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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Looking Back on the Kobe Bryant Era

Kobe Bryant has been the NBA's signature player for the bulk of his career, a polarizing figure who was appreciated by basketball purists but not embraced by some fans and members of the media. We now know that the Kobe Bryant era, which has spanned an unprecedented 20 years of service with one team, will conclude after the 2015-16 campaign ends. Bryant understood the challenges and significance of his journey better than most of the people who covered his career. He announced his retirement on Sunday by publishing a poem titled "Dear Basketball."

Here is one stanza from that poem:
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I'll always love you for it.
But I can't love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it's time to say goodbye.
As a basketball fan/purist, it is painful to watch a player as technically sound as Bryant struggle so mightily to put the ball in the basket this season--but there is also a beauty and nobility to the way he is ending his career, a poignancy that derives from the realization that we are watching a supremely talented and supremely motivated person who has squeezed every last ounce out of his body. There is something to be said for retiring on top and never letting the world see you decline but few athletes other than Jim Brown and Barry Sanders take that approach. Bryant has played in the NBA until his body had nothing left to give; he prepared as much for this season as he has for any other but because of injuries and age his body is no longer responding to his demands.

On Sunday night, the Lakers distributed to each fan a letter from Bryant. Here is the text of that letter:
When we first met I was just a kid.
Some of you took me in.
Some of you didn't.
But all of you helped me become the player and man in front of you today.
You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.
Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.
You witnessed my fears morph into strength.
Your rejection taught me courage.
Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.
What you've done for me is far greater than anything I've done for you.
I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.
I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.
My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.
Thank you for this incredible journey.
During Bryant's post-game press conference on Sunday night after Indiana defeated L.A. 107-103, Bryant answered questions in English, Spanish and Italian. He is a man in full who will likely be just as successful in his post-playing career as he was during his playing career; Bryant is driven, focused and intelligent.

Adrian Wojnarowski's article about Bryant's retirement is a rare mainstream media piece that is both well-researched and contains quality analysis. Wojnarowski describes how Bryant embraced the challenge of holding off young guns like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook--and Wojnarowski notes the sad reality that no amount of working out and no amount of shooting drills will enable Bryant to keep Father Time at bay any longer. Wojnarowski recalls that when Bryant and LeBron James were members of Team USA in 2008 the people most closely associated with that squad observed that Bryant "preyed on James' vulnerabilities." Bryant and James can be distinguished in two important ways: (1) the mental game and (2) skill set completeness. There is a substantial gap between Bryant in his prime and LeBron James in his prime in terms of doing what needs to be done to lift a team to a championship. Media members may not acknowledge this and "stat gurus" may argue vigorously disagree but it is no coincidence that even though James has often had the best regular season team and has made it to the NBA Finals six times he has only won two championships while Bryant captured five championships in seven NBA Finals appearances. When Bryant had the goods around him he produced titles and that often has not been the case for James. Bryant's teams rarely if ever finished worse than they should have finished based on their talent level--and they often did better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Bryant's work ethic, his passion and his complete skill set will not be approached--let alone matched--any time soon.

There are so many statistics and facts that demonstrate Bryant's impact that it is difficult to know where to begin. Bryant will be most remembered for championships and scoring, so those are two good places to start. Bill Russell lapped the field with 11 NBA championships as a player and several of his teammates rank high on the list of most championships won, including Sam Jones (10) and John Havlicek (eight), who is tied with teammates Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders. The player who won the most NBA titles without playing alongside Bill Russell is Robert Horry (seven), who was a superb role player for championship teams in Houston, L.A. and San Antonio. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships apiece. Then there is a 13 way tie among players who have won five championships; Bryant is in that group, which includes elite players such as George Mikan, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan plus rebounder/defensive specialist Dennis Rodman and several high quality players who were not all-time greats. In terms of players who were the dominating forces on championship teams, only Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Pippen won more titles than Bryant. Sam Jones was a great--and underrated--player but he had just five All-Star selections scattered among his 10 championship seasons, while Havlicek was not an All-Star during his first three championship runs.

Bryant made the All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Star teams each of the years he won a championship and he is in a select group of players with five championships plus two Finals MVPs (Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan, Duncan). We are supposedly in the middle of an era dominated by so-called analytics, yet discussions of concepts like "leadership" and "getting the most out of your teammates" repeatedly focus on players like Steve Nash and Chris Paul, neither of whom has made it to even one NBA Finals. Bryant's leadership and his ability to motivate/inspire his teammates are demonstrated by the bottom line, incontestable reality that he has led his teams to more championships than all but a handful of basketball superstars. Of course, some people will counter that statement by arguing that Bryant's first three championships should be properly credited to Shaquille O'Neal but if we are going to apply that line of reasoning then Magic Johnson's championship total should not include the years when Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy won Finals MVPs, Larry Bird's championship total should not include 1981 (when Cedric Maxwell won the Finals MVP) and two-time champion LeBron James--another player who is often lauded for his ability to bring out the best in his teammates--must explain not only his pedestrian 2-4 Finals record but also why during key moments in various NBA Finals he has been outplayed by the likes of Tony Parker, Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard. Most championship teams feature what O'Neal calls a "one-two punch" and anyone who wants to subtract titles from Bryant's resume is obligated to apply a similar standard to every other elite player.

In his prime, Bryant had no skill set weaknesses: he could score inside or outside, he shot an excellent free throw percentage, he rebounded very well for his position, he was the leading playmaker on his team for most of his career, he was both a lockdown defender and a superb help defender and he possessed great footwork and ballhandling skills. What Bryant did best, though, is put the ball in the basket. Bryant ranks third on the all-time pro basketball regular season scoring list with 32,683 points, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) and Karl Malone (36,928 points). Bryant also ranks third on the all-time playoff scoring list with 5640 points, behind only Michael Jordan (5987 points) and Abdul-Jabbar (5762 points). Bryant won two scoring titles (35.4 ppg--the eighth best single season scoring average in pro basketball history--in 2006, 31.6 ppg in 2007), he led the league in total points scored four times (2003, 2006-08) and he ranked in the top five in scoring 12 times.

Bryant made his mark in several other sections of the pro basketball record book. He ranks 14th in career regular season three pointers made (1712), 15th in career regular season steals (1895), 29th in career regular season assists (6166), ninth in career playoff assists (1040) and 42nd in career playoff rebounds (1119).

Bryant is one of the most decorated players in pro basketball history. He won the 2008 regular season MVP and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting 11 times, including five times in the top three (2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). Bryant finished fifth in the 2013 regular season MVP voting as a 34 year old veteran of 17 NBA campaigns. He won the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals MVPs. Bryant won or shared four All-Star Game MVPs (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011), tying the record set by Bob Pettit.

Bryant's 17 All-Star selections trail only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 19. Considering the way that the NBA consistently ignores the statistics and accomplishments of ABA players, it is worth noting that the third player on that list is Julius Erving, who earned 16 All-Star selections. Bryant, Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan share the record with 15 All-NBA Team selections, while Bryant and Karl Malone are the only players to earn 11 All-NBA First Team selections.

Some people complain about the All-Defensive Team voting. For most of the award's history, the head coaches selected the players and did a solid job, though there are some anomalies (it is not clear why Larry Bird--who always guarded the least dangerous of the three opposing frontcourt players--made the All-Defensive Team three times or why Julius Erving never made the All-Defensive Team during his NBA career). Kobe Bryant's defense has been subjected to more unfair scrutiny and criticism than the defense of any other elite defender, at least in terms of media coverage and commentary by fans. NBA insiders--many of whom I have spoken with over the years--recognize Bryant as one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all-time and this is reflected in the All-Defensive Team voting: Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team nine times, tied for first all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett. Bryant earned 12 All-Defensive Team selections overall, tied with Kevin Garnett for second all-time behind Tim Duncan (15).

All-Star Weekend contests do not tell us much about a player's overall greatness but it is worth mentioning in passing that Bryant is the youngest Slam Dunk Champion ever, winning the contest as an 18 year old rookie in 1997.

What I will remember most about Bryant are the championships, the two years (2006 and 2007) when he carried the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker Lakers to the playoffs--it is ridiculous that Bryant did not win the MVP in both of those seasons--and Bryant's numerous amazing scoring feats. Memory is fleeting for many people, so it is worth recalling some of Bryant's scoring machine exploits.

Bryant did not play in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 112-90 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on December 20, 2005 but he earned those 12 minutes off because he outscored the Mavericks 62-61 in the first three quarters! Bryant shot 18-31 from the field (.581) in that game, including 4-10 from three point range. Officially, he played just 32:53 that night, meaning that he scored at a rate of nearly two points per minute. Bryant became just the fourth player since 1960 to score at least 60 points while playing less than 40 minutes (Jerry West, George Gervin and Karl Malone are the others).

Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before (January 11, 2006) is one of my favorite short 20 Second Timeout pieces because it was my first opportunity to write about one of my favorite sports books, Wait Till Next Year:
Kobe Bryant scored 45 points in the L.A. Lakers' 96-90 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, becoming the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to have 45-plus points in four straight games; the feat has not been accomplished since Chamberlain did it in November 1964. The Lakers are 3-1 in those contests and have not lost since Bryant returned from his two game suspension for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller (Utah defeated the Lakers twice when Kobe was out of the lineup). Bryant has scored 188 points during this four game stretch, the third best four game scoring run in the last 20 years (Michael Jordan had runs of 198 points in '87 and 194 points in '90)--and he is also contributing 8.8 rpg and 4.8 apg while playing 43 mpg. Bryant is averaging 42.4 ppg in his last eight games--starting with his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas on December 20--and the Lakers won five of those games. Bryant has taken over the scoring lead from Allen Iverson and his 34.1 ppg is higher than any player has averaged in a season since Jordan put up 35.0 ppg in 1987-88.
In Wait Till Next Year, Mike Lupica and William Goldman covered one year (1987) in New York sports. Goldman declared that every great athlete fights a battle "to the death" to avoid being forgotten by future generations. Goldman asserted that one athlete so towered above his peers that he would win this battle: Wilt Chamberlain. I concluded my article with these lines: "That's why every time Kobe has the most 'this's' or 'that's' since Chamberlain that I think not only of Wilt, but also Shaq--and Wait Till Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. Kobe's feats repeatedly acquaint a new generation with Wilt's name and 50 years from now I believe that both players will survive Goldman's aptly named struggle 'to the death.'"

A little over a month after Bryant destroyed Dallas, he dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, the second highest single game scoring outburst in pro basketball history behind Chamberlain's legendary 100 point effort. Bryant shot 28-46 from the field (.609), including 7-13 from three point range (.538). This game marked the fifth time that Bryant scored at least 50 points in the first three quarters of a game but that is just one of the ways that Bryant's 81 point game is unlike other high scoring performances:
I've never seen anything quite like this in an NBA game. Consider three games that are frequently replayed on NBA TV and ESPN Classic. Jordan's 63 point game against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs was remarkable, but it took him two overtimes to score 18 less than Bryant did in regulation, he did seem to tire at the end and the Bulls lost the game (to an admittedly great team that won the NBA title that year). Bernard King's 60 point game came against the New Jersey Nets in a Christmas Day loss in 1984; King also seemed to slow at the end of that game. Larry Bird's 60 point game came in a 1985 blowout against the Atlanta Hawks and anyone who thinks that Kobe or the Lakers employed poor sportsmanship by continuing to score on the Raptors should check out the tape of Bird's game--the Celtics were fouling the Hawks despite being way ahead in the closing seconds, just to get the ball back so that Bird could reach 60 points. These performances are among the most notable high scoring games in the past 20 years and none of them approach what Kobe did: Kobe scored more points and his points were more directly needed to win the game.
In December 2006, Bryant authored a perfect quarter en route to scoring 52 points, a performance that I covered in Perfect Storm: Kobe Bryant Scores 30 Third Quarter Points Without Missing a Shot, Drops 52 as Lakers Rout Jazz, 132-102:
The term perfect game is usually applied in baseball--and not that frequently. If you watched Kobe Bryant's performance in the Lakers 132-102 blowout of the Utah Jazz on Thursday then you saw the closest thing that you will ever see to a basketball player being perfect, at least for 12 glorious minutes. In the third quarter, Bryant made all nine of his field goal attempts (including two three pointers), sank all 10 of his free throws and tied his own Lakers franchise record with 30 points. He also played good defense and made some gorgeous passes. Andrei Kirilenko--one of the league's best defensive players--was guarding Bryant during a good part of this time. Bryant also made his last two field goal attempts of the second quarter, including a slam dunk right in Kirilenko's grill, so he actually made 11 straight field goals. Bryant hit deep threes, running jumpers, turnaround jumpers--he was so hot that when Deron Williams fouled him when he attempted a pull up three pointer on the fast break no one said anything about not fouling a jump shooter; TNT's Steve Kerr said that you have to contest someone's shot when they are that hot. In addition to the flying facial to close out the first half, Bryant delivered an even more impressive dunk in the third quarter, posterizing Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer.

After the game, Bryant said that it felt like he was playing a video game. TNT's Marv Albert, who has seen more than a few great games, declared during the telecast, "This will go down as one of the great performances of all-time for a single quarter." Kerr added, "You get an idea of just how much better Kobe Bryant--or Michael Jordan--is than everybody else out on the floor. When you consider how good NBA players are, that's just amazing. Kobe was just a man among boys tonight." Bryant sat out the last half minute of the third quarter or he might have tied George Gervin's NBA record of 33 points in a quarter. As Albert and Kerr mentioned, Gervin's effort came in the last game of the 1978 season when he was gunning for the scoring title in an otherwise meaningless game. Bryant's performance came in the middle of the season against the team with the best record in the NBA. Bryant made a token appearance in the fourth quarter before returning to the bench. He finished with 52 points on 19-26 shooting from the field and 12-15 free throw shooting, adding four rebounds and three assists and committing only one turnover in 34 minutes. This was the 12th 50 point game of Bryant's career and his highest scoring output since his epochal 81 point game last year; the Lakers are 9-3 in those contests.
In the wake of this astounding performance, ESPN's Ric Bucher asks a very logical question: When will people quit trying to anoint others and simply admit that Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the planet? Bucher writes, "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for Kobe, I'm equally sick of having to do it. It shouldn't be this difficult to have the man recognized as the league's all-around best player. OK, so you don't like him. I'm good with that. But not respect him? Not give him his due? Anoint anyone who hasn't accomplished half of what he has as The King or The One or The Whatever?"
Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in pro basketball history to 50 or more points in at least four straight games. Bryant accomplished this in March 2007:
Elgin and MJ couldn't quite do it, so now it's just Wilt and Kobe, mano-a-mano. Kobe Bryant scored 50-plus points for the fourth straight game, setting a New Orleans Arena opponents record with 50 points in a 111-105 L.A. Lakers win over the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets. Bryant joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to score 50 or more points in four consecutive games; his 18th regular season 50 point game broke Elgin Baylor's Lakers franchise record and gave Bryant sole possession of third place all-time in that category. Bryant shot 16-29 from the field, including 2-5 from three point range, and 16-16 from the free throw line. He now has 225 points in his last four games (56.3 ppg), all wins for the previously struggling Lakers, and Bryant has shot 76-140 from the field (.543), 17-33 on three pointers (.515) and 56-60 from the free throw line (.933) during these contests.

It is hard to find anything bad to say about what Bryant is doing--he is shooting extraordinary percentages from all distances, his team is winning and his coach gave his seal of approval to Bryant being this aggressive. Nevertheless, Bryant haters will surely mention two things: New Orleans has a losing record and Bryant had only one assist. If you check the standings, you will notice that New Orleans is still in the hunt for the last playoff spot, so this home game was very important to the Hornets, whose record is not that much worse than the Lakers. If the Lakers did not have Bryant they would in fact be a much worse team than the Hornets, who got great performances from point guard Chris Paul (28 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals) and center Tyson Chandler (22 points, 22 rebounds, two blocked shots). As for Bryant only having one assist, anyone who watched the game understands that Bryant did three things, depending on the defensive coverage he saw: when single-covered, he attacked aggressively, usually scoring or drawing a foul; when double-covered in the post, he hit the open man, who generally fired a brick or passed to someone else who was open and fired a brick; when double-covered on the wing or at the top of the key, Bryant split the trap, broke down the defense and either attacked the rim or shot his patented fadeaway jumper. Anyone who thinks that Bryant is not passing enough or that the Lakers are better off with Bryant shooting less and other guys shooting more is simply not paying attention. If Bryant had some better teammates--say, Raja Bell and Shawn Marion, or Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris--he would be getting a ton of assists--or he would be scoring 75 points if teams stayed at home on those guys and guarded him one on one.
In April 2007, I provided some key statistics about Bryant's unbelievable scoring binges:
*** Not including Sunday's game (which wouldn't change this stat much, anyway), Bryant is averaging 37.2 ppg since the All-Star break. That is merely the highest post-All-Star break scoring average in the last 43 years. That must mean that he is not rebounding or passing, right? No; he is averaging 5.8 rpg and 5.2 apg in those games. That rebounding average would rank fifth among shooting guards in the NBA this season (based on the positional designations at ESPN.com) and is actually slightly higher than his pre-All-Star break average. That assists average would rank sixth among NBA shooting guards this season and is just slightly worse than his pre-All-Star break average. Only one shooting guard has higher seasonal averages in both categories than Bryant has posted since the All-Star break--Andre Iguodala, whose numbers in each area are marginally better than Bryant's. So, Bryant is putting up Wilt Chamberlain-level scoring numbers for the second half of the season while still ranking among the best rebounders and passers at the shooting guard position.

