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Friday, February 05, 2010

NBA Truths

The foundation of wisdom is to ask intelligent questions and earnestly seek honest answers to those questions, even if those answers go against what you are inclined to believe. Most of what you read and hear about the NBA is devoid of wisdom because most writers/talking heads are too ignorant, biased and/or indifferent to pursue wisdom.

Here are some NBA questions and answers worth pondering:

1a) What criteria are properly used to evaluate the so-called "supporting casts" of great players? Some people still insist that Michael Jordan single-handedly carried the Chicago Bulls to six championships, despite the fact that Jordan had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players by his side during each of those title runs--and despite the fact that Jordan's career playoff record sans Scottie Pippen is 1-9. That is not a misprint--the player who is often called the greatest of all time won exactly one playoff game without having Pippen as a teammate. Pippen's brilliance offensively as a point forward and defensively as both a lock down defender and a devastating help defender enabled Jordan to sprint down court and obtain good post position offensively while also relieving him of some defensive burdens (to a lesser degree, Cleveland's acquisition of Mo Williams last season similarly freed up LeBron James to work off of the ball offensively, a luxury that James does not enjoy at the moment now that his playmaking load has been increased due to injuries suffered by Williams and Delonte West).

During his first three title runs, Jordan had a former All-Star at center (Bill Cartwright) and one of the best defensive power forwards in the league (Horace Grant), a mobile big man who could jump out to trap guards and then race back into the paint to defend his own man--think Anderson Varejao with a deadly 15 foot jump shot. The 1991-93 Bulls had three sharpshooting guards (John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Craig Hodges), one of whom emerged as an All-Star (Armstrong) when he got more playing time after Jordan's first retirement as the Bulls shocked many observers by winning 55 games in 1993-94 without his Airness. The 1996-98 Bulls championship teams essentially swapped Grant for a player who was the best pound for pound rebounder in history and who also was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year (Dennis Rodman). Those Bulls replaced Cartwright with a three headed monster of solid if unspectacular centers but they had a lot of talent on the perimeter alongside Jordan and Pippen: versatile Sixth Man of the Year Toni Kukoc, wily Ron Harper--a former 20 ppg scorer who reinvented himself as an excellent defensive player--and Steve Kerr, the NBA's career leader in three point field goal percentage.

There is no doubt that Michael Jordan belongs on the short list of players who could legitimately be given the somewhat mythical title of "greatest basketball player of all-time" (I say "somewhat mythical" because there is no realistic, objective way to compare a shooting guard who played under 1990s rules and conditions with, say, a center who played under 1960s rules and conditions--such comparisons can be fun and occasionally even enlightening but they can never be conclusive). Is it really necessary to try to artificially enhance Jordan's "case" for all-time greatness by falsely demeaning the skill sets, talents and contributions of his teammates?

1b) LeBron James is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA right now; I said as much in my April 17, 2009 post titled An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race, though contrary to last season's MVP voters who selected James in a landslide decision I felt that in the 2009 regular season James only slightly outperformed Kobe Bryant. During last year's playoffs, James had a magnificent playoff run for the ages but I noted that in leading the Lakers to the championship Bryant made a case that he is still the game's best player:

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.


