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Monday, June 16, 2014

Spurs' Teamwork Overwhelms Heat's Star-Centered Approach

The San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in James' first NBA Finals appearance, they nearly dethroned James' defending champion Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals and then in the 2014 NBA Finals they completely dismantled a star-studded Heat team that was trying to win a third straight championship. The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs are a remarkable team. They set an NBA single-season playoff record with 12 victories by at least 15 points and they won the championship despite the fact that none of their key players is in the prime of his career, which is unusual if not unprecedented. The Spurs have the greatest power forward of all-time (Tim Duncan), a perennial All-Star point guard (Tony Parker), one of the league's top sixth men/third options (Manu Ginobili) and a young, versatile star in the making who has enormous untapped potential (Kawhi Leonard)--but Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are all past their primes, while Leonard may still be two or three years away from his prime.

Parker is generally referred to as the Spurs' best player and Leonard won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP but I think that Duncan is not only the Spurs' best player but that a good case could be made that he should have won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP (I felt the same way after the 2007 NBA Finals); Duncan provides a significant low post presence for the Spurs at both ends of the court, making the game much easier for his teammates. Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual statistics, so "stat gurus" and conventional-thinking media members alike fail to appreciate his contributions, but he is the one common denominator for all five of San Antonio's championships (along with Coach Gregg Popovich) and that is not a coincidence.

Much is made in some quarters about how "stat gurus" have reshaped the NBA landscape by supposedly unearthing the value of three point shooting but it does not take "advanced basketball statistics" to realize that a .333 three point shooter produces as many points as a .500 two point shooter if they both attempt the same number of shots. Jacking up three pointers from all angles because three pointers are "efficient" does not win championships; if that strategy worked, then Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns would have been a dynasty and the Houston Rockets would have already won at least one title in the Daryl Morey era. The reality is that three point shooting can be a good ingredient in a championship recipe if that recipe also includes paint attacks (by posting up and/or driving) on offense, good floor balance and tenacious defense. If one or more of your key players shoots a lot of three pointers while also acting like playing defense leads to a terminal illness then your team will not win a championship, no matter how "efficient" your team looks on paper. 

The Spurs routed the Heat with pinpoint passing, excellent defense and tremendous discipline; borrowing a phrase used by chess champion Susan Polgar, the Spurs accepted their devastating 2013 NBA Finals loss with grace and they won the 2014 NBA Finals with dignity. The Spurs are a joy to watch for any basketball purist.

In contrast to the Spurs' balance, the Heat have four future Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen), two of whom are in their primes (James and Bosh) and two of whom are filling reduced roles that they should be more than capable of handling at the current stages of their respective careers. The numbers say that James was very productive during the 2014 NBA Finals and that he did all he could reasonably be expected to do--but the eye test says that he rarely dominated and that he often was not the best player on the court. James' talent is unquestionable and his mental game has grown by leaps and bounds but there is something missing when he faces the highest level of competition. His teams are now 2-3 in the NBA Finals, a record that does not compare favorably with the ABA/NBA Finals records of most Pantheon-level players:

Bill Russell:11-1
Michael Jordan: 6-0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 6-4
Magic Johnson: 5-4
Julius Erving: 3-3
Larry Bird: 3-2
Wilt Chamberlain: 2-4
Jerry West: 1-8
Oscar Robertson: 1-1
Elgin Baylor: 0-7

Erving and Bird each suffered two Finals losses to teams that featured Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson. Jordan went 1-0 against Johnson sans Abdul-Jabbar in Johnson's final full season. Russell defeated the West-Baylor duo four times and once he defeated a Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio. Also worth mentioning are the career NBA Finals records of Kobe Bryant (5-2), Tim Duncan (5-1) and Shaquille O'Neal (4-2), the three most dominant players of the post Michael Jordan era other than James. This additional context shows that Russell's Boston Celtics repeatedly frustrated Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Baylor--but most players who can make a reasonable case for being the greatest player of their era (if not of all-time) won at least three championships and did not have a losing record in the Finals.

James is a great player; he is the best player in the NBA, the 2014 regular season MVP vote notwithstanding. He may set the record for most regular season MVPs and he still has an opportunity to win more championships. However, as things stand right now he is not a more dominant champion than several of his great predecessors--and the argument that those great predecessors had more help can be countered by pointing out that they also faced teams that had multiple future Hall of Famers in their primes. James leading the Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships is a laudable accomplishment--but a slightly past his prime Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals appearances and back to back championships with a supporting cast that was not as deep or as talented as James' Heat. James is not as terrible as his harshest critics suggest--but if he were as great as his biggest fans believe then he would have done more in his prime with two Hall of Fame sidekicks than an aging Bryant did while playing alongside Pau Gasol (who was 0-12 in the playoffs before teaming up with Bryant), Lamar Odom (who never made the All-Star team, never mind being a future Hall of Famer), Andrew Bynum (who put up Luc Longleyesque numbers during the Lakers' three straight trips to the Finals) and the ghost of Ron Artest.

Wade's career has followed an interesting arc; his productivity has steadily declined since 2009, when he averaged a career-high 30.2 ppg and won his only scoring title. Wade has not made the All-NBA First Team since 2010, when he was 28. Wade used to be a good defender but this season he made James Harden look like a defensive stopper; not only did players routinely blow by Wade but Wade often did not make the slightest effort to recover and in open court situations he trotted back on defense as if he were lugging two pianos on his back. The Heat rested Wade liberally during the regular season to keep his body fresh for the playoffs and there is no indication that something is wrong with Wade physically; it just seems like he no longer plays as hard as one would expect an elite player to play.

Size matters in the NBA and having a complete skill set matters, particularly for an undersized players as he ages. Wade has always only had one plan of attack: bull toward the hoop, overpower any defenders in his path and either finish at the hoop or hope to be bailed out by a foul call in his favor. He never developed a reliable jump shot and he has shot better than .800 from the free throw line just once in his 11 year career. Wade has not aged well because his game is not nearly as well-rounded or adaptable as Jordan's or Bryant's; Jordan and Bryant both had the necessary height and skill set to compensate for declining athleticism.

Yet, even a declining and/or disinterested Wade would still be the number one offensive option if he played for the Spurs; the Spurs did not beat the Heat because of superior talent (though superior depth was a factor to some extent) but rather the Spurs beat the Heat because they maximized the abilities of their stars while making the Heat's stars feel uncomfortable. Duncan has diversified his offensive game, Parker has added a jump shot to his arsenal and former All-Star Ginobili has learned how to make the most of limited minutes/field goal attempts--but Wade is still trying to do the same things that he did in his prime, with much less success.

Bosh may be the most misunderstood future Hall of Famer in the NBA. He is a versatile and intelligent player who receives senseless criticism because of his willingness to take a back seat to James and Wade. Bosh averaged 24.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg in his final season with the Toronto Raptors before joining the Heat, so he clearly possesses elite level talent and the ability to be a number one option for a playoff team--but he understands that for Miami to be successful he must accept being the third option offensively and he must be willing to function as an undersized center defensively so that the Heat can run most teams off of the court with their athleticism and defensive pressure.

The Spurs' championship window supposedly slammed shut many years ago but if they had just been able to close out game six or game seven of the 2013 NBA Finals they would now be the reigning two-time defending champions. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs are able to keep their aging nucleus together but even if some of their older players retire they may still be a viable contender if Leonard emerges as an All-Star/All-NBA caliber performer. Meanwhile, the much younger Heat nucleus may be broken up or may decide to break itself up; if all of the rhetoric that the "Big Three" spouted three years ago about sacrificing money to win championships is true then those players would no doubt accept pay cuts so that the team can bolster its depth--but Wade has publicly stated his unwillingness to do this, so James may therefore decide that the time has come to team up with a sidekick who is younger and/or has a more diversified game than Wade.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM

92 comments

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92 Comments:

At Monday, June 16, 2014 5:55:00 AM, Anonymous Jack said...

@David,

What do you make of the media trying to minimize what Kobe did in the buildup to this NBA finals to prop up both Lebron and Duncan. Dont get me wrong, I am not saying they aren't great players but to ignored the fact that Kobe took the Lakers to 3 straight finals on inferior teams while suffering from the same knee condition as Dwayne Wade(in both knees) in the 3rd final trip.

And do you think the Heat under-achieved?

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 7:23:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

Its clear lots of people just want to see James fail.

As of now the Heat are title contenders. A contender doesn't always win it every year. The Heat lost they'll more than likely have another shot. LeBron is in the prime of his career, not at the end.

Of course LeBron is going to get criticized for the loss vs the Spurs. But he can't take blame for Wade and Bosh not playing well throughout the series.

Putting the NBA finals record aside, some of those greats that you named were on teams that suffered embarrassing losses. And sometimes they underperformed in those losses also. So a guy like LeBron is not alone in that department.

The Spurs have a great system in place no doubt. But I believe some of these guys would be career journeymen if they weren't on the Spurs roster. Not looking as good on other teams.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 7:39:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

Hey David,
Thanks for the intelligent commentary throughout another NBA season. Indeed these Spurs were a joy to watch. The last time I had this much fun watching an NBA team was when the 1990-1993 Chicago Bulls used the Triangle offense to run circles around their opponents.
All the best!

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 11:31:00 AM, Blogger D. Mike S said...

When this series is looked back on historically, the 2014 Spurs will be viewed as vindicators of the "right" way to play basketball over the individual superstar approach just as the 77 Trailblazers are viewed as team basketball triumphing over the hyper-offensively talented 77 Philadelphia 76ers of Erving, McGinnis, Free, Dawkins, Collins et al.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Comments on a few things…

1) Lebron is only 2-3 now, but Erving was 2-3 before he got his last ring, so the book is far from shut on that one. There's no shame in losing to the Spurs (who have a top 3 all time coach and a top 10 all time player, with incredible support and depth). The Heat this year weren't very deep (losing Mike Miller meant they needed Wade and Allen to deliver every game, and the aging of Wade and Battier meant their scrambling defense was no longer as deadly as it was a season ago).

2) You tend to slam those Lakers teams to build up Kobe, but they got All-NBA level production out of Pau Gasol, regardless of how he'd played in Memphis before the Triangle maximized his gifts (passing, IQ, and finesse, mostly) and were coached by Phil Jackson; that's a little different than Lebron's 2007 Cavs team, for instance (whose second best player was probably Anderson Vareajao, and who's coach was Mike Brown). Kobe's great, but other players have won with worse support.

3) Duncan absolutely should have won the Finals MVP both this year and 2007. But the media doesn't care about anything you can't see in the box score.

4) Wade hurt his legacy a little this season, and he was defensively mediocre, but comparing him to James Harden on that end is a bridge too far. Wade was bad, but Harden was historically awful and disinterested.

5) I'll be pretty shocked in Kawhi Leonard becomes much more than he is now; he's very athletic and plays well within the Spurs system, but he's shown no real hints of any ability to dominate, in my opinion. I feel like he's basically a more athletic Shane Battier (which is still very good, but not quite the future star the media wants to paint him as).

6) Agreed on Bosh, but on the other hand he's no longer the third best player, and as probably needed to be more assertive this year; Wade was a tire fire in these Finals, and Bosh actually shot pretty well (except from 3); at a certain point, as the second best player on the team, you need to tell Wade to stop flipping up flat-liners and let you go to work.

7) Popovich. Popovich Popovich Popovich.

Popovich.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack:

I don't make anything of the media downplaying Bryant's accomplishments. I expect the media to misunderstand and misinterpret things.

Based on the "stat guru" theory that James and Wade are both so much more efficient than Bryant--at least at the time that James, Wade and Bosh joined forces--one could argue that the Heat "underachieved." However, looking at things realistically I think that it is impressive to reach four Finals in a row and win back to back titles.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

LeBron James is a great player; he has been the best player in the league for several years. However, he has not translated his individual greatness into championship success to the extent that Russell, Kareem, Jordan, etc. did. Also, the list of players who have had career years playing alongside James is not as large as one might expect it to be. In contrast, players ranging from the sublime (Shaq, Pau) to the ridiculous (Smush, Kwame) played their best ball alongside Kobe Bryant.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

Thank you very much.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

D. Mike S:

I agree with you to some extent, though to be fair to those 76ers Julius Erving had already proved that he could lead an unselfish group to multiple titles and Doug Collins was an excellent team player.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:25:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

D Mike S

When it comes to the right way to play basketball
Over the individual superstar approach, you can include the 2004 pistons when they defeated the Lakers.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I made a point of mentioning in my article that LeBron James' legacy is not complete.

The point about the Lakers is that Kobe played a major role in helping those players to improve. Pau became an All-NBA player after playing alongside Kobe; Wade and Bosh were All-NBA players prior to playing alongside James. That is a huge difference.

Objectively, Wade's defense is not quite as bad as Harden's but Wade is a former All-Defensive Team member who is a below average defender now, so Wade's decline is significant--and seems to stem from indifference more than physical decline, because he and trainer Tim Grover gave Wade a clean bill of health prior to the Finals.

I think that Leonard can become a multiple-time All-Star.

I probably should have said more about Popovich. He has certainly proved to be an all-time great coach/leader.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 1:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Also, regarding the 2007 Cavs, it is true that most championship teams have a great one-two punch (which the Cavs lacked) but the 1979 Sonics and 2004 Pistons won with balance and defense. If James had played for the Cavs the way that he later played for the Heat then he could have led the Cavs to at least one title.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 3:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand why someone going 2-0 in finals would be regarded higher than someone going 2-3 in finals. Really, losing first round of playoffs is same thing as losing in the finals; both resulting in no title. Making the finals should be regarded as an accomplishment, regardless if you win, but most think of it as a bigger failure than losing earlier in the playoffs for some reason.

It should be worth noting that Lebron has had the best supporting cast each of the past 6 years, and only has 2 titles to show for it. Possibly not this year, but on paper the heat look better than the spurs. You only need 8-9 guys in the playoffs, and the heat had that. Lebron coasted through the reg. season, and kind of did in the playoffs, too. He put up great numbers, but failed to really dominate, at least in the finals, on either side of the ball. He cramped up in game 1, had a supposed ankle injury, which both affected his minutes some, and failed to assert himself for long periods of most games, and his team got blown out in the final 3 games. The heat basically were able to cakewalk to the finals the past 2 years. The east is that bad. I stand by my statement, that the heat would make no more than 1 final over the past 4 years if they played in the west. It's brutal even in 1st round in the west. The mavs put up more of a fight than the heat did.

The spurs have no true stars but play great team ball, and finally after many years of failures, get another title. Duncan was a nice steady player for the spurs, but that's it. He had a big mismatch every game, and failed to put up big #'s. He played well, but nothing extraordinary. Leonard struggled a little in games 1/2, but was the best player on the court for the final 3 games. He definitely deserved finals mvp. He's not suited to being a first option, but very well could make several AS teams.

Much like Wade in 2006, where Shaq drew a lot of attention, allowing Wade to succeed, it was in Parker in 2007 benefitting from Duncan. But, in the end, Wade definitely outplayed Shaq, and Parker outplayed Duncan. Same as reg. season this year. Durant clearly was the best player throughout the reg. season this year. Westbrook misses half the season, thunder play in the west, and they still get 2nd best record in the league. It's the same question with Lebron. If he wants to be the best player, he usually can, but does he? He just doesn't play like it all the time. So, regardless of his talent level, if he doesn't play like the best player, then he isn't.

Lebron had plenty of help with the cavs. They could've made 4 straight finals(07-10) if he played hard and better all the time. In 08, lebron played awful, except for game 7, and the cavs almost took down the mighty c's. How much help does he really need? It comes down to who you play and when you play them, and who your cast is, not necessarily how far you get in the playoffs. It'd be a completely different story with the heat if they played in the west.

 
At Monday, June 16, 2014 4:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Anthony

Lebron played well im the series he gor no help from wade or bosh this time around. Wade hasnt been a elite player in three years and bosh always been a all star level player that hasnt played well vs spurs either year. Allem was a no show last three games same wit lewis and cole and chalmers. To blame lebron for this is foolish. Spurs role players and bench was better than heat. Patty mills leornard green splitter all between 22 to 29 and they are very productive players. The heat four role players are 38 allen 35 lewis 36 battier and haslem 34. That where the series was won.


Kobe a great player but he had big man help and he also didn't have as gud a run as lebron has these four years also u can argue pau gasol deserve the 2010 finals,mvp. U cant make that case for bosh or wade in 2012 or 2013. Lebron made four finals Kobe made three two titles a piece but Lebron was mvp of the league and finals both of his championship runs.

Spurs and duncan are best team of decade six finals five titles and had at least fifty wins for fourteen straight years. This should be about there greatness which was on display how they pass the ball and play unselfish ball. Also how as,a,small market team they have always found had been on other teams and plug them in and they were excellent players for they team.

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 1:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

prior commentator is correct to say: "I don't understand why someone going 2-0 in finals would be regarded higher than someone going 2-3 in finals." There is no reason. So Jordan would have been a worse player if, in his last season, he had led the Wizards to a finals and lost it? Magic was a worse player, because he made the finals but lost to Jordan? nope. if you want to judge players by their won-loss records, then go follow tennis or golf or track & field

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 8:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't recall writing that it would have hurt MJ's legacy if he had led the Wizards to a Finals loss. The point is that 6-0 is better than 5-1. MJ had six opportunities to win one series to win a title and he--with help from Scottie Pippen et. al.--succeeded each time. As noted in my article, most greatest player of all time candidates won at least three titles and won at least half of their Finals appearances. Maybe LeBron will join that group eventually.

I have never said that it is worse to lose in the Finals than to lose in the first round. The point regarding LeBron is that he has spent most of his career with either the most talented or the deepest supporting cast--as demonstrated by his teams' regular season records and the length of their playoff runs--but he only has two championships to show for this. His individual performances in the 2007 and 2011 Finals were significantly below his normal standards. He quit against Boston in the 2010 playoffs. LeBron is a great player who has done great things but it could be argued that, given his talent and the talent that has surrounded him, he has not won as many titles as he should have up to this point.

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 2:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duncan has officially overtaken Kobe on the all time players list. If it was up in the air before, it's certainly settled now.

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 5:24:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

Like before, I agree with most everything you’ve written. But, I have issues with two of your seven points. Regarding point 2, please tell me which championship team in NBA history has won with less talent than the 2008-10 Lakers?

The best answer is the 94 Rockets. Though, Otis Thorpe was a very good (underrated) player and the team featured a bunch of young guys like Cassell and Horry who went on to be very good and very valuable players. Also, historically, the mid-90s had the most watered-down level of competition of any era due to all of the new expansion teams that were just introduced in the previous five years (Heat, Hornets, Wolves, Magic, Raptors, Grizzlies).

The 04 Pistons team might not have featured any superstars, but the starters were all near all-star level players and the bench was extremely deep: Mehmut Okur, Corliss Williamson, Elden Campbell, Lindsay Hunter, Chucky Atkins, Darvin Ham. They were also coached by Larry Brown.

Every other championship team was either more top-heavy talented, or deeper, or both than the 09-10 Lakers.

Regarding point five. I mean, dude is 22 years old. He just outplayed Lebron James. Sure, his team whooped on the Heat and he definitely plays within a system…but Duncan played within the Pop system (an ever evolving one). Did that diminish or elevate his ability to be an all-world player?