*** Several times on Sunday, ABC ran a "crawl" that stated that the Lakers are 11-3 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points. Apparently, nobody at ABC has read the Lakers' game notes or the game logs at NBA.com; the Lakers are in fact 12-4 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points and have a 58-25 record during his career in such games. Here is the complete list of Bryant's 2006-07 40 point games (I placed those dots in the chart in order to create better spacing, which will hopefully make the chart easier to read):

Date/
Opp..Res....Score...FG...3 Pt....FT.....Pts...Reb...Ast...Rec

11/21 vs. LAC...W..105-101...12-23...1-1...15-18....40....5.....5....1-0

11/30 vs. UTA...W...132-102...19-26...2-3..12-15....52....4.....3....2-0

12/15 vs. HOU...W...112-101...17-38...5-8..14-16....53...10.....8....3-0

12/17 vs. Was...L...147-141...15-24..7-11...8-10....45....8....10....3-1

12/29 at Char...L...133-124...22-45..4-11...10-12...58....5.....4....3-2

1/4 at Sac....W...132-128...11-21..3-5....17-20...42...10.....9....4-2

1/22 vs. GSW...W...108-103...11-22..4-7....16-19...42....8.....1....5-2

1/31 at Bos....W...111-98....13-25..7-9....10-13...43....8.....8....6-2

3/6 at Minn....L...117-107...13-30..3-10...11-13...40...13.....8....6-3

3/16 vs. Por...W...116-111...23-39..8-12...11-12...65....7.....3....7-3

3/18 vs. Minn..W...109-102...17-35..4-9....12-14...50....6.....3....8-3

3/22 at Mem....W...121-119...20-37..3-7....17-18...60....5.....4....9-3

3/23 at NO/OK..W...111-105...16-29..2-5....16-16...50....7.....1...10-3

3/25 at GSW....W...115-113...15-33..4-11....9-11...43....9.....0...11-3

3/30 vs. Hou...L...107-104...19-44..3-9....12-14...53....2.....2...11-4

4/6 at Sea.....W...112-109...13-27..1-4....19-24...46....5.....6...12-4

Totals..........256-498..61-122..209-245...782.........112.........75
..............(.514)...(.500)..(.853)..(48.9 ppg)..(7.0 rpg)..(4.7 apg)

No, those are not typos--Kobe Bryant has averaged 48.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg in his 16 40-point games this year. The Lakers are 12-4 in those games and he has shot .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 adjusted field goal percentage (calculated by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two), which is simply mind boggling. His shooting percentages, rebounding numbers and assist totals--and the Lakers' record, markedly better than their overall record--all refute suggestions that Bryant is forcing shots, neglecting other aspects of the game or cares more about scoring than winning. The reality is that the Lakers need his scoring--and his rebounding and assists, which are better than the numbers put up by most other shooting guards--in order to win.
In my January 14, 2012 article Kobe Bryant Tops 40 Points for the Third Straight Game, I summarized some of Bryant's accomplishments/records:
...Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in January 2006 (including his 81 point outburst against Toronto), he averaged 41.6 ppg in April 2006 (that month consisted of just eight games at the end of the season; Bryant's other 40 ppg months each included at least 13 games and my understanding is that for these kinds of records the Elias Sports Bureau counts any month that includes at least five games), he averaged 40.6 ppg in February 2003 and he averaged 40.4 ppg in March 2007; Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player in NBA history to average more than 40 ppg in a month on multiple occasions (Chamberlain accomplished this astounding feat 11 times)...

Kobe Bryant's 40 Point Game Streaks

9: February 2003 (7-2 record)
5: March 2007 (5-0 record)
5: December 2005-January 2006 (3-2 record)
4: March-April 2006 (2-2 record)
4: March 2006 (3-1 record)
3: January 2012 (3-0; streak is still active)
3: December 2004-January 2005 (2-1 record)

Total: 25-8 record
THAT Kobe Bryant--the unstoppable, indomitable scoring machine who won five NBA championships and authored so many dazzling performances--is the Kobe Bryant I will always remember and the Kobe Bryant everyone should remember.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:54 PM

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40 Comments:

At Tuesday, December 01, 2015 11:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like it or love it, Kobe is a polarizing player. He is certainly one of the best of all time and no one can deny that. Unfortunately his many transgressions made him unlikeable: the infighting, the feuds, the Colorado incident, all of this served to distract from his talents on the court. Just as Tiger Woods how quickly this can happen.

No matter how good he was, people just didn't like him. No amount of words will ever change that, people form their opinions and stick to them. The fact that he only has one MVP is a joke (same with Jordan only having 5). But people like Steve Nash better than Kobe.

On the flip side, you have Steph Curry. Super likeable, best shooter of all time (already), has altered the way coaches think about the game, and is leading the Warriors to another fantastic season. People love watching him because what he's doing has never been seen before. There's nothing controversial to say about his game, it's just flat out amazing. There's no need to play devil's advocate unlike with Kobe, Westbrook, and Harden.

One thing is for sure, Kobe is going to go out firing. 1-14? 7-26? The Mamba doesn't care. Hopefully he puts together some classic games before season end.

 
At Wednesday, December 02, 2015 1:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Jordan should have won at least seven MVPs and Bryant should have won at least three MVPs--and a good case could be made that both players deserved even more than that.

Bryant and Westbrook have very similar mentalities and they both play hard all the time. I would not put Harden in that class at all. Most people who don't see it now will see it in a few years but I have said all along that Harden is not well-suited to being the best player on a contending team. Four seasons in Houston have resulted in two first round exits, a fluky trip to the Conference Finals and the train wreck that is happening now; McHale benched Harden during key moments in the playoffs last year (benching Harden was a smart move and is one of the major reasons the Rockets advanced as far as they did) and Harden decided to pout during the first part of this season to get McHale fired. Mission accomplished for Harden. Harden had a bad attitude in OKC, which is part of the reason OKC was willing to get rid of him; he did not like being the third wheel behind Durant and Westbrook but he is not even close to good enough to supplant either of those guys in the pecking order. That is enough said about Harden in this thread; it seems likely that he is going to spend the rest of this season--and his Houston career--scoring a lot of points for teams that never go anywhere in the postseason.

Back to Bryant. He came into the league firing shots and he is going to go out that way. I wish he would cut back on the three pointers and rely more on his midrange game--as the older Jordan did--but maybe Bryant's lower body, worn down by injuries and mileage, is not sturdy enough to do that anymore.

I share your hope that Bryant has some vintage games during his farewell tour. The way things are going now, I'd settle for a vintage half. I think that the process of rehabbing an old body from several major injuries is just too much even for Bryant. Perhaps he will turn back the hands of time long enough to drop 40 on someone in March or April before hanging up his shoes for good.

 
At Wednesday, December 02, 2015 9:56:00 PM, Blogger KevDog said...

"I share your hope that Bryant has some vintage games during his farewell tour."

Ask and you shall receive! dropped 31 on the Wiz. Kobe doin' work. I've always liked your takes on Kobe even when I thought you underrated him a bit. As in my mind, he's as good or better than MJ, but you've always known he was a monster and have never dogged him, as some others in the media, just because they don't like him, have. Now they're talking about his legacy and putting him 12, 15, "inside the top 25" etc. Yeah, right.

 
At Wednesday, December 02, 2015 10:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

KevDog:

Thank you. I try to be fair and objective in all of my player evaluations. That does not mean that I am always right but I do my best to make sure that subjective biases do not taint my words.

I think that Bryant is the closest thing to MJ since MJ and the closest thing that we are likely to see to MJ for a long time. If pushed to choose, I would take MJ in a close call--bigger hands, stronger body in the midpost area, more efficient (though cross-era comparisons in that regard are hard to make)--but Bryant is much better than many commentators suggest. His legs are about gone now--at least in terms of playing elite level basketball--and that is why he has to work so hard to get his shot off.

His performance against the Wizards was a flashback of sorts, particularly the way he came through in the clutch, though his shooting percentage and overall numbers were still not quite up to par with what he did in his prime.

Bryant should be appreciated for all that he accomplished; nitpicking about the shot selection/field goal percentage of a 20 year veteran playing for a bad team that has no consistent offensive threats does not make much sense. Yes, it could be argued that Bryant should shoot less often--particularly from three point range--but even if he did would the Lakers have a better record? No. Bryant is supposedly holding back the development of the younger players but that is garbage. Bryant is not James Harden dribbling the ball up the court while the rest of the team watches. The other Lakers defer to him. When young players are ready to take over, they do. Look at Bryant himself. Look at Charles Barkley playing alongside Moses Malone and Julius Erving. If the other Lakers could take over, then they would.

