Kobe Bryant Versus LeBron James: The Non-Rivalry RivalryThe 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 AM