams but even though Malone said that the Sixers were Erving's team it is clear that Malone assumed the "alpha male" position. Erving had operated out of the left block in the half court but when Malone arrived on the team Erving vacated that area. I even recall that he said that he spoke with Bobby Jones to get some insight into how to be a role player--that is an example of Erving being very self-effacing, though, because in 1983 he was still an All-NBA First Team player and he finished fifth in MVP voting but it was certainly clear that Malone was the first offensive option.

LeBron's game has improved in terms of defense, free throw shooting and three point shooting. For that reason, I suspect that he can continue to improve in other skill set areas. As for Howard, other than adding a running hook that is only sporadically effective, his game has not changed significantly, so I am skeptical about how much he will improve in the areas that you mentioned--but Howard has also already proven that he is dominant enough to lead a team to the Finals if he is surrounded by three point shooters and a few gritty perimeter defenders.

Bryant does not draw attention to his injuries--or even talk about them at all unless he is asked a specific question--and most media members are hardly inclined to lavish praise on Bryant so his willingness and ability to play hurt is not often discussed.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 5:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Owen has apparently been designated by WoW to respond to 20 Second Timeout posts...

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 6:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

First, "average" for Kobe Bryant means playing at an MVP/All-NBA First Team level, so even your reluctant, begrudging acknowledgment that Bryant played that way in the Finals refutes the rest of your comment, because by definition playing at an MVP/All-NBA First Team level is quite exceptional. Did WoW's beloved Andrew Bynum approach All-NBA First Team level during the Finals? Just last year, Berri suggested that it would not be long before Bynum was the best player on the team--if he was not already worthy of being designated as such. Instead, Bynum turned out to be a 15-20 mpg role player on the championship team, someone whose contributions could have been easily replaced by Ronny Turiaf (not that the Lakers would keep Turiaf instead of a young seven footer who has potential but my point is that Bynum was hardly a key cog).

My game recaps explained in great detail exactly how Bryant made possible the success of his teammates. In the past I have gotten into back and forth discussions with people who have no understanding about how basketball is played but I simply have grown tired of doing that now. I don't know if you are really foolish enough to believe what you are saying or if you are playing Devil's advocate but, frankly, I don't care. Your obsession with saying that Bryant is nothing more than someone who has been built up by the media--a laughable and ridiculous assertion on many levels, including the fact that the media repeatedly has shafted Bryant in MVP voting--does not merit a response; the refutation to that sentiment is contained in dozens of articles and posts that can easily be found at this site. If you so desire, you can choose to educated yourself about how to properly analyze the sport (not just Bryant, but the game in general).

I like Ariza's game vis a vis his limited role and have said that repeatedly--but he has played for three teams in a five year career and I don't think that he is on the Chauncey Billups' career path toward a Finals MVP, All-Star status, etc. Ariza and Shannon Brown are solid NBA players who can thrive in limited roles while playing with Kobe Bryant. You would be hard pressed to name another contending NBA team for which Ariza would start at small forward and play over 30 mpg: is he beating out LeBron in Cleveland, Melo in Denver, Artest in Houston, Turkoglu in Orlando, Pierce in Boston, etc.? The answer to that is obvious. Again, I like Ariza's game a lot but let's not get carried away.

Your obsession with TS% as the be all and end all NBA stat is as inexplicable as your stated belief that Kobe Bryant is nothing but a creation of the media. Reading your comments is much like reading something issued by Orwell's "Ministry of Peace" in 1984: all one has to do is reverse everything you said to get pretty close to the truth.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 6:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

I can assure you that I did not make up Owen, any more than I invented Henry Abbott, Basketbawful, the amateur hour crew at SlamOnline, John Krolik or a host of other self-proclaimed basketball experts; it truly is ironic to juxtapose what I have written about Bryant over the past few years with the nonsense that they have propagated during that same period of time.

As for Owen's case for Gasol, it will be based on TS%--Owen will say that Gasol shot much more efficiently than Bryant did (ignoring Bryant's role in creating easy shots for Gasol, something that Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly mentioned during the telecasts and that anybody who watches basketball with understanding can see) and he will attempt to diminish Bryant's importance in creating those shots for Gasol. Owen will also suggest that Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade are superior players than Bryant. Again, this is much like reading the press releases from Orwell's "Ministry of Peace," which were simultaneously predictable, false and absurd.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 6:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Clean Cut Media:

Thank you for your kind words.

It is ironic that the ESPN "family" employs Van Gundy, Abbott and Krolik: this is like an Op-Ed page in the newspaper that runs a well written editorial on one side and then gives "equal time" to an absurd, poorly written response, as opposed to the editorial staff having the courage to admit that there are not really two sides--at least not two legitimate sides--to every issue. Sometimes there is simply "right" and "wrong."

Abbott and Krolik should refrain from writing anything about basketball until they take (and pass) a basketball 101 course taught by Van Gundy; they (and the reading public) would benefit greatly.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 7:02:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...

David,

Owen and others like him that swear by the gospel of advanced statistics are suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance right now. In his world our eye's are wrong, not the formula.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 7:32:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Owen,

You so highly regard PER and efficiency. That must mean you think Dirk Nowitzki is undoubtedly a superior player to Larry Bird.

That Elton Brand is better than Moses Malone. That, despite only playing 7 seasons (405 total career games including playoffs) Neil Johnson was better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who played for 20 seasons and played in 1,797 games.

That Dolph Schayes and Clyde Lovellette are top 30 players of all time.

That David Robinson is, without a doubt, the fourth best player of all time. Better than Wilt, Hakeem, the Captain, Moses, and Tim Duncan.

And, in fact, that the sixth best player of all time is...Bob Pettit.

PER is part of the story. It can be an important indicator and it definitely can add the finishing touches to a basketball analysis.

But using only PER to make your determinations? That's like baking a cake and leaving out the flour, eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, etc. and simply buying man-made frosting at Ralphs and sticking a candle in and proclaiming that by god, this is truly what cake is!

And Jack B, thanks for that interesting post. David, as usual, excellent insight. Thanks.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 7:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dmills:

I realize that. Years ago, I argued with various "stat gurus" about Antoine Walker's value. Walker played a key role on a Celtics team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and he later was a rotation player for the Miami Heat's championship team but the "stat gurus" would insist that Walker's relatively good play for Boston and Miami was simply an example of small sample sizes and that the larger sample size "proved" that Walker was a below average player. I used to ask how big of a sample size they needed to have of Walker in Boston or Miami for that sample size to be valid. After all, NBA teams divide time into seasonal units and Walker was effective enough over the course of a season to lead Boston to the NBA's "final four" and to help Miami win a championship. Those "sample sizes" made Walker valuable to those teams even if they were not "statistically significant." I never could get one "stat guru" to commit to a particular sample size of games but I gained--or, to be precise, more completely understood--an important insight during this otherwise frustrating exchange (during which the often acerbic Bob Chaikin took personal shots at me when he realized that he could no longer argue strictly on the basis of the merits of his case): "stat gurus" are not practicing science in terms of using the scientific method and producing verifiable results; their numbers--and conclusions--are often heavily informed by their personal biases. I obtained skill set evaluations of Walker from Coach Doc Rivers, Tommy Heinsohn and others but the "stat gurus" just blithely dismissed that information as irrelevant. Of course, what is really irrelevant is their haughty, know it all attitude and their insistence that their numbers--and only their numbers, because many of the "stat gurus" feud with each other even more intensely than they argue with people who aren't "stat gurus"--are the one, true way to evaluate basketball.