 
At Thursday, December 03, 2015 12:25:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

You don't have to like Kobe Bryant personally to make a fair evaluation of his talents. I respect Bryant's talent and work ethic immensely but I can't really say I approve of a lot of his personal conduct. He also plays for the NBA's equivalent of the Yankees, which makes it harder for me to root for him as a player, for me at least. Even considering all of that, I can't deny that David is correct and that Bryant is the closest thing to Michael Jordan the NBA has produced since Michael Jordan himself.

I think Bryant's 2009 and 2010 championships are actually probably a more impressive accomplishment overall than Jordan's overall accomplishments at that equivalent stage in Jordan's career i.e. age 30 and onward (his second three-peat). Jordan's second three-peat teams seemed to be his strongest overall supporting cast in his career, while Kobe only had just enough with Pau Gasol and maybe Ron Artest in 2010 to win.

That said I think Jordan's first three-peat against Magic Johnson and the Lakers, Clyde Drexler and the all-star cast of the Trail Blazers, and Charles Barkley and the all-star cast of the Phoenix Suns was always Jordan at his most impressive. Jordan also scored significantly more total points in the playoffs overall despite playing in less games than Bryant and I think overall his playoff resume (63 points against the Celtics, the Shot over Ehlo, the Shrug game, etc.) is more impressive than Bryant's, not that Bryant is a slouch. So Jordan gets the nod for me too, along with the qualities (the big hands for better ball handling, probably more efficient) David mentioned though Bryant is a somewhat better shooter I think.

 
At Thursday, December 03, 2015 3:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Kobe, but you can't call him a great shooter. His shooting efficiency has never been great, even in his best years. What made him stand out was his dedication, intensity, competitiveness, and longevity. The Derek Jeter comparison is pretty apt.

It will be interesting to see how he harnesses those qualities in his post-basketball career.

We are at an interesting crossroads in the NBA. Even Lebron appears to be slowing down. However there is a lot of great talent and thankfully the game is more fun to watch now.

Also, how is Tim Duncan playing so well at age 39? This guy is amazing. He's still very effective and has ceded usage to new blood like Kawhi and Lamarcus Aldridge.

 
At Thursday, December 03, 2015 11:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe Jordan should have more than 5 MVPs, but Kobe should have at least 5, too. He was clearly the best player every year from 06-10, and he has a strong case from 03-05 as well.

Jordan had some advantages over Kobe, sure. Kobe was super athletic, but Jordan was still more athletic. Kobe maybe not as effective driving and at midrange, but he had more moves and a more complete offensive game. Jordan could've fit more roles other than just scorer, but he really didn't have to. Jordan was slightly better in just a 'scorer' role, but Kobe was able to excel in scorer, facilitator, scorer/facilitator, defensive stopper, and even as a #2. Jordan would never accepted being #2 ever in his career. Just think about how bad the feud would've been between Shaq/Jordan. Jordan probably had longer peak, mostly due to Kobe's injuries slowing him down. But, Kobe still enjoyed more elite years, more longevity, and was better early on and probably later on. Remember, Kobe was probably better defensively than offensively when he came into the league his first few years, which is unheard of, especially with a HS to NBA leap.

Maybe Jordan more impressive in playoffs, but look what happened in 94. Look at the teams Jordan had, and Grant/Armstrong make only AS and it happened once Jordan left. Not a coincidence. Jordan has a storybook career. The Ehlo GW is great, but that was in 5 games. Kobe has 2 buzzer beaters in game 4 in 06 to go up 3-1 against a much better team(PHO) and with a much worse cast. The rules changed and 1st round was best-of-seven in 06. Kobe doesn't get the storybook series win that year, like Jordan did. Dragging LAL to the playoffs in 06-07 was the probably the most impressive thing Kobe did during his career. And since his team sucked, you have idiots like Barkley saying he wasn't a superstar then.

Anonymous, what Jeter comparison? I didn't read anything about Jeter, or maybe I missed it. Even though Kobe's efficiency wasn't great, though still good, he was a great shooter. Maybe not a pure shooter, though. Maybe his shot selection was slightly bad at times, though this is way overblown. And a bad shot for the rest of the nba isn't necessarily a bad shot for Kobe.

 
At Thursday, December 03, 2015 4:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Even as someone who's never especially liked Bryant since the '03-'04 season, it's tough to see him going out this way. Someone above said he's getting "top 25" comments, which is silly; I have Kobe lower than most people do but I think it's nearly impossible to put him much lower than the 13-17 range (which is itself less a range and more a four way tie for 13th (that fluctuates based on which stuff you care most about; Shaq's got the highest peak value, Kobe the most longevity, Magic the most titles, etc.) between guys like Kobe, Magic, Jerry West, Baylor, and Shaq; weirdly all Lakers), and he's an easily defensible top ten pick.

I disagree with people who have him in the top 5, but this isn't the time or place for that debate.

Ultimately, regardless of where Kobe falls in terms of "greatness," it is difficult to argue that anyone besides Jordan, Russell, and perhaps Bird were as psychopathically competitive- and I mean that as a complement. Kobe went out every night with something to prove, and there's a lot to be said of that- much of his company in the greatest players ever club can't say the same (Wilt, Shaq, Kareem, Pippen, Lebron (among others)).

Additionally, only Doc and Duncan have won titles with teams as relatively unimpressive as the '09-10 Lakers teams, so Kobe's an easy top three finish on the "did the most with the least" charts*.

Finally, whatever else there is, Kobe has the second highest scoring game in NBA history, and he did it in a game where it was at least somewhat necessary. Nobody else can say that, and if/when somebody else scores 80 it's much more likely to be in a gratuitous "well, I already have 60..." kinda way than in a "we need to win this game" way.

I can't really say I'll miss Kobe- I'm still a Suns fan, after all- but I'll always respect him.

*A moderately decent case could be made for Rick Barry on this list in '75, but I have a higher opinion of Jamaal Wilkes than most and therefore am not the guy to make it.

 
At Thursday, December 03, 2015 7:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, so nice of you Nick to put Kobe maybe 13th best all time. What a compliment! Funny how all those Lakers are tied for 13th. Baylor, who never won a title, and didn't play a lick of defense tied with Kobe, maybe ahead of Kobe, love it.

It's not just the title teams from 09-10. It's all the years from 06-10. Kobe elevated his teams those 5 years better than anyone has ever had in a 5-year stretch, and it's not particularly close either. Duncan still had the best team in each of his title years, too. It's relative to your competition. A case could be made LAL was the best team in 09, but that wasn't the case until James lost. And it wasn't the case in 10. And James choked both years not making finals. PHO and BOS casts outplayed Kobe's casts by far in those final 2 series for LAL, including PHO bench outplaying LAL's starters at times.

Not to take anything away from Dr. J, but winning a title in the ABA isn't the same as the NBA. That'd be like 2/3 of the Eastern Conference splitting away and forming their own league. Everything gets duplicated, but everything isn't the same. And Dr. J couldn't elevate his team when he had a worthy team like Kobe did each time, same goes for Duncan. His team wins title in 74, but then his 58-win team in 75 loses to a 32-win team in 75 4-1.

Barry is similar. He couldn't maintain greatness anywhere near like Kobe. Barry's a HOFer, but even suggesting he's near Kobe in greatness is ridiculous. Only 2 teams reach 50 wins in 76, with GS topping out at 59. They lose to a 42-win team, that's like GS beating DAL in 07. Barry deserves credit in 75, but it's getting overblown. His team was tops in the West. Then, it boils down to just winning 1 series in Finals. He was best player in Finals and he did have help. His #'s were good, but staggering good. If he does so great in 75 supposedly, then the exact opposite happens in 76, he does so poorly.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

I really don't wanna get into another long "nuh uh!" fight with you again- particularly since this thread and my post are about appreciating Kobe rather than nitpicking him- so I'll address each point once, then check out of this thread. I'm sure you'll have another chance to be incensed at my opinion down the road.

On the various Lakers at 13th- I said it's a virtual tie; I have Kobe above Baylor personally- and above Magic- but I consider those five to be so close that depending on what matters to you, it's reasonable to slide them around. You don't seem to value rebounding much- which is a large part of defense- but Baylor was a tremendous rebounder. He was an ok defender, not a bad one. I think West was a bit better of a defender than Kobe- though it's an open question whether or not that would translate in a more athletic era- and I think that Shaq's peak was better than Kobe's- though I think Kobe's peak was a bit longer.