In the short time he’s been with the Spurs, Leonard has elevated his game every year. He fixed his shot. He added a post game. He is a better passer now. He’s got that Euro-step now. He can hit off the dribble. Did I mention he's only 22?

He may not be a “star” in the mold of Carmelo Anthony or as dominant a player as say Dwight Howard, but he’s a star in the mold of Tim Duncan—a two way player that draws doubles—puts up good numbers and wins. To me, that makes his ceiling higher than guys like James Harden or Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving.

I know this has been put out there in the media, but I really feel like he could be a Scottie Pippen or Grant Hill category of player.

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 10:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duncan is no way passing Kobe. He wasn't even an AS this year nor did he play like one in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, he played well, and at a near AS level, but he's just fortunate to be in a great situation in the spurs organization his entire career. And the spurs have actually probably gotten better once his prime is over, can't say the same for the lakers organization these past few years, what a mess. Nobody from the Spurs truly stands out as playing at an extremely high level. But, overall depth, 4 very good players, a phenomenal coach, and a team identity offensively and defensively makes a complete team a very hard to beat.

Kobe's played at an elite level for more years than any other player in history, except possibly Kareem.

Good examples with rockets/pistons. The thing to remember is that those teams competition those years were very weak historically, which allowed them to sneak in there and win titles. Kobe had Shaq, and Shaq had Kobe, but the rest of those teams weren't very good, and they barely made it out of the west in 2 of their title years together.

The west was completely stacked from 08-10 as well. The suns cast around Nash played much better than the lakers cast around Kobe in the 2010 west. conf. finals, as did the c's cast outplayed Kobe's cast in the 2010 finals. There's other examples, but the main diff. was Kobe.

Leonard is already very good, but not even at an AS level yet, but yes, he's only 22. It's really hard seeing him as a first option or much of a playmaker, though. His game seems very similar to Iggy's. He benefits more from the defensive attention his teammates create to get his points. Sure, he was great in the finals, but overall he was only the 3rd best player on the spurs, which is a nice luxury to have for the spurs.

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 10:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Marcel

I have said for eight years on this blog that lebron james would win multiple titles in his career and he did that. I believe he will win four win its all said and done and go down as the second or third greatest player of all time. he is the best player of his era and its not close he is a do it all player. He is the most physically gifted player in twenty to twenty five years since a young jordan. Four mvp two titles two finals mvp three all star mvp ten allstars nine all nba six all defensive teams in eleven years wit five finals appearances as well.

Spurs had a better team all around than the heat and that was the diff in the series. Spurs had the better role players and the better coach by a mile.

Bosh and wade underachieved this year and didn't give help to lebron 29 ppg 8 rpg six assists on 57 percent shooting from field and 52 from 3 in the finals. Wade and bosh played like role players and if miami can't get help round the king he will leave to another franchise and make them relevant like he did Cleveland or make them champs like he did Miami.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 2:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't understand how anything that happened this past season changed Tim Duncan's all-time ranking relative to Kobe Bryant's. The last time we saw Bryant for an extended period--I am not counting his six game cameo in 2013-14--he was playing at an MVP level as he carried a weak, poorly coached Lakers' team to the playoffs in the tough Western Conference.

Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time and he added to his legacy this past season but nothing that he did reflected badly on Bryant or automatically moved Bryant down on some mythical all-time greatest player list.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 2:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I don't think that Leonard's ceiling reaches quite as high as Pippen's or Hill's but in general I agree with what you wrote about him. I also agree with your comments about the Lakers.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 2:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Your comparison of Bryant's impact with Duncan's impact is right on target.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 2:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Yes, you have said the same thing for several years--and during that time, LeBron James played poorly in the 2007 Finals, he quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs, he played poorly in the 2011 Finals and then he led the Heat to back to back titles before being the best player on a team that suffered one of the most lopsided series losses in Finals history. Yes, he has won "multiple" titles but he has not even come close to matching your lofty (and unrealistic) goals for him. Right now, James' championship tally in his prime equals Bryant's championship tally during his slightly past prime years, when Bryant won two titles with a much weaker supporting cast than James has.

It is interesting that Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown and others enjoyed their best and/or most efficient seasons while playing alongside Bryant but the same is not true of Wade, Bosh, etc.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 7:28:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

Going to the finals four straight times and winning two is not bad at all.

If you're going to compare Bryant with James its not fair to bring up James' playoff failures and when he didn't perform well and not bring up when Bryant's team fails.

I consider the pistons beating the Lakers in 2004 NBA finals the biggest upset in NBA history. Everyone(except for pistons fans) were giving the title to the Lakers right before the series started. All we heard about was how L.A. would run over the Pistons because of their star power and the fact they had four hall of fame players.(Regardless of Malone and Payton being past their prime.)

Kobe had the worst overall series of his prime. You can't put it all on him for the loss though. But his poor play did contribute.

The reason why I consider that to be the biggest upset is because the hype right before the series started for L.A., the fact that after the Pistons victory a lot of people didn't want to give the Pistons the credit they deserved and the fact more than likely none of those Pistons players will be recognized as hall of famers. They may not be talked about or remembered.


In the 2008 NBA finals Kobe Bryants team lost to the Celtics. You can't forget how in game four how the Lakers blew a 24 point lead I believe it was and lost. In game six the Lakers were beat down by 39 points. In that series Bryant shot 40 percent overall and in three of the losses he shot under 35 percent. Maybe you can't put the series loss all on Bryant but you just can't keep saying his team wasn't that good and say Gasol was only a one time all star prior to joining Lakers to ignore Kobe's performance.

Gasol was a one time all star prior to joining Lakers. He definatley was worthy of being an all star more than once in Memphis. As someone already stated during those two title years he had an all NBA performance. It's not like he was played like a role player. However I do agree that he became overrated a little after those two titles.

The point I'm making is that every great player that won multiple titles has delt with painful losses whether they performwd well or uunderperformed. So you can't just point to James' and ignore Bryant's.

LeBron is still in his prime so he has a chance win more titles.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David:

My point about Pau was more that he broke out more because of Phil than because of Kobe; he pretty immediately regressed when Phil left, but Kobe was still there for about two seasons before Mike Brown broke him. Crediting Gasol's improvement Kobe seems to me to be ignoring how much he benefits from playing in a system that both utilized his passing and didn't ask him to play especially physically (much like his Spanish teams that do so well).

While it's true that Wade and Bosh were All-NBA before joining Lebron, I'd argue that 2008-2010 Gasol was at least better than Wade in the same span, or Bosh his first year or two in Miami before he developed defensively.

But if it seemed like I was trying to compare Lebron's Miami team to Kobe's Lakers, I apologize. I was comparing his Cavs teams, after your assertion that they should have won a title; the second best player on those teams was either Varejao (great, injury prone defender) or Mo Williams (streak shooter), while the second best player on Kobe's Lakers was Pau (an all-NBA offensive monster who was long enough to at least *look* imposing on defense) and Lamar Odom (an inconsistent matchup nightmare who played mostly consistently for Phil and Kobe).

Leonard is an excellent defender, and a good athlete, but I remain unimpressed by his offensive game (which is mostly catch-and-shoot, garbage buckets, or easy fast break points). He probably will make a few All-Star teams (Parker's made loads despite playing about four total minutes of NBA defense in his career), I just don't think he's the future franchise player the media likes to pretend he is.

As for the Finals MVP, I felt like Duncan affected the game more on both sides, regardless of numbers, with his presence in the paint forcing Miami's offense and defense to contort uncomfortably. Also, unlike Leonard, he played five good games, instead of three.

Agreed that Wade's defensive decline seems to be mostly mental. He's definitely lost something physically as well, but that seems more apparent on offense where he just can't get the elevation he used to (a lot of the terrible shots he missed in the paint in this series went in as recently as two years ago).

Wade's bothered me a lot, actually, as he's just kind of a whiner and a primadonna these last few years. He has the talent, still, to be the best 2 guard in the league, but an unwillingness to put in maximum effort on D or to expand his repetoire on offense has left him well short of his potential and hurt his legacy, IMO.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 11:49:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan:

"Every other championship team was either more top-heavy talented, or deeper"

Sure. But that sentence is true of all but the top-shelf greatest title teams (basically the dominant forces of the 80s and 60s). As to your examples, neither the Rockets (even in '95, with a declining Drexler) nor the Blazer were as top-heavy as the Lakers. The '04 Pistons didn't have anybody even in Kobe's stratosphere, and only one or two in Pau's, but they were very balanced.

The '06 Heat were another comparably talented team, with two great players (post-prime Shaq and prime Wade), plus a bunch of mostly-washed up roll players and a great coach. The two 70s Celtics championships didn't have anybody at Kobe's level unless you have a very high opinion of Hondo (which, you know, is fine; he was awesome), but they were scrappy and deep.

Rick Barry's Warriors team in 75 featured a transcendent star in Barry and a bunch of roll players (though Wilkes was ROY, if I remember right).

Even the Bullets and Sonics teams of the late 70s were arguably less talented than Kobe's Lakers. The Bullets had three stars all past their prime (Unseld, Hayes, Dandridge),while the Sonics had no true stars but a very deep supporting cast.

TL;DR: All championship teams are either deep or talented, but few are both. The Lakers are interesting in that they were kind of middle of the pack on both fronts, but hardly inept on either. They were deeper than a lot of title teams (Doc's Nets are a great example), and more talented at the top than teams like the '77 Blazers, '94 Rockets, '79 Sonics, or '04 Pistons.

As for Leonard, he's shown no signs of the shot-creation and passing skills of either Hill or Pippen. He could be a more athletic version of the Suns-era jumpshooting Hill if he improves his passing, though.

As for the Duncan/Kobe argument, it comes down to how you feel about defense and consistency. Both were dominant offensively, but Duncan never missed the playoffs or cost his team a title (David disagrees with me, but Kobe's ridiculous spectacle in '04 stands alone, at least among great players). Defensively, regardless of whether you think Kobe is good or bad, Duncan's dominance inside has crippled and contorted offenses for 16 years; even when Kobe feels like playing defense, his work only influence one guy; Duncan's destroys entire offensive philosophies. For my money, only Russell, peak era Walton, and Olajuwon really compare, though cases could be made for a few others (motivated Wilt, Nate Thurmond), but none of them did it for 16 years.

As a final point, if you care about it, Duncan was the best player on at least 4 (and I'd argue 5) of his title teams, whereas Kobe was only definitely the best on 1 of his (though I'd argue 2).

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 3:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AW, David was just responding to Marcel's post about james, which had nothing to do with Kobe. Every player has had multiple failures throughout their careers.

As far as hype, yes, the 04 Pistons was a huge upset, but in reality, the huge upset would've been if the Lakers had won. It's actually a huge accomplishment for them even making the finals. Fisher was probably the lakers 3rd best player in the series @ 6.4ppg in 20 min. No team is going to a title with that. Malone/Payton were completely worthless, as were everyone else. Shaq put up good #'s, but he was inconsistent and played awful defense. Kobe did play poorly offensively, not defensively, and on a bum knee, and clearly didn't cost his team a title. He basically had to go one-on-one every time, which isn't ideal for him or anyone. Payton had no idea how to run the triangle.

The 08 C's were clearly much better than the lakers that year. But, if Ray Allen hadn't woken up in the finals, the lakers probably win. And stop overrating Pau. I had 1 AS and was 0-12 in playoffs in Memphis. The only reason he made all-nba was because he was playing with Kobe. Remember, the Lakers were actually doing very well with Bynum(before Pau) before Bynum was injured. And we've all seen how Bynum's career has turned out and how little he contributed to the Lakers' titles in 09/10.

Duncan hasn't been dominant for years now. He's still very good, but he's part of a system, at least for these past 4-5 years. Duncan was great offensively, but never close to as great as Kobe was offensively. Kobe was much more athletic, and much more skilled. He's the only player in history that truly has no weaknesses, which doesn't necessarily mean he's the best ever, but he's at the very least right there. Also, Duncan had anywhere from 6-9 elite years, while Kobe had has 14, no comparison. Defensively, maybe Duncan is better, but I'd take Kobe. Duncan has more 2nd team all defense, but Kobe has more 1st team. Both top 5 all time, at least defensively.

Never quite understand the idea that 'when Kobe feels like playing defense,' which is very strange and somehow doesn't apply to any other player. And also thanks for laughs for saying Kobe was only best player on 1 title team. Yea, I'm still upset that Dirk stole finals MVP from Jason Terry in 2011. Too bad the Lakers during Kobe's career weren't as competent of an organization every year like the Spurs were or the Bulls of the 90s, or else Kobe would have 8-10 rings by now. His 3 best prime years were 05-07, and that's when his teams were the worst. It's like comparing apples to oranges.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

I agree with Anonymous' reply to your comment. I would only add that this article was primarily about the 2014 Finals and not Kobe Bryant's career; if you check out the right hand sidebar of the main page you will find many articles analyzing Bryant's career, including a few specifically addressing his performances during his various NBA Finals appearances.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree with you that Phil Jackson deserves a lot of credit for the Lakers' success in general but you are ignoring how much pressure Bryant took off of Gasol. Bryant drew double teams and collapsed defenses; whenever Gasol set a screen for Bryant, all Gasol had to do was roll to the hoop and catch a pass for a wide open dunk/layup. I would also say that Bryant took pressure off of Gasol off of the court, because in Memphis Gasol took the heat for his team's performances but--rightly or wrongly--Bryant took all of the heat in L.A. Anonymous made an excellent point when he noted how well the Lakers were playing in 2007-08 with Bynum before the Gasol trade; a healthy Bryant in his prime could have won a championship with any number of big men and he did not need to build a star-studded team around him the way that James did in Miami.

James' Cavs teams are vastly underrated. They had the best record in the league two years in a row and they did not even play all of their starters toward the end of those seasons because they were so far ahead of the pack. Those teams were so deep that guys like Shannon Brown and Danny Green--contributors to subsequent championship teams when they played for other franchises--could not even get on the court. No, the Cavs did not have a second bona fide star but they had tremendous depth, an imposing defensive frontcourt and an outstanding defensive coach.

I agree with you that Wade's legacy has taken a huge hit recently. He does not play hard, he whines and he is developing a justified reputation as a dirty player.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Regarding the 2004 Finals, the Lakers would have been swept if not for Bryant's heroics in their lone win. Malone and Fisher were greatly hampered by injuries and Fisher was over the hill (he was a bit player when he eventually won a ring, not a key component like he had to be for the Lakers). I discuss this series in greater depth in my article about Bryant's Finals resume, which can be found in the righthand sidebar.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:24:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

Touché. I should have used the caveat over the past 30 years. I didn’t reach back into anywhere further. You are correct in mentioning other teams from the 50s, 60s, and 70s that had weaker teams than Bryant’s second championship core. Though I’ve read about those eras, I wasn’t alive (or old enough) for any of that, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Though, we can both agree that comparable to their eras, those teams (maybe not Barry’s) strength-wise and depth-wise were all some of the best.

Leonard is 22 years old. He showed a nice post game (one form of shot creation) as well as a little bit of off the dribble offense that wasn’t there last year. True, his handle and passing aren’t as good as Pippen or Hill, but both Pippen and Hill started their NBA careers when they were 22. And, he definitely deserved the Finals MVP (though Parker did not back in 07).

I don’t remember putting my foot in the Duncan/Kobe argument (didn’t even know we were arguing this), but since you touched on it, I will give my two cents. I think Duncan is the best player over the past 15 years in terms of consistency and keeping his team competitive. He is unmatched in both of those categories over the last 40+ years. You can’t argue with averaging a chip over , a couple of MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and nary a season under a 65 percent winning percentage. You are correct that he affected both sides of the ball in equally dominant fashion during much of that time.

But in terms of sheer brilliance, sheer dominance, Bryant has been the best player over the past 15 years. For each of the past 15 seasons (except 2014), Bryant has been an All-NBA performer. From 1999-2013 Bryant has not failed to make one of the three teams (first team 11 times, second and third teams twice apiece). His 2006 season is right up there with any other season from any other player in terms of absolute spectacle and dominance. He followed that up with an equally dominant 07. While his consistency has not been close to what Duncan’s has been (never missing the playoffs is amazing), I’d say what Bryant has done has been equally difficult. He twice in his career went to the finals three seasons in a row. Just look at what one run of three has done to Wade to see how difficult it is to sustain excellence for that many years in a row. This year, in a season where Duncan played a career low in minutes, was the first time he’s ever made it to back-to-back finals. Duncan has never won back-to-back finals.

Duncan has worn the “franchise tag” but has not carried it for half a decade now. A franchise player owns the burden night in and night out of being the best player on the team. Duncan has averaged right around 30 minutes per game for the past five seasons. Popovich has actively tried to lessen his burden over that stretch. The fact that this is brilliant and has absolutely worked does not change the fact that Duncan has not had to bear the franchise burden. He’s shared it with the rest of his team, even gave that up for a few seasons to Tony Parker. If I was building a franchise, this is exactly how I would want my players to behave, but that doesn’t make Duncan a “better talent” for it. Better person and teammate? Without doubt. Better Spurs franchise? Yes. But better overall? Not in my book.

(continued)

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:24:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

While in his prime Duncan’s defense “destroyed entire offensive philosophies”, that hasn’t been the case for over half a decade now. His defense remains excellent, but it is no longer elite. Much like his offense. And the reasons the Spurs shut down the Heat are far more complicated than Duncan’s brilliance.

Leonard is one of, if not the best defensive wings in the game which made covering Lebron a doable thing for the Spurs. The Heat have zero post presence that warranted Duncan’s attention. He basically roamed free in the key and could help cover a posting Lebron or Wade. Wade was a shell of himself, and for whatever reason, the Heat decided to not utilize Bosh (who probably should have been taking 15-20 shots a game with how hobbled Wade was). Also, because the Spurs had 10-11players that could be trusted to play at any moment in the game, they pressured the hell out of the ball carrier—waving their arms, swiping at the ball, basically making every single possession a tiresome affair. It was like the Heat played against two teams—all well rested whenever they came in. The Spurs had that luxury because of depth and it quickly wore down the Heat.

Zooming out to the regular season, Tiago Splitter is an excellent defender and did the bulk of the showing on pick-and-rolls, running shooters off the 3-point line, and took turns battling with post giants—which again saved Duncan from wear and tear. Splitter got shat on because of last season’s Finals, but he’s a terrific player and has been so for two seasons now. His presence has saved Duncan during the regular season.

On the flipside, Bryant’s minutes have consistently been in the 38 minute range (the season after their second championship, he rolled it down to 33) and he has carried the burden of leading scorer (for the past 10 years) and leading assist man (dating all the way back to the Shaq/Kobe days). He has contributed to two completely different teams advancing to three straight finals nearly a decade apart. And he continued to play at an All-NBA level right up until his Achilles injury. His best backup the past few seasons has been, uh, Jodie Meeks.

Anyone who argues that Bryant wasn’t the best player on the 09 and 10 championship teams simply didn’t watch the games or is flat out anti-Kobe. Either is fine of course, but that makes your claim “definitely best on 1 (but I’d argue for two)” slanted at best.