During the opening stages of this season, Bryant picked up where he left off in the playoffs and then elevated his game further, adding some Hakeem Olajuwon post moves to his repertoire and leading the NBA in points in the paint as the Lakers stayed atop the standings even without the services of the injured Pau Gasol. Circa mid to late December Bryant was on course to win this season's MVP--but then a broken finger followed by back spasms sent his field goal percentage plummeting and his Lakers not only lost two games to James' Cavs but fell behind the Cavs in the race for the NBA's best record. Meanwhile, James' numbers continued to improve while Bryant's declined, so James has to be considered this season's MVP so far. A healthy Bryant still has a more complete skill set than James but that fact is being rendered irrelevant for two reasons: James is rapidly eliminating his few remaining weaknesses (thereby making his physical advantages over Bryant that much more significant) and Bryant's age/health are making it increasingly difficult for him to maintain peak level performance over the course of an 82 game season. Bryant may yet outperform James during the 2010 playoffs--buoyed by the off days between playoff games--but the spring/summer of 2010 could very well be Bryant's last opportunity to enjoy individual superiority over James; when James posted up on the right block versus Miami on Thursday night and then hit a one handed jumper in the paint TNT's Mike Fratello exclaimed that he had never seen James take such a shot and that this move is essentially unguardable--but I have seen this move before; James practiced this exact shot prior to the Cavs' second victory over the Lakers, as I mentioned in the second paragraph of my Courtside Notes from that game: I called that shot (and the other new moves that James worked on during that practice session) "the scariest sight for the rest of the NBA." I truly believe that I saw the future in those pregame moments: James working on honing his ability to dominate not purely on the basis of power/athleticism but because of positioning, footwork and shooting touch. James is learning how to master those elements at the same time that Bryant's physical skills and durability are waning, so James' edge over Bryant will only grow with time (something that Bryant would have staved off for another couple of years if James had not worked so diligently on defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting and--now--his post up game).

Note that it is possible to make an objective, skill set based comparison of Bryant and James without saying much--positive or negative--regarding their teammates. So why do some people insist on making asinine statements to the effect that if James were a Laker the Lakers would win more than 70 games or that if Bryant were a Cav the Cavs would not be as good as they are now? It is fascinating to observe how so many commentators rush to denigrate James' "supporting cast" in much the same fashion that Jordan's "supporting cast" has been belittled over the years.

If we must compare "supporting casts" let's at least do so objectively based on skill set evaluations and an understanding of each team's offensive and defensive philosophies. The Cavs under Coach Mike Brown are a defensive-minded team focused on holding the opposition to a low field goal percentage while also dominating the boards. That is why it is so silly to hear fans--and even "experts" who should know better--lament that the Cavs are weak offensively. Not only is that a stupid criticism to make of a team that owns the best record in the league precisely because of its focus on defense but statistics do not even support the contention that the Cavs are deficient offensively: the Cavs score over 101 points per game, lead the league in point differential (+7.3) and rank fourth in field goal percentage (.485), numbers that prove that the Cavs not only have no trouble scoring points but that they do so quite efficiently. There is nothing wrong with Cleveland's offense and there is no reason for the Cavs to make any offensive adjustments that could adversely affect the floor balance that enables them to be so effective defensively (they rank first in defensive field goal percentage and are tied for first in fewest points allowed).

LeBron James has vastly improved defensively since he entered the league and he appears to be on track to deservedly become a fixture on the All Defensive First Team--but one defender, no matter how great, cannot single-handedly make a team a defensive powerhouse: the Cavs have other players who are excellent individual defenders (most notably Anderson Varejao and Delonte West), plus the entire roster has bought into Coach Brown's system and found ways to maximize their defensive strengths while limiting their defensive liabilities.

The reality is that the Cavs' roster is both talented and deep (I explained the difference between "talent" and "depth" here): just consider for a moment that at full strength the Cavs are currently bringing off of the bench three players (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Delonte West) who started for the team that had the best record in the NBA in 2008-09! Those players have been replaced in the starting lineup by Shaquille O'Neal (a former MVP who made the All-NBA Third Team last season), Anthony Parker (a starter for two playoff teams in Toronto who is one of the top three point shooters in the league) and young forward J.J. Hickson (an athletic dynamo who nicely complements James and O'Neal offensively and who is rapidly improving as a defender/rebounder). The Cavs can play a huge lineup with O'Neal, Ilgauskas, James, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker--two seven footers plus three perimeter players who are each at least 6-6--or they can go "small" with Varejao at center, James at power forward and numerous different combinations manning the other three positions. Coach Brown has done an outstanding job of developing an effective rotation, rationing out minutes while dealing with a host of issues/concerns: O'Neal's age, West's off court problems, various injuries, the need to test out different five man units to see which players function together best in various kinds of matchups. Casual fans and so-called experts alike have so far displayed little if any appreciation for just how good of a coaching job Brown has done this year.