Most of the people I have above that glut of Lakers are bigs, who generally just matter so much more on defense. I have 7 Lakers in my top 17- including one at #3- so I don't particularly think I'm being unfair to them. I have Magic lower than most people do because of his crappy defense, and I have Wilt and Kareem a bit higher than most people do because I understand how important rebounding and defense is, even if it isn't as flashy as scoring.


I'm less concerned with the win totals of teams that beat a given player's best team than you are, because context matters quite a bit in those cases. Frequently win totals are deflated by an injury, or the the high-win team has an injury or matchup vulnerability against the lower win team. It's far from an apples to apples comparison, basically, and not a solid reason- IMO- for knocking guys like Doc or Duncan- particularly when Kobe missed the playoffs with an at least adequate team in '05 while those two never missed the playoffs even when saddled with garbage. Similarly, Kobe played on what was at first glance an All-Star team in 2013, but barely made the playoffs- however, when you look at the context (poor coaching, lots of injuries) it makes a lot more sense; the same is true for many if not all of the losses you referred to above. Another good example is the '76 season you brought up; the Suns team that beat the Warriors was missing former All-Star Dick Van Arsdale for 24 games that season, and added Gar Heard- their best forward- in February. They were much better than 42 wins, but missing a combined 83 games from your top five guys is not great for your record. Additionally, Barry's Warrior's team was thin up front, with the undersized Wilkes (6'6) at PF and Clifford Ray at Center; against the Alvan Adams/Gar Heard combo, that was a massive matchup disadvantage that has more to do with roster construction than it does with how good Barry was. Kobe never made the playoffs without an All-Star big man; turns out it's even harder to win a playoff series without one, but it's hardly an indictment of a player that can't do it.

Neither the '76 Nets nor the '03 Spurs are as good as the '09 or '010 Lakers at positions 2-10, which is why I think Duncan and Doc are the two guys who've won a title with crummier support than Kobe. I listed Barry as possible contender for that spot, not necessarily as a better player than Kobe, and explained that I personally have Kobe higher on that list than Barry; I merely mentioned him in the name in of thoroughness. Another guy who deserves a tip of the hat on that list is Hakeem in '94, but that team was at least very deep, even if its second best player was nothing to write home about.

1/3

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

The ABA was as good- or better- than the NBA. You seem to be immune to the facts on that point, but it's a position shared by most people who know much about basketball, including our esteemed blog owner, and backed up by everything from HOF inductions to cross league win records. Obviously if you disregard the ABA then both Doc and Barry (and to some extent Moses) drop a long ways. I don't know that I'd have the purely NBA version of Doc in my top ten, but there are few players who can have the first five years of their career stripped away and still qualify as a top ten player; credit where it's due, Kobe may be one of them, as he didn't really become elite until about his fifth or sixth year anyway.

Your largest Kobe point seems to be about his longevity; I don't disagree that he beats most greats by that metric. I do disagree that he beats Duncan (who may still be the best defensive player in the league in year 19), Doc (who was never worse than "very goddamn good" over his 16 year career), Kareem (obvious), or Jordan (who had above half a season less at an elite level than Kobe did). Wilt, Hakeem, Jerry West, and Oscar also all boast pretty impressive 13 year runs or so. Kobe was a very good- not great- player until about '01.He was an elite, top-shelf player from '01-'13; about 13 years. It's very impressive but he is by no means alone in that club.

While I didn't explicitly list Barry ahead of Kobe (though full disclosure, I probably would), I don't think it's as ridiculous to do so as you do. Barry's peak seasons compare very favorably with Kobe's (and just about anyone else's)- particularly in the playoffs. Kobe's got the edge in longevity certainly, but Barry was probably the better shooter, definitely the better rebounder, and arguably the better passer. Kobe's the better defender, though Barry was very good at generating turnovers. If somebody cared more about peak value than longevity, it would not be hard for them to take Barry- who I believe still holds the NBA Finals scoring average record- over just about anyone.

I don't have Lebron ahead of Kobe so I don't much feel like arguing about him. He's likely to make that conversation interesting if he keeps winning, but for now his inconsistency- and the fact that he's only won on virtual all-star teams- keep him near the bottom of the to 20 for me.

2/3

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

In general, I care more about peak value and two-way impact than about longevity or titles, though of course those things matter. The guys I have above of Kobe tend to beat him in one and often both of those two metrics. I understand that, defensively, it's virtually impossible for a guard to have the same impact that a front court player does; consequently ten of my top twelve are forwards and centers. Only Jordan (who's basically Kobe+) and Oscar (a human triple-double machine) rank ahead of Kobe for me among guards, though I tend to waffle back and forth between Kobe and Jerry West depending on my mood. After them is Magic, then Thomas. From there is gets murkier, but probably Walt Frazier and Dwyane Wade would be next.

For the record, and as an aside, I don't have Bob Pettit on my list anywhere because I simply haven't seem him play enough, but it's possible that he would knock those Lakers down to 14th if I knew his game better. It's also possible that he wouldn't.

On a list that does not include the ABA for some stupid reason, that giant Lakers tie probably jumps up to 10th or 11th.

Last but not least- Saying Kobe is the 13th (or whatever) best player in no way diminishes him. There have been thousands and thousands of NBA players; he's the second best guy to ever play his position, the third or fourth best guard, and probably the third or fourth best scorer to ever play the game. He's an absolute no-question legend. The fact that I understand that rim protection and rebounding are hugely important in basketball does not mean that I'm picking on Kobe (or Magic, or Jerry, or...) It just means that the game, by its nature, kinda favors big men. That Kobe's as high as he is anyway is a-goddamn-mazing. It's a shame his last few years were marred by injury.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 11:22:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Ah, missed a point. Surprise part 4!

"It's not just the title teams from 09-10. It's all the years from 06-10. Kobe elevated his teams those 5 years better than anyone has ever had in a 5-year stretch, and it's not particularly close either. Duncan still had the best team in each of his title years, too. It's relative to your competition."

For a five year stretch, I might actually agree; most great players didn't spend five years with that poor of a supporting cast, though, so it's hard to find comparisons. That said, the point about Duncan is patently false as the '03 Spurs were garbage flavored garbage with garbage filling and likely wouldn't have been a playoff team if you replaced Duncan with, say, Pau Gasol or Elton Brand.

Hakeem, Barry, Doc, Moses, and Baylor can all brag about dragging some pretty iffy teams to the Finals, though not all of them won. Bird, Russell, and Magic are tough to evaluate as they spent their entire careers on virtual All-Star teams, but I think it's probably still fair to say they "elevated" their teammates. Pippen, Chamberlain, Jordan, and Oscar all made deep non-Finals runs with crummy teams as well.

Basically, anybody I have in the top 20 is somebody who was good enough to drag a crappy team to some measure of success. That many of them weren't stuck on as crappy of a team for as long as the '05-07 Lakers isn't really about the players, it's about LAL taking (arguably) too long to recover from the Shaq breakup.

Also, the crapiness of the '09-10 teams is a bit overblown. They weren't great by any means, but you remove Kobe from that team and replace him with any above-average ball handler/scorer they're probably still a second rounder. The had solid perimeter D (Ariza/Artest), great interior size and rebounding, a world-class coach, and a reliable post-up threat. Those are the building blocks of a good team.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Correction: I had a brainfart. Kobe made the playoffs in '06 and '07 without an AS big man. For some reason my brain was trying to tell me Odom made All-Star teams, but he definitely didn't. The point should be amended to the idea that he never won a playoff series without one (which *is* true).

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 2:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But that’s what you do, Nick, with Kobe. You act like you’re complimenting him, but it’s a backhanded compliment. I’ve known for a long time that your player analysis isn’t very good and don’t read too much into it. The way you talk about the 4 guys you talk about most: Nash, Dragic, Kobe, and Westbrook clearly shows your bias. The only thing I’ve heard you say about any of them that you even remotely have a point on is about Westbrook and why he couldn’t get OKC to the playoffs last year? There’s a lot more to it than just the bottomline, but this is something that we need to think about concerning him, if we rank him so highly? Especially with David denigrating Harden nonstop, Westbrook had at least as much to work with last year as Harden did 2013, but Harden made the playoffs while Westbrook couldn’t in 2015.

I don’t believe in coincidences, but you must, concerning Baylor. He retires, and LAL finally wins a title. Fine, he was a good rebounder, nobody said he wasn’t. While BOS was stacked, West/Baylor should’ve broken through at some point if they’re going to considered amongst the elite of the elite. I’ve never seen Magic or Shaq ranked as low as you rank them either.

When has Duncan or Dr. J. had garbage teams? What are you talking about, especially concerning Duncan? Kobe was injured and it was a messed up year in 2005, but he still should’ve been in the MVP conversation at worst. PHO would’ve done a lot better with him than Nash, that’s for sure.

