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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Placing Kobe Bryant's Career in Historical Context

Michael, Magic and Larry: A History Lesson

Whenever a writer or broadcaster starts a sentence by declaring that Player X (usually referring to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird) "would never have" done something that a current player (often Kobe Bryant) just did (such as taking a tough shot/"letting" his team lose a key game/shooting a low field goal percentage in a game or series/making a certain kind of mistake) you can be reasonably certain that some serious historical revisionism is about to take place.

The following examples are not intended to dispute or diminish the greatness of Jordan, Johnson and Bird, three players who--by any reasonable standard--must be ranked among the 10 best basketball players of all-time; the point is that they have gradually become viewed as flawless icons instead of human beings who accomplished a lot but also made mistakes, had bad games and were far from perfect. Keeping that in mind, here are some things that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird "would never do"--except for the fact that they actually did!

Bird is rightly considered one of the greatest shooters of all-time and he is renowned for his ability to make clutch shots--but in his five trips to the NBA Finals Bird never shot better than .484 from the field even though he played in an era when field goal percentages were much higher than they are now. Overall, Bird shot .458 from the field during his NBA Finals career, significantly worse than his .496 regular season career field goal percentage.

In the 1981 NBA Finals, Bird's 62-20 Boston Celtics--loaded with three other future Hall of Famers (Nate Archibald, Robert Parish and rookie Kevin McHale)--needed six games to beat a 40-42 Houston team to win the championship. Bird averaged 15.3 ppg, 15.3 rpg and 7.0 apg while shooting .419 from the field. After struggling with his shot for most of the series, Bird came up big in the decisive game six (26 points on 11-20 field goal shooting, team-high 13 rebounds) but he still only ranked second on the Celtics in scoring behind Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell (17.7 ppg) and just ahead of Parish (15.0 ppg).

Although Bird later established himself as a great three point shooter, his low field goal percentage during that series was not mitigated by long range marksmanship; he shot 1-2 from three point range versus the Rockets. In fact, Bird used the three point shot very sparingly in most of his Finals appearances, shooting 4-6 in 1984, 3-9 in 1985, 7-20 in 1986 and 4-7 in 1987.

Johnson committed so many gaffes during the L.A. Lakers' seven game loss to the Celtics in the 1984 Finals that McHale dubbed him "Tragic" Johnson:

1) In game two, Johnson dribbled out the clock with the score tied at the end of regulation and the Lakers eventually lost in overtime.

2) Down the stretch in the fourth quarter of game four, Johnson committed a costly turnover that led to the tying score and he missed two free throws as the Lakers again lost in overtime.

3) In game seven, Johnson shot 5-14 from the field and had seven turnovers--including two in the final 90 seconds--in a 111-102 loss.

Jordan's 6-0 record in the NBA Finals is certainly impressive but he neither won those championships by himself nor did he always perform at the highest level during those six series. In the 1996 Finals, Jordan averaged 27.3 ppg but shot just .415 from the field. In game six at home, Jordan scored 22 points but shot just 5-19 (.263) from the field as the Bulls won 87-75 over Seattle. Jordan did most of his damage at the free throw line (11-12) and he grabbed nine rebounds as the Bulls outrebounded Seattle 52-43. During the series, Jordan ranked second on the Bulls in assists (4.2 apg) and had a 25/17 assist to turnover ratio, while his teammate Scottie Pippen had 32 assists versus just 11 turnovers. Assist/turnover ratio can be a somewhat misleading statistic because on any given possession there is not necessarily an either/or proposition between getting an assist or committing a turnover--a player could do many different things offensively to help his team without getting an assist and, depending on his role, he could be in jeopardy of committing a turnover in a lot of different ways other than simply trying to pass the ball. However, it is worth noting Jordan's pedestrian assist/turnover ratio in the 1996 Finals simply to emphasize two important points: (1) Jordan was not the perfect player that he is now sometimes portrayed as; (2) even when Jordan was in the stage of his career when he had, as the cliche goes, "learned to trust his teammates," he was hardly racking up gaudy assist totals.

Jordan averaged 32.3 ppg in the 1997 Finals while shooting .456 from the field. During this series he led the Bulls in assists (6.0 apg) and he had a 36/13 assist to turnover ratio--but the decisive sixth game at home again had more to do with rebounding and grit than offensive efficiency: Jordan scored 39 points on 15-35 field goal shooting (.429) but he tied teammate Dennis Rodman with a game-high 11 rebounds as the Bulls outrebounded the Utah Jazz 56-52 and utilized 15 offensive rebounds to help generate 16 extra field goal attempts, a key factor in a 90-86 Chicago win during which the Bulls shot just .383 from the field. Pippen led the Bulls in rebounding during that series with 8.3 rpg (picking up the slack for Rodman, who was hobbled by a knee injury) and he played so well defensively that Jordan candidly stated that his Finals MVP award really should have been split with Pippen. The record books simply tell us that Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals and won six Finals MVPs but those "perfect" numbers do not mean that Jordan played perfectly in all of those games.

Pippen seemed to be heading toward winning the 1998 Finals MVP until multiple ruptured disks in his lower back severely limited him in games five and six. Jordan scored 45 points in the closeout game six, this time on the road, and he again shot 15-35 from the field; he had just one rebound and one assist but, understandably, the two lasting images of that game are of Jordan stealing the ball from Karl Malone and then nailing the game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell. Jordan averaged 33.5 pgg and he certainly showed the heart of a champion--to borrow Rudy Tomjanovich's phrase--but he shot just .427 from the field while averaging 4.0 rpg and 2.3 apg.

Michael Jordan Versus Kobe Bryant

It is interesting that although most "stat gurus" and many media members insist that Bryant should not even be compared with Jordan many of the players and coaches who competed against both players think that Jordan and Bryant are very similar and some have asserted that Bryant is actually greater than Jordan.

Jordan benefits when superficial comparisons are made because of the natural tendency after many years have passed to remember the positive and forget the negative; the images of his game-winning shots are permanently embedded not just in our minds but in highlight packages that are shown constantly, particularly during the playoffs. It is not easy to conjure up memories of games when Jordan shot poorly, turned the ball over or made other mistakes--but, as demonstrated above, in addition to the many and obvious positive things that Jordan did he also shot the ball a lot and in his last three Finals appearances he did not shoot particularly well from the field; in contrast, we see Bryant play all of the time, so we are well aware of his missed shots and turnovers.

It is obvious to any objective observer that Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan since Jordan retired; they have similar body types, for most of their careers they played the same position in the same offensive system for the same coach and they both were the dominant winners in their sport during their respective careers.

Both Jordan and Bryant did not have any skill set weaknesses once they reached their respective primes and I consider them equal as defenders, rebounders and passers. Bryant has the edge in terms of long range shooting, while Jordan had the more consistent midrange game and finished a bit better in traffic thanks to his larger hands.

Bryant will never match Jordan in terms of regular season MVPs and scoring titles but a strong case could be made that during his second run of titles Bryant is playing at least as well as Jordan did during Jordan's second run of titles.