The Cavs may not have many "name" players other than James and O'Neal but don't let that fool you: their roster is legitimately 10 players deep, a claim that few if any other NBA teams can honestly make.

That statement segues perfectly into an examination of the Lakers' roster. You have no doubt heard countless people declare that the Lakers are the most talented and deepest team in the league. The Lakers receive a lot of media coverage and as a result some of their players who are completely ineffective due to injury or other reasons (including Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic) are better known names to casual fans than the starters for some of the league's non-marquee teams--but that should not deceive anyone into believing that the Lakers are a deep team. The Lakers' depth is more mythical than the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch: the Lakers have an eight man rotation, with their seventh man (in minutes played) being Shannon Brown, who was the Cavs' 12th man in 2007 when the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals. Where do you suppose Brown would fit into the Cavs' rotation this year? Brown was expendable three years ago when the Cavs were not nearly as deep as they are now; on this year's Cleveland team he would not beat out Mo Williams, Delonte West or Anthony Parker and I doubt that he would get much run ahead of Daniel Gibson--who has been starting in the injured Williams' place recently with the Cavs hardly missing a beat--so it is safe to assume that Brown would be the 12th man on the Cavs this year. Yet Brown is an important rotation player for this year's Lakers. Has Brown dramatically improved since he left Cleveland? He certainly has become more famous while playing for the Lakers (as seen by the popular "let Shannon dunk" movement that helped him earn a berth in the upcoming Slam Dunk Contest) but his per minute averages are essentially the same that they have always been; the difference is that the Lakers, unlike the Cavs, do not have better players that would move Brown out of the rotation.

The Lakers' starting point guard Derek Fisher certainly supplies many intangibles--such as leadership, toughness and the demonstrated ability to make clutch shots--but purely in terms of skill set and production he has to be considered the worst starting point guard for any of the teams currently slated to make the Western Conference playoffs. Here are the other seven point guards for your consideration: Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Andre Miller, Russell Westbrook.

Pau Gasol is certainly a top flight big man but he is not better than Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki, which is why Gasol annually ranks behind them in All-Star and All-NBA voting (see below for a more detailed discussion about Gasol).

Andrew Bynum is a five year veteran who has been healthy for a complete season just once, has never been selected as an All-Star, has never made an All-NBA Team and is frequently blasted by his own coach for his tendency to sprint toward the offensive end of the court but jog back on defense when the team needs him to have precisely the opposite attitude. Bynum has shown flashes of great potential but he has yet to prove that he has the durability or mindset to be a top level center; he was a 17.4 mpg afterthought during the Lakers' playoff run last year. Do those people who praise the Lakers' depth believe that Bynum is a better player than Amare Stoudemire or even Nene, to name just two other starting centers for Western Conference playoff teams?

Last summer, the Lakers essentially swapped journeyman Trevor Ariza for former All-Star Ron Artest. In Houston, Ariza--who some people wrongly dubbed a star in the making after the 2009 playoffs when he feasted on the open shots resulting from Bryant being double-teamed--has been a horribly inefficient swingman who is shooting well below .400 from the field, while Artest has battled through injuries (concussion, foot problems) to post marginally better numbers than Ariza did for last year's champions. It is debatable whether Artest's defense this year is better than Ariza's defense last year: Artest is more physically capable of guarding "big" small forwards like LeBron James and Paul Pierce but Artest now appears to be a bit less mobile and quick handed than Ariza and thus less able to get steals/deflections.

Lamar Odom has been so frequently referred to as "underrated" that I submit that he is now overrated. Odom has never been selected to an All-NBA Team or an All-Star team, meaning that fans, coaches and the media apparently have "conspired" to "underrate" him for more than a decade. This year, Odom is averaging a career-low 9.7 ppg while shooting .444 from the field, a very subpar figure for a power forward. Odom is often praised for his versatility but he is shooting just .299 from three point range and .683 from the free throw line so his "versatility" seems to consist of the ability to shoot a below average percentage from anywhere on the court. Odom's best asset by far is his ability to rebound (9.7 rpg) but if you evaluate his overall game objectively from a skill set standpoint as a scorer/defender/rebounder then you realize that he is hardly the All-Star level performer he is often touted to be. Anderson Varejao is more productive and more efficient, though many fans would likely laugh out loud at such a contention.