Not only was Bryant unquestionably the best player on both of the Bryant/Gasol/Odom chips, but I’d argue that Bryant was equal if not slightly better than Shaq during the 00-01 run.

In the 01 playoffs, Bryant torched Sacramento for 35, 9, and 4 on 47 percent while Shaq was at 33, 17, and 2 on 60 percent. Bryant averaged 25 and 7.7 on 48 percent against Portland while Shaq was at 27 and 16 on 48 percent. Bryant also killed the Spurs in the WCF (the real finals) averaging 33 points, 7 and 7 on 51 percent while Shaq averaged 27, 13 and 2.5 on 54 percent. Yes, Shaq demolished the 76rs in the Finals, but as has been true for much of the aughts (and even add this season), the WCF typically has been where the two best teams in the league have played. Even if you don’t believe Bryant was “better” than Shaq during this run—he was at least his equal.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

You made a lot of outstanding points.

Regarding the comparison of the 2009 Lakers to previous championship teams, my articles about that subject restricted the field to the "Phil Jackson era," which I dated back to 1991 (Chicago's first championship):

How Good are the Lakers Compared to Recent Championship Teams?

It is bizarre to see the myriad ways that people try to attack Bryant's accomplishments. The "stat gurus" and other Bryant critics elevate Wade, CP3 and others ahead of Bryant, yet Wade was rarely double-teamed during any of his championship runs: first Shaq and then James drew the bulk of defensive attention. Perhaps the Mavs were spooked by Shaq's performance in the 2006 ECF and I am not saying that Shaq was better than Wade at that time but opposing defenses certainly still feared Shaq at that time. Nobody was double-teaming Gasol at Bryant's expense at any time. The Celtics sometimes ran four guys at Bryant--particularly in the 2008 Finals--and dared any Laker to make a shot. As for CP3, what exactly has he won to justify all of the "stat guru" praise? Chris Paul is an excellent player and he is fun to watch but he is also a small player who gets worn down every year in the playoffs. He is not Isiah Thomas and it is very unlikely that he will ever be the best player on a championship team.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2014 7:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Ho boy. I'll try and be succinct, but I apologize if I run long or gloss over something; lot of conversations going on, here. Let's talk Kobe first.

1) Kobe- I find it funny that whenever I criticize Bryant, it's considered "attacking". I think Bryant is the 2nd or 3rd best shooting guard ever (behind Jordan, and comparable with West). I think he's around the top 15-17 all time player (I go back and forth with him vs. Barry, West, Zeke, Elgin, Shaq, and Magic, just outside of my "top tier"). He's tremendous.
But he's far from perfect, and his chucking in the Finals was exactly the Pistons gameplan and worked to perfection. They had no answer for Shaq, and yet Kobe took way more shots while shooting in the 30s. FG% is not everything, but neither is it nothing. Could they have won with a healthy Malone? Maybe, maybe not; Malone's a noted playoff choke artist (though he was more reliable in his reduced role that year). The fact remains; Kobe went into Alpha Dog mode when, tactically, it was the wrong call; you can argue they won their one win thanks to him, but it's just as easy they lost all four losses thanks to his low-efficiency gunning and lazy defense. It's part of why Phil left, and I believe is explicitly called out in his book, though I could be wrong on that specific point as memory is unreliable.

2)Re: Duncan v Kobe, in these arguments it always seems to me like I either overvalue defense (which is a lot more complex than just blocks/steals or All-Defense nods) or my interlocutors undervalue it. As a Suns fan, I've watched (and hated) Duncan for 16 years, and in addition to gaudy numbers (most years), he does a thousand little things that force opponents into third/fourth options or bad shots. Kobe's had the stronger career from a scoring/assists perspective, but I don't think the gap on offense (where Duncan still affects almost every possession while he's on the court, even if he doesn't touch the ball, via good screens/the threat of his post scoring/strong boxouts enabling Kawhi's Wesbrookian O-Rebs)is much narrower than the gap on D. If Kobe were to All-World Domination God he's sometimes portrayed as, he wouldn't have missed the playoffs as often as he has, and he would have elevated that D'Antoni team (which, regardless of injuries, had the talent for a much, much better record than they managed).

As to the issue of how many title teams Kobe was the best member of, I think you misunderstood me; I agree that he was the best on 09 and 10, I only acknowledged that others don't. I think suggesting he was better than Shaq in 01 is ridiculous on either side of the ball, but as we have enough arguments going on right now, I'll agree to disagree on that one for now.

One more quick note; while Duncan's teams were generally deeper, I'd argue that his second-best player in '05 and '07 (Parker) was nowhere near as good as Gasol was on Bryant's teams, and none of his teammates were ever nearly as good as 2000s era Shaq (including '99 Robinson).

TL;DR To oversimplify and summarize, Kobe is an A+ impact on offense and a (charitable) B impact on D, while Duncan is an A (on O) and an A++ (on D), and only one of them ever missed the playoffs.

Ok, I'm pooped. I'll be back to talk Kawhi and Lebron later. :)

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 12:53:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I think you undervalue coaching in this whole Kobe discussion, to the point it misses the context. Was it really Kobe making his teammates better or Phil who set up the team in certain way? I completely agree that Kobe's offensive presence made it much much easier for his teammates, but doesn't Lebron attract as much attention? Yet, his teammates cannot profit the same way.
Here's the big difference imho - coaching and team setup matter.
Just imagine Kobe playing for coach Popovich or Lebron playing for Phil Jackson.

And I really don't like to argue Kobe vs Tim. Apples to oranges.

just my 2 cents

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 1:47:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Ok, let's talk Kawhi, and if I have the energy/wordcount, Lebron and his Finals win/loss record.

But first, a quick note: Chris Paul, I agree, is nowhere near Isaiah Thomas level. We're in a weird time with nearly a dozen very good point guards, but no truly transcendent ones. Not sure there's even anybody around right now who might get there, honestly, though I know David thinks there's at least one.

As for Kawhi-

Excellent defender, no question. Great athlete. Solid jump shooter. Not much of a driving game, not a great ball handler, average passer.

Basically, I just described the poor man's Andre Igoudala (though Leonard is somewhat more athletic). That's a very good player, but Pippen/Hill it's not. He had a very good Finals, and he's probably good enough to be the 2nd or 3rd best guy on a lot of very good teams to come, but he's not a franchise cornerstone, in my estimation. He might get there and make me look foolish… but until he does, I'll keep saying he's a very good player who's probably getting overrated by the media.

That didn't take too long. Excellent. Lebron in the next post.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 1:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I find it odd, David, that you're so quick to defend/praise Kobe, and equally quick to criticize Lebron (though you do praise him when he wins a championship). I've read a good 40-50% of the articles on your site, and off the top of my head I can't recall you ever criticizing Kobe. Perhaps it's because he's beyond reproach, or perhaps it's because you feel he gets enough of that elsewhere (and for the most part, he does, though criticism is necessary in head to head comparisons like the one I made vs. Duncan last post…). Though if it's the latter, so does Lebron.

But I've already said my piece on Kobe, and he exists in this conversation only because I don't agree that his Finals teams were in any way equivalent to Lerbon's "underrated" Cavs teams.

Lebron's Cavs teams were good, and decently deep. They were far from great. Witness what happened to their record the season he left; they won 19 games. Mo Williams is a two-dimensional player who can score (sometimes) and kinda pass, but an atrocious defender and far from reliable. Varejao is a delightful energy defender and hustle guy who can't stay healthy, and can't be counted on to score consistently. Boobie Gibson is a streak shooter. The version of Shaq he had was a mastodon, large and extinct (though too stubborn to realize it yet). Ilgauskus moved slightly faster than most geriatrics. Other Cavs starters during that run include the immortal Larry Hughes and his 34% playoff FG% (they still made the Finals that year thanks to Lebron), the rotting corpse of Eric Snow, Famed Chemistry Killer and Bad Shot Taker Delonte West, The Delightfully Average Drew Gooden, and whoever the Hell Anthony Parker was. Is any one of those guys except Varejao even as good as Odom or Ariza? Let alone Gasol.

Most of those guys had one or two useful skills. None of them could anchor a defense or carry an offense with Lebron on the bench. And Mike Brown couldn't draw up an offensive possession to save his life.

Now look at his Heat. This year, when all of a sudden Wade couldn't carry a few minutes on offense, and the team was too slow, too tired, or just plain unwilling to play their frantic, swarming defense? They got beat, too.

Now look at Kobe's Lakers. Not the most talented title team by a long shot. But they had Phil Jackson running the Triangle. They had Pau Gasol to carry the offense when Kobe couldn't and drag defenders away from their army of 3-pt bombers. They had Ariza, and later Artest (still good, if diminished; that's why Phil played him so much) to chase around the opposition's best wing player. They had Bynum, a glorified 6th Man, to make sure there was always a 7 Footer in the paint, and Odom to make sure there was usually a near-7 footer on the perimeter, too. They had Fish to shoot clutch shots (I'd trust him over Mo Williams when it counts, even if Mo's better when it doesn't), and they had spunky young guys like Farmar and Vujacic to give a little spark off the bench.

Lebron probably could have won with that team. Kobe probably couldn't have won with that Cavs roster. Comparing them on that basis, at least without factoring in context, does both players a disservice.

Opps, went long. Part 2 incoming.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 1:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Now, did Lebron quit in 2010? Maybe. I'd even say probably. But that's not really the point; he wasn't going to win anyways, unless he was a lot better than Kobe (which you don't seem to think he was, though I'd personally take 2010 Lebron over 2010 Kobe), because Gasol/Odom/Artest/Fisher is a lot stronger than Corpse Shaq/Washed Up Jamison/Delonte West/Mo Williams, and Phil Jackson is a few steps ahead of Brown.

That last paragraph is slightly sarcastic, but look: nobody but Lebron knows for sure if he quit in Boston. Sometimes great players just have bad games. Kobe openly quit on his team against the Suns in 2007, but everybody seems to have forgiven him (he's won exactly as many rings since then as Lebron has since 2010, incidentally). The question of Lebron's greatness comes down to how much he wins with what he has, and how much of his considerable potential he lives up to: for me, he won as much as he was going to with those Cavs, and he's used that potential to become by far the best player in the game today.

This year, he got beat by a better coach, a deeper opposition, a savvy, veteran all-time defensive big, and the complete inability of his teammates to meaningfully contribute whenever he sat (or even when he didn't). That doesn't really diminish him; it used to happen to Jerry West and Elgin Baylor all the time.

Lebron is the only player I've ever seen who has no skill set weakness. He can do everything on either side of the ball at a very high level. The guy's going to be a top-fifteen all time player when he retires regardless of if he wins another ring (though he will) . Let's stop pretending that being 2-3 in the Finals is some horrible failure, please; everybody (in terms of Pantheon level guys) with a higher Finals winning percentage than his had at least a few (or all, in, say, Magic, Bird, and Michael's cases) rosters that were a lot better than his Cavs team or this year's Heat team. Give Lebron Worthy, Cooper, Scott, Old Kareem, & Pat Riley at the helm and his record would probably be better. Give him prime Shaq and Robert Horry and Phil Jackson (and later Pau and Ariza and Odom, sure), his record would probably be better, etc. etc.

TL;DR: If you're gonna criticize Lebron, that's fine, but there's really got to be a better way than "he should have won with the crappy teammates he had in Cleveland or the complete lack of support he got in 2014", because guess what? Nobody else won with that, either.

One last note that just occurred to me: Lebron has never played for a team that won less than 35 games (san lockout, obviously), even in his rookie year when his team started Ricky Davis and Jeff Mcinnis. Kobe's team in 2005 (when he was at his apex) won 34. They had a crummy roster, too, but it was a crummy roster with Caron Butler and Lamar Odom on it. When Lebron left the Cavs (though most of their other main players stayed), the won 19. Sure, they were a good team… but only because they had Lebron James.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 3:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(All stats courtesy of basketball reference)

This conversation got me to thinking. I was reading about what each player brings to the table, how overrated or underrated each player is, etc. So here is the basic idea, if this player is as great as they supposedly are at offense or defense, this should show in team wide succes – i.e. if Lebron is this scoring machine with otherworldly court vision, this should show in team wide success. David points out that many players stats shoot up when playing with Kobe, and fall dramatically when they leave for elsewhere. Does this apply team wide?

So, my premise is that their individual success should show in their team's stats, so I just grabbed the team ranking for offensive rating and defensive rating (points scored normalized for number of possessions and points allowed normalized for number of possessions). (A couple caveats, I left out the 2013-2014 rankings for Kobe because he basically didn't play and Kobe's first two seasons because he was not a starter.) So what does Tim Duncan, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant give to your team?

First of all, Tim Duncan's defensive contributions are probably not overrated. Only twice in his entire career has his team's defense ranked outside the top ten. As a matter of fact, his team's defense only ranked outside the top five three times. Four times it ranked first. He averaged a ranking of 3.5. That is incredibly impressive. From this, I think we can state that Tim Duncan's contributions to defense is not overrated. And Kobe? Kobe is a bit of a mixed bag. He is either presiding over a top ten defense (with one ranked first defense), or suffering through a horrific defense. He averaged a 14.4 ranking on defense (13.9 if you count his first two years coming off the bench). However, it is clearly a bi-modal distribution. For the most part if you paired Kobe with a serviceable big man (i.e. not Kwame, Mihm, a hurt and/or lazy Shaq, or rapidly declining Gasol), Kobe was good for an average of 5.4, but averaged a 22.5 ranking. This does make sense, as there is only so much a wing defender can do on defense. A big man like Duncan can impact all aspects of the opposing team's offense, but a wing/perimeter defender can only do so much. Kobe can only affect so much, but if you gave him someone even decent behind him you would have a solid defense.

(cont.)

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 3:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking at this, I would say that Kobe's defense, while great, is limited in it's impact to the team wide defense. There is just only so much a shooting guard or point guard can do to affect defense. David brings this up often when talking about the limited ability a point guard has when it comes to affecting the entire game (and why it's rare that a championship winning team's best player is a point guard).

Looking on the flip side, offense tells a different story. Kobe Bryant will give you a top ten offense. It's almost guaranteed. Only once in his career has Kobe's team fallen outside the top ten offense, and that was in 2009-2010. The team was ranked 11th and they won the championship. Some may say that Kobe benefited from having all-world big men in Shaq or Gasol to carry him and the almighty Phil Jackson. They would be wrong. In the 2004-2005 season (the season right after the trade of Shaq), Kobe carried a starting squad of Chucky Atkins, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Chris Mihm with coach Rudy Tomjanovich to a top ten offense. That should be almost impossible, but there it is. Kobe averaged a team offensive ranking of 5.5 throughout his career. Duncan is no slouch either. He averaged a team wide offensive ranking of 8.9. This is a pretty true mean, as he has a very even range between 1st through 17th ranked offense. Seven times out of the seventeen seasons, his team's offense ranked outside the top ten.

Comparing the two players, they are pretty evenly matched overall. If anything, Kobe is a little worse off because of his team's defensive woes. When it was bad, it was truly bad. However, part of that is due to positional responsibilities and effect on defense (something Kobe can't control) and part of it is the relative organizational stability from which Duncan has benefited.

(cont.)

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 3:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lebron. What about Lebron? It's an interesting case. In his first five seasons, Lebron could be accused of being what is called a “looter in a riot.” For the most part, his teams posted middling (to just bad) defensive and offensive rankings (with one season each of top ten offense and defense but not concurrently). For the first five seasons, his team's ranked 22, 12, 9, 18 and 19 on offense, while ranking 19, 12, 14, 4, 11 on defense. Those are not exactly great, BUT. From the 2008 season onward, Lebron's teams have ranked in the top ten for both offense and defense every year but the 2013-2014 season (which Miami just missed with a 11th ranked defense). Interesting that this happened after the 2008 Olympics... Ultimately, Lebron is probably deserving of the praise and accolades that he received this year.

As for the finals, it was the Miami Heat's defense that ultimately failed them. Too many people are focusing on the number of missed shots Lebron's teammates put up, but they only fell from a season average of 1.10 points per possession to 1.04. That's a fairly big drop off, but defense is where they got killed. They let the Spurs go from a season average 1.1 points per possession (nearly the same as the Heat's) to 1.2 points per possession. You are not going to win a series allowing the other team to score any which way they want. This is where Lebron's team wide effect can get exposed. Like Kobe, there is only so much he can do to affect the defense because his role is limited. He takes a bigger share of help defense than Kobe does (he is a forward after all), but he can't alter the other team's offense in the way that Duncan can.

However, saying this, the series probably wouldn't have been a such blowout if Lebron had done more on offense (they would have still lost due to their defense). Everyone looks at Lebron's numbers and say how could one ask for more. But if you look at Kobe's many playoff stat lines, Kobe puts up more and often. The counter argument is that Kobe does it with inefficiency, so it evens out. But from the above, Kobe's inefficiency doesn't stop his teams from putting up a top level offense. Are people really going to make the argument that Kobe's teams put up top ten offenses despite his inefficiency? That a team of Chucky Atkins, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Chris Mihm with coach Rudy Tomjanovich posted a top ten offense despite Kobe Bryant's best attempts to submarine their offense? I doubt it. There is something to say about your best player absorbing those broken plays so their less skilled teammates don't. Too many players these days are getting too absorbed in the efficiency of their stats to the detriment of the team, and I think Lebron suffers from that problem, and it shows in his stat line.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 4:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

There are several fascinating discussion threads going on here. I regret that I do not have time to fully respond to everything.

Regarding the 2004 Finals, it is incorrect to say that Kobe's "chucking" is the main reason that the Lakers lost. When their team was fully healthy, they were dominant. The injuries to Malone and, to a lesser extent, Fisher, cost them because they had little depth. Payton's inability to run the Triangle and his ineptitude on defense hurt the Lakers greatly as well. As for Jackson's comments in his book, that book was a diary, so one has to read it carefully to get the truth. He wrote on a day to day basis what he was thinking at that time. The idea that his default, permanent viewpoint is that Kobe is uncoachable is refuted by the fact that Jackson returned to the Lakers to coach Kobe and that they teamed up to win two titles. If Jackson thought that Kobe were uncoachable then he would not have come back and if Kobe were uncoachable then the Lakers would not have won back to back titles--period, end of story.

The Lakers missed the playoffs once with Bryant (not counting his six game cameo in the train wreck 2013-14 season): 2004-05, when the Lakers had a garbage roster and Bryant missed 16 games. In the next two seasons, he was healthy and put up record-setting numbers while carrying two garbage roster teams to the playoffs. The Bryant-Duncan comparison is interesting but citing the 2004-05 season as some kind of evidence against Bryant is not logical.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 6:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Re: 2004

I think I have two other comments still pending, so apologies if this spawns in the middle of an unrelated conversation BUT:

Regardless of Malone/Fisher, anyone who watched that series can tell yo that Shaq was killing the Pistons, and the Pistons were cheerfully letting Kobe go one-on-one and toss up bricks.

Would they have had a better shot to win if Malone was healthy? Definitely. Would they have had a better shot to win if Kobe hadn't played like JR Smith and maybe gave more shots to the guy who was destroying the Pistons inside and racking up fouls on a relatively thin defensive frontcourt? Also definitely.