Here are Jordan's playoff averages from 1996-98 when the Bulls won three championships:

1996: 30.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, .459 FG%, .403 3FG%, .818 FT%
1997: 31.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, .456 FG%, .194 3FG%, .831 FT%
1998: 32.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .462 FG%, .302 3FG%, .812 FT%

Here are Bryant's playoff averages from 2008-10 when the Lakers made three straight trips to the Finals and won two championships:

2008: 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%
2009: 30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 3FG%, .883 FT%
2010: 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%

Remember that Jordan was playing alongside a Hall of Famer in Pippen, who established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate on his own during Jordan's minor league baseball days. Jordan also had a Hall of Fame caliber power forward in Rodman, though Rodman may never be voted in for reasons that have nothing to do with his basketball skills. In contrast, Bryant's best teammate during the past three seasons--Pau Gasol--has still never received even one fifth place MVP vote and he never made the All-NBA Third Team in the six seasons that he played prior to teaming up with Bryant. Also, though Jordan was a bit older than Bryant during the time frames in question, Jordan had played fewer seasons and minutes and was healthier than Bryant, particularly the 2010 version of Bryant.

When comparing the players' shooting percentages it is important to remember that the NBA shortened the three point line from 1994-95 to 1996-97. Jordan shot .500 from three point range during his 17 game 1994-95 season, .427 in 1995-96 and .374 in 1996-97. Only twice in his other 12 regular seasons did Jordan shoot better than .350 from long distance and in nine seasons he shot worse than .300. Bryant shot three pointers more frequently than Jordan and Bryant made a higher percentage of his three pointers even though Bryant only enjoyed the benefit of the shortened line during his rookie season. So, even though Bryant's playoff field goal percentages from 2008-10 were just slightly better than Jordan's playoff field goal percentages from 1996-98 the difference is actually more pronounced if you factor in the extra points from three pointers: Bryant's "effective field goal percentages" (EFG%) were .514, .492 and .506 during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 playoffs, while Jordan's EFG% in the 1996, 1997 and 1998 playoffs were .490, .469 and .474 respectively.

Some readers may be surprised by the apg averages that Jordan posted during the Bulls' 1996-98 playoff runs. Players' passing skills are too often wrongly evaluated simply on the basis of their apg averages. How many times have you heard someone insist that LeBron James is a more unselfish player and a better passer than Kobe Bryant because James has a higher apg average? By that faulty standard, Jordan paradoxically became more selfish and a less skilled passer precisely when his Bulls started winning championships: Jordan averaged a career-high 8.0 apg during the 1988-89 season when the Bulls lost in the Eastern Conference Finals and then his apg average decreased: 6.3 apg in 1989-90 (the Bulls again lost in the ECF), 5.5 apg in 1990-91 (the Bulls won their first championship), 6.1 apg in 1991-92 (Bulls won a repeat championship), 5.5 apg in 1992-93 (Bulls won the championship again), 5.3 apg in just 17 games in 1994-95 (Bulls lost in the second round), 4.3 apg in both 1995-96 and 1996-97 (Bulls won back to back titles), 3.5 apg in 1997-98 (Bulls finished off second "three-peat").

The fact that three postseason runs late in Bryant's career are comparable to three postseason runs late in Jordan's career does not change my longstanding view about Jordan versus Bryant:
I have consistently said that I consider Jordan to be greater than Bryant both in terms of accomplishments and overall skill set. Bryant is gaining ground in the first category and is not real far behind in the second department but even after Bryant's "Jordanesque" playoff runs from 2008-10 I would still take Jordan over Bryant in both regards.

How the Lakers Performed in the 2009 and 2010 Playoffs when Kobe Bryant Reached Various Statistical Plateaus

A while back, Mike Wilbon went off on a tangent about how the Lakers were supposedly much better off when Bryant limited his field goal attempts below some arbitrary number that Wilbon selected. Wilbon apparently blindly equates field goal attempts with selfishness and he is oblivious to the fact that a player's total number of field goal attempts in a game may include half court heaves at the end of quarters (which means that in some games Bryant may have exceeded Wilbon's magic threshold simply by throwing the ball at the hoop just before the buzzer sounded, an action that had nothing whatsoever to do with how Bryant and the Lakers ran their offense during the course of the game). It simply is not logical or meaningful to try to evaluate a player's effectiveness and/or supposed selfishness by just counting how many times he shot the ball; in depth analysis must take into account what kind of defenses that player faced plus not only the overall quality of his teammates but also how those players performed during the games in question.

That said, Wilbon's assertion did not even pass the "smell test" for me: I have watched enough Lakers' games to know how often Bryant's teammates disappear and how many times Bryant has to shoulder a huge load in order to carry the Lakers to victory. Here is the Lakers' won/loss record during the 2009 and 2010 playoffs when Bryant reached various statistical plateaus:

Lakers' Record When Kobe Bryant...

Scored at least 30 points: 10-4 (.714) in the 2010 playoffs, 10-5 (.667) in the 2009 playoffs (20-9, .690 overall). Those numbers include a 5-0 record when Bryant scored at least 40 points (1-0 in 2010, 4-0 in 2009); during this time Bryant set the all-time NBA record for most consecutive 30 point games on the road in potential series-clinching situations.

Scored 29 or fewer points: 6-3 (.667) in the 2010 playoffs, 6-2 (.750) in the 2009 playoffs (12-5, .706 overall). The Lakers were just 4-3 (.571) in the 2010 playoffs when Bryant scored 24 or fewer points and they posted a 3-2 (.600) record in the 2009 playoffs under those conditions.

Had at least six assists: 6-4 (.600) in the 2010 playoffs, 7-2 (.778) in the 2009 playoffs (13-6, .684 overall).

Had five or fewer assists: 10-3 (.769) in the 2010 playoffs, 9-5 (.643) in the 2009 playoffs (19-8, .704 overall).

Committed at least four turnovers: 7-4 (.636) in the 2010 playoffs, 5-1 (.833) in the 2009 playoffs (12-5, .706 overall).

Committed three or fewer turnovers: 9-3 (.750) in the 2010 playoffs, 11-6 (.647) in the 2009 playoffs (20-9, .690 overall).

Shot at least .450 from the field: 9-5 (.643) in the 2010 playoffs, 12-2 (.857) in the 2009 playoffs (21-7, .750 overall).

Shot .449 or worse from the field: 7-2 (.778) in the 2010 playoffs, 4-5 (.444) in the 2009 playoffs (11-7, .611 overall).

If I did not understand statistics and/or had some kind of agenda, I would be tempted to say that the above numbers--particularly regarding assists--"prove" that the Lakers are better off when Bryant passes less frequently; of course, such a comment would ignore the perils of making broad conclusions based on a small sample size, it would disregard the very real possibility that Bryant's assist numbers may not be accurate (I have repeatedly documented numerous occasions involving other players when NBA scorekeepers handed out assists that do not meet the rulebook requirements) and--most significantly--it would reflect a simple-minded view of the game by suggesting that the complex interactions of 10 players can be understood by looking at one player's production in one statistical category.