Barry had the team in 76, and lost to an inferior team. Whenever Kobe had ‘the team’, he always made the finals. That’s what you’re failing to recognize. Pau was a 1x AS before LAL, and the main reason he made more AS was because of Kobe. LAL was a top team before Pau joined as well. See, this is the type of stuff I’m talking about. Nobody has ever won a title by themselves, but you nitpick and say garbage like “Kobe needing an AS big just to make the playoffs,” but you don’t apply the same standard to everyone else. Great, so Jordan made a few playoffs with 30+ win teams in the 80s with an AS big, who cares, his teams were still bad. And he needed Pippen to be a big-time player just to be competitive in the playoffs, for one example.

But, who are the 76 Nets and 03 Spurs playing against? And why couldn’t they maintain this level of excellence like Kobe was? Duncan had the best team in 03. Regardless if you think the 09-10 LAL were better, it doesn’t matter. And LAL only went 6-7 deep in 09-10, too.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 2:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What facts about the ABA are you talking about? I’m not saying we should forget about it, and I know David has a soft spot for it since his favorite player played in it. But, it was a 9-10 team league compared to the 20-team NBA. It lasted a total of 9 years. The NBA kept right on going before, during, and after the ABA. The ABA joined the NBA, not vice versa. I’m not saying there weren’t good players/teams in the ABA either. And hasn’t only one previous ABA team won a title, SA? If the ABA were around today, it’d be like awarding IND or ATL with a title in recent years as well. James could have 6 titles already maybe if we had 2 leagues, etc. Nobody is saying to forget about Dr. J’s ABA stats or whatever, but it was clearly the lesser league. And the fact that his team got smoked vs a much inferior team in 75 shouldn’t be forgotten if you’re going to value him ahead of everyone else.

You value 2-way players, great. It’s unfortunate you don’t really know what this is, though. If Kobe isn’t the epitomy of a 2-way player, then your rankings can’t be taken seriously. But, keep telling herself a 1x all-defense player is head/shoulders better than a 12x all-defensive player.

What Dr. J teams were garbage? Duncan still had the best team in 03, too. Doesn’t matter how good your cast is. The 96 Bulls were awesome, but Jordan still elevated him highly

The main difference between Kobe/Jordan and the rest of the all-time greats(Russell is a special case since he played 5-6 HOFers and his teams had a monopoly on the game in his era), is that whenever they had ‘the team’, they made the finals every single time and usually won. And except for 05 when Kobe was hurt and his team stunk, they made the playoffs every time, other than during their last few ‘old’ years. Though, 05 LAL makes the playoffs some years in the 80s, given fewer teams back then. I know you love Dr. J and Duncan, and their amongst the elites, but they just didn’t do this, especially Duncan. One great year in 03 for Duncan is great, but when he still has the best team, you need to put it in perspective. For someone as supposedly great as Duncan as you make him out to be, he’s underachieve for half of his career, just doesn’t stack up compared to Kobe.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 3:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This thread is covering a lot of territory that has been previously examined here, so I don't have much to add. Here are some points worth considering:

1) A valid case can be made that in the ABA's first year or two it was not as strong top to bottom as the NBA. After that, though, the ABA had a ton of talent both on the court and also in the coaching ranks. Many of the best young stars went to the ABA instead of the NBA and many established NBA stars jumped to the ABA. The 1976 Denver Nuggets would have been a legit championship contender in the NBA, with two future HoF players (Issel, Thompson), a future HoF coach (Larry Brown), the best defensive forward in either league (Bobby Jones) and several excellent role players. Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA Finals is arguably the greatest single series performance in pro basketball history.

The Nets' 1975 loss is obviously not a highlight of Erving's career but Magic's Lakers lost to a sub-.500 Houston team in '81, Bird's Celtics got swept by Milwaukee in 1983, etc. Many great players had one or two odd playoff losses during their primes. From 1974-83, Erving won three championships, made the Finals six times and led the Sixers to the best regular season record in the NBA ('76-'83). During that era, you needed a dominant big man to form a dynasty and most of the times that Erving's teams lost in the playoffs they had Dawkins/Caldwell Jones at center going against HoFers Walton, Unseld, Abdul-Jabbar, Parish. In the current era that focuses on the perimeter game, Erving would be even more dominant than he was during his prime, while Curry and other perimeter stars would be less dominant if they played in the 70s and 80s.

2) I have a very high opinion of both Bryant and Duncan. I have never been that focused on ranking them against each other. I see points for both sides. I would take peak Bryant over peak Duncan without question. In terms of building around one guy for 15 or 20 years, that is a hard comparison to make based on the facts that we know. Duncan has played for one stable organization with one great coach. Duncan is a big man who can use his size at both ends of the court and his game is less affected by age/loss of mobility. Duncan's teams have rarely needed him to log the minutes/carry the load that Bryant has carried. I suspect but cannot prove that if Bryant had been in Duncan's stable environment he would have won more titles than Duncan did. If Duncan had been in Bryant's shoes he may possibly have won as much as Bryant but he certainly would not have won any more than Bryant did.

3) I think that it is possible to say both that Erving was an underrated defender who should have made more All-Defensive teams and that Bryant was an elite level defender for a longer portion of his career than Erving was. I would rate them as equal as help defenders off of the ball but would give Bryant the edge as the more consistent one on one defender.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 3:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

It is tiresome to see Harden's name interjected in threads where it does not belong, so I will keep this as brief as possible.

Let's set the record straight about what I have said about Harden and about what the facts are.

1) I said that Harden should have stayed in OKC because he is better suited to being the third best player on an elite team than the first option.

2) I said that as a first option Harden will be an inefficient scorer (low shooting %, high turnovers).

3) I said that Harden is a poor defender and a poor leader.

4) I said that if Harden had stayed in OKC he could have had a Ginobili-like career with championships and All-Star selections.

5) I said that if a team made him the number one option he would score a lot of points but struggle to consistently get out of the first round.

Since Harden left OKC, the Thunder have remained an elite level team when healthy (injuries to Durant and Westbrook that affected the Thunder's record in no way refute my points about Harden's impact). Since Harden arrived in Houston, he has been a high scoring player who commits a lot of turnovers and shoots a low FG%. His defense has been horrific. He pouts when things don't go his way and it is obvious that he is feuding with Howard and that he feuded with McHale before helping to get McHale fired. The Rockets lost twice in the first round with Harden performing worse in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. The Rockets posted a better regular season record last year than their point differential would predict and they made a fluky run to the WCF, where they got their doors blown off. Many of Houston's best moments during the playoffs happened with Harden on the bench. This season, the Rockets have been terrible as Harden plays no defense and puts up big scoring numbers while shooting about .400 from the field.

What have I been wrong about with Harden?

1) I did not expect him to get so much MVP consideration. That does not mean that my skill set evaluation of Harden is wrong but rather that the same MVP voters who dogged Kobe and Shaq in favor of Nash and Iverson are getting things wrong yet again.

2) The other thing that I was wrong about was Houston making it to the WCF. If that becomes a habit for Houston with Harden as the best player then of course I will have to amend my statements to reflect either (1) that I was wrong initially or (2) that Harden somehow improved since the time I made my predictions. Right now, based on the totality of the evidence, I assert that Houston's WCF run was a fluke that had as much to do with Howard-Smith-Ariza performing well as anything that Harden did. Two seasons of first round losses plus this season's train wreck in the making are a good sample size showing that Harden and Houston are who I said that they were.

If someone can make a comment with sound analysis logically refuting the above I will be glad to post it. Comments that just repeat nonsense about me being a Harden-hater will receive all of the consideration that they deserve.

 
At Friday, December 04, 2015 4:13:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Agreed on all Harden-counts.

I would add that perhaps the most frustrating thing about him is that his defense was not always this bad; he was an adequate (though unspectacular and prone to mistakes) defender in OKC. Since being "promoted" he is among the worst defenders in the league (off the top of my head, only Enes Kanter and Damian Lillard are significantly worse, though there are of course many bad to very bad defenders in the NBA and I am likely forgetting a few). Given that he used to be an average-ish (or above average, according to some, though I disagree) defender, I can only conclude that it's an issue of effort/focus, not of capability. This speaks to the larger problem with Harden- namely, that he is not wired the way players who lead title contenders are wired. He struggles to cohabitate with his teammates, he (as David mentioned) pouts in a manner unbecoming an alleged MVP candidate, and he does not elevate his game- or the game of his teammates- in high-pressure situations, and is in fact more of a liability.

A potentially interesting comparison point: Karl Malone is one of my sentimental favorite players- but similar to Harden, his game tended to decline in high-pressure playoff situations and he was ultimately not suited to being the best player on a title team. If he played as well in the Finals as he did in the regular season- never mind improved his numbers the way many greats do- he would likely be a two-time champion; if Harden maintained his production in the playoffs, you might have more of a leg to stand on (especially if he also started playing defense and behaved like a grownup). Karl Malone was a much better and more complete player than Harden, but it's always been hard for me to consider him as one of the truly tippy top greats given that he played poorly when it mattered most.