You can't *really* believe that Kobe continuing to jack up contested 20+ footers after the first 2 or 3 games was their best option, can you? Ben Wallace, while a good defender, is, like,, 6'7? 6'8? There's a reason Shaq was eating his lunch whenever he got the ball (i.e., whenever Kobe wasn't the one who brought it up the court).

Shaq was shooting almost twice as well as Kobe that series (and that's not factoring in drawn fouls and the benefits thereof; the Piston's bench that season was hurting for quality muscle or rebounding); it's ridiculous that Kobe shot so much more than he did, especially with how poorly he was shooting.

People like to pretend the Pistons were super deep, but really it was the five starters and a young Okur in terms of better-than-replacement level players. Six guys =/= super deep.

As to Phil, just because he came back doesn't mean he thinks Kobe played the right way in '04. By all accounts, his return involved some sort of concession from Kobe, probably along the lines of "I'll listen to you when you tell me to stop costing us championships. I like being in the playoffs. Please come back Phil, or else I'm going to start mailing you Smush Parker's fingers."

As to '05, the roster was bad... but not *that* bad. Lamar Odom and Caron Butler were both above-average NBA players, and Devean George and Chris Mihm, while by no means good, weren't awful, either. Was that team really any worse than the Cavs team of the same year with rookie Lebron that won one more game?

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 6:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I only have time to make a few observations.

1) I wish that I had the time to do the kind of detailed game recaps/series recaps that I used to post here. Those who are interested can search through the archives here and peruse my coverage of LeBron's Cleveland playoff runs, Kobe's two most recent championship runs, etc. My takes on a lot of the issues mentioned in this thread can be found in those articles.

2) I don't intentionally, consciously "praise" one player and/or intentionally "criticize" another player. I analyze players, games and series objectively to the best of my abilities. Each article has a subject and a theme and cannot possibly include every relevant observation that can be made about a player, game or series. I touch on the stuff that I think is most important and/or that I think has been misunderstood. "Stat gurus" and media members do not understand Kobe's game very well, so I have spent a lot of time/bandwidth explaining his impact. I also have repeatedly said that LeBron surpassed Kobe (not on a career basis but in terms of current impact) circa 2009, so I don't understand or care about "Kobe homer" comments.

3) Kawhi Leonard is already at least as good as Iguodala, with a much higher ceiling. Leonard is not elite and may never become elite but I could see him making multiple All-Star teams.

4) LeBron's Cleveland teams are very underrated, as I have detailed in many articles here. After LeBron left, the team also changed GM, Coach and most of the roster, so the idea that the Cavs became bad solely because LeBron left is nonsense. A great player is worth 20-25 wins, not 40-plus--and anyone who thinks that LeBron is worth 40 wins has to explain why his Heat teams did not win 70 games and a title each of the past four years.

5) Kobe has no skill set weaknesses, either. LeBron only recently has reached that level (after adding a post game and an outside shot; he surpassed Kobe in 2009 because Kobe began to decline and also because LeBron was better able to log heavy minutes at that stage of their respective careers).

6) Nick, the team offensive and defensive numbers are interesting and could be useful in terms of figuring out the most effective five man lineups for those teams but it is more than a bit of a reach to formulate individual player ratings based on those numbers.

7) Nick, this comment is great and if I had the time I would write an article about it (and I have written articles on similar themes before but it would be fun to revisit the subject again at some point): "Kobe's inefficiency doesn't stop his teams from putting up a top level offense. Are people really going to make the argument that Kobe's teams put up top ten offenses despite his inefficiency? That a team of Chucky Atkins, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Chris Mihm with coach Rudy Tomjanovich posted a top ten offense despite Kobe Bryant's best attempts to submarine their offense? I doubt it. There is something to say about your best player absorbing those broken plays so their less skilled teammates don't. Too many players these days are getting too absorbed in the efficiency of their stats to the detriment of the team, and I think Lebron suffers from that problem, and it shows in his stat line." Kobe is not really inefficient--as you acknowledge by pointing out how well he "absorbs" the miscues of his teammates--but he is "inefficient" according to some "stat gurus" and that is why many of my articles about Kobe focus on what he does well, in order to provide a different, more objective perspective.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

Quick points on Kawhi. He’s not more athletic than Igoudala and he doesn’t have the passing. That said, his shot is muuuuch better, he’s an elite rebounder (for his position), he can guard a wider variety of players, and he is more efficient (kills Iggy in FT%). I think he’s better than Iggy now, and that is not including what he did in the finals. Not saying Leonard will get to be Pippen or Hill, just saying that’s his ceiling. And if Popovich calls someone a franchise cornerstone, who am I to argue?

Onto the meat and potatoes. At least for me, I am not going to argue about Lebron’s first finals team. That team was garbage. He made it there because he got past the one decent team in the East, the Pistons—and did so off a Herculean effort. The Pistons would’ve been a five seed in the West. Two East playoff squads were .500 teams, and the eighth seed Magic had a losing record. A gauntlet the East was not.

But you completely disregard the 08-09 and 09-10 Cavs. Sure, none of the names you listed scream star. And, sure, a lot of them were past their primes. But what they did individually created a collective that was exactly what a star wing player needed to succeed. First and foremost, both of those squads were HUGE. You forget Ben Wallace who along with Varejao, Joe Smith, and Ilguaskas helped the Cavs finish 3rd in defensive rating in 09 and 8th in D rebounding. Size matters. The 10 squad featured Shaq, Andy, Ilgauskas and JJ Hickson and finished 7th in defensive rating and 2nd in D rebounding.

While there was no other player that could consistently create for others—what the Cavs did have was the second best 3-point shooting team in the league both seasons. In 09, the Cavs featured three of the top 10 3-point percentage shooters in the league.

To recap: the “crappy” Cavs had 4-5 giants clogging up the paint (which allowed the wings to pressure the 3-point line) and a variety of elite gunners to spread the floor. You say Kobe couldn’t have won with that team, and I completely disagree. That is exactly the kind of team Bryant could have won with. In his prime, Bryant didn’t need another offensive player. As Anonymous has so accurately and factually demonstrated, Bryant was an elite offense all by himself. He needed an elite defense behind him and a bunch of shooters to space the floor. That’s exactly what the 09 and 10 Cavs were.

Lebron on the Lakers team? There was no one who could space the floor for him outside of Fisher (the Lakers finished 19th in the league from three). Ariza blew up in the playoffs, but during the regular season was mediocre. Only Radmanovic was good (but wildly inconsistent), but Vlad Rad played the same position as James and missed half the season thanks to a snowboarding accident. Odom couldn’t space the floor. Neither could Pau. The 2010 team was even worse from beyond the arc (23rd in the league). Not saying they wouldn’t have succeeded with Lebron, but those who think it would have been a cakewalk are mistaken. Remember, Lebron was still not a very good marksmen from outside of 15 feet at the time. Dallas exposed that and took the championship from him in 11. It would have been very difficult for the Lakers to function with Gasol, Odom, Lebron and Bynum needing to operate in the key.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

And Nick, you are too intelligent to point to the 10-11 season and say, “See, the Cavs sucked without Lebron.” Not only did Lebron leave, but the GM and coach were both gone and the rest of the key players were either injured or traded away. The giant frontline of Ilgauskas and Shaq was replaced by JJ Hickson, Ryan Hollins and bits of Samardo Samuels and Antawn Jameson.
Mo played 36 games and then was traded for Baron Davis. Andy played in only 31 contests.
Lebron was replaced by Christian Eyenga (no longer in the league), Joey Graham, Alonzo Gee, and a handful of guys that are either in the D League, Europe or working at Dennys.

So…as for the “crappy teammates he had in Cleveland.” As the Spurs have just shown, supposedly “crappy players” like Green, Belinelli, Mills, Diaw, etc. who were cast off by their previous teams, suddenly became good enough as a collective to win a title—and do so convincingly. Lebron had a similar team (sans the Ginobili-type sixth man) in Cleveland, but did not have the mental fortitude to succeed.

I don’t know why my other post didn’t get posted, but in that one I wrote something to the effect that Lebron James is so much better than everyone else, that if he just played like he believed he was that much better than everyone else, he’d dominate. Truly dominate. But, he’s so team-first oriented, that it feels like he truly believes the team is responsible for wins and responsible for losses. The onus isn’t on him. He sort of checked out of game 5 when he realized the rest of his team wasn’t stepping up. He blitzed the Spurs by himself in the first quarter and put the Heat up, and then he sort of took his foot off the accelerator. Exhaustion is one reason sure. But, he didn’t attack like he attacked in the first quarter at any other point in the game. In 07 and in 13, he proved how dominate he can be. During the Cavs years, he tried to put the onus on the team.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 9:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Quick ones here, as we're starting to risk going in circles:

1) Kobe has several skillset weaknesses; he's an inattentive defender at best, he's never been a particularly good 3 pt shooter (though he loves taking them), and while he's a good rebounder for his position, he isn't a particularly good one for his size. Lebron, on the other hand, is elite or borderline elite in all three of those areas (though of course he wasn't always).

2) I apparently think less of those 08-10 Cavs teams than the group, but none of those guys were very the season good before they got there, or after. They had no good perimeter defenders except the undersized and unreliable Delonte, they had no 2-way bigs, and they had no one who could create for himself or his teammates; the Lakers could comfortably sit Kobe for a few minutes and let Gasol post up or Odom run the offense; the Cavs were screwed whenever Lebron hit the bench, the same would have been true in each case if they'd switched teams.

3) The floor spacing point is a good one, and one I hadn't thought enough about. I do think, however, that Phil Jackson could probably have found a way for Lebron to be effective in that system regardless, and certainly being able to run PnRs with Gasol or Odom would have played to his strengths. There were also several shooters on the bench on those teams.

4) I agree that efficiency is not everything, but it's certainly something. I've watched enough Lakers games to know that most of Kobe's bad shots aren't "hand grenades", they're generally early clock bombs because as great as Kobe is, he's only about 80% as good as he thinks he is. That's a strength a lot of the time, but it's a big inconvenience the other 20%.

5) I pointed to the 2011 season more to highlight how bad the teammates who stayed (come to think of it, also the ones that left) performed without him, but I see now that I phrased that poorly.

6) A lot of "bad" players become good on the Spurs, but part of that is because the Spurs have the best shooting coach in the league. Can't remember his name offhand, but there was an excellent article about him circulating a couple weeks ago. That doesn't mean they were always secretly good and just misused.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 11:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ David

About using the offensive rating and defensive rating of their respective teams, I have no illusions that there are more holes in the argument than swiss cheese. But there is some interesting truth in the data that could use some digging. What was presented was way too broad to make a strong point. Right now, a combination of eye test and some stats is needed to determine the truth (or some attempt at the truth).

With the way advanced stats are now, the next big step is to figure out two things (I'm looking at offensive stats only). These things are currently not properly taken into account.

1) How much does defensive attention to certain players affect the overall defense - i.e. the Kobe and A.I effect. Whether we see this in an increase in offensive rebounding opportunities or players having more open lanes to drive/shoot.

2) When the offensive sets fall apart, what's best play for the team to make? Is a Kobe mid range turn around better than hurried Gasol post up or a hand in their face 3-pointer by Fisher or try to reset the offense? Which of those choices results in the best opportunity? Which has the best balance of risk and reward. This is missing, but maybe it's around the corner. The synergy cameras have promise, but the difficulty is not in tracking the players and making calls. The real difficulty in all this is making meaningful bins to categorize certain plays or actions into.

But that is still aways away. Advanced stats as they are now are woefully inadequate (and some are just not good at all). It is a problem of not having the right data set and trying to find the hidden variables we are not capturing. Sometimes, it's just not possible with the data set you are being given, and I think that may be the case.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2014 11:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting to hear 'all the times Kobe's teams have missed the playoffs.' That total being 1(2 if you count 2014). Jordan had 2, and 3 other teams with sub .500 records. Unfair argument to both if you just leave it at that. Neither player had the luxury of having at the very least a very good team around them every year like players like Russell or Duncan. Totally unfair to Kobe or anyone else when someone blasts them for not having continued success each year like Duncan when your teammates are incompetent. Though Duncan lost in the first round once when his team had a #1 seed, which has only happened 4x in history. 06/07 Smush would've been the 3rd best player on the Lakers in the 04 finals, and he's one of the worst nba players of all time. That's how bad everyone other Kobe/Shaq played in that series. None of them even remotely played like role players who any team would want on a contender, though several were injured.

Regarding weak supporting casts. Barry winning a title was impressive, but he only did it 1x. The west was awful that year. There were 2 powerhouses in the east which had a battle in the ECF. GS only had to go up against 1 contender, much like the heat these past few years, which makes it very difficult. If in the west this year, the Heat would've been a 6-7 seed at best. There were no legit contenders when Seattle won it. Dream didn't have another AS in 94, but his cast was at least as good as every other team's cast that he went up against. In 95, he had Drexler, and his cast again performed very well throughout the playoffs. That was impressive winning 4 tough series, but he still had the teammates. But, still only 2 finals. Mid 2000s Pistons overall underachieved. They should've at least made 1-2 more finals, but did well to capitalize in a weak year in 2004. If Lakers were full strength and Payton hadn't resolved to playing like a 60yo man, they would've most likely won.

Also, makes no sense to even think about blaming Kobe for costing his team a title in 04, which I've heard many times. Duncan lost in 2nd round to the lakers, and that's somehow doing better than making it to the finals? And Kobe outperformed him in that series as well. Should we blame Duncan as well?

Kobe has had 4 teams with the best record in the conf, making the finals all 4x, winning 3. Lebron/Duncan have each had multiple teams being #1 seeds, and not making the finals, and sometimes losing in the 1st/2nd rounds.

It's silly to think that lebron didn't have enough help on the cavs when they won 66 and 61 games back-to-back years. Nobody, not Jordan or Wilt or Kobe or Russell or whoever can win by themselves. Everyone fails, but his problem, at least in the playoffs, is either quitting or taking a backseat. Even this year, he didn't quit, maybe game 5 of the finals, but he was just coasting through much of the playoffs. Stephenson outplayed him for at least 2 games in ECF, and Leonard outplayed him the last 3 games of the finals. These guys aren't even AS. And Jason Terry outplayed him in 2011 finals. How can that stuff happen, especially when he's in his prime? He's been very lucky to have legit rosters for 6 years in a row. And his cast was definitely good enough in 2008 2nd round against C's to win, with Ray Allen still playing like garbage. He did overachieve in 2007 to his credit, until the finals, which makes his lollygagging play so many times in the playoffs very bizarre since then. Kobe stays aggressive, much like westbrook, and his default mode is to be more even more aggressive, which then results in his critics blaming him for hero ball and subpar shooting, which is sad.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 12:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, I would like to say one more thing. I don't necessarily mean to disparage Lebron when I say he's too focused on his efficiency. I think it's great that the new age players are focusing more on what kind of shots to take and their efficiency. I know in interviews Lebron, Wade and Durant have openly admitted to caring deeply about their FG% and some advanced stats. That's great. I just think an argument can be made that Lebron and those other eschew "efficiency" for "inefficiency" to the team's detriment sometimes, just like some could argue that Kobe sometimes is a little too gunner for his team's own good. It's not necessarily the fault of the players. The problem is that right now, we don't know where the equilibrium of efficient shooting is (from where the player is very cognizant of the spots they choose to score). Or where the diminishing (and even negative) returns of eschewing the ineffecient shots lies. The golden child may be the Houston Rockets and Harden. Jacking three pointers and driving to the hoop for fouls or high percentage shots are great for scoring efficiency in a vaccum. But in the playoffs we have seen that these scoring attempts are not in a vacuum, and there are diminishing and even negative returns on attempting this strategy. The hard part is finding that right balance of shot placement given a team's collective skill sets. (Spurs may have well figured that out this year for this years team. Very important point that it's for this group of players. Another may require a different equilibrium.)

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous:

The comparison between '04 Kobe and '04 Duncan isn't really valid; the problem isn't that Kobe lost, it's that Kobe lost while playing horribly and taking way more shots than a teammate that was dominating. Duncan lost because Kobe and Shaq played very well, and Karl Malone slowed Duncan (who, unlike Kobe, did not have an All-NBA teammate beside him that year) down. Now, if Duncan had, say, Allen Iverson on his team, and Iverson was hot while Malone was slowing Duncan but Duncan kept shooting dumb shots and ignoring Iverson? Then it would be a valid comparison.

As for the Cavs, being a great regular season team is fine, but it isn't everything. In the playoffs, defenses get tougher and force teams out of their first options; the Cavs had no second option. Nor could the really defend pick-and-rolls, as they had only one competent big PnR defender (Varejao) and no competent small ones… unless they stuck Lebron on the other team's PG, which meant Delonte or Mo Williams was then guarding somebody at least five inches taller than they were. It was a poorly constructed team, without either a true defensive anchor (I love Varejao, but he's not a dominant rim protector) or anyone who could score the ball with Lebron off the court. The 2009-2010 Lakers (the team that David brings up as a counterpoint to Lebron "not having enough help") could sit Kobe knowing that Pau could still produce a few buckets, and their combined length and mobility inside with Pau/Bynum/Odom made them at least somewhat capable of defending the paint.

Lebron was also Clevelands only significantly above average perimeter defender; they had no one like Ariza or Artest to stick on the other team's best scorer, so either they had to have Lebron do it (in which case he's then expending the most energy of anyone on either team on both sides of the ball and again, likely creating a mismatch somewhere else), or just live with the guy torching them. Now, despite their roster, they were still a good defensive team as Mike Brown is a good defensive coach and Lebron/Varejao and to a lesser extern West are mobile, willing defenders… but in a playoff environment they couldn't stop guys like Tony Parker (07), Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (08), Dwight Howard and his army of 3pt shooters (09), or Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce (10; even in you buy that Lebron quit, Boston had already beaten them three games behind some monster Rondo games (including 29/18/13 to reclaim home court); they had no guards who could… slow him down's not even the right word, because that implies he was doing what he normally does; Rondo played the best ball of his life in that series, and the Cavs were helpless against him.

PS: Lebron had 27/19/10 in the last game of that series. That accounted for nearly a third of his team's total points, over half of their assists, and about 40% of their total rebounds.

I'm not saying Lebron is/was better than Kobe (long argument for another day), I'm saying take them off the 2006-10 Cavs and the 2008-10 Lakers, and the Lakers destroy that Cavs team on both sides of the ball.

As for efficiency/passivity, I agree that Lebron needed to be more assertive in 2011. I don't agree that was the case this year; while it's currently en vogue to saw Kawhi outplayed him in the series, it isn't actually, you know, true. Over the entire series, he outscored Lebron once, and out-rebounded him once. Still impressive, but Lebron was far and away the best performer in these Finals; the difference is the the 2nd-8th best performers were all on the other team.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, you're obviously seeing a completely different game than the rest of us. It's obvious Kobe has been an elite defender for most of his career. He has the most 1st team all defense in nba history plus 3 additional 2nd teams. When you're 34/35, and logged as many minutes as he has, he will slow down a little. He is 15th all time in MP. He is a great help defender and a great on-ball defender. He has shown, even in his older age, he can guard the quickest of PGs like Chris Paul and frustrate them all game long. He can guard the 1-2-3 positions extremely well, and some 4's as well. The difference between him and most players is that he was probably better defensively than offensively his first few years in the league, and his learning curve to play great defense was very short. Most guys who end up playing great defense, lebron included, take years to start learning how to play that way. And lebron has had defensive-minded teams his entire career. Regardless of how little you think of his defense, it's surely not a weakness.

