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Friday, January 20, 2012

Kobe Bryant Versus LeBron James: The Non-Rivalry Rivalry

The Kobe Bryant-LeBron James head to head rivalry is unlikely to be remembered as one of the great battles in NBA history; the only thing that could turn this around is if they face each other at least once in the NBA Finals but after James blew two opportunities to advance to the NBA Finals when his Cleveland Cavaliers had the best record in the NBA (and would have faced Bryant's L.A. Lakers) in 2009 and 2010 it does not seem likely that such a matchup will ever take place. Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell was a great head to head rivalry because they faced each other in 142 games (regular season and playoffs combined) and their teams clashed in the playoffs in eight of the 10 seasons that they were both in the league. Magic Johnson-Larry Bird was not much of a regular season rivalry but their teams squared off in three memorable NBA Finals (Johnson secured a 2-1 head to head advantage in those series when his Lakers defeated Bird's Boston Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals) while battling for overall supremacy during the 1980s (Johnson also won that battle, claiming five championships to Bird's three). Julius Erving-Larry Bird was an an extremely underrated rivalry; they squared off in 44 regular season games and four playoff series from 1980-87 and either Erving's Philadelphia 76ers or Bird's Celtics won the Eastern Conference championship in each of those seasons.

Bryant and James have not battled each other for championships directly or indirectly; Bryant has won five titles--including two during James' career--while James has only made it to the NBA Finals twice, winning a grand total of two games. They only face each other twice per season and, except for hype and bragging rights, there never has really been much at stake during those games (in terms of playoff positioning). James' teams have dominated Bryant's teams 11-5 and James has posted better individual statistics than Bryant in those games but that is a small sample size (Bird and Erving faced each other nearly three times as often in the regular season and also squared off four times in the Eastern Conference Finals) that is skewed by two factors that generally are not mentioned when mainstream media outlets discuss the head to head encounters between Bryant and James:

1) Bryant's Lakers have advanced to the NBA Finals four times and won two championships since James entered the league in 2003-04 so one might assume that Bryant generally had the better team around him but because Bryant and James have only squared off in the regular season it is important to distinguish between the regular season and the playoffs; Bryant has enjoyed much more individual and collective postseason success than James but from 2004-2011 James' teams had better regular season records than Bryant's teams six out of eight times. James' teams have usually been better in the regular season than Bryant's teams, so in that sense it should not be surprising that they have also beaten Bryant's teams in the regular season.

2) Bryant's individual numbers versus James' teams are distorted because injuries limited him to 17 minutes in one game and just six minutes in another. How much do two games matter? Since we are talking about a sample of just 16 games, two games actually matter a lot; if we assume that a healthy Bryant would have played at least 65 more minutes in those games and scored 40 points in those extra minutes (two reasonable estimates based on his normal playing time and productivity) then Bryant's scoring average in those 16 games would be 2.5 ppg higher.

There is no denying that in head to head regular season encounters James has outplayed Bryant and James' teams have gotten the better of Bryant's teams--but in the larger scheme of things those two facts really do not mean much. The Bryant-James rivalry--which, unless the players face each other in the NBA Finals, will be fought not so much on the court but rather in the history books--ultimately will be evaluated based on which player forges a greater legacy in terms of overall accomplishments. The one similarity between Bryant-James and the great historical rivalries mentioned above is that James is several years younger than Bryant, much like Bird is several years younger than Erving; Erving won one regular season MVP early in Bird's career but eventually Bird picked up three straight MVPs, much like Bryant won an MVP early in James' career but James has recently proven to be the more consistent regular season performer, picking up two MVPs (and James should have received his third MVP last season).

The 16th encounter between Bryant and James--played on Thursday night in Miami--went according to form: James posted the better individual statistics (31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocked shots compared to 24 points, five rebounds, seven assists, three steals and no blocked shots for Bryant) and James' Miami Heat defeated Bryant's L.A. Lakers 98-87. James started off shooting very well but cooled off to finish 12-27 from the field (.444), while Bryant got of to a terrible start but hit some fourth quarter shots and finished with an 8-21 mark from the field (.381). Here are some observations about the game and about both teams in general:

1) The Heat improved to 5-0 without Dwyane Wade this season and 9-1 in their last 10 games sans Wade dating back to last season. The Lakers dropped to 1-5 on the road. Again, much will be made of the Bryant-James angle but the result of this game was very predictable based on how both teams have performed so far.