The Lakers' starting lineup of Gasol, Bynum, Artest, Bryant and Fisher is a veteran quintet that possesses size (other than Fisher, though he makes up in stoutness what he lacks in height) and plays well together but if you take Bryant out of the equation that group lacks the firepower (and tenacity) of the starting lineups in Cleveland, Boston, Denver, Orlando, Dallas and Utah, to name just a few (each of those teams has multiple players who are either current All-Stars or have made the All-Star team recently); without Bryant, opposing teams would double-team Gasol, bang him around and take the chance that none of the other guys could either score enough on his own or create enough scoring opportunities for others. Former Lakers General Manager Jerry West just said that if he were coaching against the Lakers with the game on the line he would send every defender at Bryant and dare anyone else to beat him, which is high praise for Bryant but hardly a ringing endorsement of what is supposedly the league's deepest and most talented team. Someone recently asked Bynum about how much more he might score if he were not playing with Bryant but Bynum candidly noted that the way that Bryant draws double teams actually makes it easier for Bynum to score, because all Bynum has to do is run the floor, seal his man in the paint and go to work one on one (an observation that I have made in several posts in the past few years).

Regardless of name recognition or hype, James has a deeper and more effective "supporting cast" than Bryant: the Cavs not only have 10 legitimate players but they have depth at each position and their various roster combinations are productive both offensively and defensively; in contrast, the Lakers are only eight players deep and their reserves have frequently squandered leads. The Cavs play tough, physical, defensive-minded basketball on a nightly basis, whereas the Lakers are much more erratic; that is a big reason why Bryant is so reluctant to miss any games even when his various physical ailments have limited him to the extent that his efficiency has been greatly compromised: Bryant trusts his ability to somehow will his team to victory more than he trusts his team's ability to consistently play tough, focused basketball in his absence (Bryant may be overly optimistic about what he can do in a physically compromised state but his doubts about his team's toughness are certainly well founded).

I rank James ahead of Bryant now not because of some spurious comparison of their "supporting casts" or wild speculation about what might happen if they magically switched teams but rather because James has attacked his skill set weaknesses while age/injuries have limited Bryant's ability to be a dynamic and efficient performer as consistently as he used to be. I'd still slightly prefer a healthy Bryant to a healthy James but that is a purely hypothetical statement: the reality is that James is just entering his prime, while Bryant is fighting a furious (and ultimately futile) battle against Father Time. The bottom line is that James was slightly better than Bryant last season, Bryant enjoyed a revival during the playoffs/first two months or so of this season and now James has moved ahead of Bryant by a larger margin than he enjoyed last season.

It is not necessary to falsely evaluate the "supporting casts" in order to correctly make a skill set comparison between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, just like it is not necessary to denigrate Michael Jordan's teammates in order to appreciate Jordan's greatness.

2) In Pau Gasol's first six full NBA seasons, coaches, fans and media members did not consider him to be an "elite" player. How can that statement be proven to be true? Gasol made the All-Star team once and he never made the All-NBA First, Second or Third Teams, honors that are bestowed by fans (All-Star starters), coaches (All-Star reserves) and media members (All-NBA Teams). Since joining the Lakers in the middle of the 2007-08 season, Gasol has posted career-highs in field goal percentage (.567 in 2008-09) and rebounding (10.7 rpg in 2009-10), earned an All-NBA Third Team selection (2009) and was voted by the coaches to the 2009 and 2010 All-Star Games.