As far as 3 pt. shooting, his career pct. isn't great, but that's the thing, it's just a pct. If he was a spot-up shooter, he'd shoot 40%+. If he only shot wide-open 3's like lebron does these past few years, he'd be much better, too, but the defense doesn't give him those opportunities very often. As well as if he dialed back end of quarter 3's, late shot clock 3's, and end of game 3's when his team is down big and only chance is to shoot quick, low pct. 3's just to give his team a remote chance to win. Lebron doesn't do this stuff that much. And he's only barely better pct. wise at .341 to .335. Kobe's a much better shooter overall.

Your rebounding comment is the most ridiculous. Kobe, at 6-6, is probably just slightly above average size for a SG. 6-4 to 6-7 is usual heights for SGs. So, how exactly is he a good rebounder for his position, but a bad rebounder for his size?

Also, you should take a look at past rebounding leaders for guards in the league. Last year, at age 34, Kobe lead the league in rebounding for guards @ 5.6rpg. As a starter, he's never been below 5.1rpg in his career. He also led the league in rebounding for guards in 2012 @ 5.4rpg. 2nd was Westbrook @ 4.6rpg. Next best SG was Harden @ 4.1rpg. Not only is this not a weakness, he's arguably the best rebounding SG in history.

Everyone who thinks highly of lebron and/or lowly of kobe thinks very little of the 08-10 cavs. They didn't have that great #2 option, but let's look at similar teams since then. If Pau is evaluated accurately, he was a solid #2, but certainly not great. And after inconsistent Odom, not much is left for the lakers, unlike the 11-12 man deep cavs. Howard didn't have a great #2 in Orlando. Dirk didn't either and won a title. The spurs this year didn't even have a great #1, and they won it. Those cavs teams were built on defense first, but their overall offense was still very good. Heck, in 2010, they had 2nd team all defense Varejao coming off the bench. You can't ignore the fact that they won 66 and 61 games. And if lebron plays even remotely decent in 2nd round of 2008, they would've beaten the celtics, and probably at very least make the finals as well.

Efficiency is great, but it means very little when compared to playing the game the right way. Unless you're too tired or cramping, and even then, you should continue to play hard. That's the main diff. between Kobe and Lebron.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 1:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anoymous:

1) I stand corrected on the rebounding. I thought Kobe was a bit taller, and I didn't realize the average height of SGs had crept up as much as it had over the last ten years or so. Mea culpa.

2) Your point about their shooting, though, is ridiculous. It's hardly as if Lebron is frequently open, and while their career 3pt numbers are similar, the difference is that Lebron (who's career is likely at roughly its midpoint) started as a terrible three point shooter and became an excellent one; Kobe started as a bad one and stayed there. While it's true that Kobe has taken hand-grenades and end-of-clock heaves, so has Lebron; that's what the primary option does. It's ridiculous to suggest that Lebron is consistently "more open" than Kobe over their careers, considering that Kobe played with legitimate interior threats that demanded double teams (Shaq for… I wanna say 7 years? 8?) and Pau Galosh (5 years-ish), and Dwight Howard (an asshole, but also demanding double teams, for 1 year), but Lebron did not. Over the course of their respective careers, Kobe has been MUCH more likely to be open around the perimeter relative to Lebron, particularly having mostly played in significantly more sophisticated offenses.

Kobe is, in fact, a better midrange shooter than Lebron, and always has been. On the other hand, he takes a much higher percentage of his shots from midrange, too, while Lebron is more easily able to get to higher-proficiency areas in the paint, where Lebron routinely leads the league (or comes close) in attempts, makes, and percentage. Kobe's midrange percentage is better than Lebron's, but it is still much lower than Lebron's close range percentage… and Lebron takes the majority of his shots from in close, or from 3 (where, as mentioned, he is also way ahead of Kobe).

Lebron has been a significantly better 3 point shooter than Kobe for several years now, and 3pt shooting rarely seriously declines until near the end of a career; it is quite likely Lebron will stay in the 36-41% for the next 5-8 years.

That digression about shooting likely ate up too many words… main point coming in a second post.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 1:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

But again, my intention is not to debate Kobe vs. Lebron as players (mostly irrelevant till Lebron's career is at least closer to over), only as necessary in the discussion of 2010 Lakers vs. 06-10 Cavs.

Our primary disagreement seems to be that you think the Cavs superior depth (which is overstated but valid) is a bigger deal than the Laker's stronger top 3 and massive coaching advantage; I pretty vehemently disagree. Every team that has ever won the title has had at least two players who can capably create for themselves or others; the Cavs did not, unless you count Shaq's corpse in 2010, who could only play a few minutes at a time and was an enormous defensive liability.

Knocking '08 Lebron is ridiculous. Didn't he put up 45 in game 7 against Boston?

As for Kobe's defense, David and I have gone round and round on that. Basically, All-Defense teams say he's good, but Phil, his teammates, and even Kobe himself on some occasions, willfully admit that he's either outright bad, or at best a good defender who picks his spots. I've also seen probably 400 Kobe games in my life, if not more, and losing track of (or loafing off) of shooters is a common mistake for him; defense-first spot up shooters tend to light him up (think Raja Bell or Bruce Bowen). I do admit that Kobe generally turns on the juice, as it were, in the final minutes of close games, but I'd also contend that many of those games would not have been close to begin with had Kobe been playing attentive defense for the full game, instead of just five minutes.

Even allowing the belief that Kobe is a significantly above-average defender you claim he is, he's never been the all-around defensive force Lebron's become (swarming, blocking shots, tipping passes). Lebron is one of about six perimeter players I can think of that could influence games on defense as much as a great defensive big (others: Doc, Bobby Jones, Jordan, Pippen, Havlicek). Even elite perimeter defenders like Tony Allen and (allegedly) Kobe mostly only influence one opposing player; guys like Doc and Lebron compromise entire offenses.

The point of all that is basically that the Lakers, who depended on Kobe for offense but gave him help and didn't expect too much from him on D likely would have been fine with Lebron instead, whereas the Cavs, who depended almost exclusively on Lebron on offense and had no one else to guard opposing perimeter threats, would probably still have fallen short with Kobe.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 2:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Most of your comments are well reasoned--even if I disagree with some of your conclusions--but you have a serious blindspot concerning two areas: (1) Kobe Bryant's defense and (2) Kobe Bryant's performance in the 2004 Finals. I have interviewed many players and coaches and I have written detailed recaps of many, many Kobe Bryant games and your analysis of his defense is flawed. Regarding the 2004 Finals, Bryant obviously did not have a great series but it is absurd to act like he singlehandedly cost the Lakers the championship.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 3:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't say that Lebron doesn't shoot end-of-shot-clock shots, etc. I said he doesn't do it nearly as much as Kobe, which Lebron has admitted to himself, so you're wrong there. Kobe isn't worried about the stat gurus or pct. like Lebron and others are and have admitted to. Kobe is worried about playing hard consistently and giving his teams the best possible chance of winning night-in night-out. Even .5 less 3's/game that are 'hand grenades' would drastically change your shooting pct.

Kobe didn't shoot 3's particularly well until after the 2002 season, which he then worked on this greatly, which is well documented, and he greatly improved. He does occasionally shoot too many 3's, as does almost everyone, but knowing the situation is much more important than just looking at pct. He does have the nba record for 3's in a game.

Lebron is clearly given more leeway on the perimeter than Kobe has, which is probably a compliment to Lebron's driving ability. Teams still dare Lebron to shoot from the outside, regardless of how well he is shooting. Kobe is often double teamed beyond arc and almost every time he posts up. Lebron does get doubled, but nowhere to the extent that Kobe has been. This might be more to the fact that Lebron's always had many great 3-pt shooters around him. Kobe for the most part hasn't enjoyed this luxury as much. If Kobe has suposedly been 'much more likely' to be open, then why hasn't he?

Lebron had 1 good game against Boston in 2008, the rest of the series he mightily struggled. That series alone refutes your argument against him not having enough support. His 09/10 teams were much better, best in the league, but even in 08 against the eventual champs, all he had to was play just 'ok', and the cavs would've won. The 2011 mavs and 2014 spurs are recent examples of champions not needing that legit #2(or even #1 option with 2014 spurs) to win a title. Lebron's a stat stuffer a lot of the times, that's why stat guys, fans, and media like him a lot. His line was great in the last game in C's series in 2010, but he didn't have his usual impact in that game and was indifferent for many stretches, very misleading.

It's too bad you don't understand NBA defense or the impact that Kobe has had defensively on his teams throughout his career.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 4:54:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

Gonna dissect this a little bit as anonymous has taken the reins on other topics of discussion: “While it's true that Kobe has taken hand-grenades and end-of-clock heaves, so has Lebron; that's what the primary option does. It's ridiculous to suggest that Lebron is consistently ‘more open’ than Kobe over their careers.”

You are correct in your assessment that “This is what a primary option does.” As for Lebron actually doing it? Not so much. For years now (but especially the past three seasons), Lebron James has significantly tapered back taking bad shots. He’s had some historically great shooting seasons as a result. That said, as anonymous has pointed out—at times (crucial ones) this is to the detriment of his team. He certainly doesn’t chuck up end of quarter shots that often. He’s admitted as much.

Couple things wrong with your line of thinking. The first goes back to what I (and anonymous and David) have been trying to say. Yes, Lebron is the primary option, but he’s a primary option that has throughout his career actively not taken hand-grenades and end-of-clock heaves. In fact, he’s been the king of delivering hand-grenade passes. He still does this today, which is part of the reason why I think his label of “making teammates better” has been blown out of proportion.

Efficiency guys do this giving-up-the-ball-with-the-clock-winding-down shtick all the time. James Harden is one of the worst offenders. KD has even admitted publicly he doesn’t take mid-court heaves. Chris Paul often will shovel the pass to a teammate if he can’t figure out the defense in time. Chucking up difficult end of clock shots is why Jamal Crawford continues to close out games despite the fact the offense and defense flow much smoother with Redick on the floor.

Efficiency has become the mindset of many of today’s superstars. There was no reason why Lebron shouldn’t have at least tried to shoot the ball 35 times in game 5, exhausted or not. No one who watched that series would have thought he was wrong for doing so. The rest of his team hadn’t shown up for two games and he destroyed the Spurs in the first quarter. The only game they won, he continued to attack throughout. And yet, he took just 21 total shots, and then just sort of coasted through the rest of game 5. In the end his numbers looked terrific, but his team was blown out which makes his pretty numbers mostly hollow. Much like that Boston game.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 4:54:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Secondly, you said Bryant was “more open” because he played with post players that demanded doubles. I could argue that Pau demanded a lot less doubles than you think, Dwight Howard even more so, but that’s not the point. The point is, they clog the paint. The biggest paint clogger of all is Shaq. Bryant was forced to take more threes and live in the mid-range because his primary teammates were all clogging the paint. Bryant adapted his game to fit in with the personnel around him.

I’d argue that one is more open when the floor is properly spaced and spread out. Look at the SSL Suns and this year’s Heat as prime examples. Nobody feared any Lakers shooters from 08-10. Fisher hit, but teams were content to let him beat them. Farmar, Vujacic, Walton, World Peace, Odom—those were always better options for defenses than Kobe Bryant. Yes, the Orlando Magic and the 95 Rockets spread the floor around one dominant post player—but the 09-10 Lakers had no Robert Horry or Hedo Turkoglu, etc. Odom was a terrific P&R defender, every five games a dynamic offensive threat, and a very good rebounder—but he was an erratic shooter, and that’s framing it as positively as possible.

On the flipside, Lebron has had high quality shooters around him for the past 8-9 seasons. As mentioned before, all the Cavs guards could really shoot (averaged 39 percent from beyond) and the most recent Heat teams have had Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Chalmers, etc. If Lebron were on the 08-10 Lakers, Odom or Pau (when Bynum and Pau played together) would have to get out of the key and “spread” the floor. Opposing defenses, especially playoff defenses, would have left them wide open to double the paint. This would have forced Lebron to pull up for jumpers or give up the ball.

Again, he could have succeeded. But I don’t think he would have fared any better with the Lakers than he did with the Cavs—because of his mindset. The fact he could “sit out” without worrying about the lead wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the playoffs where they were both averaging over 40 minutes a game.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 6:33:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

One last itty bitty point. Say what you will about Wade (and I'm the biggest Wade detractor alive), he once had that blood-in-the-water instinct to attack. That pushed Lebron, who never really showed that prior to Miami.

In LA, he would have had Gasol, who is a tremendous player, but struggles to bring fire every night. Odom, the dictionary definition of an erratic performer. And Bynum's immaturity. Oh, and World Peace.

He could have had Phil too, but you seem to give Phil way more credit for the Lakers' success, while on the other hand give Duncan way more credit for the Spurs success.

Why the double standard? Is Phil that much better of a coach than Pop?

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 8:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

*Sigh* First post on Kobe's defense (and then I'll forfeit the point, as we clearly see things differently):

Horry (who played both with & against Kobe in the playoffs): "[When] Kobe is on the weak side, he needs to start paying attention to where the ball is and not be flying around, thinking he's some stealth bomber where he can get steals nonstop,"

Phil (2013), when comparing Kobe's D to MJ's “No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender. He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense. Kobe has learned a lot from studying Michael’s tricks, and we often used him as our secret weapon on defense when we needed to turn the direction of a game. In general, Kobe tends to rely more heavily on his flexibility and craftiness, but he takes a lot of gambles on defense and sometimes pays the price.”

Now, obviously Phil thinks more highly of Kobe's D than I do (or at least, doesn't want to slam him publicly anymore), but he also admits that Kobe gambles and pays the price. Let's keep going, though.

Back when he wasn't on as good of terms with Kobe, he said “Kobe’s defense, to be accurate, has faltered in recent years, despite his presence on the league’s all-defensive team. The voters have been seduced by his remarkable athleticism and spectacular steals, but he hasn’t played sound, fundamental defense. Mesmerized by the ball, he’s gambled too frequently, putting us out of position, forcing rotations that leave a man wide open, and doesn’t keep his feet on the ground.”

Here's a pretty-well documented takedown of Kobe's D by Zach Lowe, who's one of the savvier analysts I'm aware of, and often the one who tells so-called stat gurus to shut up and consider context. http://grantland.com/the-triangle/an-open-letter-to-kobe-bryant-about-his-defense/

Granted, that article is season-specific, but plays like the ones discussed have been emblematic of Kobe since at least 2005, and probably earlier, though I admit that perhaps there is some recency bias; I remember few games from the 200-2003 run, and haven't seen any recently. Perhaps he was better then.

There are a lot more articles like that, of varying quality, from journalists both respected and reviled. The idea that Kobe is an overrated defender is not one ignored by the basketball intelligentsia. Note that all four of my citations above hit the same notes "gambling," and several mention inattention. I've never said Kobe COULDN'T be a consistently good defender, only that he WASN'T. He had the tools, but he did not always choose to use them.

Now, reading these quotes and thinking harder about it, perhaps I'm too hard on Kobe on D; but then, isn't there a chance you lot are being too soft, as well? I'm probably exaggerating when I call him a "bad" defender, but it's a bit of a stretch, too, to call him a great one.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2014 8:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

On 2004 (also for the last time in this thread): I do not mean to suggest that Kobe was the only thing that went wrong for the Lakers. But it ludicrous to suggest that his selfish play was not one of the reasons they lost; Shaq was completely unstoppable, and the sensible thing to do (as Phil would tell you) would have been to go to that until and unless Detroit figured out how to deal with it… not jack up contested 30 footers.

On "openness": The argument that Shaq forces perimeter shooting is one that Dwyane Wade, 2006 Finals MVP, would like to talk to you about. He's a worse perimeter shooter than Kobe, but played excellently with Shaq.

Kobe got many easy buckets from playing with Shaq (and vice versa), and even Kobe would tell you so. Less so, perhaps, with Pau… but still so. Dwight is hardly worth mentioning and I regret bringing him up.

My greater point, that regardless of everything else, Kobe's teams could do SOMETHING on offense without him and Lebron's couldn't, is probably the most important. I believe that Phil Jackson and Lebron James could probably have figured out a way for him to be effective, even without Kobe's midrange expertise.

On Lebron's passiveness: I agree that he has sometimes been too passive in the past, though in this most recent series I understood it; even if he averaged 40, if he could not get his teammates going they were going to lose.

But in general, yes, Kobe has been more assertive, often to the benefit of his team (and occasionally to its detriment). I'm still not interested in arguing which player is better so much as whether Kobe would have won with Mike Brown's Cavs, or Lebron with Phil Jackson's Lakers.

On his alleged bad series in 2008: He scored, in descending order, 45, 35, 32, 21, 21, 21 (in a Cavs blowout, though), and 12. He has three very good games against a league-changing defense, and pushed one of the best teams of the decade to 7 games while his best teammate was Mo Williams. Worth noting is that Kobe's Lakers couldn't beat that Celtics team, either.

As for claiming the 2011 Mavs and 2014 Spurs didn't have a legit second option.. the 2014 Spurs had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Boris Diaw who could all create for themselves and/or others. I'd take every one of those players over Lebron's second best teammate in 2011.

The Mavs are a better argument, but I'd take the nuclear-hot Jason Terry or JJ Barea of that season over any iteration of Mo Williams any day. It also didn't hurt that they had two strong perimeter defenders (Stevenson and Marion) as well as an elite rim protector (Chandler). Lebron had a bunch of one-way spot up shooters, immobile bigs, and one good hustle defender in Varejao (who, as discussed, isn't a great rim protector). Hardly the same (though I don't think Lebron wins on that Mavs team if he replaced Dirk, but that's another argument, and we're already having enough).

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 1:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick F,

I want to chime in again to dispute something on Lebron James here. I believe that his defense has been overrated. It is still excellent, but the media has created something of an illusion (It's those ESPN chase down blocks). I also think your comparison of Lebron's versus Kobe's defense is missing context.

First point, Lebron James is not that great of a shot blocker. For a man of his size, athleticism and position, he does not accrue very many blocked shots. As a nominal power forward, he ranked near the bottom for total blocked shots and blocked shots on a per possession basis. Even as a small forward, he was only middle of the pack in both. As a matter of fact, his shot blocking has only been falling since his rookie season.

I also feel like his positional versatility is a bit overrated. He also does not typically guard the other team's best wing player. No, how Lebron has been making his hay as a defensive player has been using his athleticism to play fantastic cerebral help defense (especially in Miami). He aggressively hedges the driving lanes, dissuading further penetration, and then quickly recovering to his man. The entire Miami Heat defense has been constructed on this principle. (And everyone on the team failed to crisply run this in the finals this year. Give it up to the Spurs for a fantastic game plan and execution.) That positional versatility is great for spot defense, where at the end of a game Lebron can effectively cover a position giving the team a tough go to throw a wrench into the opposing offense. And you'll notice that this is essentially what Spoelstra does - an ace up his sleeve. When Spoelstra has show his hand too early, Lebron's deficiencies against non-ideal covers gets exposed. It's only been effective in spot minutes.