2) Despite a much celebrated bout with the flu, James performed with great energy--and that is why it is so mystifying and bizarre that he has developed a track record for listlessly drifting through some of the most important games of his career (2011 NBA Finals, 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals).

3) The 2011-12 L.A. Lakers bear a stunning resemblance to the 2006 and 2007 Lakers' squads. Bryant topped the 40 point barrier 27 times in the 2006 season and the Lakers went 18-9 in those games en route to a 45-37 record; he topped the 40 point barrier 18 times in the 2007 season and the Lakers went 13-5 in those games en route to a 42-40 record. Thus, Bryant scored at least 40 points in 31 of the Lakers' 87 wins during those seasons: those teams depended on Bryant to produce big numbers on a nightly basis just to be competitive. This season is young, so the sample size is small, but right now the Lakers are 5-1 when Bryant scores 37 or more points (including 3-1 in his 40 point games) and 5-5 when Bryant scores 30 points or less. I said last summer that unless the Lakers upgraded their roster they would need for Bryant to revert to his 2006 and 2007 style just to have a chance to make the playoffs. There are still 50 games left in the season so a lot could happen but it certainly seems like the Lakers are who I thought they were: a mediocre team that is very dependent on heavy production from a 33 year old guard who has over 48,000 regular season and playoff minutes on his odometer. Bryant set some age related records with his recent streak of four straight 40 point games but he shot just 15-43 from the field in the next two games, a narrow escape versus Dallas (the Lakers won after Bryant drew two defenders and then passed to Derek Fisher for the wide open game-winning three pointer) and Thursday's loss to Miami. Unless Bryant summons the energy to pour in 30-plus points it does not seem likely that the Lakers will win in Orlando on Friday night. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that, even with his recent two game slump, Bryant still has the second most points in the first 16 games of the season in the last 25 years by a player who is at least 33 years old (486; Michael Jordan had 511 in 1996-97). Jordan teamed up with Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to lead the Bulls to a title in 1996-97; if the Lakers are hoping to achieve a similar result this season then they better figure out how to pair Bryant with another Hall of Famer (i.e., Dwight Howard).

4) Pau Gasol put up good numbers versus Miami (26 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, eight rebounds) but, as TNT's Steve Kerr noted during the telecast, Gasol has not had much impact overall this season even though Gasol's statistics are solid. Gasol seems determined to redefine himself as a jump shooter (four of his 19 shots came from behind the three point arc and many others were launched from outside the paint). His Miami counterpart Chris Bosh tallied 15 points on 6-11 shooting and also grabbed eight rebounds. It has almost become a reflexively uttered cliche to call Gasol the "most skilled big man in the game" but if you actually watch Gasol and Bosh objectively it is difficult to understand why Gasol would be considered any more skilled than Bosh; they are both finesse-oriented big men who can post up but prefer to face the basket, they are both capable rebounders and they are both good passers. Gasol is a bit taller but Bosh is more athletic. The big difference between the two players is that Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding--two statistics that do not generally improve with age--markedly increased after he teamed up with Bryant several years ago, while Bosh's numbers sagged after joining the Heat last year.

5) The "stat gurus" were ready to put Andrew Bynum in the Basketball Hall of Fame after Bynum authored the first 20-20 game of his career but so far this season he has topped the 20 point mark just three times in 12 games. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because he is not getting opportunities; he has shot .462 or worse from the field in five of those 12 games--a terrible shooting percentage for a big man who rarely takes shots outside of the paint--and he has done a poor job in several crucial aspects of post play: establishing position early enough in the shot clock, protecting the ball and reading double teams. Bynum is a good, solid big man when he is healthy but he lacks explosiveness and sometimes loses his balance (which is perhaps a residual effect of all of the leg injuries he has suffered). A telling encounter took place during the Miami game; Bynum had the ball right under the hoop with only James in front of him, both players jumped at the same time and James cleanly snuffed out Bynum's field goal attempt. A small forward--even one as athletically gifted as James--should not be able to block a seven foot center in a straight up duel.