 
At Monday, June 15, 2009 9:43:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...

David,

It's all based on faulty logic and circular reasoning. A stat geek invents a formula based on what he feels are certain weaknessess of other stat geeks formula's. He then proceeds to pontificate by proclaiming his statistical analysis "objective" and impartial all the while not realizing that he himself has created his own formula to suit his purposes because he didn't like some other stat geeks formula.

In this system of circular reasoning they can cook up any formula and hide behind the numbers to justify making the most asinine statements regarding Kobe Bryant, or any other player.

Mark Cuban just recently released an infamous stat formula suggesting that Jason Kidd was the 3rd most valuable player in the entire NBA while Kobe was 13th! In many eye's this was done to justify the Kidd for Devin Harris trade. When confronted about these silly conclusions we are told "I'm only pointing out what the numbers tell me". It's also speculated that Cuban turned down a Dirk for Kobe swap because his formula said that Dirk was more valuable then Kobe!

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 1:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

West Coast Slant - No, I don't think Dirk is better than Bird. The numbers indicate Bird was one of the all-time greats, like really all time greats, like third best player in the last 30 years great.

David - It wasn't Berri who suggested that Bynum was going to be the best player on the team. That was me, I said he would be two years from now, if he recovered fully from his microfracture surgery. Since then, he has gotten a 15 million dollar contract from the Lakers and had surgery on the other knee. He didn't play well, that is for sure, but the jury is still out on him.

You know I think Ariza is better than Carmelo and Turkoglu. At least he was this year. And considering he only made 3 million this year, he was an unbelievable value, the kind of value that makes a great team a championship team, Not that he did it, but the guy who puts them over the edge. I will be curious to see how well they do without him next year if he leaves.

And as for Kobe, well, we have been down that road enough times...

Owen

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 3:57:00 AM, Anonymous tempE000 said...

Owen,

If 32.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks and steals a game is average for Kobe, then I hope that he remains average the rest of his career.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Berri certainly did suggest (a year or so ago) that Bynum may already be more valuable than Kobe and that if he was not he was likely to be in the near future; he said that instead of Kobe demanding that Bynum be traded perhaps Bynum should demand that Kobe should be traded so that Bynum could be paired with a superstar good enough to lead a team to a title. Yes, Berri pretty much looks like a fool now--but he looked like a fool back then, too, even if some people did not realize it.

Ariza is not a better or more complete player than Melo or Turkoglu, though he is obviously much better defensively. Ariza does not have heavy ballhandling or shot creating responsibilities--unlike those players--so he is free to devote all of his energy to the defensive end of the court. On offense, Ariza has evolved into a spot up shooter who also can score in open court situations and with occasional drives to the hoop when defenders close out too aggressively. He fills his role superbly--but filling a limited, strictly defined role superbly is not at all the same thing as being an All-Star caliber all-around player.

Yes, we have been down the "Kobe road" a few times. At some point, you should have the sense to acknowledge that Bryant is indeed a greater player than your numbers suggest and you should admit that if your beloved numbers say otherwise that the fault lies in the formula. Frankly, it is unseemly to constantly denigrate a player who has worked so hard to perfect his craft and who has been so consistently productive. Bryant led the Lakers to back to back Finals appearances and one championship with a supporting cast that is unquestionably the weakest one from Phil Jackson's championship teams. Jordan always had Top 50 player Scottie Pippen as a sidekick and I'd easily take Horace Grant or Rodman over Odom. The Bulls' shooters and role players were much more productive and consistent than Bryant's teammates were, particularly this season. The Lakers don't have anyone like Kukoc. As for the Lakers' team that three-peated, you can start the discussion with the fact that they had O'Neal and Bryant as 1a and 1b and I'd take that over Bryant and Gasol easily. The earlier Lakers' team had a younger, more athletic Fisher who was just as clutch then as he is now, plus reliable, veteran role players like Ron Harper, Brian Shaw and, of course, Robert Horry.

Kobe's supporting cast is solid--and Gasol is obviously a first rate, All-NBA player--but the overall talent and depth of this group has been so overstated that it is almost comical. How would this supposedly great Lakers' frontline do against Pippen-Rodman-Kukoc and the three-headed monster at center? Would this Lakers' frontcourt look great versus Bird-McHale-Parish or Kareem-Worthy-Green?

I made as many field goals in the Finals as Bryant's backup Sasha Vujacic did.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 9:44:00 AM, Anonymous dmills said...

David,

Ariza better then Melo?! Now that's a textbook example of the type of silliness that Owen and other stat geeks can cook up with their formulas! This stuff is going to destroy the NBA one day.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 12:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, you are right actually. Looked back. That was in December of 2007, before his first knee injury and microfracture surgery and before the Gasol acquisition. Lakers management, obviously agreed with Berri’s assessment and not yours, giving him a 15 million dollar contract, right before his second knee injury derailed him this year. It’s hard to say if anyone has been wrong or right about Bynum, given his injuries. The jury is still out. But if he gets back to producing like he did then the same argument will be made. Do you think Bynum is physically back to being the same player he was then?

On offense, there is an emerging storyline about how Ariza learned to shoot the three and benefited from Kobe’s presence after moving to LA to become a limited offensive force. However, if you look at the numbers, it really looks like Ariza hasn’t “evolved” all that much. He scored more, and more efficiently in his last full year in Orlando than he did this year, although without shooting the three ball at all.

Comparing Ariza to players like Turkoglu or Anthony is difficult. They do play different roles on the court, so it swiftly becomes a debate about the relative value of usage and efficiency. But I think pretty much any box score method will tell you that Ariza was better than both of them this year. He has a higher offensive and defensive rating than both of them. He had more Win Shares than Carmelo, and only 1 less than Turkoglu, who played 1000 more minutes. Ariza was probably the best perimeter role player in the NBA this year, other than perhaps Rondo if he still qualifies. And he was only paid 3 million. Considering the latter, he was far far more valuable than the other two, and a vital piece of the championship puzzle.

It’s silly to compare this Lakers teams to the Bulls of 96 with Rodman and Kukoc. That was the best team of all time. The Lakers weren’t even the best team in the NBA this year. And while they made it look difficult, their path to the Championship was fairly easy. They didn’t exactly have to go through Karl Malone and John Stockton. They struggled against a Rockets team without Yao and T-Mac and lucked out when the Magic upset the Cavs.

The biggest difference between the Bulls teams and this Lakers teams is the gap between Jordan and Kobe, the high usage players. The numbers show a huge disparity between them, far far bigger than the difference between Pippen and Gasol, or Odom and Grant, or Ariza and Kukoc. It’s not about denigrating Kobe, it’s about making a reasonable assessment of what is happening on the court. And no matter how many titles he wins, he isn’t going to come close to that “pantheon” class of player, a la Bird, Magic, or MJ. His production just doesn’t justify it and it never will.

Owen

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 1:42:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Owen,

Really? What numbers? Dirk has a better TS percentage than Bird by quite a bit (58 to 56). Dirk has 138 career win shares to Bird's 145. That's with two less seasons. Dirk's career PER is higher than Bird's (23.8 to 23.5).

