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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 single-handedly 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