Highlights from My Coverage of Kobe Bryant's Career


Kobe Bryant will be remembered as the best player and most consistent champion of the immediate "post Michael Jordan era"--and I am very proud of the extensive, in depth and objective coverage that I have provided about Bryant. While many members of the mainstream media wrongly blasted Bryant for supposedly breaking up the Lakers after the 2003-04 season--an incorrect assertion that has been repeatedly refuted not only by Bryant but also by Lakers owner Jerry Buss and even Shaquille O'Neal himself--I insisted that although the Miami Heat made a good short term move to acquire O'Neal the Lakers made a wise long term move to rebuild their franchise around the younger and more focused Bryant; those who say that the Lakers "lucked out" by acquiring Pau Gasol would also have to say that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson "lucked out" to spend their primes playing with multiple Hall of Famers. No player has ever singlehandedly won a championship in a team sport but most championship teams have one player who sets the tone with a combination of talent, work ethic, determination, leadership and clutch play.

Here are links to some articles that not only provide in depth analysis of Bryant's performance during the past several seasons but also address larger issues, including the limitations of basketball statistical analayis and how to properly evaluate players:

Kobe Scores 51 but the Lakers Play Like Zeroes (April 8, 2006):

The Phoenix Suns defeated the L.A. Lakers 107-96 on Friday night in an interesting showdown between two leading MVP candidates, the Suns' Steve Nash and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Nash led the Suns with 25 points and eight assists and he had a lot of help--six other Suns scored in double figures, including Leandro Barbosa, who contributed 23 points and five assists off the bench. Kobe Bryant scored a U.S. Airways Center record 51 points, shooting 19-33 from the field (including 5-11 from three point range) and 8-10 on free throws. He also had five rebounds and three assists.

Bryant is criticized for supposedly shooting too much and not making his teammates better but the more I watch this Lakers team the more I am convinced that he in fact is not shooting enough; the rest of the Lakers shot 18-49 from the field against Phoenix but that only tells part of the story. In one sequence Kwame Brown missed three straight point blank shots without once going up strong or drawing a foul. Later in the game Kobe found Smush Parker with a great pass only to have Parker shoot a soft attempt that Boris Diaw easily swatted away. Bryant is an excellent passer and delivers the ball equally well in drive and kick situations or when he is double-teamed. The reason that Bryant is not racking up huge assist totals is that when he drives and kicks to perimeter shooters (or dumps the ball into the post if the big man picks him up) his teammates squander these open opportunities. Bryant's passes out of double teams are usually followed by a second pass to the weak side for an open shot (which is often missed); in any case, unlike in hockey, basketball does not award an assist for the pass that leads to the pass that results in a score.


...Nash is a great player--a joy to watch--but Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA right now.

Don't Make Kobe Angry...You Won't Like Him When He's Angry (March 17, 2007):

If the MVP is supposed to be the best player on the best team, then Kobe Bryant will not get it this year. I think that the MVP should be awarded to the best player, period. Who is the player whose game is most complete, who cannot be guarded on offense and is an excellent defender as well? Is there another player in the NBA who can score 65 points in a game the way that Bryant did on Friday, with that shooting percentage, with that many fourth quarter and overtime points? Is there another player who can have such a game and NOT have it be the best game by far that he will ever play? Don't forget that Bryant scored 81 points in a game last season and had 62 points in three quarters last year versus the Mavericks, who later represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

I love Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Both players are fun to watch and either one will be a worthy MVP winner this season--but no one will ever convince me that Nash or Nowitzki is either "better" or "more valuable" than Bryant. Nowitzki and Nash are each surrounded by several players who are good or great. Bryant has no All-Star level teammates and his squad has been devastated by injuries. Yet, he remains completely unguardable and on any night that his team is even halfway healthy they can compete with anyone in the NBA; the Lakers own two wins over the Spurs this season (and a two point loss) and one versus Dallas--one of those teams will more than likely win the championship this year. What would Bryant do if he had some more talented teammates? We don't have to speculate about that because we already know--he won three championships when paired with Shaquille O'Neal and made a fourth Finals appearance. Exactly how many titles do Nash and Nowitzki have so far? None--and they actually played together for several seasons.


Choosing Kobe Over Shaq Looks Smarter Every Day (January 10, 2008--a month before the Lakers acquired Gasol):

Any thought that O'Neal and Wade would combine to win multiple titles turned out to be a pipe dream and, in retrospect, they are quite fortunate to have captured even one championship; don't forget that the Heat were down 2-0 to Dallas in the 2006 Finals and trailing deep into game three before Wade took over. O'Neal won three straight championships with Bryant and that total could easily have been greater if not for O'Neal's fateful decision to heal a 2002 toe injury "on company time," a choice that wrecked the 2002-03 season and effectively was the beginning of the end of the Lakers' run.

Meanwhile, the Lakers are currently a game and a half behind the Suns for first place in the Pacific Division. The Lakers have won both head to head meetings with the Suns and are increasingly being recognized as a legitimate Western Conference contender this season. ESPN ran an interesting graphic that indicates how much more depth the Lakers have now compared to recent seasons. In 2004-05, the Lakers went just 5-15 when Bryant scored fewer than 20 points. They went 1-3 in such games the next season and 5-7 in 2006-07--but so far in 2007-08 they are 8-1, a development that thrills Bryant, who had this to say after the Lakers' 109-80 win over the Hornets on Wednesday: "I'm not the guy who has to go out and score 35-something points. They come to me to get buckets when we need a little boost here and there and that's as it should be." Bryant had 19 points, seven rebounds and a game-high seven assists in that contest. For the past two seasons, Bryant was widely recognized by knowledgeable observers as the best player in the league but he did not win the MVP because his team did not win at least 50 games. The Lakers are currently on pace for 55 wins. Bryant's scoring average is down from his league-leading pace of the past two seasons but he still ranks third in the NBA in that category while topping the Lakers in assists and steals. Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team last year and said that his goal this season is to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. That honor has recently gone primarily to shotblocking big men but if Bryant continues to play this way and the Lakers go on to win 50-55 games there will be absolutely no excuse to not vote for him for MVP. It would be the height of irony--and stupidity--if the voters look more at Bryant's declining scoring average than the key role that he is playing in the Lakers' success.


Balky Back Slows Bryant as Jazz Beat Lakers in Overtime (May 12, 2008):

Prior to the game, Hubie Brown talked about how exceptionally well Bryant is playing during the postseason. Brown said that in addition to the great numbers Bryant is putting up, his decision making is off the charts; Brown broke down 48 possessions from game three in which Bryant was the primary ball handler and determined that Bryant made only three questionable decisions. Bryant is just the fourth Laker to start a playoff series with four straight 30 point games; Jerry West (twice), Shaquille O'Neal (twice) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the others. Bryant, a member of the elite "25-5-5" Club, is now the only player to ever have at least 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in five straight playoff games; Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson each did this in four straight playoff games, though both of their streaks spanned two separate playoff seasons.