As for Kobe, I think he gets maligned a lot because his role as defender has noticeably morphed over the years. In his early days, he had Robert Horry and Shaq as his back line. That is some pretty good help. Therefore, he was tasked with locking down the best opposing wing player, which he did stupendously, earning multiple first team all-defense selections. As he lost those rim protecting back lines, Kobe had to let another player take the best opposing wing while he played free safety to do what Lebron does now. I think one thing that makes it harder for Kobe to do this effectively is that Kobe is a SG/SF for his cover, which makes his roaming help defense a much riskier prospect as that usually has his man much further from the best areas to aggressively provide help defense. (Notice that in the 2008 Olympics when Kobe had fantastic help defense behind him, he gladly played the bulldog again and set the tone defensively.) Lebron's man, when Lebron plays aggressive help defense, has been a SF/PF, who will be often closer to the hoop or corners. This makes Lebron's aggressive help defense less risky as there is less space for him to need to recover. You could see Wade exposed for this a lot the past two seasons as his athletic decline has made it harder for him to recover back out to the perimeter in a timely manner, something Wade used to do with aplomb.

A final food for thought, All-Defensive teams are picked by the head coaches, who know a thing or two about defense. Kobe received many, many first team nods (even when fans thought otherwise). I think that speaks volumes about the hidden variables that Kobe's defense brings to the whole team defense. I doubt coaches are just voting Kobe just on legacy.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 3:36:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

RE: Phil and Pop

No, I think Pop is actually slightly better than Phil (though such things are difficult to judge, especially because Pop has only coached the one team). But I think Phil *IS* that much better than Mike Brown, which is who he's being compared to in this argument. I don't think Duncan would win a title if you put him on that Cavs team, either, as they'd still lack a second option or strong perimeter defender. It would be pretty similar to the "down" Kareem years of the late 70s.

Again, I rank Kobe as an easy top 20 all-timer, and probably the second best 2-guard ever (I'd take West's skill set in a vacuum, but there's something to be said for winning; even after the Celtics finally died, and with Wilt and Goodrich, West only won once). But I don't think that David's assertion that the Cavs were a strong enough supporting cast to win the title holds water; I'm not sure there's any player you could replace Lebron with that would have made that team better than the teams that won the title each of those years, and I can't think of a single title team whose second best player wasn't better than Mo Williams. Maybe the Mikan Lakers? My knowledge wavers once you get into the 50s, but shy of that, I can't think of a single one. Granted, there are some that didn't have as great a player as Lebron on top to be sure ('79, '04), but those teams generally had 4-5 very good-great players, minimum. You could talk me into one or two of those Cavs being "very good", but not "great." And there certainly weren't 4-5 of them even in the "very good" range.

History shows that title teams usually have one great player, and either a lot of very good players (Walton's Blazers, Hakeem's Rockets, Dirk's Mavericks), or a second, lesser great player (minimum). The few teams that don't tend to have 3-5 guys who play at an all-star or near all-star level, and are generally very deep.

None of that applies to the Cavs, IMO. There are probably a few greats in specific seasons ('76 Doc, '67 Wilt, '96 Jordan) I think are significantly enough better than Lebron (or at least, Cavs era Lebron) that I could possibly be talked into it… but I'd still really need to be talked into it. Regardless of whether or not he quit, he lost to some truly great teams:

2007: Probably the weakest team he lost to, and the weakest of the Spurs' title teams (that, arguably, between suspensions and Tim Donaghy in the Suns series, didn't deserve to be there… another argument for another day), they still had peak-ish Duncan, a peaking Parker, Ginobili, and the basketball player I hate above all other basketball players, Bruce Lee Bowen. Oh, and Pop.

2008: The "Ubuntu" Celtics who revolutionized NBA defense and featured 3 (possibly 4) future Hall of Famers, an excellent coaching staff, and a deep bench of qualified, savvy role players.

2009: Dwight's apex year, as well as the one season where Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis played to their (otherwise ridiculous) contracts. Tremendous coaching from Stan Van Gundy (though Phil's Lakers team with Kobe/Pau/Odom/Ariza beat them pretty soundly… but was anyone on the Cavs that year besides Lebron even significantly better than Ariza? Let alone Gasol?).

2010: Cetlics again, though somewhat diminished. Still, much of what they'd lost was made up for by the incredible improvement by Rondo, and it's hard to say whether they would have won the title had they not been forced to play the mummified Rasheed Wallace as one of their two primary interior defenders.

Who's beating those Eastern teams, and then the Kobe/Pau/Phil Lakers, with that Cavs team? If you clone Kobe and put him on both teams, does Kobe + those Cavs beat Kobe + those Lakers? Only one of those teams actually ran an offense, so my money would be on them.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 3:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

In Sam Smith's book "The Jordan Rules," Bill Cartwright says that Michael Jordan is perhaps the greatest athlete he's ever seen but he's just not a basketball player. Is that the definitive take on Jordan's legacy or is that a snapshot of one man's opinion at one stage of Jordan's career?

The Jackson quote that you and so many Bryant critics love to quote ad infinitum comes from Jackson's diary of one season and reflects Jackson's day to day stream of consciousness thoughts, not a systematic evaluation of Bryant's entire legacy as a defensive player.

As for the Horry quote, did you research that one and deliberately take it out of context or did you just lift it from another source that took it out of context? The complete story can be found in the January 16, 2013 edition of the L.A. Times. Horry did indeed criticize Bryant's early season help defense, as the Lakers struggled at that end of the court with Mike (No D')Antoni coaching, Howard not 100% and Gasol sulking--but Horry also said that switching Bryant to guard the opposing team's top perimeter threat was the primary reason that the Lakers had just won two games in a row: "That's the only reason you won two games, you solved the problem." Horry did not say that Bryant was a bad defender or an overrated defender; he criticized one aspect of Bryant's defensive play early in a season when Bryant was already past his prime and playing for a coach who has little interest in NBA defense. Horry also said that putting Bryant on the opposing team's best perimeter threat solved the Lakers' most pressing problem. So, I think that you need to take that Horry quote out of your portfolio of "evidence" against Bryant's defense.

The rest of your "case" is similarly flawed as well; I did many in depth game recaps during Bryant's prime and I discussed in detail Bryant's defensive excellence. Contrary to your assertions, Bryant was a team leader on defense and he called out the defensive signals, which is very unusual for a guard (centers usually do this, because they can see the whole court). Shaq was indifferent at best on defense for most of his career (except for his first year under Phil Jackson) but Bryant has always played hard and well at that end of the court, though injuries and age have taken their toll in the past two or three seasons.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 3:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Since you love to cite "advanced basketball statistics" at the team level, it is worth noting that the 2009 Cavs team that won 66 games ranked fourth in ORtng and fourth in eFG%. For a team coached by someone who, according to you, has no clue how to design an offensive play, they somehow managed to be pretty "efficient" offensively over the course of an 82 game season. If that was all LeBron and had nothing to do with Brown and/or LeBron's teammates, then LeBron--who we can all agree added both mental toughness and some skill set refinements in Miami--should have won about 70 games a year after replacing Mo Williams et. al with two future Hall of Famers plus several good role players.

I interviewed Hank Egan, an assistant coach on Brown's staff in Cleveland, and early in Brown's tenure Egan told me that the staff was focusing on implementing core defensive principles before tinkering much with the offense. The Cavs improved markedly on offense during the latter part of Brown's tenure and throughout Brown's time there the Cavs were an excellent defensive team. Mike Brown is not Phil Jackson but the idea that Brown does not know how to coach is some propaganda from Cleveland media members who resented Brown's supposedly dull press conferences. He did not provide lively quotes, so the poor writers had to actually think to write their stories and the best that they could come up with were gems like "Brown can't coach offense" and "Brown does not make good in-game adjustments." Ask any great coach in any sport about "in-game adjustments" and you will find out that no one is coming up with some brilliant new strategy at halftime. You can only implement what you have already practiced and what your personnel are capable of doing. When Gregg Popovich is asked nonsensical questions about what adjustment he made to stop the other team, he usually says something like, "They stopped making shots." Brown was too polite for his own good and also did not have the status to take down media idiots the way that Pop does. I loved Pop's quote during the playoffs when some doofus asked him some question about guarding three point shooters and Pop said something to the effect of, "Hey, you've got some great ideas. When some room opens up on my staff, I'll give you a call." In other words, "Study the game and ask a real question, instead of talking out of your neck and making a fool of yourself."

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 4:07:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

As I said above, I'm pretty much done going back and forth about Kobe's defense, but I will comment on the periphery of the sources.

*The article I got that Horry quote from was, I believe, ESPN or SI, but they did not include the full context. So I apologize; it is never my intention to mislead.

*I disagree with that interpretation of Phil's book; any book that is published at that level or anywhere close is read, re-read, and edited ad-nauseum (this is a subject I can speak on with some authority, as I make a large percentage of my living writing, editing, and publishing books, though the majority of my experience is in fiction the editorial process is largely similar). Even if the book *were* Phil's unfiltered stream-of-consciousness impulse thoughts (which it isn't, at least not for the traditional interpretation of "stream of consciousness") and somehow was published without judicious editing and self-censorship, it still reflects the mindset of one of the 5-7 most intelligent basketball minds of all-time after six years of coaching Kobe Bryant (longer than anyone else has coached him). There's some merit there, and I'm not sure what source would be more qualified.

Phil's 2013 comments about Kobe's defense were nicer, but by no means were they a proclamation of greatness; in essence, he said that Kobe couldn't compare to Michael (few can), though he was an effective secret weapon when deployed as an individual lockdown player for a crucial stretch.. but also that he gambled too often and paid the price. The nicest words he uses are situational and subjective (though certainly complimentary): "secret weapon" and "craftiness"; at no point does he use positive qualitative words about Kobe, though he refers to Michael's defense as "laser focused" and claims he could "shut down any player." In response to the initial question, he opens with "no question," implying a great deal of space between the two of them. He praises Kobe, sure, but with qualifiers and not nearly as much as you'd expect him to if Kobe were nearly the All-World defensive talent he's often touted as.

I stand with 2003 Phil on the general validity of the All-Defensive team, and Kobe is far from the only reason why. It's a meaningless honor coaches pawn off to their assistants while all the best of them are busy thinking about the playoffs anyways.

Back to the book, and at a more speculative level, everything we know about Phil seems to indicate that he is a careful, laid-back, and thoughtful man; it seems against type for him to say, let alone print, an impulse thought that he did not mean.

I'm quite enjoying all these arguments, but it's becoming difficult for me to track them all (let alone respond intelligently), so I'll be limiting myself to the Cavs vs. Lakers aspect from here on, unless I cannot resist the urge to spar with David's inevitable questioning of my unpacking of 2013 Phil's words :)

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 4:09:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David:

Regarding Brown, I am perhaps too hard on his offense (and LA was not his fault, really), but I'd be quite curious to see what the Cavs' O-RTG was when Lebron sat, which is my larger point, or in the playoffs (or Finals) against more elite defenses. Let me see if I can dig those numbers up for you; Brown is not a terrible coach or even a bad one, but he is still significantly several levels below Phil or Pop, in my estimations.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 5:19:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David: Before finding the stats I wanted, I found another fun stats to mention.

*Much has been made of Cleveland's "wing shooters" that open the floor up for Lebron, but in 2010 against Boston in the playoffs, the Cavs shot only .276 from 3 (slightly worse than the Lakers, who allegedly did not have as good of perimeter shooters).

Now for the meat:

http://www.82games.com/0910/09CLE11.HTM

The Cavs were a net 15.8 points per 100 possessions better with Lebron on the court than off it; almost all of that was on offense (only about a point on defense, to my surprise), but it speaks to my point about not having a second scorer; they dropped from an elite offense to a bad one without Lebron (would have ranked 23rd in the league that year). The Laker offense without Kobe was a little over 2 pts better; still far from elite, but closer to average than bad (18th in the league).

I can't find on/off court playoff numbers for that season (stupid 82 Games stops at '09), but for '09 Lebron did the league in playoff "Roland Rating" (82 Games' measure of the difference a player makes in terms of on/off court production on a given team, determined by the difference in per 48 minute numbers for that team with and without that player ) in 09, 08, and 07. Bryant is in the top four in each of those seasons as well, but Gasol also appears on the leader board in 08 and 09, at 24th and 12th, respectively. The only Cleveland teammate that appears is Ilgauskus, in 08, at 31st. Odom also appears on the list, in 09, at 30th.

On the '09 Cavs, Joe Smith (in a small-sample size reserve role) was second to Lebron's 25 Roland Rating with 5.3. There is no season in which Lebron has a teammate within 10 points of his Roland Rating; the only season in which Kobe does not have a teammate (or 2) within 10 is 07, where Kobe's rating is about 11 higher than #2 Vujacic. Note that Kobe was bounced in the first round that season due to insufficient help (though Vujacic's 3.3 Roland would have been good for third on Lebron's 09 Cavs behind little-used Joe Smith and ahead of all starters). Gasol's 8 point Roland in '09 would have been easily good for second on every Cavs team by at least 2 points.

So, while some of my assumptions were wrong (mostly I overestimated how much Lebron influenced Cleveland's D (and yes, apparently underestimated Kobe's), my main point- that the Lakers could survive better when Kobe sat than the Cavs could when Lebron did- is supported by the available numbers; Lebron makes a net 3.5 points of difference more for the Cavs than Kobe for the Lakers per 100 possessions*; in a 7 game series, 24.5 points is a lot to lose.

*This is not a reflection of which player is better, only which player's team can function more ably without him; predictably, it is the team with the All-NBA power forward and the Hall of Fame coach.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 5:23:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

A quick note (no need to post if irrelevant): I can't see my previous post, so I can't check this, but I may have gotten confused and listed the first bunch of stats (net on-court/off-court before I got into Roland Ratings) as being from '09; they are from '10. I just couldn't find the playoff numbers for that season (or any season after till the current one) on 82 games.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 2:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

It would be difficult for media members to have a "much higher opinion" of Kobe Bryant than I do, as I consider him one of the all-time greatest players of all time. Some of the data I uncovered for that last post has softened my stance on him defensively- though I still maintain that he gambles too often, it seems his overall impact on defense is still a strong positive (would it be stronger if he didn't gamble so often? Yes. But is more the difference between very good and great than difference between pretty good and great as I originally perceived.)

Your point about Gasol is somewhat well taken, but it's not as if Gasol could not score when he was in Memphis. The On/Off court numbers for Kobe's Lakers are telling; they were about 12.3 points worse per 100 possessions without Kobe, regardless of whether it was Gasol or Odom or whoever else was running the offense in those minutes. The Cavs, on the other hand, were 15.8 points were without Lebron; those aren't especially "Advanced Basketball Statistics" they're just what happened when each player was on or off the court; while Kobe was obviously the most important player on the Lakers by a wide margin, his team was demonstrably less screwed when he sat than Lebron's Cavs were when he did, which was my original point.

Even if you flip their teams, it would not majorly affect the "star off-court" performances of the two teams; it is possible that Kobe would match or perhaps even exceed Lebron's performance while on the court, but it would not change the fact that the Cavaliers without Lebron are 15.8 points worse per 48 possessions, while the Lakers were "only" 12.3 points worse without Kobe. The star-less Lakers were better than the star-less Cavs, which was my point from the very beginning. It's not fair to say that Lebron should have won with the Cavs because that Cavs team was just as good as Kobe's Lakers, because every bit of available data says that it just factually isn't true.

If you want to argue that Kobe was enough better than Lebron that he could have won with an even crappier team than he did in the 07-10 Cavs, that's a different argument and one that's a little harder to attach concrete numbers to. But you can't really look at the numbers above and still argue that the 2-12 spots on the Lakers weren't overall stronger than the 2-12 spots on the Cavs, nor can you look at the "Roland Ranks" from the previous post and insist that the Lakers didn't have players besides Kobe who put a meaningful positive impact on the game, at least relative to Lebron's teammates in Cleveland.

As for Phil, you have spoken to more NBA personnel about Kobe's D than I have, and in a more official capacity. I've had the opportunity to ask Del Harris (Kobe's former coach) and Clyde Drexler about Kobe's game, but both were years ago and neither in an "on-record" capacity, so I'll choose not quote them, except to say that neither said anything to dissuade me from my perception of Kobe as an able but often inattentive or risk-prone defender.

Lebron's defense is a more interesting point, and the note about his block numbers being relatively low is a good one; however, I think the Sports Center factor helps him there, as there's an intimidation factor present when trying to shoot with Lebron nearby that is usually reserved for guys like Hibbert and Ibaka. More generally, I think I've succumbed slightly to recency bias in terms of Lebron's D, and am not sure he was quite the defender in Cleveland that he became in Miami.

None of that makes his Cavs teammates any better, or Kobe's Lakers teammates any worse, though.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 2:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

As to the All Defensive team…

Raja Bell, Tony Allen, and Shane Battier are widely regarded by intelligent basketball minds (and players, including Kobe who's praised all three of them for their defense, and even twice attempted to recruit Raja) as three of the best perimeter defenders of the last 15 years.

Between them, they have 3 First Team appearances and 4 Second Team Appearances. Jason Kidd, a very good defender but I would argue nowhere near the level of those three players, has 4 and 5, respectively.

I think even Kobe would tell you that Raja Bell was a better defender than he was (and possibly the others as well) yet he has 12 total appearances (tied for 1st all time). If the All-Defensive Teams are to be trusted, Kobe is not only the best perimeter defender of his era, but the best perimeter defender ever, above guys like Jordan (9), Gary Payton (9), Scottie Pippen (10), Bobby Jones (9 or 10 if we count ABA), Michael Cooper (8) and so on down the list.

Kidd made the team every year from '99-08, a period which overlapped with at least some of the prime years of Battier, Allen, Bell… and Payton (at first), and Bllups, and Doug Christie, and Kobe, and the good version of Dwyane Wade. Was Kidd consistently one of the four best defensive (and usually 2 best) guards during that stretch? Because I'd argue pretty loudly that he was not.

Again, I agree with Phil. I don't think coaches care that much about the team to begin with, but the heavy star-bias in the list (even guys like Bowen and Bell only started making the list after years of their teams contending and drawing more TV time, though both were always very good defenders) seems to suggest that many of the coaches, when filling out their ballots, are thinking more of a few big plays or sports center highlights than the thousand little ones that go into consistently excellent defense.

But then here I said I was done arguing Kobe's defense, and I'm roped in again (however peripherally). In the future, a much better way to convince me of someone's defensive acumen would be the on/off court numbers on that side of the ball, or their opposing player's shooting percentages and PER, or quotes from respected sources (like Phil), not the dubious and somewhat arbitrary honor of the All-Defensive team; after all, Hakeem Olajuwon was the best defensive center in the world for over a decade, but he made only five first teams, Jerry Sloan was arguably the best perimeter NBA defender of the 70s and made only 4 first teams, and Julius Erving never appeared on an NBA All-Defensive team, despite being probably the second best defensive forward in the world at that time behind (and even this is arguable) Bobby Jones.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 4:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Gasol was much more effective when he was on the court with Kobe than when he was on the court without Kobe. My recollection is that Kobe would often anchor the second unit, not Gasol. Gasol's FG% and offensive rebounding both increased after he joined the Lakers. Those stats tend to decrease with age but Kobe opened up the floor for Gasol to stroll to the hoop unchecked for layups, dunks, putbacks, etc. (Phil Jackson deserves credit for implementing that offense but it would not have worked as well with LeBron at that time because opposing teams would have gone under the screens, clogging the lane for Gasol and daring LeBron to shoot jumpers, a defensive tactic that is ineffective against Kobe). I predicted Gasol's statistical improvements before they happened and I pointed out specific examples of Kobe's impact on Gasol in my game recaps from that era.