Furthermore, Dirk has been far more clutch in the playoffs with a 24.4 PER to Bird's 21.4. Dirk's win shares in the postseason? 17.4. Bird's, 24.7. But Bird played in nearly 70 more playoff games. If Dirk had gotten as many opportunities as Bird in the postseason, at his production, he would be at 29.7 WS. Five wins better than the supposed third best player of the last 30 years.

Bird has a better Defensive rating, but according to Neil over at Basketball-reference, defensive rating tells more about the team then the individual whereas offensive rating is mostly about the individual. In which case, Dirk has a better offensive rating than Bird.

All of this and Dirk has only played with two potential hall of famers, one of whom had yet to come into his HOF play (Nash) and one who was far past his (Kidd). Otherwise, he's played with good to mediocre (at best) talent. Jason Terry, Michael Finley, Josh Howard and Erick Dampier,

Bird played with McHale, Parish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton, etc. etc. etc.

I guess the only numbers that show me that Bird was better are his 2 finals MVPS, his 3 regular season MVPs, his 3 championships and his 9 all nba first team selections.

But, those really don't count right?

Do I think Dirk is better than Bird? No. But it isn't because supposed advanced statistics tell me that.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dmills:

Trust me, "advanced stats" will not destroy the NBA because the people who actually run teams have enough sense to know that numbers are only a small part of the equation (pardon the pun) when evaluating players.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The contract that the Lakers signed with Bynum hardly proves that the Lakers "agree" with Berri. What will actually prove who is right in this instance is not a contract but rather Bynum's on court production. I never said that Bynum could not become an excellent player. I have merely said that he is not an elite player now--to suggest in any way that he has ever been more valuable than Kobe is absurd--and that he has yet to prove that he can stay healthy for a full NBA season while playing major minutes.

One of the problems with Berri--and people like you who worship his numbers--is that he has no idea how the NBA's economic model actually works, which is ironic considering that Berri is an economist. Teams cannot simply spend whatever they want whenever they want to spend it. There is a salary cap and a luxury tax, plus various rules regarding rookie contracts, veteran contracts, etc. The Lakers signed Bynum for three years (2010-2012) with a team option for the fourth year. The deal is a compromise in the sense that Bynum did not get a max deal but he did get guaranteed money that he will receive even if he never fully recovers and/or never becomes an elite player. No one in the Lakers organization would honestly say that Bynum right now is worth $14 million/year.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You can "look at the numbers" all you want and convince yourself about what fairy tales they tell. Ariza was a bench player in New York and Orlando and both teams eventually discarded him. The Magic got rid of him specifically because his lack of a three point stroke meant that he did not fit in with their system. Ariza worked on his shot, with a lot of help from Kobe, as I detailed in my most recent post. For you to suggest that Ariza has not "evolved" is absurd, but I am not at all surprised. Once you twist logic like a pretzel to suggest that Bynum is more valuable than Bryant literally anything is possible.

I have frequently written about Melo's limitations but it is absurd--there is that word again--to say that Ariza is a better all-around player than he is. Ariza is a better defender than Melo. That's it--and Melo even showed at times this season that he can be a good defender when he puts his mind to it.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You took my point about the Lakers versus other championship teams out of context. I did not just compare them to the 1996 Bulls. This Lakers team is weaker in terms of overall depth than any of Jackson's 10 championship teams and than most of the championship teams of recent vintage. The year that MJ retired for the first time, the Bulls swapped in Pete Myers and won 55 games, just two fewer than the year before. If these Lakers swapped the modern equivalent of Myers for Bryant they would win not win more than 40 games and probably less.

It is pointless to start comparing playoff runs from decades ago to playoff runs now when you cannot even understand the difference between Bryant and Bynum or Ariza and Melo but if you look back you will note that there have been other championship teams that "struggled" more than this year's Lakers in terms of being pushed to seven games by ostensibly weaker teams.

The "biggest gap" between the 1996 Bulls and the 2009 Lakers is definitely not between Jordan and Bryant. I have no problem saying that Jordan was better than Bryant overall but the 1996 version of Jordan is not the one you want to cite to prove that, because 2009 Bryant is actually pretty close to 1996 Jordan. Here are their playoff stats--and keep in mind that the NBA used a shorter three point line from 1995-97, which is why MJ's shooting percentage from that distance went up during those years (he shot .238 from three point range in 1998 after the line was moved back and he only exceeded .352 for a season twice in his first nine full seasons):

1996 MJ: 30.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, .459 FG%, .403 3FG%, .818 FT%

2009 Bryant: 30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 3FG%, .883 FT%

Their mpg numbers were virtually identical (40.7 for MJ, 40.9 for Bryant). I'll be charitable and call this a draw, but note that Bryant has clear edges in assists and free throw shooting and that while the shooting percentages are close Bryant was without question the better long range shooter, because MJ's 1996 threes are midrange jumpers for Kobe in 2009. MJ was three years older in 1996 than Bryant is now and I would take the 30 year old MJ over the 30 year old Bryant but your flippant, poorly thought out comparison shows that you not only lack understanding about how to evaluate the game but you do not know the sport's history and are unfamiliar even with the stats from years past, let alone the relative skill sets possessed by various players.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Gasol is a fine player, one of the top big men in the league today. He is skilled and versatile. There is also no rational way to argue that he is as valuable as Scottie Pippen, who was selected as a Top 50 player and really is a Top 25-30 player--of all-time; Gasol is a top 25 (actually, top 15 to be precise) player for now, but he is not in the top 150 all-time, let alone the Top 50.

Odom's versatility is highly overrated. Odom's primary value for the Lakers is his rebounding. Grant was a much more consistent rebounder and defender than Odom and a better midrange jump shooter. Rodman is real popular with the Berri set--better than MJ according to Berri's metrics--so I would think that you would jump at the opportunity to say that Rodman is not only better than Odom but that he is better than Gasol and even Bryant.

Jackson's Bulls had two MVP candidates. Jackson's first Lakers' championship teams had two MVP candidates. Those teams were also stocked with reliable, veteran role players. This year's Lakers team has one MVP candidate, one solid All-NBA player and a bunch of role players who have been very inconsistent (even Fisher is not as consistent as he was for the first Lakers' championship teams). You always insist that Ginobili is better than Bryant. Now are you going to try to tell me that the Spurs' championship teams with Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Bowen, etc. were not much deeper and more talented than this year's Lakers' team? You have so many irons in the fire--Bynum better than Bryant, Ginobili better than Bryant, Gasol better than Pippen--you cannot even keep your stories straight anymore and are contradicting yourself.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 5:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I am intrigued by your last statement: "And no matter how many titles he wins, he isn’t going to come close to that “pantheon” class of player, a la Bird, Magic, or MJ. His production just doesn’t justify it and it never will."

Does that mean that by using Berri's WoW numbers you now are not only able to perfectly define player values but you also can predict the future? Did you know in 1994 that Jordan would return and win three more championships, three more Finals MVPs and two more regular season MVPs? Jordan certainly elevated his historical status by doing that. Which section of the WoW site provided you with the certain knowledge of what Bryant will and will not accomplish in the next few years?

Your comment shows that you are not, in fact, interested in objectively evaluating players but that you--like most of the "stat guru" crowd--harbor the very kinds of subjective biases that you haughtily suggest that GMs, coaches, scouts and others have.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 5:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

You will never, ever convince a "stat guru" that he is wrong about anything. When I have discussions with such a person I am fully aware that he will never say, "I was wrong," but the reason that I publish refutations to such nonsense is that open minded, intelligent people who may be swayed at first by the superficial objectivity of a numbers based approach can use my analysis to recognize the underlying flaws and inconsistencies that are inherent in such formulas.