Bryant Dominates Second Half as Lakers Erase 20 Point Deficit to Edge Spurs (May 22, 2008):

This game perfectly illustrates the truth of what I have been saying for several years about Kobe Bryant: he is the best player in the NBA because he has no weaknesses and he therefore presents more problems to a defense than any other player (and he also is a perennial member of the All-Defensive First Team as voted on by the league's head coaches). LeBron James--the second best player in the NBA--has largely shored up his weaknesses on defense but he is a subpar free throw shooter who has an inconsistent three point shot and a poor midrange game. He also is not a great postup player despite his size and athleticism. James has an amazing ability to drive to the hoop, accept contact and score but because the other parts of his scoring arsenal are incomplete it is possible for a great defensive team that has the right game plan to slow him down. James shot .356 from the field and committed 23 turnovers (5.8 per game) in last year's NBA Finals versus the Spurs and he shot .355 from the field while committing 37 turnovers (5.3 per game) versus the Celtics in this year's Eastern Conference Finals. His poor shooting percentages and high turnover rates in those two series happened because both teams built a wall around the paint to minimize his driving opportunities while defending him softly on the perimeter, clogging his passing lanes and allowing him to shoot long jumpers that he missed with regularity. It can be said that James' passing ability makes his teammates better, though I prefer to say that a great player like James draws attention and thus gives his teammates opportunities to do what they do well. However, it can also be said that James' inability to make outside shots permits defenders to better guard against his passes and in that sense he is making his teammates worse or, as I would put it, not giving them as many opportunities to do what they do well.

Shaq Versus Kobe (Again) (June 24, 2008):

Shaq should be careful when he brings up the subject of who could "do without" whom. There have been just eight NBA Finals sweeps in six decades but O'Neal was victimized in one of them (1995) and would have suffered a second one in 2004 if Kobe had not hit a game-saving three pointer and then dominated the overtime session in game two. Shaq's teams have been swept out of the playoffs six times (1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2007), which certainly contradicts Shaq's self-serving "Most Dominant Ever" proclamations. The "Most Dominant Ever" can't get even one win in six different playoff series? Shaq has a 1-8 record in his last nine playoff games and, although I certainly don't think that he is primarily responsible for Phoenix' first round ouster this season, it is worth noting that the Suns went further in the playoffs without him the past several years than they did with him this year.

Kobe Bryant: Perception Versus Reality (March 10, 2009):

The idea that Bryant suddenly learned last season how to trust his teammates is ridiculous; contrasting his famous scoring outbursts--such as his 81 point game--with his current scoring average is asinine: who, exactly, should Bryant have "trusted" three years ago versus Toronto when the Lakers were trailing by nearly 20 points and needed a superhuman performance in order to get back in the game? If Bryant had eschewed shooting the ball 25-30 times a game in order to pass more often to Kwame Brown and Smush Parker that would have been stupid, selfish basketball because it would not have increased his team's likelihood of winning--but when Bryant is paired with someone who can catch the ball and make plays, the result is beautiful. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol screen/roll play turned into a deadly weapon almost immediately after Gasol joined the Lakers last season; Bryant is a great screen/roll player who fully understands how to make correct reads under pressure and make the open jumper, attack quickly when there is a driving lane or make the right pass, whether it involves feeding a cutting Gasol, hitting Lamar Odom flashing to the high post or skipping the ball to an open three point shooter on the backside of the play.

Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0 (April 4, 2009):

As for Morey's contention that James is the best player in the NBA, I said last year that it was close between Bryant and James but that I gave the edge to Bryant. This year, it has again been close--contrary to what you may have heard--but since the All-Star break I thought that James had pulled slightly ahead. However, there is a reason that I don't believe in making definitive statements about close contests before those contests are over. It seemed like James and the Cavs had the league's best record all sewn up but now they have dropped two games in a row, enabling the Lakers to pull to within one game of the Cavs (and the Lakers own the tiebreak thanks to sweeping the season series).

Although I respect Morey's overall approach to statistics as described in the New York Times article, we need to completely put to rest the ideas that Shane Battier is some kind of Kobe Bryant stopper and that "advanced" statistics have given the Rockets an advantage versus Bryant. Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).


Maestro Bryant Orchestrates Lakers' Championship, Wins Finals MVP (June 15, 2009):

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.

NBA Truths (February 5, 2010):

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.

Appendix: Quotes by and about Kobe Bryant:

Early in his career, Bryant got tagged with the "selfish" label and his critics were at full throat during the 2004-05 season; during the middle of that campaign, I asked Fred Carter--a former NBA player and coach--what he thought about Bryant's game and I reported his answers in one of my first articles for HoopsHype.com. Carter completely rejected the notion that Bryant is selfish:

For some people perception is reality. The echoed word becomes the accepted word. It becomes the choice phrase. But he won titles and he does get the assists. He does get steals and he does get blocks. He's not a guy who just plays on the offensive end. What happens is that people have the tendency to echo the words of everyone else. It's unfortunate.

Despite all of the unwarranted criticism that Bryant received, he always remained upbeat and confident:

The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right.

In December 2007, I spoke with then-Suns President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Steve Kerr in December 2007 and he told me a very interesting anecdote that then-Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni had mentioned to Kerr about Bryant's role for Team USA:

Prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" In other words, Bryant wanted to know who was the toughest perimeter threat on each team so that he could study his tendencies on film and then completely neutralize him on the court. I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target" and Kerr replied, "Yeah--and he was serious." Kerr went on to say that Bryant's "focus" and "bravado" added an essential missing element to the squad and elevated everyone else's play. Kerr noted that the previous Team USA squad had performed reasonably well other than the infamous loss to Greece but that it lacked a certain "swagger," as he termed it, and that Team USA did not have a "player who everyone feared." Kerr literally shook his head in wonderment as he described Bryant's impact on Team USA.

Bryant dropped 49 points on the Nuggets in a 2008 playoff game and then uttered this classic line (in reference to some trash talking directed toward him by J.R. Smith):

Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out.

Chris Broussard made an interesting comment in his June 15, 2010 "Daily Dime" article:

...some coaches, executives and scouts within the league believe that Kobe is equal to if not better than Jordan. They say he's a better shooter and ball handler. One of Jordan's former teammates once strongly implied to me that Kobe was MJ's superior.

"All I know is Mike never scored 81 points in a game," he said. "And believe me, he tried."


Shortly after the 2010 Finals ended, Charley Rosen offered an incisive take on the difference between Kobe Bryant and Lebron James:

Kobe is better than LeBron for many more reasons that his five championship rings — he knows how to play the game while LBJ only knows how to fill up a stat sheet.

However, as far as the universal belief that LeBron’s teammates have always been inadequate, let me remind you of the following: Mo Williams, Shaq, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Ricky Davis, Damon Jones, Flip Murray, Drew Gooden, Joe Smith, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. When these guys joined up with LeBron, they were touted as being just the players who would make a perfect fit with James and push the Cavs over the top. Although several of the aforementioned were well past their respective primes, mostly notably Shaq and Smith, several were certified All-Stars and all were well-respected by diligent NBA watchers. But when the Cavs failed to go all the way, the retrospective wisdom in some quarters was that the team’s failures could be pinned on the newcomers.

This is utter nonsense.

The truth is that the way LBJ plays the game makes his teammates worse instead of better. He is either incapable of, or resistant to, playing in a structured offensive system, one that isn’t primarily based on his having the ball on a string.