6) Gasol's reluctance to go into the paint and Bynum's sporadic effectiveness make the Lakers an easy team to defend: the simple recipe is to double team Bryant, single cover Gasol and Bynum to deny them easy catches and dare anyone else on the team to make an open shot. Shane Battier did a credible job of staying in front of Bryant--but that was not a hard task considering that Battier always had at least one other partner in crime shadowing Bryant's every move.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 AM

15 comments

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15 Comments:

At Friday, January 20, 2012 11:22:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

The lakers are 1-5 on the road. They won at Utah.

I'm confused why Pau wants to shoot 3's so often now, but he looked a lot better last night. He was posting up and in the paint a lot more. He's always going to shoot some midrange shots, and should some, to space the floor. But, the 'soft' tag that has followed him throughout his career isn't going anywhere. But, it's only one game. He keeps getting the ball knocked away from him from smaller players.

James' block on Bynum, while I thought was clean, wasn't quite black and white. On the replay, it's evident James hit Bynum on the wrist first without getting any ball, then as the play continued he got the ball. So, he softened bynum up some with the hit on the wrist, then got the ball. It's a tough to call to see for the officials, but it wasn't exactly clean. Also, bynum was whacked on the head once while shooting a layup, nothing called, and miami got a wide open 3 in the fastbreak immediately after that. That's a 4-5 pt. swing. And battier hit bynum on a made dunk once, but nothing called. There's going to be missed on both sides every game most likely, but if these 3 plays are called correctly, it could be as much as a 8-9 pt. swing, so who knows if the outcome actually changes.

Miami sure looks a lot better without wade.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 12:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I rarely enjoy marquee regular season matchups involving the Lakers. For whatever reason they shrink in the spotlight when playing the East's best. The only big regular season game I've seen them play hard in wire to wire was the Xmas day game against the Celtics in 2008. I used to hope that Kobe and Lebron would play each other in the Finals, but now I think such a matchup would just be a sweep. Lebron's teams have always had strengths that perfectly match the Lakers' weaknesses, while the Lakers' strengths (big, supposedly deep) are completely nonexistent.

Happydaze

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 1:35:00 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

I would say Dirk Nowitzki is a much more skilled big man than Gasol.

Have you heard the clown known as Shaquille O'Neal repeatedly call Bynum the "best big man in the game" on TNT broadcasts? I don't know if it's his hatred for Dwight Howard or an attempt to diminish Kobe's impact by propping up his teammates and making them seem better than they are. Probably both.

That show has become unwatchable with Shaq on it. If I wanted to watch a bunch of ex-players sit around and laugh at jokes that aren't all that funny then I would watch the NFL on CBS pre-game show.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 2:05:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

It's great to see you point out the flaws with Bynum's somewhat raw offensive game even though he has a good set of post moves.

The whole LeBron-Kobe argument is just a marketing ploy in which I believe really escalated 3 years ago with the Vitamin Water commercial. I remember the tremendous hype in the Christmas game between the Lakers and Cavs in '09, only to be disappointed by the disgusted by the lack of effort shown by the Lakers.

Although there have been no postseason clashes between the two, their legacies can only be compared once their respective illustrious careers have ended. I don't get why the common folk bother to bring up such a flawed debate.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 3:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

You are right about the Lakers' road record and I have corrected the article in that regard.

Even if James grazed Bynum's wrist on the block that would never be called a foul in the NBA (the hand is considered part of the ball, particularly on a point blank shot like that one). The larger issue is that the two players were face to face and jumped at the same time but James soared over Bynum: Bynum is simply not a very explosive player and thus he relies on brute strength plus his somewhat inconsistent footwork.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Happydaze:

A Bryant-James NBA Finals matchup would have been fascinating a few years ago when Bryant was more athletic than he is now and the Cavs were clearly the deepest team in the league. Don't be so sure that James would have been so dominant against Bryant's Lakers in a playoff situation; James has hardly excelled against elite teams in playoff situations (Spurs 2007, Celtics 2010 and Mavericks 2011 are three examples of him playing listlessly and/or inefficiently as his team went down in flames).

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 3:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

There is no question that Nowitzki is both more skilled and more dominant than Gasol.

I have seen/heard Shaq's take on Bynum and Howard; I agree with Barkley that Howard is the league's best center.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 3:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

The interest in Bryant versus James is understandable; they have been the two best players in the game for several years. My point is simply that their head to head rivalry does not really compare with the great head to head rivalries in league history because they have faced each other only twice per season and they have never faced each other with anything of significance at stake; Chamberlain-Russell, Johnson-Bird and Erving-Bird are three rivalries that directly affected the championship chase in multiple seasons.