Gasol is clearly a skilled big man but he is not any more skilled now than he was two years ago. What changed is that Gasol no longer carries the burden of being his team's best player; Kobe Bryant has that responsibility for the Lakers, meaning that Gasol can post up without being double-teamed as frequently and Gasol can get an open face up or slashing opportunity almost any time he wants simply by setting a screen for Bryant and waiting for his man to trap Bryant. That is why Gasol's shooting percentage has soared and that is why Gasol's offensive rebounding is at career-high levels: Bryant attracts so much defensive attention that Gasol (and other Laker bigs) often have a free run to the offensive boards. Here is a challenge for all of you "stat gurus" out there: find out how many NBA bigs increased their offensive rebounding productivity in their ninth and tenth NBA seasons. Gasol did not suddenly learn new rebounding tricks; he simply has an easier path to the offensive boards now.

3) Do the same people who insisted that Kobe Bryant had to "validate" his greatness by leading a team to a championship without Shaquille O'Neal plan at any time to say the same thing about Dwyane Wade? If Shaquille O'Neal is an important inside force for the Cavs in the 2010 playoffs--as he has been in Cleveland's regular season victories over the Lakers and Magic, last year's NBA Finalists--and LeBron James wins his first NBA title will those critics say that James must win a championship without a dominant big man in order to "validate" any comparisons with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and other great perimeter players?

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM

14 comments

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14 Comments:

At Friday, February 05, 2010 12:35:00 PM, Anonymous Jack said...

David,

What do you make of Pau Gasol publicly criticizing Kobe after the Memphis game? I thought it was a weird thing for him to do. Thats one thing you can say about Kobe : He has never criticized any of his teammates through the media. I didn't even hear him criticize Gasol or Odom after that Celtics Finals 2 years ago. It almost seems like Gasol is so scared of Kobe that he put the media in front him so he can criticize kobe. I dont mind gasol saying what he said but to say that after the Memphis game was totally inappropriate since Kobe shot 57% for the game while Memphis Big men pushed the Lakers big men around.

 
At Friday, February 05, 2010 3:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack:

Kobe has criticized teammates through the media before; most recently, I was standing right in front of him in Cleveland when he said that his teammates did not play with enough toughness and hunger versus the Cavs.

Gasol has periodically made mild public complaints to the effect that he does not get enough touches in the post. Of course, the natural response is that Gasol needs to do a better job of establishing position and then being strong with the ball when he does get it; I certainly have seen absolutely no indication that Kobe has the slightest reluctance to feed Gasol the ball and, indeed, Kobe immediately dialed back his field goal attempts when the Lakers acquired Gasol and Kobe almost seemed to go out of his way to involve Gasol in the offense.

I think that some media members are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill by repeatedly asking Gasol, Bynum and Jackson about Kobe's number of field goal attempts in the Memphis game. What other player would have such criticism directed toward him after a game in which he scored 44 points while shooting well over .500 from the field? It's just silly. I have repeatedly said that Kobe faces closer scrutiny about every shot he takes--and even the shots he doesn't take, when people accuse him of deliberately not shooting to "prove a point"--than any other great player in recent memory. The numbers posted by Kobe and LeBron in their respective game seven losses in the 2006 playoffs are very, very similar, yet only Kobe was accused of deliberately not shooting in the second half. This all goes back to the central point of this post: far too many NBA commentators are either biased and/or incompetent and as a result they ask stupid questions, misinterpret the answers that they receive and therefore make idiotic pronouncements.

 
At Friday, February 05, 2010 4:44:00 PM, Anonymous Jack said...

David,
Great article though.
On lebron:
This guy is good, I mean really good. If i had one word to describe him, it would be an avalanche. You see it coming and you can do nothing to stop it. And the scary thing about it is that he is entering his prime and he is already part of a championship team. I don't think the Lakers can beat Cleveland with a hobbling Kobe. If you have watched the games since Kobe injured his index, he has stopped to play the aggressive defense he was playing in the beginning of the season. His shot also has fallen off. While Lebron has gotten even better as the season went on.
If Kobe doesn't sit to heal his injuries, I dont see the Lakers repeating as Champions.

on Lakers-Boston game: Did you notice how Phil Jackson benched Gasol for the 4th quarter in favor of Bynum?

On adding a shooter: Should Lakers go after after Raja Bell if Golden State buys him out?