Forget about his assist totals. He accumulates dimes because he’s a very good passer and because he controls the ball. But how often does LeBron deliberately throw a pass that leads to somebody else making an assist pass? Or LeBron do anything significant without the ball except making dive cuts or (seldom) settling into the low post?

On those rare occasions when it’s somebody else’s turn to go one-on-one or use a screen, LeBron usually stands idly by somewhere on the weak side. For the most part, he’s either a spectator or makes spectators of his teammates.

Until he learns how to play five-man basketball, LeBron will pile up impressive numbers and MVP trophies, but never win a championship.

Here is what Jerry West recently told Sports Illustrated's Dan Patrick about Kobe Bryant's place in history:

Kobe Bryant is the greatest Laker to ever play. Period. I love Magic Johnson and his contribution, but Magic Johnson had a lot more help, to be honest with you. He played, sometimes, with five All-Stars. Kobe Bryant is just a different talent. He will go down as one of the two or three greatest players of all time, I think. His ability to do things that other people can't do, his ability to win games late, his defensive ability. He has an all-around game. When you look at him, you don't see what's inside. And I think that's what really sets the great ones apart.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 AM

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31 Comments:

At Thursday, June 24, 2010 9:35:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

David,

i really hate these comparisons, but i understand why you find it necessary to do so, considering they are simply inescapable.

If people are going to compare the two then they should really consider also the different rules they were playing with and the quality of opponent (which to a large extent is quality of coaching).

Jordan played under rules that favored the defense a lot more than the current rules that turned Nash into a 2(!) time MVP. Also it seems to me that the quality of play has deteriorated - although maybe that is entirely subjective.

Because of this i think it is doubtful that the current Laker team would have been able to beat the opponents the Bulls had to face (also - the Bulls were a much more intelligent team and probably more talented - the Lakers have no one like Paxson or Kerr)

And another totally unrelated point: Gasol is considered soft and always will be because he flinches and cringes every time he goes up in a crowd. He is screaming bloody murder and flailing before, during and after every shot in a crowd. Personally, I hate that. I don't care how skilled the guy is -enough with the theatrics already...

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 12:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcel

bird magic and jordan were loved people kobe bryant is not a loved person so if you dont like a guy human tendency is to try to diminsh him, plus you have alot people who are on espn and media people and even former players who are influnced by media who do not understand basketball so they say stuff as you pointed out in the article that dont make sense.

With that said bird magic and jordan had bad series i still dont believe kobe is on that level yet close to bird and magic more than he is mike but he is not as good as micheal jordan clearly the closest thing to him the last 12 years since his real retirement but not as good and i dont think he could ever match him in accomplishments or skill set mike isnt way better as alot of blinded jordan fans still will say because they refuse to say anybody could ever be close to mike but i think mike will always be at least a little better he was more athletic had bigger hands so that helped him grip the ball etc.

mike had 6 finals mvp kobe got 2 mike 5 mvp kobe 1 dpoy i know youre a big kobe guy but i just dont see how he can ever be better if you look at it objectively he close but not as good.

far as magic bird he could after a title next year be on par with both of them i think if you look at skill set and accomplishments but not wilt russ or mike ill put him in the top 5 if he win a title next year i got him 7 or 8 right now.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 3:26:00 PM, Blogger gotgame740 said...

This is an excellent article. You debunk most of the myths in the NBA. The Kobe/MJ/Lebron comparison is priceless

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 4:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

What I "hate" is when these comparisons are made by people who don't know what they are talking about; that is why I started the article by pointing out that as great as Bird, Magic and MJ were they missed shots and made mistakes.

When I wrote my Pantheon series I did not try to determine who is the greatest player of all-time but rather to educate readers about the accomplishments of several players who clearly rank among the greatest. That is my preferred approach when comparing players across generations (as opposed to comparing players from the same era who compete under the same circumstances and face each other directly at times).

Prior to doing this article I have never really said much at length regarding MJ-Kobe comparisons; I think that I wrote more about that subject in "comments" sections in response to some of my articles than anywhere else. I had several reasons for avoiding the subject:

1) As you mentioned, MJ and Kobe largely played in different eras (even though their careers briefly overlapped) with different rules and different levels of competition.

2) MJ clearly has had the more "accomplished" career than Kobe (though Kobe has narrowed that gap somewhat in the past three years) and in my opinion MJ has the skill set advantage, though not a huge one.

3) It just made more sense to compare Kobe to players he is actually playing against and competing with for MVP honors (Nash, LeBron, Nowitzki, etc.) than to compare him to any retired players.

However, whether I chose to do so or not, seemingly everyone else has an opinion about MJ versus Kobe, Magic versus Kobe, etc. Therefore, now seemed like a good time to offer an objective and logical take on these issues.

Regarding Gasol, I do not really judge him on his mannerisms/body language but I understand the point that you are making.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 4:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

I agree with you that likeability--or perceived likeability--has an unfortunate impact on the way that many people rank the greatest players.

Although--as I mentioned in my response to Yogi--I am not big on trying to produce so-called definitive rankings of all-time greats I think that one could make a good case that Bryant has already passed both Bird and Magic. Bryant's skill set is certainly more complete than Bird's; Kobe is a top notch two-way player, while Bird was a defensive liability in one on one situations, though Bird was a good "team" defender. In his "first" career Kobe matched Bird in terms of winning three championships and now in his "second" career Kobe has added two more rings plus a Finals appearance with a team that has much less talent than Bird's Celtics did. As for Magic, Jerry West himself made the point that Magic had much more help than Kobe does. Like Bird, Magic was a great offensive player and a good team defender but not a one on one defensive stopper.

I am not saying that Kobe is definitely greater than Bird or Magic and I could also make some arguments from the other side but the point is simply that a good case could already be made for Kobe in both of those matchups. I grew up watching Bird and Magic, so I fully understand that many people will never give Kobe the edge against their childhood heroes but it is important to look at things objectively.

Kobe will never catch MJ in terms of MVPs/scoring titles and I give MJ the slight edge in terms of skill sets but what will be fascinating to watch in the next several years is how many championships and Finals MVPs Kobe adds. What if Kobe ends up with six, seven or eight rings and a total of three, four or five Finals MVPs? If that happens, Kobe will have had a much better second half of his career than MJ had; I think that if Kobe leads the Lakers to four championships in a row--something that has not happened in the NBA since Bill Russell's Celtics won eight straight--then one could make a case that Kobe surpassed MJ. I am not saying that this will happen--frankly, it looks improbable considering that it has not been done for four decades--but it is interesting to think about.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 4:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Gotgame740:

Thank you.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 6:14:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Terrific article. Will be a staple in my bookmarks from here until you compile the definitive one when Kobe retires. Cheers to a fantastic season of writing and, more importantly, reporting on the NBA.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 6:48:00 PM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David
I agree, the media would never rank Kobe over Bird or Magic because of hero worship. When asked if theres anything kobe could do to overtake Magic, Wilbon(who doesnt know the game by the way) flat out said : "No!".
But there is article written on NBA.com where the writer said that he doesn't understand the reaction over Kobe's game 7 and went on to say other stars(Tim Duncan, MJ, Magic, Larry...) also had bad shootin nights on decisive games.