Most of the "stat gurus" have no ax to grind with Bird, so when comparing Bird to Nowitzki they are willing to discard what their own numbers say. However, the "stat gurus" do not like "high usage" players like Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson (feel free to speculate about why that is the case), so they constantly say that Bryant and Iverson are overrated (not that I am suggesting that Iverson is as good as Bryant, merely that Iverson is a constant target for attack by "stat gurus").

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 5:39:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Excellent takedowns of some (typically ridiculous) statements by Owen.

I found particularly interesting the MJ-Kobe stat comparison from 96 to 09 playoffs. That said, I would like to see the EFG% and TS% and/or some idea of the number of shots involved there: how significant is Kobe's .883 to 818 advantage in FT%, or MJ's [deceptive, as you noted, due to the shorter distance] advantage from 3pt distance of .403 to .349?

It might also be interesting to the steals, blocks and TO numbers for them. It might make for an interesting post to compare Bryant's postseason this year with those of some other celebrated players in past playoffs, and also maybe compare the numbers for the #2 and #3 options on the Lakers and on those teams, for a realistic assessment of how "deep" (or not) these Lakers were (along with maybe a minutes per/game breakdown of the teams' rotations).

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 5:52:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Smrek said...

Owen-

I'm not convinced yet that basketball sabremetrics is mature enough to make definitive arguments. Because of their newness and the odd non-intuitive results (expressed here by specific examples), you can't just throw out efficiency and winshares and believe the argument is settled. Even baseball sabremetricians, who’ve been at this longer, admit that they’re numbers are, by themselves, insufficient to predict performance and scouting remains an important component. And baseball is much easier to breakdown.

To the stats guru’s credit, however, conventional wisdom is often wrong, and citing Bill Simmons, Mitch Kupchak, Henry Abbot, Doc Rivers, David himself, or Magic Johnson etc. doesn't settle arguments because an argument based on authority is insufficient.

I believe Kobe is great for 3 reasons. First, the near unanimity of players and coaches (including former antagonists like Steve Smith and Reggie Miller) in anointing Kobe as the best player of the past few years) is compelling. Second, current coaches and players, motivated only by winning and self interest, tilt their defense to stop him-- not Bynum, Gasol or Ariza—and 10 eyes watch his every move, 10 legs move to his feints and his 4 teammates get more open looks than an NBA player should. The Nuggets and Magic trapped Kobe all the way to the point line- how many players get that treatment?

Last, as David points out constantly, simply watching the game tells the tale. Kobe orchestrates the game for his teammate, he draws the traps, directs his teammates, takes all the difficult shots, aggregates his shooting during lulls, and so on. You need observation to understand that.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 6:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

MJ '96 and Bryant '09 had identical playoff TS% numbers (.564); Bryant enjoyed a slight edge in eFG% (.492-.490). Of course, Bryant has a more pronounced shooting advantage in a comparison based purely on skill set, because Jordan's three pointers that year were much closer than Bryant's three pointers this year because of the rule change regarding the length of the three point arc.

Bryant led the 2009 playoffs with 38 total steals in 23 playoff games. He also had 21 blocked shots and 59 turnovers. Jordan had 33 steals in 18 playoff games in 1996, along with six blocked shots and 42 turnovers. Their mpg numbers were virtually identical but because Bryant played in five more games he logged 940 minutes in the 2009 playoffs compared to 733 minutes for Jordan in the 1996 playoffs; so, their steals per minute and turnovers per minute were relatively close, while Bryant had a large edge in blocked shots per minute.

Again, I have no problem saying that MJ's career accomplishments exceeded Bryant's and that MJ at his peak was better than Bryant at his peak but the specific assertion that Owen made--that the difference between '96 Jordan and '09 Bryant is significantly large--is absurd. In fact, the 30 year old Bryant is very comparable with the 33 year old Jordan, which is not at all an insult to Jordan; we will see if the 33 year old Bryant is as good as the 33 year old Jordan was--but age is not a relevant factor in terms of what Owen was claiming regarding the 1996 Bulls and 2009 Lakers.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 6:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike Smrek:

I am convinced that basketball sabermetrics is certainly not advanced enough to make definitive arguments, particularly regarding players at the extremely high end of the bell curve (IQ tests are also notoriously poor at distinguishing between people at the very high end of the bell curve).

I agree with you that conventional wisdom is wrong at times, though you cited a real motley crew as examples of purveyors of conventional wisdom. Simmons is hardly an expert basketball commentator; he is a humor/entertainment columnist and, while his work is humorous/entertaining it hardly contains any high level basketball analysis. Simmons is also, by his own admission, a highly biased fan, not someone who is seeking objective truth. Kupchak is a former college and NBA player who has proved to be a highly successful NBA executive, so he definitely qualifies as an NBA expert. Abbott has a varied journalistic background but while he has basketball writing experience he hardly is an expert commentator in terms of player evaluation or understanding the strategies of the game. Doc Rivers is a former NBA All-Star who has won the Coach of the Year award in the NBA, led a team to a championship as a coach and wrote a very insightful book about the sport--Those Who Love the Game, a tome that contains much more insight about basketball than you will ever find in anything written by Simmons or Abbott. Magic Johnson is one of the greatest players of all-time; he had little success in his brief tenure as a coach and, although he is technically a team exec he is largely a figurehead in that regard. He is of course an NBA expert, but from a playing perspective more than from a coaching/executive perspective. As for my expertise, I will let my work speak for itself.

You cite three very compelling reasons that Bryant should be considered the best player of his era. I know from my own experience talking to executive, coaches, scouts and players that they hold Bryant in the highest regard. Although Pippen was not as great as Bryant, there was a similar disconnect between the way uninformed people viewed Pippen and the way that true basketball insiders appreciated his greatness.

As you note, the fact that opposing defenses obviously tilt their defenses extremely hard in Bryant's direction tells you all that you need to know about the relative value of Bryant and Gasol.

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 7:36:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

As you note, the fact that opposing defenses obviously tilt their defenses extremely hard in Bryant's direction tells you all that you need to know about the relative value of Bryant and Gasol.

Ah, but you see, all that really shows is that the other 29 NBA head coaches and dozens and dozens of NBA players are morons who fail to grasp the game of basketball in all its subtleties as well as geniuses like Owen and Berri. /sarcasm

 
At Tuesday, June 16, 2009 10:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

I won't speak for Owen but I know for a fact that Berri does believe that he understands the NBA game better than most if not all NBA GMs and coaches. As I have said many times before, Berri's arrogance in this regard is equivalent to someone with no scientific training just showing up at a professional physics seminar and informing everyone there that they are fools and that he knows more about physics than they do.

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 4:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, let me make this quickish...

Advanced statistics do tell you that Bird was better than Nowitzki. The fact he played a significant amount of time at small forward helps him. But Dirk is a great player, better and more unusual than Kobe in my book.

Bynum - Berri comments on Bynum in his most recent post.

Ariza and Melo - What is so great about Melo? He scores a lot, though less this year. He wasn't very efficient. 53.2%. He doesnt excel in any aspect of the game and he turns the ball over a ton. And adjusted agrees. Sorry, but except for his ability in the clutch, he is all pretty much all hype.

Also re Ariza - If you look at the numbers, you will notice Ariza scored more and more efficiently in his full year in Orlando than he did in the regular season this year. The playoffs were another story though.