The Last Season was a diary. I am sure that it was edited for grammar, space, etc. but the book was specifically written as a diary, reflecting Jackson's day to day thoughts. Not all of his books or interviews are like that but that particular book was.

I don't think that the All-Defensive Team voting process is perfect but in the years that I posted my selections before the official teams were announced my picks tended to match how the coaches eventually voted. I like to think that means that they and I took the process seriously and analytically. People who disagree with the results often say that assistants do the voting anyway but (1) assistant coaches should know who the best defenders are because they help to prepare game plans and (2) I have never heard any concrete evidence of rampant dereliction of voting duty by head coaches.

I have spoken with, among others, then L.A. assistant coach Jim Cleamons, Hubie Brown, Steve Kerr (who was an exec with Phoenix at the time) and many other NBA insiders about Kobe's defense and not one of those people would agree with your assertions about Kobe's defense. So, either you are seeing something that none of us sees or perhaps you may want to reconsider your opinion.

The team data is interesting but during the seasons in question I covered the Cavs in person many times and I had the opportunity to not only see the Lakers in person on some occasions but also to speak with many people around the league. I know how those Cavs' teams were built and coached and I know the dynamics of how Brown interacted with the media. I also know that NBA insiders raved about Kobe's complete skill set, his toughness and his competitiveness. People who actually know NBA basketball--i.e., not most members of the media, not most "stat gurus" and not most fans--have a much higher opinion of Kobe than you do.

Switching back to Jackson one last time, it is important to distinguish between things that Jackson said in an analytical capacity, things that he wrote in a diary and comments he made in the middle of a season to fire up particular players. He once said something about Kobe intentionally sabotaging a high school game so that Kobe could lead a comeback and be a hero. Was that true? Did Jackson have any way to know that? I doubt that he was scouting Lower Merion games while the Bulls were winning titles. Jackson likes to tweak people, so the context of his statements is very important. I had limited opportunities to speak with him directly but I was in a few media packs that asked him questions and it was interesting to see how he worked the room. Everything he says has a purpose. He does not answer the same question the same way every time, depending on who is asking and who his audience is. Would he (and most insiders) rank MJ as a better defender than MJ? Most likely. Does Jackson think that overall Kobe is a poor defender who hurt the Lakers and should not have made the All-Defensive Team? Very doubtful.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2014 8:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Ugg. I just had a long, Math-Happy post and Blogger spasmed as I tried to submit it. If it didn't go through, here are the quick & dirty bits:

*Using Rolands, I calculated the playoff per-minute and per-game gaps between the Lakers with/without Kobe and the Cavs with/without Lebron in 09; Lebron's team was about 3.5 points worse during 6.6 minutes Lebron sat, Kobe's team was about about 2.5 worse during the 7.1 minutes he sat.

*Per minute, the Cavs were about .5 points worse, the Lakers about .35.

*Extrapolating from there, I adjusted each player's Rolands for minutes played, and subtracted them from their team's playoff PPG to find out how each team would produce without their star over 48 minutes; The Lakers ended up at 88 (roughly equivalent to a 1st round Eastern Conference team), while the Cavs ended up near 74 (terrible).

*I also tried taking the adjusted Rolands from +/- instead, as that more fully incorporates defense. The Kobe-less Lakers become a -8.3 team (terrible), but the Lebron-less Cavs became a -14.8 team (historically awful).

So, depending on which metric you trust more, the non-Kobe Cavs are either 14 PPG and/or 6.5 +/- points worse (in the playoffs, at least) than the Kobe-less Lakers.

*For bonus points, by using both numbers, we can speculate on how many points they'd give up (this number is probably flawed as I feel like you kind of have to pick either +- or PPG to take the Rolands from, not both):

Lakers: Pretty good, actually, giving up only 94.5 PPG

Cavs: Even better, giving up just 88.8 PPG.

The real Cavs and Lakers each gave up about 100.4 and 100.7 in the playoffs. These hypothetical numbers above actually make some sense, as they reflect points, not D-RTG; without Kobe or Lebron, both teams' lack of another off-the-bounce creator (except for kinda Odom) would force the pace to slow to a crawl; it's not that they're better defensively, it's that they'd be taking a lot more 22 second possessions.

Anyways, that digression aside, every available number we have says that the Kobe-less Lakers were a much stronger team than the Lebron-less Cavs, which was my original point. Whether you prefer the 14 PPG gap or the 6.5 +/-, it's pretty hard to argue at this point that no-Kobe Lakers weren't significantly better than the no-Lebron Cavs.

Though I imagine at least one of you will try :)

PS: In case previous post didn't go through: This conversation, and investigating his on/off court data, has softened me some on Kobe's defense. I maintain that he gambles too much and can be inattentive, but those lapses appear to be made up for and then some by what he does when he is paying attention, or when his gambles pay off. I still don't think he's an All-Defensive caliber defender (at least not a 12 timer), but I not longer think he's a bad one. He failed the eye-test for me, but On Court vs. Off Court numbers are about the most cut-and-dried statistic there is for a big-minute player, and it's only zealous fan-boys who can't admit they're wrong when confronted with the facts.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 11:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree with you that Erving should have made the All-Defensive Team more than once (1976, ABA). As for Kidd, Battier et. al. that is a discussion for another day but I think that coaches favor great defenders who log heavy minutes over great defenders who are specialists in limited minutes. Kidd led the Nets to two Finals and then played a key role for Dallas' championship team.

Kobe "recruited" Raja Bell not necessarily because Kobe believed that Bell was a better defender than he was but rather because he believed that Bell was a better defender than the other Laker guards.

Bias toward stars may help a star at the end of his career in terms of winning awards but then wouldn't it also hurt in the beginning, when voters choose to honor established stars over young hotshots? Even if one assumes that this is how the voting goes, the totals should balance out in the end even if one quibbles about the selections in a particular year.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 12:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The other comment that you alluded to never showed up but thank you for summarizing your main points. Those numbers are interesting, though I don't have the time to fully digest and analyze them; two things I would say are (1) those numbers do not explain why certain player combinations perform better than others (four games in five nights, other factors that are not listed in the numbers) and (2) the sample sizes for various lineups may not be large enough to be statistically significant (certain lineups may have been used disproportionately against very strong teams--which could hurt their efficiency--while other lineups may have thrived in garbage time).

At their peak, the Mike Brown-coached Cavs had a big, deep frontcourt, an underrated backcourt, a very sound and well-implemented defensive philosophy and a versatile, all-around superstar leading the charge on the court. Shannon Brown and Danny Green, who later were solid role players for championship teams, could barely get on the court for the Cavs--and this was not because the Cavs misused those players or didn't know how good those players were: I remember coming to the arena before a game and talking to then-Cavs' GM Danny Ferry while we watched the players who did not dress (guys like Brown and Green) play two on two with each other/assistant coaches. I spoke with Ferry about the depth of the active roster and he immediately mentioned that not only was the roster deep but that the Cavs had quality players who did not even dress. I think that it is telling that Brown could not beat out the supposedly bad Cavs' guards but as soon as he landed in L.A. the supposedly deep Lakers made him a key rotation player. Did he really improve that much overnight? No.

It is a shame that so many people buy into the nonsense that the Cavs were a one-man team with a bad coach. Brown has really gotten the shaft several times; the Cavs should never have fired him after back to back 60-win seasons, the Lakers hardly gave him a chance and then the new Cavs' front office fired Brown after just one rebuilding season.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 1:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

The sample size of those lineups is the entirety of time they played in the 2009 playoffs, so there were no back-to-backs or other scheduling quirks influencing them. It is 100% of the playoff minutes for the Cleveland Cavaliers without Lebron, and the Lakers without Kobe. If anything, those stats undervalue Kobe and Lebron, as the lineups that did not feature them mostly were not playing against opposing starters, while Lebron and Kobe mostly were.

If you prefer the regular season on/off numbers, Lebron's regular season Roland Rating that year was 23.5 and Kobe's was 12.6. Using the same math as in the previous post (adjusting Kobe/Lebron's Roldands to their minutes played, then subtracting from the team's total PPG and/or +-) gives us:


Cavs: 87.9 PPG, and/or -11.5. A lot better than they were in the playoffs example (which makes sense, as playoff teams are harder), but still pretty bad. Seems like they'd be giving up 99.4 PPG, but again I'm less confident in the math used to reach that number (seems wonky to subtract the modified Roland from two things in the same equation, though the results largely make sense).

Lakers: 97.4 PPG and/or -1.8. That's not great, but much like the numbers we got for them with the playoffs, makes them basically a 1st round Easter playoff team. If the defense math works, they'd be giving up 99.2 PPG, which also sounds about right.

Either way, the no-Kobe Lakers figure out to be about 10 PPG better than the no-Lebron Cavs.

You can complain about Sample Size if you like, but now that I've done the regular season math, too, the Sample Size is quite literally every single minute played by either team in the '09 season. Admittedly, there is some small noise in the stat, but the noise actually hurts my point (Kobe/Lebron led lineups are more likely top play other teams' best lineups), so it doesn't actually change the conclusion.

It's nice that Danny Green (whose shooting percentage went up by 10% when he got to SA and their legendary shooting coach) and other role players couldn't get on the court for Cleveland, but it doesn't change the fact that it's a star driven league, and without Lebron Cleveland didn't have anyone remotely approaching star-level play. They didn't have shot creators, and while they had a very strong defensive philosophy, they didn't have any elite perimeter defenders, either.

Again, I'm not saying Lebron is better than Kobe, I'm just saying Kobe got a lot more help from his guys than Lebron got from his. Every available piece of evidence backs me up; your counterargument seems to be that the Cavs' teammates were underrated, but their performance in minutes that Lebron did not play (and that's several hundred over the course of a season) does not back you up, nor does the performance of any individual member of that team the next season except perhaps for Danny Green.

Speaking of, while I can't find the playoff Rolands for 2010 (the team you most often site), I can find the regular season. Here's how it shakes out for that year:

Cavs: 86.1 PPG, -9.5 (so, better than 09, but still really bad)

Lakers: 91.5, -6.5 (worse than the previous year, which makes sense as Artest was a big step down from Ariza).

So, our sample size is now two entire seasons and one entire playoff. Still claiming the Cavs supporting cast was just as good as the Lakers?

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 1:34:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Also, to your Brown/Green point.

My argument has never been that the Lakers were deeper; only that they were better. The Cavs are obviously stronger from about roster spot #6 or so on down, but #2-5 play more a lot more minutes and matter a whole lot more. For example, Mo Williiams, often considered the Cavs' second best player (though my pick would be Vareajo) actually posted a negative Roland for 2010; despite playing with Lebron many of his minutes (who posted a 19.7 Roland that season), the Cavs were STILL better without Mo Williams on the court than on it. Among rotation players, only 2 Cavs besides Lebron posted positive Rolands (Varejao +6, Jamison +3). By contrast, LA had four players besides Bryant with positive Rolands (Gasol +7.1, Bynum +3.9, Artest +3, Odom +2.6).

The allegedly very good Shannon Brown posted a -4.5 Roland for LA, though that makes sense as he played mostly the same position as Kobe.

What would it take for you to admit you might have been mistaken about the relative strength of the Cavs and Lakers, David? I've shown you an objective statistical measure of how the teams performed without their stars that factors in over two seasons' worth of gameplay, I've pointed out repeatedly that one team was coached by Phil Jackson and one team was not, and I've noted that while there is a small amount of noise in the stats (though 170-180ish games is about as large of a sample as possible), the noise actually favors your argument over mine because of the way minutes are allocated.

Also, Jordan, as you've been quiet for the last few exchanges, any thoughts on these numbers?

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 2:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Bah. Noticed an error in my post about the 2009 and 2010 regular season Rolands; I was looking at "Simple Ratings (which are similar)" instead of Rolands. Corrected numbers below.

09 Lakers: 98 PPG and/or -1.2 (fringe playoff team)
09 Cavs: 93.8 PPG and/or -8.4 (deep in the lottery, but not league worst)
10 Lakers: 91.2 PPG and/or -5.2 (bad, to be sure, but not as bad as the Cavs)
10 Cavs: 89.3 PPG and/or -7.7 (again, pretty bad but not league worst)

The margin is much closer in 2010, as the Cavs got a little better while the Lakers got a lot worse (probably the loss of Ariza to blame there). But 2.5 +/- is basically the difference between this year's (regular season) Pacers and Bulls. Would you argue those teams were about just as good?

Also, throw out my comment from last post about the Roland ratings of teammates; I was again looking at Simple Rating there which is different.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 2:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

My short answer would be that I don't believe that those statistics are accurate enough or precise enough to draw the broad, sweeping conclusions that you reach. Your contention is that LeBron is so good that he lifted a terrible, poorly coached team to 60-plus wins in back to back seasons. If that is true, it is reasonable to ask why the Miami Heat were not even more successful than they were in the past four seasons.

Shaq, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, Ariza, Kwame, Smush, Shannon Brown, Radmanovic, etc. all had their most productive and/or most efficient seasons playing alongside Kobe. I don't think that is a coincidence and I don't think that Phil Jackson deserves all of the credit, either. Kobe pushes his teammates, on and off of the court. That is well documented and that extends to his role on Team USA as well, when his teammates were already well decorated.

The only other thing that I can add is that during those seasons (circa 2007-2010) I wrote extensively about Kobe and LeBron. I analyzed their games individually and I also wrote at length about their teams. The articles that I wrote during that era explain very clearly what I think about Kobe and LeBron. I did not focus on "advanced basketball statistics" in those articles because I do not believe that those numbers are the best way to evaluate players or teams.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 5:09:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

We could go round and round on several of these discussions, so the only thing I'll add is that you are correct about the discrepancy between the Cavs and Lakers. 2009-10 Kobe might not have carried the Cavs as far as 2009-10 Lebron. Lebron was arguably better than Kobe at that point in their respective careers. I believe David has repeatedly made this known here on this very blog.

I feel that Lebron was better in terms of the ability to do more. This was not because he was more skilled than Bryant, but more because he was younger, more athletic, bigger, and stronger.

He was still not as complete a player as Bryant (post game was non-existent, his mid-range game only showed up when everything else was on, and he was still a relatively mediocre three point and freethrow shooter as well).

The Celtics and Magic were both tough teams and Lebron put up some tremendous numbers against each. I think he averaged 38, 8, 8 against the Magic. Not much more he could have done. That said, the 09 and 10 Cavs were still championship caliber teams. Any comparison to Bryant's Smush Parker teams is what got this conversation heated in the first place and has no place in smart commentary.

The Cavs, much like the Thunder this year, just ran into a hotter Magic team and a better Celtics squad.

I will still contend that Kobe, but especially 05-07 Bryant, would have been perfect for that Cavs team directly related to what makes him different from Lebron. Even in 09-10, Bryant was a more complete player and could have utilized the players on the team better. Getting wipeout picks from Wallace, Varejao, an engaged Shaq and Big Z, is something that 09-10 Lebron couldn't fully take advantage of in the ways that Bryant could. And while a lot can be made about Lebron's elite passing, Bryant is an elite passer when he wants to be. In a system that would feature him creating, he'd average a lot more assists and would fill up the boxscore and boost up his PER while Lebron's assists and rebounding numbers (and most likely his shooting percentage) would plummet on a Lakers team featuring Odom, Gasol, Bynum, and the Triangle.

Somewhat related to this I should point out, is that while the disparity you showed in the on/off numbers of both Bryant and Lebron definitely prove the Cavs were a lot worse without Lebron than the Lakers were without Kobe, those numbers would definitely change if indeed the players were switched.

The Lakers offense would not have been as good with Lebron. Either he would have taken too many shots away from the Lakers bigs (something he wouldn't have done because he defers whenever he can) or he would have had to take a lot more shots that he simply was not very good at taking back then. His overall numbers would fall, his usage rate would fall, and thus his overall impact would not show up in the numbers the way they did on a Cavs team built specifically around his ability to dominate.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 7:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

That is not remotely my assertion. If it were, your point about "why didn't the Heat play better, then?" would hold more water (but more on that in a minute). My assertion, as I keep saying, is that your claim that the LA Lakers supporting cast from 08-10 was no stronger than that of the Cavs, and that therefore Lebron "should" have won a title, is an inaccurate one. Regardless of whether the Cavs cast was good or bad (or more realistically, somewhere in between), the Lakers one was better.

Roland Ratings are not advanced basketball statistics in the way that something like PER or eFG% is. Their value is limited to showing how a team performs with, or without, a given player. They do this by taking all the points scored and allowed while a player was on the court and off it, then pro-rating the results to a 48 minute sample size so that you can compare apples to apples.

They do not show if one player is "better" than another, as they only evaluate a player within the context of the team they play with.

I took them one step further, by adjusting to Rolands to minutes played and calculating the impact they had on a per-game basis, as that's much more valuable than a hypothetical "per 48 minute" sample.

At the end of the day, though, they're just points, the most fundamental and basic of basketball statistics. There is no room for interpretation; Rolands tell us exactly how many more points were scored or allowed with or without a player; they do no extrapolation or suggestion.

There is *some* noise to Rolands, obviously, but the noise actually favors "deeper" teams, which you assert the Cavs are, as they only analyze minutes during which the removed star was not on the court; I.E., not against opposing starters, and not at the end of competitive games. This favors teams with a deep bench. However, the Lakers still played significantly better than the Cavs (without Kobe or Lebron), despite having (and I think we both agree on this) a much shallower bench.

This is not a speculative statistic; it is only a documentation of what happened on the court, and factors in the context ignored by narrower, overly specialized "advanced statistics" (injuries, coaching, etc.) by default.

With the result we have, the only real way to argue that the two teams were similarly talented without their stars would be to claim that the Cavs starters were so significantly better than the Lakers starters that the Cavs are being unfairly punished by having the minutes those players played alongside Lebron removed.

However, by looking at the Rolands of each team's respective starters, this is clearly not the case. The Los Angeles Lakers objectively, numerically outperformed, in both playoffs and starters, the Cleveland Cavaliers without their respective stars.

They allowed fewer points and scored more of them. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

 
At Sunday, June 22, 2014 8:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Now, as to the Heat. There's a short answer and a long one.

"Why didn't' the Heat win 70 games if Lebron makes his teams so much better?"

Shortest answer: You can put five 30pt scorers on a team, but you won't average 150pts.

Short answer: It isn't about addition; adding multiple dominant offensive players, while a good idea, to a team lowers the impact of each as there are still only so many possessions per game. The fact that they made the Finals 4/4 years as opposed to 1/4 is a pretty good indicator the Heat were better than the Cavs in my opinion.