This is why I dont understand all the rage about stats. Fact is, more than half the stat gurus don't know anything about the game. A lot of there views are dictated by stats. If they can't find a way to validate something that happened during a game with stats, then they'll either dismiss it or recognize it as an anomaly. That is why i find it alarming that some teams are switching to stats as their main tool for scouting.

On Kobe: Jerry Buss knew what he was doing when he traded Shaq. I found it amusing when Wilbon was commenting on how West was ahead of bryant in Lakers lore, only to be informed right after that West himself said Kobe is the best laker ever. He stuttered a bit then said he didnt care what west thought...

on Byron scott: I hope Lakers do not hire Byron Scott as replacement for Phil Jackson. He is a buddy coach and the lakers do not need that. I watched him on the sidelines for the Hornets enough times to know that the lakers dont need him. As a matter of fact, I'd rank Alvin Gentry ahead of him as a head coach. In fact, I think the Lakers should contact Jeff Van Gundy but he'd have to use the Triangle. In fact the next Laker head coach has to use the Triangle.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

Thank you.

 
At Thursday, June 24, 2010 10:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

Wilbon is a very good general sports columnist but ESPN has miscast him as an NBA expert, much like Kornheiser is an outstanding general sports columnist but he was miscast as a Monday Night Football commentator.

I think that stats can be a helpful tool when used properly but, at least in basketball, they are more meaningful on a team basis than on an individual basis; there is some value in knowing how certain five man combinations perform against other five man combinations but I do not trust "advanced basketball statistics" as an accurate tool to rank players individually because the stats are not able to break down why things happen. For instance, if Kobe draws two defenders and passes to Gasol who then gets an assist by feeding Derek Fisher for a corner three pointer, Kobe has literally no statistical value on this play while Gasol gets an assist and Fisher improves his shooting percentage--yet the whole action was created because the defense had to trap Kobe. I can understand why some teams use stats like "adjusted plus/minus" to evaluate the effectiveness of various five man combinations but it would be foolish to use any of the individual player rating systems as one's main tool to rank players; the "stat gurus" have yet to figure out how to correctly apportion individual credit. Also, as I have mentioned many times, there is far too much subjectivity in the recording of many of the "boxscore stats" that form the basis for the creation of "advanced stats."

Scott is no Phil Jackson but that could be said of every coach in the NBA. Scott is a solid NBA head coach. Gentry is not on the market, so from the Lakers' perspective it does not matter if he is a better coach than Scott. Buss has never been a big fan of the Triangle and I suspect that if Jackson retires the Lakers will hire a coach who does not use the Triangle.

 
At Saturday, June 26, 2010 1:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David, one of my friends pointed me to your site. I spent the next 4 hours reading your articles. You are definitely a breath of fresh air in NBA analysis.

Maybe I'm showing my age but God, I just love the way you put together an article. Reminds me of college English. Literate, logical, thought-out, supported throughout by facts. You're the best writer I've read in a long time and I don't limit that to just sports journalism.

On an unrelated note, coming off a championship season, there is much talk among Lakers fans about a potential Bynum for Bosh trade.

I would greatly like to hear your perspective on the pros and cons of such a deal.

Thanks again and please keep up the good work, I regularly check your site now

Dennis

 
At Saturday, June 26, 2010 4:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dennis:

Thank you very much. I truly wish that you were an editor at ESPN.com, NBA.com or one of the other "mainstream" sports sites, because the current editors there apparently do not share your sensibilities regarding quality writing.

Bosh's contract is significantly larger than Bynum's, so other players/considerations would have to be included to make such a deal work; also, there is every reason to believe that Bosh is going to opt out of his contract which could result in other salary cap implications to any potential sign and trade deal. I am not a "salary capologist," though, so I will restrict my response to your question to purely looking at Bosh for Bynum in terms of how such a trade would affect each team on the court.

The obvious "pro" for the Lakers is that they would acquire a legit All-Star level player who has been much more durable than Bynum; the "con" for the Lakers would be that either Bosh or, more likely, Gasol would have to play center. Gasol and Bosh are both lanky, finesse-oriented players, so a Gasol-Bosh duo would not be as big or as physical as a Bynum-Gasol duo. Gasol and Bosh essentially play the same position, so I am not sure that this deal makes a lot of sense for the Lakers even though Bosh is a more talented player than Bynum. The only reason for the Lakers to do this would be if they simply do not believe that Bynum will ever consistently be able to play a full season at a reasonably high level. As for Toronto, the Raptors would be getting the short end of the stick in terms of talent and durability, so this deal makes even less sense for them unless it would be part of a sign and trade scenario with the alternative being losing Bosh for nothing--and even in that case, the Raptors might be better served simply using the money they would have spent on Bosh to acquire someone other than Bynum who might better fit into their overall scheme.

I don't think that a Bosh-Bynum trade is very likely to happen.

 
At Saturday, June 26, 2010 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great read- nice to have you back

 
At Sunday, June 27, 2010 2:39:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

David, could you clarify exactly what your pantheon is supposed to signify? As I understood it before, it's the collection of 10 or so players in NBA history who you feel could legitimately be described as the "best" player of all time. Based upon this post and the comments section, however, it seems like you have an ordering within your pantheon. For instance, you say that a good case can be made that Kobe has surpassed Bird and Johnson, but not so with Jordan.

I disagree that Kobe must reach a magical number of six (seven) championships to be considered equal to (greater than) MJ. And I disagree with anyone who says that if Kobe gets to seven that he will definitely have surpassed MJ. What if the Lakers never upgraded their talent after the 2006-07 season and Kobe never got back to the Finals? He would have been the same exact player, but we wish to believe that off-court moves that have nothing to do with Kobe should affect his historical ranking. What matters is what a player does in the situation he is in.

I wish Jerry West and other people who compare Kobe favorably to Magic Johnson (or others) because Magic played with better players would take into account the context. It is true that Magic usually had a better supporting cast than what Kobe has had. However, it is also true that the competition that Magic's teams faced had more talent than the competition that Kobe's teams have faced. The Celtics had HOFers Bird, McHale, Parish, Johnson, and some pretty good players in Maxwell, Ainge, etc. The 76ers had Dr. J and Moses Malone, plus Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks (who have gotten HOF consideration), and Andrew Toney (who probably would be in the HOF if not for injuries). Before Moses arrived, they had a decent center combination of Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins and some other solid players who later left (Lionel Hollins, Henry Bibby, Steve Mix, etc.). Even the second-tier teams of the 80s who never made it to the finals (like the Mavs or Bucks) had multiple all-stars. Magic played in a different era and people should remember that.

I'm not necessarily disputing the opinion that Kobe has equaled or surpassed Magic, just the reasoning used by West and others.


On MJ vs. Kobe: I agree with you that MJ was a better finisher at the rim and Kobe was a better long range shooter. I'm somewhat surprised that you consider MJ better from mid-range. Are you basing that on stats or is that just your impression or what? I'm just curious. I think MJ was a little more athletic than Kobe and would add that to the bigger hands in explaining why he was better going to the hoop. Anyway, in the end, I don't know if I agree that Kobe definitely falls short of MJ in terms of overall skill set. I honestly think it is like splitting hairs. It's too close for me to call.