Harden, after three years, is currently shoot 41% in the playoffs with 4.3 turnovers per game for his Houston career. In the regular season he shoots about 44% with 1.6 turnovers. That's not a player I especially want on my team in a playoff game; I certainly don't want him to be my best or second best player.

Anticipating the inevitable "but he was the 2nd place MVP last year!" argument, I find this article to be kinda interesting, specifically the last few paragraphs (the earlier paragraphs are about an unrelated point): http://daveberri.weebly.com/uploads/6/1/3/8/61387427/2014berrivangilderfennijsf.pdf

The short version is that MVP votes tend to go to the high scoring players on winning teams, with relatively little regard for factors like supporting cast, defense, context, etc.

 
At Saturday, December 05, 2015 4:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Your Malone-Harden comparison is interesting. Malone is clearly a higher level
player than Harden but you are correct that both players are not well-suited to being the best player on a championship team.

 
At Saturday, December 05, 2015 12:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Marcel

Kobe was competitive and tough. And clutch in his day. He embodied the footwork and ability to will your team to victory a true superstar should have. I think he will be missed.
I don't see him as higher than seven all time tho.

1. Jordan
2.Wilt
3. Russell
4. Magic
5. Bird
6. Duncan
7' Kobe
8. Shaq
9. Kareem
10. Lebron

He was he'll of a player.

 
At Saturday, December 05, 2015 8:02:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Marcel: personally, I would take Kobe over Bird and Magic. And maybe Duncan too, though that's a really tough call. Bird and Magic are excellent but Kobe is a much better defender than either of them and Kobe is more complete than either of them offensively, though Bird is obviously a better shooter and Magic is probably a better passer and playmaker. The gap between their strengths over him in certain areas of the game is much smaller than the gap in defensive prowess and being more fundamentally complete.

I'd put Kareem ahead of Kobe though. And also personally, I think I might fit in some players you didn't list ahead of him, specifically Dr. J and Oscar Robertson, even though they won less championships. Maybe David might have some insight or a differing opinion there. So he might place 7th all-time on my list as well, if for different reasons. Though to be honest, at that high in the list there's very very little in terms of skills or talent gap between players like Kobe, Jordan, Robertson, Kareem, and Dr. J. I feel like you could plug them into a team anywhere, anytime and achieve roughly similar results. So, that's no knock against Kobe.

 
At Sunday, December 06, 2015 1:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

If we're doing our actual lists (and I preface this by saying I'm not interested in arguing about Kobe's placement on mine), here's how my top 20 roughly shakes out (though a lot of these are pretty variable and can change based on whose games I've watched more recently/the wind). Brief- but by no means complete- explanations in parentheticals:

1) Dr. J (best ever peak performance, am elite scoring small who rebounded and protected the rim like a big, no weaknesses, very long peak, won with weak cast in 74 & 76, Finals contender every year regardless of supporting cast)
2) Duncan (unmatched longevity, extremely long peak, top 3 all-time defender, won with garbage supporting cast in '03)
3) Kareem (crazy longevity & peak, won w/ 2 different casts (though they tended to be AS teams), 2 way beast)
4) Jordan (for all the reasons people usually put him first )
5) Hakeem (top 3 defender, good longevity, crazy peak, won on weak-ish teams, dominated positional rivals from KAJ to Shaq)
6) Wilt (most dominant offensive force ever, ludicrous rebounder, underrated defender, but weird that he didn't win more)
7) Russell (winningest ever, likely best defender ever, blessed with stacked teams, stellar rebounder, offensively good-not-great)
8) Moses (dominant but short peak, destroyed positional rivals (esp. KAJ), underrated defender, best rebounder of his era)
9) Pippen (criminally underrated, dragged iffy Bulls team to contention sans Mike, top 2 perimeter defender, great facilitator)
10) Bird (brilliant scorer/passer/leader, smart if limited defender, shorter peak, stacked teams, absolutely dominating in mid 80s)
11) Oscar (statistically dominant, played bigger than he was, good defender, likely a bit overrated historically but still awesome)
12) Barry (playoff lunatic, won with weak team, sneaky good rebounder, had the Kobe/Jordan competitiveness gene)
13) Shaq (unstoppable 2000-2006, Finals w/ 3 teams, pretty much unbeatable when motivated, should have worked harder)
14) Kobe (lethal scorer, great help D, underrated passer, hyper competitive, dragged bad LA teams to playoffs, 13 yr peak)
15) West (total package skillet, excellent defender, super clutch, couldn't beat Boston's stacked teams despite strong help)
16) Magic (legendary passer, great rebounder, underrated scorer, below average D, blessed with All-Star teams entire career)
17) Baylor (statistical superhero, rebounded way above size unbelievable athlete, only player without a ring that merits listing)
18) Lebron (unstoppable when engaged, headcase, left at least 1 and probably 2 titles on the table, unimpeachable skill set)
19) Havlicek (excellent defender, scorer, and facilitator with solid longevity; won titles with two totally different casts)
20) Robinson (lethal scorer and DPOY contender who usually got his butt kicked by greatest positional rivals Hakeem & Shaq)

Honorable mentions (or, guys who I might put above Robinson on any give day): Isaiah Thomas, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Dave Cowens, Wilis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dirk Nowitzki

Guys I don't factor in because i haven't seem them play more the 20ish games: Bob Pettit, George Mikan, Roger Brown

Guys who'd probably be on there if not for tragic early career injuries: Bill Walton, Grant Hill, David Thompson

 
At Monday, December 07, 2015 4:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Other than Chamberlain--who was the most statistically dominant player in pro basketball history and who played for two of the most dominant single season teams in pro basketball history--every player in your top 10 (and many great players who you did not choose) won more titles than LeBron James. While it could be argued that based on talent James belongs in the top 10, it could also be argued that based on overall results he does not belong in the top 10.

 
At Monday, December 07, 2015 4:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

As I indicated in my Pantheon series, it is difficult to rank/separate the greatest of the great, particularly when comparing players across different eras.

Abdul-Jabbar is very underrated and overlooked in most greatest player of all-time conversations. An excellent case can be made that he should be ranked number one. He was dominant at both ends of the court, he had great durability/longevity and his peak value was very high. He had elite, MVP level performances in the NBA Finals 15 seasons apart (1971, 1985), a feat that no professional basketball has matched or likely ever will match.

 
At Monday, December 07, 2015 4:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I could quibble with some of your rankings but overall that is a well thought out list and I agree with most of your parenthetical comments, even about players who I might move up or down a bit.

 
At Monday, December 07, 2015 11:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kobe will almost always get rated much lower than he should, even by non-haters. How is no-defense, unathletic, much shorter peak/longevity Bird or can’t dribble with my left hand, never led his team to a title West even considered ahead of Kobe? Yes, titles matter a lot when we compare the elites. West had his chances, too. He was great in his era, but he’s small. There’s no way he could guard someone Kobe or Jordan and do a good job. Westbrook’s bigger and much more athletic than West was, and Kobe just killed him whenever they were matched against each other. I don’t see Jordan winning as many titles if he was on the same teams at the same ages as Kobe, though I’m not sure Kobe wins as many titles if he replaces Jordan on same teams/ages either. Kobe won his first title at 21, Jordan would’ve still been in college. And then Jordan misses his 2nd year in the league to injury, so that’s another missed title. Maybe he gets 1 in 03 or 04. I don’t see him getting more than 2 after that with Kobe’s casts and their competition. Kobe would’ve had the entire 94/95 season to add to his rings, so who knows, maybe he would’ve gotten more than 6.

It’s the old guard that gets revered (other than Kareem, and Dr. J to a lesser extent) more plus Jordan. The only players I see that you could always or almost always count on to elevate their teams to a higher level and play at an individually high level at the same time were Kobe, Jordan, and probably Kareem. Wilt is underrated, but he still should’ve won more. His lacked focused and determination. Duncan’s great, his longevity stands out, but he’s been fortunate to be able to play a much lesser role on perennial stacked teams for a long time now and his body, unlike Kobe who’s still his team’s #1 offensive option. 1-1 finals record over the past 9 years isn’t very glowing with all the help he’s had, unless you accept the fact that he hasn’t been elite for years now.

