The Difference Between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James"With all thy getting, get thee understanding."--Proverbs 4:7
Heart. Confidence. Determination. Preparation. Those qualities cannot be quantified but they separate winners from losers. It is foolish to believe that basketball can be completely understood--or even largely understood--merely by crunching numbers without considering factors that are critically important yet cannot be precisely defined. Great players do not quit, they do not doubt themselves in moments of crisis, they fight through adversity and they tirelessly practice so that they will be prepared for any situation that could reasonably be expected to happen; lesser players lack one or more of those important traits.
Kobe Bryant shot 0-15 from the field in the first three quarters of the L.A. Lakers' 88-85 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday afternoon. The man who once scored 81 points in a single game and who has averaged at least 40 ppg in a calendar month four times during his career (more than anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain, who did it 11 times) did not score a single point until the fourth quarter--but he produced 11 points on 3-6 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter, capping off that barrage with a late three pointer that proved to be the game-winning shot as the Lakers came back from a 10 point deficit to defeat the Western Conference's worst team. Bryant's 3-21 field goal shooting is indisputably inefficient but he did not take bad shots; he simply missed a bunch of shots he normally makes, including point blank shots in the paint, turnaround jumpers in the mid-post area and longer jumpers that he attempted with excellent, on balance form. It is the responsibility of the team's best scorer to neither stop shooting just because he is having an off night nor to press the issue by forcing shots; either of those actions would hurt the team. Bryant stayed the course, having the confidence that all of the preparation he has done for many years would enable him to eventually find his stroke and carry his team in the fourth quarter.
This is not the first time that Bryant kept shooting despite struggling immensely; he famously fired up several airballs in the closing moments of a playoff game versus Utah early in his career; many people criticized Bryant for taking those shots but five years ago I told Bryant that his confidence at that moment impressed me and he replied, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." A big part of being a great player is accepting the responsibility of putting the outcome of the game on your shoulders. Bryant was willing to do this even before he had fully developed the necessary skill set to succeed in that situation but once Bryant developed that skill set he won five championships. Dirk Nowitzki accepted that responsibility in the 2011 NBA Finals and led his Dallas Mavericks to victory over a more talented Miami Heat team.
LeBron James shrinks from such moments; he often is unwilling to shoulder that responsibility in the fourth quarter even if he played well in the first three quarters and you can bet that he would want no part of a pressure three point shot if he had shot poorly throughout the game. James is a better, more productive regular season player than Bryant right now, hardly a surprising development considering that Bryant is a 33 year old veteran of 16 seasons who has logged more than 50,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes while James is a 27 year old who is in the prime of his career--but James is lacking something vitally important, a certain kind of mindset that cannot be quantified yet separates him from Bryant, Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and other players who have led teams to championships.
James' defenders tried to justify how and why James fled Cleveland by saying that James needed more help to win a championship but the truth is that James had plenty of help in Cleveland--the deepest roster in the league at the time--and now he is blessed to play alongside two perennial All-Stars in the primes of their careers, a luxury that no other MVP candidate in the league currently enjoys. NBA TV's Ron Thompson made a very good point after the Lakers-Hornets game; Thompson said that this current Lakers team top to bottom is not as good as the Cavaliers team that James left two years ago. That statement might seem sacrilegious to most media members and it might contradict what the "stat gurus" think about the value of Andrew Bynum and/or Pau Gasol but Thompson is correct--and this is why I have repeatedly said that the Lakers should have traded Bynum and Gasol to get Dwight Howard (if, in fact, that was ever a deal that the Orlando Magic would have done): the acquisition of a young, bona fide superstar would have extended Bryant's career by reducing his workload and also would have prepared the Lakers for the post-Bryant era. Instead, the Lakers are stuck with a slowly declining Gasol and an erratic Bynum who is feeling his oats during the first healthy season of his career, a season that--due to injuries and retirements taking out recent All-NBA centers Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Amare Stoudemire and Andrew Bogut--has seen Bynum emerge by default as the league's second best center but also revealed his stunning lack of maturity and focus; first Bynum tries to reinvent himself as a three point marksman and then, after a desultory performance against the undermanned Hornets, Bynum explains that he had not been very aggressive on offense because he was trying to get 10 assists (he finished with just two assists and the Lakers were outscored by one point during his 37 minutes on the court). Phil Jackson is nobody's fool; he did not walk away from a championship caliber team but rather he realized that the way the Lakers tuned him out in their failed threepeat attempt last season clearly signaled that this current group is no longer an elite team: Bryant cannot just average 40 ppg for a month to hide the team's flaws and there is no one on the roster who can pick up the slack as Bryant ages. Bryant's skills have not dramatically declined but he has clearly lost some of the remarkable stamina that he had earlier in his career when he would seem as fresh in the fourth quarter as he did in the first quarter and when he could string together several 40 point games in a row; if the Lakers had a legit primary scoring option other than Bryant and/or any kind of bench then they could rest Bryant the way that San Antonio's Gregg Popovich rests Tim Duncan and his other stars but the Lakers are forced to run Bryant ragged just to be competitive: L.A. Coach Mike Brown understands that there is no point in resting Bryant for the playoffs because if he rests Bryant the Lakers won't make the playoffs (or they will limp in as an eighth seed and get bounced in the first round).
Gasol already proved in Memphis that he is not an elite level first option player and even if Bynum can stay healthy physically there are good reasons to doubt that he has the game and the mentality to be the focal point of a championship team. The "stat gurus" never believed that Bryant was once the best player in the NBA but I have long said that when Bryant truly falls from elite status (i.e., All-NBA First Team caliber) the strengths and limitations of Bynum and Gasol will become very evident (I also emphasized how much Lamar Odom benefited from being the third option on the Lakers and this season has certainly revealed a lot about Odom's mindset and his true value); the Lakers are wearing Bryant out just to barely win enough games to preserve the fiction that they are a legit contender but the reality is that without Bryant the Lakers are a lottery team and even with him they will--at best--once again lose in the second round. The difference between Bryant and James is that Bryant will compete his hardest regardless of the obstacles in his path or the odds against his team's success, while James does not embrace that kind of challenge.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:22 AM