Some other moments we'd "never" see from Magic, Larry, or Michael:

Magic's air-ball at the end of the elimination game of the 1981 first round (after breaking a play designed to go into Kareem no less).

Nick Anderson picking MJ's pocket in 1995. Yes, I know this doesn't "count" since MJ had come back late in the season (even though he was still good enough to put up spectacular playoff numbers that matched his usual output). But I could probably cook up a reason why a performance doesn't "count" for any given player.

I don't have the numbers handy, but I think Bird shot a horrendous percentage against Detroit in the 1988 ECF.

 
At Sunday, June 27, 2010 4:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

You are correct that my Pantheon series designates 10 players who each could arguably be called the greatest player of all-time but that the series does not rank those 10 players; I also did an additional Pantheon piece about the "modern era" (the 10 Pantheon players were all retired by the time I started the project), listing four active players who I considered to be most likely to attain Pantheon-level status without ranking those players: Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, LeBron.

My viewpoint has not changed about those 10 retired players or about the Pantheon-worthy status of the four active players mentioned above. All I am saying regarding Kobe is that while I get the sense that many people consider it some form of basketball "heresy" to even mention him in the same sentence with Magic, Bird and MJ the reality is that one could already make a solid case that Kobe has surpassed Magic and Bird; as I indicated, it would also be possible to make a solid case for Magic and Bird versus Kobe. This is just another way of saying that there should be no doubt that Kobe is worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence with Magic and Bird. While I did not explicitly rank players in the Pantheon, I have always said (outside of the context of the Pantheon articles) that I rank MJ ahead of Kobe; all I am saying now is that it is easier to make a logical case for Kobe being greater than Magic and Bird than it is to make a logical case for Kobe being greater than MJ. I have no intention of actually doing an article in which I will rank the top 10, 20 or 30 players of all-time in order but, like everyone else, I naturally have some opinions about the subject; while a legitimate "greatest player of all-time" case could be made for any member of my Pantheon, I think it is clear that the case for some players is a bit stronger than others. Putting it another way, MJ and Kobe are both exceptional two-way players, which is not something that can accurately be said of Magic and Bird.

 
At Sunday, June 27, 2010 4:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Regarding Kobe, MJ and what it means to win "X" number of championships, I am largely in agreement with your viewpoint that players in team sports should not be judged solely or even primarily by how many championships they win. What I have said about MJ and Kobe is that I slightly prefer MJ's skill set and I also consider MJ to be more "accomplished" (more MVPs, more scoring titles, more Finals MVPs, more championships, etc.). While championships are not the only relevant factor I also don't think that they should just be dismissed out of hand and I do consider Kobe to be more "accomplished" now than I did three years ago. I am NOT saying that Kobe is a better player now in terms of skill set but it seems odd to me to simply ignore the fact that in the past three years he won one regular season MVP, two Finals MVPs and two championships. Those are meaningful accomplishments and just because I don't hold it against Elgin Baylor that he never won a ring and I don't hold it against Wilt Chamberlain that he "only" won two rings that does not mean that I just ignore championships completely. LeBron James played on the team with the NBA's best record the past two seasons but Kobe Bryant led his team to the championship both years; that may not mean everything but it means something.

I don't know if "Hot Spot" numbers even exist dating back to MJ's career; my statement about his midrange game being a bit superior to Kobe's is based on my observations. MJ had a nice midrange jumper even at UNC (remember the shot that he hit to beat Georgetown) and he just got better and better at that shot as his NBA career progressed. Kobe is of course quite proficient from that area, too, so perhaps I am "splitting hairs." I agree with you that MJ versus Kobe is a close call but I'd go with MJ; as I indicated, though, it is starting to seem like Kobe will have a stronger finishing kick than MJ did in terms of individual productivity and even possibly in terms of winning championships.

You are right that not only did Magic have more help than Kobe but he also went against teams that were more talented/deeper. This is a good example of why I do not plan to ever "rank" my Pantheon players; it makes much more sense to compare Kobe to LeBron (they are playing against each other and against the same opponents using the same rules) than it does to compare Kobe to retired greats.

I could have cited other moments from Bird, Magic and MJ's careers but I thought that the ones I selected were most relevant in terms of the unfair criticisms that are lobbed at Kobe. By leaving out Nick Anderson's steal I was not suggesting that this moment "did not count"; I just think that comparing Kobe from 2008-2010 to MJ from 1996-98 makes more sense: MJ's second "three-peat" and Kobe's second "near three-peat" (which could still potentially become a three-peat).

 
At Sunday, June 27, 2010 5:46:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Thought you might find this story about Kobe and Lionel Messi interesting:

http://g.sports.yahoo.com/soccer/world-cup/news/how-kobe-inspired-a-young-messi--fbintl_ro-kobemessi062610.html

In this post (as you have before), you noted the huge effect that Kobe had the USA Olympic team, and this anecdote about Messi just adds to the point about Kobe as a leader and a person who seems to just exude intensity and dedication to his craft.

 
At Monday, June 28, 2010 1:30:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Hey David,

With the Lakers looking for a backup point guard and also looking to trade Odom because of his up-and-down performance last season, is it out of the question or realm of feasibility to think that Odom could be the backup or even starting point guard next year? With Kobe basically facilitating the offense (and Sasha with decent handles off the bench), could the Lakers go to a zone defense with Odom at the top? Am I way off based here? I know Lamar can't shoot threes, but he'd cause a great deal of matchup problems on offense, and he's long, athletic and quick enough to play the top in a 3-2 zone defense. Thoughts?

 
At Monday, June 28, 2010 5:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

Although Odom played some "point forward" earlier in his career (which is not at all the same thing as actually playing point guard and being matched up with pgs at both ends of the court) he is most suited to playing power forward now because his best and most consistent skill is rebounding.

NBA teams use zone defenses as a change of pace tactic or to guard against inbound plays in the frontcourt but I do not believe that you can win consistently at the NBA level by primarily playing zone defense.

Therefore, I do not think that it is realistic to believe that the Lakers can play Odom at point guard and/or rely heavily on using zone defenses.

 
At Monday, June 28, 2010 7:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A completely overlooked part of Bryant's career is that he has played with 4 of the best role players of the last 2 decades. None of them are even third options and likely aren't even as good as Coop [Harper maybe] but:

Harper, Grant, Horry, Fisher.

And all of them played together with Kobe on the 01 team that crushed the playoffs only losing one game in OT in the finals.

Combined they have 21 rings and 25 finals appearances.

 
At Tuesday, June 29, 2010 12:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't think that these role players have been "completely overlooked." Fisher and Horry in particular have received a lot of positive coverage during recent seasons. Grant actually made the All-Star team during his prime, while Harper was an All-Star caliber player prior to blowing out his knee.

 
At Thursday, July 01, 2010 12:47:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Thanks for the clarification.

I do not believe that championships should be dismissed, just that things should be considered in proper context. If a great player plays on a championship caliber team, then winning a championship (or not) should absolutely be taken into account.