Re Kobe and Jordan - Why are we comparing playoff stats rather than regular season stats? Seems like you are cherrypicking. You did it in two posts and I don't get that.I suggest you look at their regular season numbers. Also, check the differentials on those Bulls squads. I think you will notice they outperformed by a huge margin the year Jordan was gone.

Gasol - I said he was closer to Pippen than Kobe is to Jordan. And I stand by that. Gasol is really really good. He was before he arrived in LA. And he has improved since getting there. I have said before that I think Gasol had a more impressive year than Kobe. I stand by that also.

Re Pantheon level - Titles really don't matter. They matter to pundits, but they tell us very little about how good a player is. Because titles are about the quality of teams, not individual players. And they reflect, to a great extent, the luck a player a had. Pippen would probably never had won a a title without Jordan. Jordan would never have won six without Pippen. Kobe would have just won his first had it not been for Shaq. KG, a much better player than Kobe, could have had a lot of titles if Terrell Brandon and Sam Cassell hadn't been the best players he ever ran with in Minnesota.

Kobe has been lucky.

Re my stories aren't straight - They are straight.

Finally, Neil Paine has a great post on the Lakers and Kobe, echoing a lot of my points. I told him I would give you the heads up about it, search "boxscore breakdown finals game 5" at the basketball reference blog.

Mike Smrek - Look, I also don't think APBRmetrics approaches SABRmetrics at this point.

Reasonable people can disagree about individual player values. But the adulation for Kobe drives me a bit crazy, because his numbers are so far short of what truly great players like Kobe and MJ (and LEbron this year) have posted.

My underlying issue is that there
are a lot of very basic team level concepts, like efficiency differentials, pace adjustment, adjustment for minutes played, that David, and mainstream journalists, haven't really cottoned to, but which are clearly effective.

And there are stats at the individual level, like TS%, which are much much much better than the ones they generally use, ppg and fg%. There is really nothing advanced about True Shooting Percentage. It's sort of like OPS being better than batting average. But I have yet to hear a talking head use it. (although I saw ESPN post it for Dwyane Wade once.)

Again, its just basic arithmetic but most people don't get it. For instance, Kevin Martin was a significantly more efficient scorer than Kobe Bryant this year despite a 42% fg%. A lot of people don't get that. (note: I do think Kobe is a much better player, scoring efficiency aside.)

And don't get me started on the emphasis on scoring in the clutch. If I had a doller for every time I heard the phrase "greatest closer in the game." Most basketball commentators can't get their heads around the fact that all the points count the same.

Alright,

Owen

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 9:57:00 AM, Anonymous Jack B said...

Owen,
"""
And no matter how many titles he wins, he isn’t going to come close to that “pantheon” class of player, a la Bird, Magic, or MJ. His production just doesn’t justify it and it never will.
"""

you are not the only one who doesn't like Kobe or the Lakers. I think Kobe is better than Bird and he's definitely more talented than Magic. Those teams Magic and Bird had in the 80s were really really good teams.
It is always interesting to see how different writers/analysts/stat gurus AND coaches/players/scouts view Kobe. Its rare to find a coach/player/scout to criticize kobe.

on Laker Breakup: A lot people said Kobe forced Shaq out because h was jealous of Shaq. But what writers never wrote about was that Shaq never took care of himself. That toe surgery before the season started back in 02-03 really made things worse. HOw would you feel if you do most of the work during the season and come playoffs time your partner clocks, you win championship and he gets all the credit?

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 3:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You, Berri and Knickerblogger all read from the same hackneyed, broken down playbook. I did not "cherry pick" numbers. You are the one who said that the difference between '96 MJ and '09 Kobe is greater than the difference between Pippen and Gasol, apparently failing to remember/check the indisputable evidence that Kobe played at least as well in the '09 playoffs as MJ played in the '96 playoffs. Now that you realize that you were wrong, you stay true to form and instead of admitting that you were wrong--something that no true "stat guru" ever does, as I noted elsewhere--you attack me for allegedly "cherry picking." How big of a sample size do you need? Do you really want to compare Kobe in the '08 and '09 playoffs to MJ in his final three title runs? You are only digging yourself in deeper and deeper and the hilarious thing about this is that I readily concede that MJ's overall body of work is better than Kobe's, but instead of letting matters lie there you are trying to prove something that even YOUR beloved numbers (TS%, etc.) don't support, namely that an MJ whose skills were very good but slowly declining in his mid-30s was better than Kobe in his late 20's/early 30's.

I don't think that Melo is "great" and I have said that many times before. However, Melo is an All-Star level player. Ariza is a limited role player. Ariza defends and, thanks to help from Kobe, makes open three point shots. Ariza is also a good athlete who finishes well in the open court and can attack the rim in the halfcourt provided that a defender runs him off of the three point line--but otherwise Ariza cannot create his own shot and he is average at best in all other skill set areas (passing, ballhandling, free throw shooting). Moreover, even though Ariza certainly has an impact by playing the passing lanes he is not necessarily a lockdown, one on one defender (compare Turkoglu's numbers in the Finals with Turkoglu's numbers versus West in the previous series).

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 3:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The efficiency numbers that you cite regarding Ariza are garbage. You accuse me of "cherry picking" and then you want to talk about stats that Ariza put up as a reserve playing against other reserves in garbage time. Look, your act may play well with the economists and with people who don't understand numbers or basketball but it just won't cut it here.

After a while, I feel like a graduate level physics professor who is trying to explain the subject to a 10 year old who thinks that he knows it all but really does not. This is just so tiresome, so I'll conclude with just a few more notes.

Gasol is a very good player, no question. Pippen is one of the 25-30 best players of all-time. The one unquestionable edge that MJ had over Pippen was a more reliable shooting stroke, but as a defender, rebounder and passer Pippen was no worse than MJ and quite possibly better. The year that MJ was out Pip finished third in the MVP race to two HoF big men, Olajuwon and Robinson. It is highly unlikely that Gasol will ever finish third in MVP voting; in an eight year career he has yet to receive a single fifth place MVP vote!

Paine's article is ridiculous. Talk about cherry picking! The commenters there did a good job of pointing out the numerous flaws, so I am not going to waste my time.

I don't have any particular aversion to TS%--I just don't use it as the basis for determining a player's value. I actually watch the games and analyze what happens. My detailed game recaps do not just rely on FG% but I explain what kind of shots a player takes, how he got open for them, etc. I also analyze other aspects of the game besides shooting.

I don't know why you brought up "clutch" scoring, because I have often said that I don't define "clutch" purely by what happens in the late moments of the game, nor do I base my evaluation of Bryant on what other people say about him being a "closer." I do think that Bryant is a great "closer" but he is also a great "opener," as we saw in the Finals. The bottom line is that Bryant reads the defense and the game situation and acts accordingly whether it is the first quarter or the fourth quarter.

Finally, you reveal your true colors when you deride the "adulation" that Bryant receives. You purport to be an objective person who is merely looking at the numbers, so what does "adulation" have to do with anything? The fact of the matter is that far from heaping "adulation" on Bryant the media has actually been shortchanging him for years; Bryant should have been the MVP in 2006 and 2007. In 2006 he was left completely off of a sixth of the MVP ballots even though he had one of the most productive individual seasons in NBA history and carried a team to the playoffs with Smush and Kwame as starters. Do you really think that Smush and Kwame will ever be regular starters for a playoff team again?