Long answer: Building on the above, let's remove Lebron from the Heat and see how they turn out.

in 2011, he posted 9.9 Roland in 38.8 minutes. His per game Roland is therefore about 8. The Heat's per 48 minute numbers with Lebron have them being about 10.7 points better than their opposition per 48 minutes… so still just under a point better than their opposition with him.

The Cavs, on OTH, were about 11.2 points better than their opposition per 48 w/ Lebron (similar to the Heat), but -4.5 worse without him. Almost all of that loss (about 15 points worth) was on the offensive end, where Cleveland's alleged shooters could not create for themselves.

The Heat were actually slightly worse on offense when Lebron played in 2011 than the Cavs were in 2010, largely because they didn't figure out how to play together till halfway through the season, and because that year they were basically a three-man team (again, regular season). However, they significantly outperformed the Cavs when Lebron sat, and the ability to survive those stretches in the playoffs by leaning on Bosh or Wade (which the Cavs couldn't) allowed them to advance.

The Heat also tended to coast against bad teams (the early signs of Lazy Wade even then), while the Cavs ran them off the floor.

I've figured out how to calculate Rolands for seasons or playoffs in which they aren't posted (PS: Doc's from '76 are INSANE), so let's see if the Cavs and the Heat were still comparable in the playoffs when defenses tightened up and the pressure was on.

They take a little while to tabulate (a lot of cross multiply and divide to find the various numbers you need), but I'll be back with those when I need to procrastinate at some point.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 12:07:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Playoff Rolands for the Heat and Cavs:

Playoff '10 Cavs Lebron: 25.65 Roland (highest we've seen yet, IIRC)

Playoff '11 Heat Lebron: 14.3 Roland (high, but about where Kobe averages).

While their regular seasons saw at least somewhat similar Rolands for Lebron (15.8 for the Cavs, 9.9 for the Heat), the playoffs were a very different story. And it's in the playoffs where the teams' respective successes and failures stand out; basically, Lebron's supporting cast in Cleveland was good enough for the regular season, where there's less of an emphasis on defense, but got crushed under the increased pressure and defense in the playoffs. The Heat, on the other hand, fumbled their way through figuring themselves out in the regular season, but turned on the jets in the playoffs and never looked back.

Don't get me wrong, that Heat team without Lebron (which gave legitimate playoff minutes to the corpse of Juwan Howard) would obviously have been toast without him, but he was about 11 points per 100 possessions less valuable to them than the Cavs, as the Cavs had no one else to lean on.

Also, again, note that the only real noise in Rolands is that they favor teams like the Cavs (lots of rotation players, relatively little variance between the quality of a starter and a bench guy) vs teams like the Heat (whose starters are by far their best players and play many minutes with the removed star); the gap is likely much larger. If someone could point me in the direction of lineup data for those playoffs, I could probably figure out how much larger… but I don't know where to look.

Again, and finally, Rolands are not a metric of how good a player is, only a metric of how much his team needs him; the Heat needed him to make them about 14 points better per 100 possessions (actually, about 11 or 12 would have gotten it done) to win a title, but the Cavs needed him to make them 25.65 better… and that wasn't even enough.

Bringing it back around one last time, everything from Rolands, to playoff results, to +-, to All-Star nods and All NBA teams indicates the Cavs cast was too weak to win a title.

The one piece of evidence you keep going back to- their regular season record- is nice, but that's a notoriously noisy statistic itself, and does not account for the increased defense and strategy found in the playoffs; it's one thing to loose to Mike Brown's crafty defense and inside-out spot up offense in the regular season, but when teams have time to game plan, you need stars and superior coaching (note the abysmal 3pt #s by the 2010 Cavs team in the playoffs, despite their reputation as a team of shooters).

Put more simply; a deep cast of role players in the regular season is fine, but in the playoffs you need at least 2-3 guys who can consistently create their own shot. The Cavs only had 1, and the Roland numbers show that whenever he sat, they were awful. If you think you can name a championship team whose best player posted a higher Roland that 2010 Lebron, I'm game to crunch the numbers for you ('76 Doc's playoff Roland is so much higher than that or any other one I've seen that I'm now pretty sure I miscalculated, but even if I didn't: it's Doc during the best 13 games of his career; I think you've said yourself nobody's ever been better than Doc in those Finals).

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 12:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

You are correct that, in my estimation, LeBron surpassed Kobe (at least in terms of having the physical capacity to sustain his performance level over the course of an 82 game regular season) circa 2009.

The Lakers in that era had a better starting five than the Cavs but the Cavs had better depth and were a better defensive team. My contention is that if LeBron had not quit--and if he had added a postup game and an improved perimeter shot--then he would have led the Cavs to at least one title. I believe that if Kobe had been swapped for LeBron during those years Kobe would have led those Cavs' teams to at least one title. I do not believe that the LeBron of that era would have led those Lakers to any titles. LeBron would not have gotten the max out of Gasol; LeBron, by his own admission, needed Wade to tell him that the Heat were his team and that he needed to step up. Gasol would have never said that to LeBron and LeBron would never have pushed Gasol the way that Kobe did.

I agree with you that the Roland numbers are not ideally suited to being used the way that Nick is using them and I think that Roland himself would agree with that; the Roland Ratings suggest how much a particular player meant to his team but they are not meant to suggest how that player would have performed with another team. If Kobe had played for a defensive-minded team with a fleet of bigs then his Roland Ratings may very well have been just as high as LeBron's were--and if LeBron had played in the Triangle but not been willing or able to run it as well as Kobe then LeBron's Roland Ratings may very well have gone down. The Roland Ratings are interesting but it is a mistake to try to draw definitive conclusions from them.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 1:21:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

My intent with the ratings was not to suggest Lebron would succeed on the Lakers or that Kobe would not succeed on the Cavs; only that the Lakers were a stronger team than the Cavs. In the process of deriving a Roland, you have to first solve for the O-RTG and D-RTG of a team without its star, which is where I'm drawing most of my conclusions from (the Rolands incorporate this data, but I should have been clearer).

If I were to venture into "Lebron Lakers" or "Kobe Cavs" land, I suspect that the Cavs would still not win (Kobe would still need to sit, and they would still be miserable without a creator on the floor; Kobe would also, like Lebron, find his normally reliable shooters chucking bricks against more sophisticated playoff defense), and that the Lebron Lakers would probably also not win, or at least win less (as Lebron's lack of a midrange game would make him less ideal than Kobe for that system), but that is all much more speculative than looking at the straight Rolands (and associated O and D RTGs) of the two teams. Putting Lebron on a team built to his strengths as the Lakers were built to Kobe's, and with comparable talent and coaching (essentially, the Cavs with a legitimate second star) then I do think he would likely have won a few titles.

My main contention was simply that Kobe had a stronger supporting cast than Lebron did, and I think the Rolands and associated numbers prove that. Therefore, while it is fair to suggest that Lebron should have improved/played harder and may have won a title, it is somewhat less fair to suggest that Kobe took just as weak of a team to two titles; he didn't. In fact, I'd argue that Kobe has never made the Finals with a team as weak as the '07 Cavs (though admittedly that Cavs team would not have even sniffed the Finals in the West).

Anyways, sorry this keeps being interpreted as Lebron vs. Kobe- I think 2009 era playoff Kobe is a bit better than 2009 era playoff Lebron, for the record. I just don't think it's fair, given the evidence, to insist that the failure of the Cavs of that era is chiefly on Lebron; teams have won titles with much weaker top players than 2007-2010 Lebron, but those teams were significantly better constructed and/or coached than his Cavs.

Even if he did quit in '10 (though my suspicions tend more towards emotional fragility than outright surrender), it's highly unlikely he could have beaten both the Celtics and the Lakers (even if he played Kobe to a standstill) and won a title with the team he had.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 1:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I understand that a team with five former 30 ppg scorers won't average 150 ppg--but if LeBron truly "made his teammates better" to the extent that you are suggesting and that "stat gurus" believe then his Heat would have performed even better than they did the past four seasons. LeBron teamed up with two other future Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers (though Wade subsequently aged quickly) and yet he won the same number of titles in a four year span that a slightly past his prime Kobe won with Pau Gasol (who no one was touting as a HoFer--or even a perennial All-Star), an erratic Lamar Odom and an Andrew Bynum who put up Luc Longleyesque postseason numbers during the Lakers' title runs. One of the Lakers' key reserves, Shannon Brown, shot hoops with the Cavs' assistants when he played for Cleveland.

Numbers can be used any way that a person chooses and I think that LeBron is great--the best player in the league since 2009--but I just don't think that he is quite as great as the "stat gurus" say and I think that he plays in a way to pad his personal numbers as opposed to doing what has to be (or should be) done to win. Kobe will sacrifice his FG% to try to get one more bucket at the end of the shot clock or the end of a quarter. Kobe will take a hand grenade instead of lobbing it to a teammate because Kobe believes that he can make that shot.

Kobe made the difference down the stretch for Team USA in 2008; yes, FIBA play is different than NBA play but Kobe's mental approach was far superior to LeBron at that stage. Even now, after LeBron has improved a lot, I still don't think that he has reached the level that Kobe reached at his peak. It bears repeating again: a slightly past his prime Kobe won two titles with Pau Gasol. LeBron, in the prime of his career, had a player at least as good as Gasol (Bosh, a 24-10 player before sacrificing his personal numbers in Miami) plus a player who was touted in some quarters as LeBron's equal or near equal and the Heat played in the weak East but they still could not exceed what Kobe accomplished. Put prime Kobe with prime Wade and prime Bosh in a weak conference and Kobe would have likely won three titles, if not four--and Kobe would not have put up with Wade's attitude this season or Wade's lack of defensive intensity.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 1:28:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Comparing the supporting casts of the Lakers and Heat (just saw that comment) is a much more interesting argument, but not one I feel especially strongly about in either direction (though replacing Lebron with Kobe would make the Heat's already significant rebounding, rim protection, and paint-scoring issues even more problematic).

The Heat of 2012-2013 were certainly better than the 09-10 Lakers, I'd agree. Not as sure about the 2011 Heat (woefully shallow; their fourth best player might have been Mario Chalmers and they had not totally found the identity that made them champions yet), or the most recent iteration (which looked good for a few rounds but ended up a one-man show similar to the Cavs teams we've been discussing due in large part to both fatigue and age, though I can't quite figure out why they didn't use Bosh more often as an offensive weapon in that series; when he wasn't jacking up 3s, he was pretty effective).

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 1:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

OK, now that you have clarified your contention, I think that what you are asserting is reasonable. I don't agree with you but you have made a decent case to support what you are saying. I just think that the intangible concepts that, in a different thread, you praised Simmons for identifying--and that I think Simmons actually does not really understand very well at all--all suggest very strongly that Kobe is mentally stronger than LeBron and has a better idea of how to maximize the personnel around him. Kobe carried Smush and Kwame to the Western Conference playoffs twice. He, plus a callow Bynum, had the Lakers at or near the top of the West for half a season before the Lakers acquired Gasol. Give prime Kobe a frontline of Z, Varejao, Hickson and Wallace plus some shooters and a scrappy X factor like Delonte West and I am confident that Kobe would have won a title with that group.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 2:01:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

There's something to be said for the mental aspect, and how Kobe's teammates seem to improve when he's around (though Dwight Howard is a pretty big counter-example, Dwight Howard is also a pretty big child) and I think you're right to a point (though I'd suggest that Kobe must share any credit there at least 50% with Phil)- but those Cavs teams played hard, and I'd argue mostly above their ceilings; I'm not sure that Kobe could have inspired them to much more than they did, and even if he did, I still worry about the 7-8 minutes per playoff game where Kobe is not on the floor.

A weird science fiction element comes in now, as I plot the hypothetical battles the Kobe-Cavs would need to win… in '07 I think they're Spurs meat (it's the Spurs, and Kobe cannot simultaneously cover both Parker and Ginobili, nor can any of those Cavs bigs contend with '07 Duncan, nor is Mike Brown quite at Pop's level). Remember, that Spurs team swept those Cavs with Lebron, and while I've consented that prime Kobe is better than '07 Lebron, I do not think he is "turn four losses in four games into four wins in seven" level better.

08, 09, and 10 are very interesting, as he'd need to get by a Celtics team he couldn't beat even with Phil- in 08- and then face off against his own Lakers every year. For the purposes of this argument, is there a Bizarro Kobe still on the Lakers? If so, I think the two Kobe's cancel each other out and the Lakers win all three years. If there is no Bizarro Kobe, then their opponents would be:

08: Spurs again, and this is probably the weakest Cavs team of the bunch, too. Lakers beat SA that year, but I don't like Brown vs. Pop nearly as much as Phil vs. Pop, and the matchup problems on the perimeter persist.

09: Nuggets (this Nuggets team pushed the Lakers to 7 games, and might run the Cleveland bigs off the court, but they're also the Nuggets, so I'm undecided. Let's say Kobe wins here).

10: Suns. I'm probably biased here, but those Suns gave LA a dogfight for five games before losing in a heartbreaker (only Goran and Nash really showed up for game 6, and the Lakers won without much fuss). I don't like Shaq or Big Z trying to guard a Nash/Amare PnR or chase Channing Frye (or, in smaller lineups, Grant Hill) around screens all day; Ilgauskus and Shaq are basically unplayable in this series, but they're the only true bigs who can punish Amare inside. Hill did a passable job on Kobe (as much as anyone can), and the Cavs don't really have the personnel to punish Nash for his crappy D on the other side. Also, the Cavs' bench is woefully outmatched by the Phoenix Bench Mob (RIP) of Dragic, Barbosa, Dudley, Amundson, and Frye. Pus, this was the Gentry team that actually played defense (and swept SA, something Kobe only managed in '01 with Shaq, and well before the Parker/Ginobili tandem had emerged as the force they later became).

So, in a Bizarro Kobe world, I don't think Bryant takes any rings with those Cavs. In a non-Bizarro Kobe world I feel like he gets one off the Nuggets, but otherwise loses to the Celtics/Spurs/Suns. This is all quite a bit more speculative than Rolands, though, and none of those are really hills I'm willing to die on.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 11:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bottom line in a lot of these playoffs is Lebron either quit or wasn't fully engaged, unlike Kobe, which cost him more finals appearances and titles more than anything else. Nobody to really blame but himself for the most part.

In 08, the celtics played with subpar ball in the first 2 rounds, winning each in 7 games. Allen was completely awful. Lebron had one great game in game 7, but stunk for the rest of the series. He certainly had enough help for that series because the c's weren't playing as well as they should and would later in the playoffs.

In 09, Lebron played great in ECF, but Dwight outplayed him. The biggest problem for the cavs wasn't offense, but defense. And Lebron still had weaknesses in his game.

In 10, Lebron just flat out quit, and after the cavs were up 2-1 against c's. Doesn't make sense at all. The magic weren't as good in 10 as in 09, cavs at least make finals if lebron doesn't quit.

Again 66 and 61 reg. season wins. 66 wins is tied for 10th all time. Only 2 other teams with at least 66 wins failed to make the finals, and most won the title.

From 11-14, he had 2 other players in their prime, which made 3 top 10 players in the league. Can't remember another team who's been in this situation, plus very good role players. Wade has now slipped some, but still overall very good, and some still think he's best SG in league. If he's as great as you and others think, then only winning 2 with these great of teammates is a failure.

In Kobe's prime, he has Smush and Kwame.

Lebron may have been best reg. season player in 09/10, though I'd still say Kobe. But as for playoffs, certainly not. In 11, Rose had a worst cast and his team won more games. For playoffs, Lebron outplayed Rose, but not Dirk. I'll give him 12/13, but he also had the best team around him. In 14, Durant outplayed him during reg. season. Lebron may have been best playoff performer, still unsure on that, but he coasted through the entire playoffs while having another golden opportunity to win a title. Again, very confusing. Also, non-AS Stephenson and Leonard outperformed him for multiple games in each of their respective series. That shouldn't happen if you're truly the greatest thing ever.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2014 5:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

I don't recall saying Lebron was the greatest thing ever. I recall saying- recently- he wasn't quite as good as Kobe, and speculating upon his emotional fragility.

However, is flaws as a ballplayer do not somehow mask the flaws of his teammates/coach/organization.

In '08, we will have to agree to disagree. That Celtics team may have coasted too much, but they were always able to turn on the juice when they needed to (and won a title doing it). Not only did they have Doc (I'd argue a step ahead of Mike Brown), they had 3 HoFers at-or-near their prime, and excellent roleplayers (plus Rondo) all the way down to the 11th or 12th man on the bench. Considering how the Celtics played in every elimination game that season, I'm skeptical that Lebron playing better in one of the earlier games in that series would have ultimately changed anything.

09- The Cavs stunk, and Dwight had a historically good year. Nobody shy of prime Doc or Jordan was winning that year with that team, I think.

10- I can't check right now, but IIRC Lebron "quit" in game 5, not game 4. The Celtics were up 2-1 and then the Cavs tied the series behind a very strong Lebron game, if memory serves, but I admit I might be mistaken. Will check later.

11- "Very good role players" is overstating it a bit, and calling 2011 Chris Bosh one of the top 10 players in the league is similarly generous. Still, they probably should have beaten that Mavs team, and the onus for that is largely on Lebron.

12-13- They won, with a very good team.

14- Lebron played well throughout, but a freak injury sidelined him in game 1, and his teammates didn't much feel like playing by game 3. Lebron was probably the single best player in the series, but in the final three games the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th best players were playing for the other team. Plus, you know, Greg Popovich.

Lebron, for me, ranks near the bottom of the top 20 historically. He'll likely rise by the time his career is over, and I suspect had he had more help in one of the years he didn't win, he would have.

As for when did 3 of the top 15 players all play on a team?

For most of the 60s, the best players were mostly on the Lakers, 76ers, and especially the Celtics. Several of those teams spent entire seasons fielding only Hall of Famers.

In the early 70s, the Bucks had Kareem, Oscar, and Bobby Dandridge, while the Knicks had Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and several other all-stars (eventually including Earl Monroe). The Lakers had Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and Wilt Chamberlain.

In the late 70s, the Bullets had Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and Bobby Dandridge (maybe not top 10, but certainly top 20).

In the early 80s, the Lakers fielded Kareem, Magic, multiple other All-Stars or former All-Stars as well as a former (but faded) MVP in Bob McAdoo. In 83, they added James Worthy.

Meanwhile, the 76ers combined '81 MVP Doc with '82 MVP Moses, and surrounded them with 2 multiple time All-Star guards, and DPOY Bobby Jones.

Elsewhere, the Celtics trotted out Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, with All-Star point guards in Dennis Johnson and Tiny Archibald, as well as former MVP Bill Walton off the bench. I believe Danny Ainge was an All-Star as well.

In the 90s, The Bulls added elite rebounder and defender Dennis Rodman to a core with the best 2 and 3 in the league at that time, while the Rockets surrounded MVP Hakeem Olajuwon with stars like Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and Pippen (though they didn't win with most of them).

In '04, Kobe and Shaq (already the best at their respective positions) brought in two time MVP Karl Malone; call him washed up if you want,but he did score 40 that season, and at one point in the playoffs held Tim Duncan scoreless for 21 on-court minutes.

My point, if it wasn't clear, is that "Top 15" (or at least top 20) players playing together is nothing new. This incident just gets more hate because of the spectacle they made of the whole thing.

 

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