It is true that LeBron James played the last two years on a championship caliber team. Based on what happened in the 2009 playoffs, however, I cannot blame LeBron for the Cavs falling short that year. His teammates simply didn't play as well against Orlando as they had played for most of the year. I think LeBron did everything one could expect a great player to do. I still believe LeBron played as well in the 2009 playoffs as I've ever seen anyone play. The 2010 playoffs are a different story. Although some of his teammates disappeared again, I think LeBron could have done more. I'm much more open to holding the 2010 playoffs against LeBron than the 2009 playoffs.

I don't think there is an objective way to rank the best basketball players in history. I think identifying a small group of the very best (as you do with your pantheon) is the most sensible approach. If I had to narrow it down a little more, I'd select the players from your pantheon with the most complete skill sets (Wilt, Kareem, MJ, and Oscar). I don't think I could go beyond that (and one could argue that a more complete skill set does not always mean better). As you mentioned in a more recent post, how do you compare a center to a guard? How do you choose between Wilt's strength, rebounding and defense, and Kareem's finesse and clutch shooting? It's tough to compare Robertson and Jordan when Robertson played most of his career on inferior teams and didn't have an opportunity to compile a lengthy playoff record. On top of all that, there's the issue of a lack film footage to assess older players.

It's striking how closely Kobe from 2008-2010 and MJ from 1996-1998 match up. MJ was 33-35 years old during that stretch while Kobe was 29-31 (although his birthday is not long after the end of the season). I think Kobe's athleticism started to diminish at an earlier age than it did for MJ. On the other hand, Kobe came to the NBA straight out of high school and played a lot more games than most past greats had by similar ages. MJ also retired for a year and a half. It will be interesting to see if Kobe can maintain his level of play for the next couple of years.

 
At Friday, July 02, 2010 1:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I completely agree with your assessment of Lebron James' playoff performances the past two seasons.

The age difference between MJ 1996-98 and Kobe 2008-10 is mitigated by a factor that Indiana Jones famously mentioned in Raiders of the Lost Ark: "It's not the years, it's the mileage." Kobe has logged more regular season and playoff minutes than Jordan had by the end of the '98 season--and, as you often emphasize, unlike MJ Kobe did not have a year and a half away from the NBA in which he could rest his body to some degree (MJ was not completely resting, but playing minor league baseball is less strenuous than playing NBA basketball).

Rightly or wrongly, MJ really boosted his iconic status--i.e., the way that he is perceived and the way that he is discussed with reverence--by winning three straight championships after his first retirement. I think that to some degree Kobe has already changed the way that he is perceived and talked about by winning championships in 2009 and 2010; if Kobe adds more rings to his collection then his reputation will be similarly enhanced.

 
At Saturday, July 03, 2010 2:28:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It is true that in past discussions I've suggested that Jordan's retirements might have enhanced his image and allowed him to play at a higher level late in his career by saving him from wear and tear. However, that's not something I was trying to emphasize in my previous post. The only reason I brought up Jordan's first retirement was to identify it, along with Kobe jumping from high school to the NBA, as reasons why Kobe has as many games under his belt now as Jordan did at a much later age.

You are right, Kobe has already changed the way he is perceived to some degree. It is funny listening to some of the commentators who were often unfairly critical of Kobe in the past. Now they are talking about what LeBron has to do to reach Kobe's status.

 
At Saturday, July 03, 2010 2:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Yes, it is funny to see how some people have "shifted the goalposts" (to mix sports metaphors) in terms of ranking Kobe/LeBron. I do my best to consistently apply the same standards/methodologies and not overreact to one game, one series or even one season. LeBron is still a great player, but he did not distinguish himself by the way he performed versus Boston. Kobe is still a player who has the game's most complete skill set and this season he added to his already impressive list of accomplishments but did not fundamentally alter the way that I perceive/rank him, though winning another title/Finals MVP has set up the intriguing possibility that the "second act" of Kobe's career will equal or perhaps surpass the "second act" of MJ's career.

 
At Monday, July 05, 2010 2:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

i was reading a column and a guy said jordan was better than kobe which i believe. but he said it was by a wide margin, for the simple fact kobe played with 2 big guys in shaq and gasol and jordan didnt. and also stated even though pipen was better than gasol he doesnt have the impact a big man has on the game. far as altering shots, length, blocking shots etc, but didnt dennis rodman have a great impact on the game with all his rebounding and extra oppourtunites he gave jordan.

 
At Tuesday, July 06, 2010 1:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

In general, big men do have a greater impact on a basketball game than smaller men but Pippen is a Top 50 player who really ranks among the top 25 or so; during MJ's brief minor league baseball career Pip proved that he could be an MVP level player on a championship contending team. Pip made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams numerous times and is clearly a superior player to Gasol.

As for MJ and Kobe's other teammates, I already discussed that subject here, coming to this conclusion:

"It is evident that the Bryant-Gasol-Odom trio hardly stands above Jordan-Pippen-Grant/Rodman, Olajuwon-Drexler-Horry, O'Neal-Bryant-Rice and Duncan-Parker-Ginobili.

At best, Bryant-Gasol-Odom ranks in the middle of the pack among championship trios in the past 19 years, primarily because the top two players in most of the other trios are all-time greats or at the very least perennial All-Stars, neither of which is true of Gasol."

 
At Wednesday, July 07, 2010 4:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

david i agree with that theory for the most part the weak link would be odom, but i can make a case over oneal bryant rice and hakeem drexler horry but not pip jordan rodman. i mean i would take 2010 gasol over 95 drexler and odom over horry. and gasol 2010 over 2000 kobe, but your saying career i agree gasol is not had a good enough career as kobe with shaq drex or pip.


gotta ask you what is your take on the lebron 1 hour special. he seems to be a guy who loves attention i never thought he was this type of person, this is crazy to me. and how many diffrent predictions has chris broussard he said chicago, ny , cleveland miami was all locks.

espn has became tmz to me with this, i know you dont love off topic stuff im just asking.

 
At Wednesday, July 07, 2010 5:51:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

@anonymous,

Chris Broussard is a buster. Don't listen to anything he says. The way ESPN parades his opinion like it actually carries weight is sad and, like you said, TMZ-like. But, this is also the same network that feasts off of Bill Simmons' entertainment drivel like he's an expert on sports. Bill Simmons is actually more well-suited to writing for TMZ.

 
At Wednesday, July 07, 2010 10:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel/West Coast Slant:

I agree that ESPN's coverage is TMZ-like; my opinions about the flaws of the mainstream media are well documented, so I don't think that I need to say anything more on that subject at this point.

Regarding LeBron, I just did a CavsNews article providing my analysis about what his decision will reveal about his priorities. I still think that he will re-sign with Cleveland but this whole process has been such a three ring circus that literally anything seems possible at this point.

 
At Thursday, November 10, 2011 12:40:00 PM, Anonymous 3xAmazing said...

Just found this link on Forum Blue & Gold. Excellent article. Especially with the number of people willing to hate on Kobe and the Lakers on a regular basis, it's refreshing to see positive, and relatively unbiased, article.

 

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