The truth of the matter is that the "adulation" that Bryant does receive comes from GMs, coaches, players and scouts--the people who actually understand the game. I know that someone said that Van Gundy and Jackson were praising Kobe to hype up the ratings. Guess what--in the last 10 minutes of what obviously was going to be the deciding game, anything that they said was hardly going to boost ratings. No, they were speaking as a former player and a former coach who actually know what they are talking about.

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 8:07:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Owen, you keep touting Ariza's supposedly identical or better shooting stats in his one full year in Orlando, but you neglect to consider one obvious difference between his game then and now: Ariza has attempted 234 career 3-Pt shots, and 206 of them in a Lakers uniform. *Of course* his shooting % numbers would drop somewhat; the guy was suddenly shooting from long distance in a way he never had before.

But, thanks apparently to Kobe (see the Kevin Ding article about Kobe giving him his shooting "bible" and also thanks to Kobe drawing double teams to allow him to shoot mainly wide-open 3s) Ariza began doing it well enough to cause only a small drop in his shooting percentage. Meanwhile, that added facet to his game enormously increased his value to the team and offense, allowing him to space out the defense because they have to respect his 3-pt shot. Watching the game obviously imparts that key difference, but looking at the numbers also would also have keyed you in on that, if you weren't so ironically selective and lazy in your use of stats.

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 9:05:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...

David,

You actually read all that tripe? I stopped after "Dirk is better then Kobe". At any rate it seems to me that you're spitting into the wind with this guy. He'll never get it.

 
At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 11:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dmills:

Hey, for better or worse I am the guy who argued with people like Basketbawful, kellex, Knickerblogger, etc. At least Owen can actually express himself in coherent and complete sentences, even if his reasoning is faulty; I've gone back and forth with people who, literally, cannot write better than an eighth grader--and don't you love how they all use aliases? Of course, if I could not think clearly or write well I suppose that I might be tempted to disguise my identity.

My thinking about this has always been that I am never going to convince the idiot that he is wrong but that intelligent bystanders who read what I write can learn something from it, so I have no problem making one guy look like an idiot if it may contribute to the education of a wider public. This might not be the most popular thing to do but I already figured out that I am not going to be popular among the idiots, anyway--nor do I particularly care about that.

The ironic thing about so much of this is that what I describe in my game recaps is there for everyone to see. Even if you missed it the first time or might not have noticed it on your own, all you have to do is record a game and play it back to see that things are happening exactly as I describe them. I've interviewed and spoken off the record with many coaches and scouts; these guys are familiar with my work and I've yet to hear them say that I don't know what I am talking about. I place a much higher value on the opinions of such basketball "lifers" than the amateur hour club of fools who link to each other, hire each other for jobs and pretend that they know what they are talking about.

 
At Thursday, June 18, 2009 1:03:00 AM, Anonymous Dmills said...

Owen,

In what world outside of fantasy league basketball is Dirk Nowitski better then Kobe? No Scout, GM, or Coach would ever say that, only a fantasy basketball geek would.

 
At Thursday, June 18, 2009 6:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Ariza - I thought he played a very similar role on that Magic team. He played 22 minutes per game.

His offensive game was different then, no doubt, but it's a fact that he scored more and more efficiently that year than he did this year in the regular season.

However, Ariza was an absolute juggernaut in the playoffs. He posted a 60%+ ts% in the second season, something not that many players have done, largely by shooting 47.6% from three. I love Ariza and have since he was a Knick. I was cut up when we traded him because he had already proven himself as a non-scorer. But I am skeptical that this recent surge proves he is also a high efficiency low usage scorer to go with his other talents. We shall see.

David -

I think Kobe has had one season that was as good as any full season
Jordan had as a Bull. And that would be Jordan's last season in 98. He has had a few seasons that have come close.

I think the problem you run into with statheads re Kobe is pretty simple. When we use our metrics on Jordan, they produce results that pretty much are perfectly in line with conventional wisdom. He really looks like the GOAT in the modern era. Him or Magic. Run the same metrics on Kobe and he doesn't come close. His statistical production simply isn't in their league.

As for the rest of it, your method is your method. I don't think you need to denigrate everyone else or call them idiots. And frankly you are no physics professor. I think if you were you might pay a little more attention to the numbers. :-)

Owen

 
At Thursday, June 18, 2009 7:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

In the latter portion of this season and throughout the playoffs, Ariza started for the Lakers, which is a completely different role than the one that he had with the Magic even if the mpg numbers are similar (playing against reserves is not the same as playing against starters).

I don't run into any "problem" with Kobe Bryant because I don't have an agenda to prove anything; I don't have a proprietary stat system that I created (like Berri) nor do I feel compelled to prove the validity of that system like you do. I have said many times that I do not think that Bryant is greater than Jordan either from a skill set standpoint or in terms of career accomplishments. However, you made a very specific contention, namely that the difference between Jordan in '96 and Bryant in '09 is significant; that is clearly not the case, as even your beloved TS% stat shows. Jordan in '96 was already a declining player (relative to his high standards); he was still the best player in the NBA but he was not clearly better than Bryant in '09 (or '08 for that matter).

I simply watch the games, know the history and write the truth. Bryant's supporting cast this season--consisting of one solid All-Star/borderline All-NBA player, a good though at times inconsistent power forward and a bunch of role players--is clearly weaker than the supporting cast of any of Phil Jackson's championship teams. It is one of the weakest--if not the weakest--supporting casts on a championship team in the past two decades. Your comparison of Gasol to Pippen is absurd, whether one goes by numbers, by observation of the games, by awards (MVPs/All-NBA selections/All-Defensive Team selections) or any other valid criteria. Pippen is one of the greatest players in NBA history, just a step or two below elite/Pantheon status. Gasol is an All-Star who became an All-NBA player for the first time this year in no small part because of playing with Kobe (while Pippen actually had his best individual season playing apart from Jordan, showing that he could be the main guy, accept double teams and not suffer statistically).

I stand by my physics professor analogy; your assertions betray your lack of understanding of how to evaluate NBA players.

 
At Friday, June 19, 2009 12:12:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Owen-

The "numbers" you are looking at don't even represent the factors involved in an individual's contributions to a team's performance, so you may as well be looking at tea leaves.

If the data you are putting into a model is junk, no matter what manipulation you do, the output will be junk, too.

 
At Friday, June 19, 2009 5:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, there is quite a big difference between Jordan in 96 and Kobe in 99. In the regular season, I see an offensive rating of 124 for Jordan. 115 for Kobe. And a D rating of 100 for MJ to 106 for Kobe. They played similar minutes and Jordan's Win Shares (Kubatko's metric) are 50% higher. And Fwiw, his ts% was 2% higher. He also played at a slower pace than Kobe did this year, deflating his stats slightly.

I know you have never said Kobe was as good as Jordan. But the point is his numbers aren't anywhere close. Frankly, Pippen and Kobe are far more comparable. I would certainly take Pippen's best season over Kobe's best in a heartbeat.

And of course I would take Pippen over Gasol also. But my point was the difference between what Gasol produced this year and Pippen produced in 95-96 is a lot smaller than the difference between Kobe and Jordan.

Free Cash Flow - The data isn't junk. Most of the time it matches up pretty perfectly with our perception. When it comes out with a rating on Jordan that shows him to be the best of all time, it seems to work fine. But when you apply the exact same formulas to Kobe, who plays the exact same position and role, it produces a very different result. What gives?