There is a lot of noise about Bryant-James now but much of what has been said and written about them by "stat gurus" and biased commentators will not be long remembered; history will judge these great players by their overall accomplishments and by the relative completeness of their respective skill sets and that is why I have focused on those areas when I have analyzed Bryant and James.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 5:33:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

I agree with everything in your response. I was born in '91 and came to the states in '97 so I never truly got a chance to see even Jordan play during his three-peat, let alone the great rivalries of the '80s.

Your blog is probably the most insightful source for basketball analysis. It's educated me especially about the greatness of Dr. J and his all-around game in addition to a deeper appreciation of the ABA.

I don't know if I should have left the following comment in your previous post regarding the GM surveys or here, but I'm going to leave it here:

Dwyane Wade just turned 30 and is only three years younger than Kobe, which quite frankly is hard to believe. Still, he was ranked significantly higher than Wade as best shooting guard. How do you think Wade will fare now that he's in his 30s? When Wade eventually garners that title of best shooting guard, it is quite likely that he'll start to decline given his injury history and reckless style of play. How many more elite years of play do you think Wade has left? Moreover, after Bryant retires, who will be considered No. 2 after Wade? It's a shame Brandon Roy retired at such a young age because he was no doubt a top-3 shooting guard the past few years (when healthy).

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2012 12:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

I don't think that Wade will age particularly well. He has always been injury prone due to his style of play and the fact that he is undersized for a shooting guard--and I expect that he will be more injury prone as he gets older. Wade does not have a consistent jump shot so he relies heavily on his athleticism. Unless he improves his jumper I suspect that he will decline steeply as soon as he starts to lose his athleticism and/or the injuries start piling up.

The three All-NBA shooting guards last season (Bryant on the first team, Wade on the second team and Ginobili on the third team) are all "older" players so I am not sure that there is a clear cut heir apparent to Bryant. By the time Bryant is no longer the best shooting guard Wade may already be on the decline and the throne may pass straight from Bryant to an emerging young gun. I agree with you that a healthy Brandon Roy would have been a logical successor to Bryant's perch atop the league's shooting guards.

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2012 7:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David hi,

Did you watch last night's game by any chance?
Sore to the eyes.
I would rather Kobe 'chuck' 80 shots.
Lakers has no offense outside hum unfortunately.

regards,
Nimble

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2012 10:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nimble:

Yes, I watched the game and it pretty much went the way I predicted: the only chance for the Lakers to win was for Kobe to explode for 40-plus points and even he cannot do that every single game. The Lakers have to hope that Orlando is forced to trade Howard and that no other team can come up with a better offer than Bynum--because if the Lakers don't get Howard they will struggle just to make the playoffs.

 
At Sunday, January 22, 2012 4:43:00 PM, Anonymous JackF said...

David,
This Lakers team aside from Bynum, Kobe and Gasol is really bad. Now i see why Kobe takes 30 shots a game. His goal is to win the game regardless whether teammates feel involved in the game or not.
Take the Orlando game for example. Kobe played as perfect a game as you can hope from him, shot when he had to and pass to teammates when they were open. Yet the Lakers had no choice to win the game. I believe they might have had more of a chance if kobe had taken 30 shots.
i even noticed Kobe telling Mike Brown(in the 4Q around 2:12) that Pau Gasol was *effing soft. Pau doesn't operate in the paint anymore. He takes mostly jumpers> in fact he's taken more 3s this year than he has at anytime during the previous 3 years.
Bynum complains about lack of touches and acts nonchalantly when doesnt get the ball.
Not only that the Lakers have a 38 year starting PG. Steve blake getting injured has accentuated how lacking the lakers are on the perimeter.

 
At Saturday, January 28, 2012 7:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'...James is several years younger than Bryant, much like Bird is several years younger than Erving...'

can't believe no one else pointed this out but you write in this article that Bird is younger than Magic, when he is 3 years older.

 
At Saturday, January 28, 2012 8:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

No one "pointed this out" because I never said that Larry Bird is younger than Magic Johnson; I said that Bird is younger than Erving, just like James is younger than Bryant.

 

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