 
At Friday, February 05, 2010 5:58:00 PM, Blogger rellim said...

David,

One thing that remains an advantage for Kobe Bryant in regards to the skill set between himself and Lebron James is ball handling and "pressure" shooting. Kobe seems to me to be more adept, at creating offensive opportunities with his ability to handle the ball, whether driving to the basket or creating space for his jumpshot. I doubt that there is a stat to measure the point i'm trying to make but the variety of ways Bryant is able to create shots continues to be impressive. LeBron, who in my opinion is not a great ball handler, can get space for his jumpshot as well as forays to the basket, but his off the dribble game seems to be more predicated on his athletic strength than anything.

As athletic as people claim LeBron to be, he doesn't appear to be as coordinated athletically. It may be power vs grace, but a lot of his movements when attacking off the dribble appear to be awkward.

I have noticed the improvement in LeBron's mid range game this season, as it appears to be less of a hindrance to his overall game. I will ultimately be convince during the playoffs whether he has turned the corner as far has his mid range jumpshot, as he will more than likely see more ball pressure as well as the natural pressure that comes with playoff basketball.

On a side note, I agree with Jack that Gasol's comments were a bit strange. To me it seemed strange not only because of the shooting percentage, but because of the milestone Bryant had just attained.

Kobe has had the opportunity to criticize his teammates individually, but seems to always use the word "we" or "our" in his criticisms. There have been many opportunities, such as Gasol blowing the game tying free throws against Cleveland earlier this season.

Thanks for providing us fans with unbiased, critical and though provoking articles. I check for your entries on a daily basis.

 
At Saturday, February 06, 2010 12:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Rellim:

I agree that Kobe's ballhandling skills are more refined than LeBron's but LeBron is also a skilled ballhandler. I would not describe LeBron's movements as awkward but I can understand why you don't find his movements to be quite as fluid as Kobe's.

You are correct that generally when Kobe challenges his teammates publicly he speaks of "we" as opposed to singling out individuals by name.

Regarding Gasol's comments, you have to understand how the media operates. First, a group of media members ask Coach Jackson some questions about Kobe during Jackson's postgame standup right after the game. Then, the media horde goes into the locker room and someone says to Gasol something to the effect of "Coach Jackson mentioned that Kobe shot the ball a lot. What do you think?" Gasol hardly lashed out at Kobe but he did mention that maybe he and Bynum should get more touches. The next thing you know, half a dozen writers have the lead for their game stories: "Gasol Says Kobe Shoots too Much!" In other words, a lot of writers have preconceived story lines, so they ask their questions in a way that is geared to get answers that fit the story that they already decided to write. You can detect this methodology on your own if you are savvy enough when you read various game recaps but I also have had the opportunity to be in some of those media hordes and to witness firsthand exactly how certain writers put together their stories.

The real story of the Memphis game--other than Kobe becoming the all-time scoring leader in Laker history--is that the supposedly talented/deep Lakers needed 44 points on exceptional field goal shooting from Kobe just to be competitive with a fringe playoff team; that means that the Lakers are not contributing as much offensively or defensively as they should be. Kobe recognized that he had a significant matchup advantage based on how Memphis guarded him and he exploited that advantage to the fullest; therefore, Gasol and Bynum had the responsibility to focus on defense, rebounding and attacking from the weakside offensively if Kobe missed or if Memphis trapped Kobe. Kobe did his job but they did not do theirs; if I had covered that game then I would have asked Jackson and the others about the Lakers' defensive breakdowns and about the fact that Memphis outrebounded L.A. 49-39--but that is because I don't have a predetermined agenda when I cover a game, so my questions are always related to what actually happened in the game and/or the overall trends for the two teams (i.e., my recent questions to Coach Jackson regarding how Artest has fit in with this year's team compared to how Ariza fit in with last year's team).

 
At Saturday, February 06, 2010 12:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack:

LeBron is part of a championship caliber team, not a championship team (i.e., he has not won a championship yet, though he certainly has a great opportunity to do so this season).