What is more likely, that the formulas and the scorekeepers are missing something, just with respect to Kobe and not with respect to Jordan, or that Kobe just isn't quite as good as a lot of people think he is?

Given the evidence, the obvious possibility is that people overrate Kobe because of the good fortune he had in landing on the same team as a dominant Shaq his rookie year, his high scoring and flair, and the fact he plays in LA.

Owen

 
At Friday, June 19, 2009 7:14:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

David, I was wondering if you've done any research on the effect that sophisticated video research and scouting reports (including all these stats) have had on the improvement of defense in the league.

Since the early 90s, shooting percentages have gone down. Back in the 80s, every team was shooting at or over 50 percent. Now, no teams do. But this doesn't necessarily mean we have worse shooters today as evidenced by Freethrow shooting actually slightly trending up.

I'm assuming the three point line being pushed back has some to do with the lower percentages, but a guy like Shane Battier, who uses stats and game tape to excel at defense (a cerebrial defender), would not have been possible 20 years ago.

If scouting tapes and reports have had a profound impact on the game of basketball, would it then be possible for players like Lebron and Kobe to actually be better than Magic, Michael, Dr. J?

 
At Saturday, June 20, 2009 12:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

The issues that you mentioned are addressed in several of the articles that can be found in the right hand sidebar of the main page of 20 Second Timeout, including my "Scout's Eye View of the Game" series, my interview with Hank Egan and my article about the "Art and Science of NBA Defense." You should read those articles to get the full picture but the quick answer to your general question is that defense has improved a lot in the past couple decades precisely because of the improvements in technology and the increasing sophistication of scouting.

The three point line was only moved in for a brief period in the mid-90s so that only affected the stats from a few seasons.

It is very difficult to make comparisons of players from different eras but I offered my take on that subject in my five part Pantheon series, which can also be found in the right hand sidebar.

I am not dodging your questions, but I hope that you understand that it is difficult to give a meaningful answer in the comments section to such wide ranging inquiries. The articles cited above provide an indepth look at these issues and I hope that you find those articles to be interesting.

 
At Saturday, June 20, 2009 1:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I assume that you mean Kobe in 09, not 99.

Kobe averaged 26.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 4.9 apg in the 2009 regular season. He shot .467 from the field, .856 from the free throw line and .351 from three point range. In the playoffs he averaged 30.2, 5.3, 5.5, .457, .349 and .883. In the Finals, he averaged 32.4, 5.6, 7.4, .430, .841 and .360.

MJ averaged 30.4, 6.6, 4.3, .495, .834 and .427 in the 96 regular season, 30.7, 4.9, 4.1, .459, .818, .403 in the playoffs and 27.3, 5.3, 4.2, .415, .836 and .316 in the Finals.

MJ's stats are boosted by the fact that the NBA used a shorter three point line in 96. That is important, because the only area in which MJ 96 has a clear edge over Kobe 09 is three point shooting but that is deceptive because their career numbers clearly show that Kobe shoots threes better than MJ from the regular, longer distance.

Whether you look at stats or make skill set comparisons, MJ 96 and Kobe 09 are quite comparable. I give an edge to Kobe 09 because he is three years younger than MJ 96 and that difference is evident when you look at how MJ's stats declined from the regular season to the playoffs to the Finals.

This doesn't change my overall opinion of MJ and Kobe, of course; I would take prime MJ over prime Kobe and I would take MJ's overall career over Kobe's career, though Kobe has the opportunity to close the latter gap.

Your comparison of Pippen and Gasol is just asinine. Really, I don't know what else to say about it. Pippen was an elite, MVP level player for several seasons. He could guard multiple positions, led the Bulls in assists and could get double figure rebounds if necessary. I am not going to waste my time comparing one of the top 25 players of all-time to one of the top 15 players of today. This is precisely what I meant when I made the physics professor analogy.

Your storyline about Kobe benefiting from playing in L.A. is tiresome and just reveals the nature of your socio-political bias. GMs, coaches, scouts and players are not wowed by L.A. and they have not been calling Kobe the best player in the league for years because of some Hollywood effect; they simply understand the intricacies of basketball better than you do.

 
At Saturday, June 20, 2009 2:07:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Owen - It's more likely that the numerical model is flawed and does not reflect the most important variables that factor in an individual player's contribution to a team's success. Most of these models are reverse engineered, going back to fit the data to some fixed point, such as team wins. A true model would work up, from basic principles of basketball, much as you would in Newtonian physics, where you begin with some basic parameters (speed, direction, gravity). Remember, just because mathematical elements are used does not mean it is science.

 
At Saturday, June 20, 2009 3:33:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...

Freecashflow;

I think advanced stats are bs, but Owen raises an intriging point. Most models I've seen come relativly close to our observations, but most models underrate Kobe. Why is that?

 
At Saturday, June 20, 2009 6:10:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Thanks! I'll check those articles out.

 
At Saturday, June 20, 2009 6:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - Again, Kobe isn't anywhere close to Jordan. Again, his best season total of 15.4 win shares fails to exceed jordan's worst season total which was 15.6 in 1998. The differences in their numbers aren't cosmetic difference. Those are very big differences. The kind of difference a statistician can't and don't ignore.

The Hollywood effect is real. But what's even more real is the quality of teammate Kobe has had in his career. He has had an above average set of teammates 9 times in his career at this point. There isn't another star wing player in the NBA that has had an above average "supporting" cast. What would Tracy Mcgrady have accomplished if he had landed next to Shaq in 1996?

Owen

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 1:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You are not even looking at "real" statistics. You are looking at the products of invented formulas that are flawed.

The "Hollywood effect" that you purport to describe is non-existent; GMs, coaches, scouts and players are not basing their opinions of Kobe Bryant on some "Hollywood effect"--and, as I am quite sure you can tell, I hardly base my opinions on what members of the mainstream media say. So, your imagined "Hollywood effect" has nothing whatsoever to do with the analysis that appears here.

The question of Bryant's supporting cast is very interesting. I am working on an article that compares Bryant's current supporting cast with the supporting casts of championship teams from 1991-present (i.e., the Phil Jackson era). Tracy McGrady was a top notch shooting guard in his prime--underrated by the general public--but he does not have the skill set, work ethic, defensive skills or durability that Bryant possesses. You just love to compare other shooting guards to Bryant as if they are as good as he is but none of your candidates (Ginobili, McGrady, Wade) have Bryant's total package of skill set, work ethic, defensive skills and durability.

 
At Sunday, June 21, 2009 1:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DMills:

What Owen does not mention and you apparently don't realize is that the Dave Berri Wages of Wins model that Owen worships insists that Dennis Rodman was a more productive player in 1996 than Jordan. Berri (and Owen) tries to hem and haw about this but it is clearly stated in Berri's book. Of course, as great as Rodman was it is absurd to suggest that he was better/more productive/more efficient/choose your adjective than Jordan. Rodman was a great rebounder and defender but Jordan was an all-around player who carried a heavy scoring load and drew double teams. As great as Rodman was, you could find other players to rebound/defend (such as Horace Grant on the first three-peat team). You could not find anyone like Jordan in the NBA at that time. Owen also neglects to mention the subjective way that Berri constructed his formulas, which has led to Berri being heavily criticized even within the "stat guru" community. It is a mystery why Henry Abbott of True Hoop has become such a big standard bearer for Berri, especially considering that ESPN has an inhouse "stat guru" in Hollinger; I don't always agree with Hollinger's conclusions but he has a better grasp of the limitations of such formulas than Berri does. Hollinger will always spell out exactly what he purports to be measuring and will acknowledge that sometimes his numbers don't match up with what one observes.