Duncan had a shorter peak than most of the elites, but kept at near-peak status for awhile. This is his 19th year, and he’s had a legit team every year, and probably at least 15-16 were good enough to win a title. He just couldn’t author consistent great performances like Kobe. Once Kobe became elite in 00 and whenever he had any resemblance of a decent team, Duncan only broke through once in 03, and that was with LAL going for 4 straight. Duncan, like Wilt(who had 2 of the top 5 teams ever probably), couldn’t keep it going more than 1 year at a time. Duncan’s had 4 teams that were #1 seeds not make the finals, plus several other duds. It doesn’t add up when compared to Kobe, especially when Kobe usually outplayed him H2H as well and Kobe still has had more team success. At most, you could say Kobe’s had 9 teams that had even a remote chance of winning a title. 7 of these teams made the finals (03, 11 being the other 2 years). Not once did any of his teams fail to make the finals as a #1 seed. Those 2 years, LAL was trying to make 4 consecutive finals each time, it does catch up to you. LAL was only a 5 seed in 03, and Shaq’s laziness might’ve cost them a title. Older Kobe in 11 couldn’t keep it going any longer, and his team’s softness was exploited again as it was in 08.

 
At Saturday, December 12, 2015 3:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Marcel

David or any commentator
What do u think of steph curry chances of being in top ten all time with the way he playing right now

 
At Saturday, December 12, 2015 11:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Curry is playing at an incredibly high level now but we are barely a fourth of the way through the season. Prior to this year, Curry established himself as a perennial All-Star and last year he moved up to MVP level but in order to crack the top 10 of all-time he would have to play at an elite level for many years. I am not saying that he can't/won't but rather that the admission ticket to the Pantheon is sustained greatness.

I predicted that Curry would be much better than most people thought but I did not expect that he would be this good.

 
At Monday, December 14, 2015 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Marcel-

David pretty much nailed it; it comes down largely to sustainability. Several players- Bill Walton, Grant Hill, David Thompson, Bernard King to name a few- have individual seasons that compare favorably against the best years of the best players- but couldn't (often because of injury) maintain that level of production. The guys that David has in his Pantheon, and the guys that I have in my top 20, were all MVP candidates for at least 6-8 years and Finals contenders for about a decade. Curry's only really spent 1.25 seasons at that level so far.

That all said, if he keeps playing the way he's playing he's got a shot at being the best PG ever. He's a much better scorer than Oscar or Magic (the other two contenders for that spot), and a far better defender than Magic. He's not quite the passer or rebounder either of them were, but his scoring- and specifically the way he scores- are so devastating that they more than make up for the gap.

His ceiling is probably as the second best guard of all time (he'll need to improve his defense even further than he already has to have a shot to catch Jordan, I think), though I think it's more likely he ends up more around the Dwyane Wade or Walt Frazier level historically (which is still obviously great, but not GOAT contender great).

Ultimately, I think teams will eventually figure out the Warriors' system at least a little bit and we'll see his numbers drop from the hyperbolic to merely excellent.

 
At Monday, December 14, 2015 2:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Except for Pippen not being an MVP candidate more than 1-2 years. Nick, your list very comical. Pippen #9? Don't need to say anymore than that. Pippen might be underrated, but he's not threatening top 20-25. Just a 7x AS and 3x 1st team all-nba. Pippen had a nice brief stretch from 91-98, maybe elite 1-2 of those years, always best suited as a #2 option. Stacked team in 94, only made 2nd round, and he had a big dropoff after 98. He's an all-time great, but to suggest he's a top 10 player all-time, it doesn't make any sense. David loves him and still can't include in his all-time list. I don't agree Baylor should be ahead of him, though. No rings, no defense, and team immediately won after he retired.

How is Curry a better scorer and a much better scorer at that than Oscar? Oscar averaged 25.7 ppg to 21.6ppg for Curry, and Oscar had several years at the end of his career scoring much less. Curry's not an elite defender by any stretch, maybe better than Magic, but not that much. Magic was 6 inches taller, too, that helps a lot. Magic made 9 finals, winning 5. Curry has only had 1 playoff run so far, and he'll be 28 by season's end. Curry's first AS was at age 26. Hard to see him even approaching Magic status.

 
At Tuesday, December 15, 2015 12:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous-

I don't feel compelled to defend my list to you. You've made it abundantly clear that your understanding of basketball has absolutely nothing in common with mine. I do like debating these things with David- whose opinions I understand and respect. You mostly just resort to insults and award ballots when someone disagrees with you. I can't stop you from arguing with me, but I can choose not to argue back. I'd make as much progress, and learn as much about basketball, shouting at a wall.

As for Curry/Oscar as scorers, here: http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/pcm_finder.cgi?request=1&sum=1&p1=roberos01&p2=curryst01&p3=&p4=&p5=&p6=

Look at the per possession or per minute numbers. Oscar's higher scoring average was almost entirely a function of pace and role; Curry scores more both per minute and per possession, and much more efficiently.

 
At Friday, December 18, 2015 2:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Marcel

I see I like curry but I don't think he will be in top ten all time.

Do y'all think they can compete with the 96 bulls in a series or will they break they record.
The warriors

 
At Friday, December 18, 2015 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Marcel-

I don't think he'll get there either; I think that's his best case scenario. Like I said above, I see him ending up in that top 20-40 all-time range with guys like Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, and Walt Frazier.

This is kind of a cop-out answer, but as for Warriors vs. Bulls is might just come down to rule sets. The hand-check rule would liberate Jordan and to a lesser extent Pippen, but modern illegal D rules would allow GS to pack the paint and turn Chicago into a jump-shooting team; that Bulls roster didn't really have the shooting to win that way (Rodman, Longley, and Harper all non-threats from 3 and Jordan only a minor one; even Pippen was just "pretty good." Kerr was great but playing him big minutes against the Warriors would be death on defense). On the other hand, if they played by '96 rules, the more physical play would keep Steph from penetrating as well, and the illegal D rules would make it harder to keep Jordan in check.

Other things to consider: GS at least has a couple of guys they could try on Jordan with Klay, Iggy, and Draymond. Harper was an awesome defender but probably not quick enough to chase Steph around the perimeter, so they probably end up putting Jordan on him (which probably works, but might wear MJ out over 4 quarters). Pippen probably shuts down Thompson. Chicago's bench probably can't hold up against Golden State's. Chicago probably controls the boards in either era, but Rodman may be unplayable with the prevalence of hack-a-whoever tactics.

Basically, I think whoever's playing by "their" ruleset probably wins. Chicago wasn't built for the space-and-pace NBA, and the Warriors aren't built for the more physical 90s game. It'd be awesome to see Rodman vs. Draymond in either era, though.

 
At Thursday, February 04, 2016 12:23:00 AM, Blogger KevDog said...

38/5/5, 7/11 from 3, 10-21 from the field and clutch shots galore. Yeah, great night from Kobe. Beautiful to see.

 
At Sunday, February 07, 2016 3:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

KevDog:

Yes, that was wonderful. The crazy thing is that kind of game used to be just a little above average for Bryant circa 2006.

 
At Saturday, October 15, 2016 4:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey David I've never commented here before, but I've read many of your articles because I find you typically give an unbiased analysis of whatever said article is about. I was reading in the comments of the Kobe article and saw that you told the commenter nick that you largely agree with his list. So just to clarify, are you saying that you feel that Dr. J, Duncan, Kareem, Jordan, Hakeem, Wilt, Russell, Moses, Pippen, Bird, Oscar, Barry, and Shaq should all be ranked higher than Kobe? Also, are you ranking based on completeness as a player at their respective peaks, careers accomplishments and achievements, or a mixture of both? I know this is old, but I would greatly appreciate a reply, since your past analysis of various basketball related topics have earned my respect. Thanks.

 
At Saturday, October 15, 2016 6:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

This thread was from so long ago I had to reread what Nick said and how I answered.

Nick listed his top 20 players of all-time, gave a capsule comment about each player and stated that players could move up or down on his list depending on how he feels on a given day.

I responded, "I could quibble with some of your rankings but overall that is a well thought out list and I agree with most of your parenthetical comments, even about players who I might move up or down a bit."

When I did my Pantheon series many years ago, I listed the top 10 retired (at that time) players without ranking those 10 and I listed the top four active (at that time) players who I considered to be Pantheon worthy. I placed Kobe in that latter category, along with Shaq, Duncan and LeBron.

I have never assigned Kobe a specific all-time ranking other than what I just stated above. In various articles I have indicated that I would not rank Kobe ahead of Jordan and that I would rank Kobe ahead of LeBron.

So, all I stated to Nick is that the overall composition of his list (i.e., who he included, not necessarily the order) is "well thought out" and that I agreed with his capsule summaries about the various players, even though I might rank the players a little differently if I actually put the players in order 1-20.

I hope that this answers your question.

 
At Saturday, October 15, 2016 8:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, thx for the reply. Sorry for misunderstanding your words, I was just wondering if that was the case. Thx for taking the time out to answer and keep up the good work.

 
At Sunday, October 16, 2016 12:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You're welcome. I am glad you enjoy my writing.

 

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