As I reported in my Lakers-Pacers recap, Kobe told me that what has been hindering him the most in the past few weeks is his back, not the finger. Kobe's game started to come around once his back loosened up but then he sprained his ankle.

Kobe is not likely going to rest unless he is physically incapable of going on the floor; Kobe is disinclined to miss any games and despite whatever Coach Jackson says publicly about possibly benching Kobe he knows that the Lakers are not going to consistently beat good teams without Kobe in the lineup. A hobbled Kobe still draws double teams and still organizes the team's efforts offensively and defensively.

The road to repeating will not be easy because the Cavs will likely enjoy home court advantage, assuming that they make it to the Finals, but if Kobe can get the rest of his body reasonably healthy and then stay healthy during the playoffs I don't think that the finger alone will derail the Lakers' championship hopes.

Yes, I noticed that Jackson benched Gasol. Bynum is a more physical player and Gasol has had some issues down the stretch during games, including the loss in Cleveland.

I don't know how much Bell has left in the tank physically. If he can still play defense and make open threes then of course he could help the Lakers but I suspect that the Lakers are going to stand pat with what they have right now.

 
At Saturday, February 06, 2010 2:54:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Interesting post, David.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how mindless people can be when evaluating or ranking individual players in a team sport. There are so many variables that affect the outcome of a basketball game or series other than the performance of a single player. There's the performance of that player's teammates, the performance of the opposing team, the coaching strategies, injuries, and many other things. No reasonable person would disagree with that assertion. But then why does everyone still insist on conflating individual and team performance?

I cringe every time I hear some idiot on TV who insists that, say, Kobe Bryant has to win 6 championships (or win a championship without Shaq, or whatever) before he can be compared to Michael Jordan. Why? Did they play on the same exact teams in the same exact era under the same exact circumstances?

I'm not even arguing either way about how Kobe stacks up to MJ. The point is, if you are going to compare them, compare them intelligently in a complex, detailed way that takes everything into context. Simply counting championships makes no sense.

I wish I could ask the people who make such statements whether they thought Michael Jordan was a better player in the seasons that his team won the title than in other seasons. I'm sure there are some people who would say yes (probably the same people who said a "new Kobe" who "finally got it" had emerged once he got a better supporting cast and his team started winning). But I think that's complete nonsense. I would hope that any intelligent basketball observer would agree that MJ was not a better player in, say, 1998 than he was in 1989 or 1990. And if simply counting championships doesn't make sense when comparing the seasons of a single player, it doesn't make sense when comparing the seasons of different players.

Most people think LeBron James did not add as much to his legacy last season as he would have had the Cavs won the title. But if you asked me to rate his postseason performance on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 10. He played as well as I've ever seen any player play. Mo Williams hitting some extra shots and helping the Cavs advance to the Finals would not have made LeBron's performance any better.

Wilt Chamberlain once made a similar point, and to paraphrase him, if John Paxson doesn't hit the three-pointer and the Bulls lose, does that somehow make Michael Jordan less great?

 
At Saturday, February 06, 2010 4:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a freaking amazing article. Truehoop can't sniff your crotch.

 
At Sunday, February 07, 2010 12:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The Mo Williams point is worth emphasizing, because if his playoff performance versus Orlando--had been close to his regular season performance then the Cavs would have at the very least made it to the NBA Finals and quite possibly could have won the championship; as I mentioned during last year's playoffs, the defining feature of the Cleveland-Orlando series was not so much the matchup problems that Orlando posed for Cleveland but rather that Mo Williams played far worse than he did during the regular season.

 
At Monday, February 08, 2010 12:08:00 PM, Anonymous mike said...

David,

Would you have taken Kobe or Lebron as 18 year olds? I think Lebron giving most of his summers since coming into the league to Team USA has affected his ability to fill in all the holes in his game. Lebron also has played 7 fewer seasons than Kobe so he has had less time to develop his game. As 18 year olds Kobe had a better shooting touch than Lebron (like Carmello did also) and was a better on the ball defender but I would given Lebron the edge in every other area.