 
At Monday, June 22, 2009 4:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Berri = Subjective?

Like he set out to prove that scoring was overrated and then constructed his formulas accordingly?

Apparently you aren't familiar with the process of peer review.

But anyway, I will await your take on Kobe's supporting casts.

 
At Monday, June 22, 2009 6:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous (Owen, I presume):

Yes, I do think that there is a highly subjective element to the construction of Berri's basketball ratings formulas and I think that his work is highly agenda driven. That agenda, as I see it, is to "prove" that NBA GMs do not know how to properly assign financial values to players and thus end up overpaying players and/or overlooking opportunities to acquire good values. Most of Berri's writing seems to set out to "prove" the above point, but Berri appears to have a very poor understanding of how the NBA's financial structure actually works, which is ironic since Berri is an economist--or maybe Berri in fact understands the financial structure quite well but it serves his interests to write what he writes because it brings him attention from ESPN and other media outlets.

I understand the process of peer review. Peer review does not prove that Berri's theories are correct. Furthermore, I doubt that the "peers" who review his work understand the NBA any better than he does. If the economists could actually do something to fix the economy, that would be praiseworthy, but I am not very optimistic that they are going to come up with accurate individual player ratings any time soon, though some of the teamwide stats are more useful.

 
At Tuesday, January 24, 2012 5:33:00 PM, Blogger Al Fahridi said...

Hi David,
very late to the party...
have been reading your blog for the last two years now. Congrats for the great insights and analysis.

I have read through this "diatriba" with Owen (besides the fact that I hold Kobe Bryant as the best player of his generation, the best player in the league hands down during the 2005-2010 strecth - although Lebron came close already in 2009) and kept wondering: why is that advanced stats analysis applied to other greats (Jordan, Lebron etc) does nothing but certify their greatness, while, when applied to Kobe, it somehow diminishes him?
What it is that, in the advanced stats setting, that makes it possible to say that Ginobili is a better player than Kobe is?

as to reverse Owen's positions, I value advanced stats as a powerful tool of analysis, not as the ultimate truth-teller. Kobe's greatness is primarely definied by his accomplishements and secondarely by the very high opinion coaches, GMs and players have of him. so what is that advanced stats fail to grasp? (or, on the contrary: what is that in Kobe's game that makes it seem worse than it actually is, when seen through stats' lenses?)

is it the system he has so long played in (but then what about MJ's title years?) or the gunning?
it is interesting that KObe's PER, for example, is highest when is scoring average is very high (and Kobe's scoring has been otherwordly at times). It's like all the other things one can do on the floor (things that are not assists, rebs, or any of the main collected stats) don't count. but then again, why is it only KObe's case? (actually, if you knew of any other great players somehow diminished by adv stats, that would be a very intersiting case for comparison).

that question might be actually very interesting for stats gurus to answer, so to refine their system, make it better

 
At Tuesday, January 24, 2012 11:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Al:

I would not say that "advanced basketball statistics" are only incorrect/imprecise regarding Kobe Bryant. Each "stat guru" has his own proprietary formula and each of those formulas has a different flaw or set of flaws.

Owen's most glaring blind spots regarding Bryant are that Owen fails to understand the value of shot creation and he fails to appreciate the impact that Bryant's presence has on opposing defenses. Bryant can create a shot for himself or for a teammate from anywhere on the court; Bryant is a good three point shooter, an excellent free throw shooter and a deadly midrange scorer, so the opposing defense must "tilt" in Bryant's direction regardless of where Bryant is located on the court. This means that Bryant's teammates get open jumpers or free runs to the basket they would not otherwise be able to obtain.

Bryant's field goal percentage is negatively impacted by the "hand grenade" shots that he often takes--after his teammates fail to create anything the ball often ends up back in Bryant's hands with the shot clock about to "explode" (that is why I call these field goal percentage killers "hand grenades").

Bryant's assist totals do not accurately reflect his passing ability and playmaking impact because he often makes the pass that leads to the assist pass: i.e., Bryant will be trapped, he will make a skip pass, a defender will rotate to the recipient of that pass and then the recipient will get an assist by making a pass to a wide open player. For instance, the Lakers used to run a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action that opposing teams would counter by trapping Bryant and rotating a defender to Gasol. Bryant would often pass to Gasol who would then dump the ball to a cutting Lamar Odom for a layup. Assists are a very subjective stat, as I have pointed out in several articles.

Individual defense is only measured by steals and blocked shots, two other subjective statistics. Bryant is excellent at both one on one defense and at help defense and he sets the tone in practice and on the court for the Lakers at that end of the court. On most teams, the big guys call out the defensive signals because their backs are to the basket and they can see the whole court, but Bryant is the Lakers' defensive signal caller.

Bryant's full impact can only be appreciated by someone who watches the game with understanding--and that is why Dave Berri, his acolyte Owen and many other "stat gurus" fail to understand not only Bryant but the game of basketball itself. The "stat gurus" predicted that the Heat would be a dominant, all-time great team, while I expressed skepticism that the team would even win more games than LeBron's Cavaliers had in the previous two seasons--and we all know how that turned out.

 
At Wednesday, January 25, 2012 3:32:00 AM, Blogger Al Fahridi said...

Thanks David for the reply.

I wasn't implying that stats are incorrect/imprecise vis-a-vis of Bryant - just asking, is there a case for a comparative study (i.e. a great player whose greatness is significantly diminished by adv stats "representation")?

the point you make re double teams, and defensive presence (beyond assist, steals etc) is a great one. But couldn't we say the same (at least re double teams) for most of the great players?

thanks again

 
At Wednesday, January 25, 2012 5:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Al:

The "stat gurus" have also tried to "prove" that Michael Jordan's 37 ppg season was actually greater than Wilt Chamberlain's 50 ppg season.

Some of the "stat gurus" are sincerely trying to figure out how to best quantify what happens on the court (Roland Beech and Dan Rosenbaum fit into that category). Other "stat gurus" are either clueless about stats and/or basketball--and other "stat gurus" seem to be jury-rigging their numbers quite deliberately in order to produce counterintuitive conclusions ("Wilt is not really that great," "Kobe is only the fifth best player in the NBA," "Coaching does not really matter").

As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, Bryant's complete skill set compels defenses to deal with him differently than the way they deal with, say, LeBron James. It is possible to pack the paint against James and dare him to shoot outside of 15-18 feet--and because this is possible, elite defensive teams can force James to shoot a low percentage and have a high turnover rate (they sag off of him and thus can intercept his passes by jumping into the passing lanes). We have seen James fail against the Spurs in the 2007 Finals, against the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs and against the Mavs in the 2011 Finals. Sagging off of Bryant does not work because he is a deadly midrange shooter and an above average three point shooter.

"Advanced basketball statistics" do not capture these nuances. In 2008, some "stat gurus" insisted that Chris Paul was better than Kobe Bryant--but Paul's statistics were padded by his high assist totals and I documented that many of Paul's assists were not legit (on at least one play he got credit for an assist without even throwing the final pass at all, let alone throwing a final pass that led directly to a shot: David West Dominates as Hornets Throttle Spurs, 101-82).

 

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