 
At Monday, February 08, 2010 5:12:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

As you've frequently said, it's very difficult to compare the greatness of different players, particularly when they played in different eras. Like it or not, the # championships is a rough heuristic for a player's excellence. If the Giants hadn't caught a few lucky breaks at the end of the 2008 Super Bowl, and instead the Patriots had won the game to go 19-0, then we would be talking about them, and Tom Brady, as possibly the greatest of all time. But the Giants DID get lucky, and now the Patriots' historical ascendance isn't quite so lofty. Great teams put themselves in a position where they are resilient to a couple unlucky breaks.

Anyway, my point is that I would like to see Kobe Bryant match Jordan's and Kareem's 6 titles (or Magic's 5 titles) before we can consider him in the all-time top 10.

 
At Monday, February 08, 2010 6:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike:

Kobe at 18 versus LeBron at 18 is an intriguing comparison, one that is very difficult to objectively make due to the vastly different circumstances that each player faced: Kobe went to a strong Lakers team for whom he initially came off of the bench, while LeBron was immediately thrust into the starting lineup for a weak Cleveland team. For that reason, a pure statistical comparison is not fair, because Kobe would undoubtedly have put up better numbers if he had been presented with more playing time.

One intriguing glimpse into just how good Kobe was at that age is provided by Jerry West, the then-Lakers GM who organized a private workout to scout Kobe. West had Kobe do a number of drills, plus play one on one versus Michael Cooper, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year who was in pretty good shape (40 years old and just six years removed from playing in the league). After watching Kobe abuse Cooper, West declared that Kobe was already more talented than anyone the Lakers had and West decided to trade his starting center--an All-Star caliber player (Vlade Divac)--for Kobe, which was quite a bold move at a time when players making the jump from high school to the pros was considered very risky.

My opinion is that at age 18 Kobe's skill set was more refined than LeBron's, while LeBron's body was more physically developed. Keep in mind that Kobe made the All-Star team in his second season even though he still was not a regular starter for the Lakers, a team that had three other All-Stars that year (1998: Shaq, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel). The next year, Kobe made the All-NBA Third Team and the following year he was an All-NBA Second Teamer (and a member of the All Defensive First Team) as the Lakers won the first of three straight championships. At a young age Kobe became the second leading scorer, leading playmaker and top perimeter defender for the best team in the league--and he also had to be the Lakers' "closer" in late game situations because Shaq is such a poor free throw shooter.

So even though LeBron's early per game statistics are far better than Kobe's were I don't think that those numbers accurately reflect their relative skill set levels in the early stages of their respective careers.

 
At Monday, February 08, 2010 6:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

I think that Brady already deserves to be in the discussion about greatest quarterback of all-time based on his efficiency and his outstanding playoff/Super Bowl record but there is no doubt that had he won a fourth Super Bowl to post a 4-0 record on the sport's biggest stage his case would be even stronger. It should be noted that he drove the Patriots for what should have/could have been the game winning score in that Super Bowl but that his defense let him down, which is different than Favre and Manning throwing interceptions that killed their teams' chances.

When I did my Pantheon series of articles a few years ago I only considered retired players but in the final article I wrote about four active players who I thought were most likely to be Pantheon-worthy by the time their careers ended: Shaq, Duncan, Kobe and LeBron.

 
At Tuesday, February 09, 2010 6:58:00 PM, Anonymous Stephen said...

Not to derail the main topic but I'm not sure it's fair to blame Manning for that INT. Steve Young (probably ESPN's best analyst) and others said it was more Wayne running a bad route. That and a great defensive play.

And although I understand the sentiment that Brady's defense let him down in SB 42, I don't make too much of it because he won three other SBs largely on the strength of the defense.

And on that subject Warner had the same thing happen to him in BOTH of his SB loses (one of those to Brady).

So I don't find it surprising that in Manning's sole SB win it coincides with the one time his entire defense was healthy.

Championships as criteria for the GoAT is nebulous for this very reason.

Great article again David. I definitely see myself linking to this article a lot in the future.

 

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