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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Faulty Comparisons: Career Legacies Are Not Defined by One Game

I touched on the subject of faulty comparisons in my previous post. Certainly a good case can be made that Michael Jordan was a greater player than Kobe Bryant but the way to prove that is by comparing their skill sets and overall accomplishments, not by making superficial generalizations on the basis of misunderstanding what happened in one NBA Finals game.

The easiest, color by numbers story to write in the wake of the Celtics' brilliant game four comeback victory over the Lakers starts with the words "Kobe Bryant should never again be compared with Michael Jordan." While I agree that Jordan was a greater player than Kobe Bryant, it is absurd to make a sweeping judgment about any player based on one game; if those two players are going to be compared then the standard should be a thorough evaluation of their overall skill sets combined with an objective assessment of their career accomplishments, one that places their championships, MVPs, scoring titles and other honors in proper context.

It seems like writers cannot wait to boldly declare someone or something to either be the best ever or to be horrible, with nothing in between. One minute we are breathlessly told that Bryant is as great as Jordan and then we are told that such a comparison must never again be made. "Never" is a very long time. Shortly before Jordan led the Bulls to six championships in eight seasons, there were plenty of people who thought that Jordan should never be compared to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith tells of a game in which Jordan did not pass to Bill Cartwright nine times when the former All-Star center was wide open. "At least he was under double figures," then Bulls Coach Phil Jackson joked. Cartwright had a less humorous take on Jordan at that time: "He’s the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He’s just not a basketball player."

Some people are already saying that game four will be a career defining moment for Kobe Bryant. The series is not even over, so how can that game "define" anything, let alone an entire career that will most likely last for several more years? Is Jordan’s legacy defined by the above passage from The Jordan Rules or by his six championships? Great players tend to be remembered for their successes more than they are tainted by their real or imagined shortcomings. For instance, Magic Johnson performed so badly in critical situations in the 1984 NBA Finals that Kevin McHale mockingly called him "Tragic." Keep in mind that this was after Magic had already won two championships and two Finals MVPs. Magic went on to win three more titles—including two at the expense of McHale’s Celtics--and one more Finals MVP. It is safe to say that no one is calling him "Tragic" now.

All of the talk about Jordan and Bryant is just a convenient distraction from what really matters right now: analyzing what took place in game four—namely, how the Lakers built a big lead and how the Celtics came back to win. Many writers and commentators prefer to spout clichés and make sweeping generalizations about Jordan versus Bryant instead of either (1) really looking at that comparison analytically or (2) breaking down what is actually happening in the fascinating struggle between the Celtics’ league-best defense and the Lakers’ high-powered offense.

Far too many writers have predetermined storylines: if the Lakers win it is because Bryant "trusted his teammates" and if the Lakers lose it is because Bryant played selfishly and is not as great as Michael Jordan—and these writers cling to these storylines no matter what actually happened. People like to talk about the supposed ability of great players to "make their teammates better" but it is more accurate to say that great players put their teammates in the best possible position to succeed. Magic Johnson did not make James Worthy able to run fast and jump high but Magic fed Worthy with passes that enabled Worthy to utilize those skills to score. It used to be said that Jordan did not make his teammates better, a criticism that Jordan scoffed at by retorting, "You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep)."

Every time Jordan won a championship he had Top 50 player Scottie Pippen as a sidekick, plus at least one other member of the rotation who made the All-Star team at least once during his career. Jordan’s Bulls teams also had excellent role players who could be counted on to deliver in crucial situations. Jordan did not "make" John Paxson or Steve Kerr able to hit perimeter shots; Jordan attracted double teams and passed them the ball, putting them in position to take open shots that they could not easily obtain on their own.

Bryant has one one-time All-Star in Gasol. After that, his supporting cast consists of very solid point guard Derek Fisher, Lamar "confused" Odom, Vladimir "space cadet" Radmanovic and a vastly overrated bench that has been thoroughly outplayed by the Celtics’ bench. The ludicrous comparison that needs to be eliminated from serious basketball conversation is the one that asserted that Lamar Odom could even come close to being Bryant’s Scottie Pippen. Pippen is a future Hall of Famer who excelled as a scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. Odom has yet to make the All-Star team even once during his career and he is the classic third option player. If Odom is going to be compared to anyone from Jordan’s Bulls teams then Horace Grant is the correct name to mention but Grant played better defense and had a more reliable jump shot.

What happened to the Lakers after they acquired Gasol is that everyone in the rotation was now slotted into the correct role. Gasol is not quite good enough to be the first option on a championship-contending team but he is a very good second option. Odom is not good enough to be the second option but he is a good third option. This ripple effect helped out the entire roster. Gasol provided length, mobility and size that helped the Lakers out defensively and on the glass. Offensively, Gasol fit in seamlessly with Bryant and they immediately developed excellent chemistry on screen/roll plays. Unlike Kwame Brown, Gasol is a skilled player who can catch, shoot and pass. When Gasol sets a screen for Bryant and rolls to the basket, the defense is placed in a severe quandary: a switch creates two mismatches—a smaller guard checking Gasol and a slower big man checking Bryant—while trapping Bryant enables Bryant to use his great passing skills to find the open man, whether he is Gasol, Odom flashing to the free throw line or a shooter on the weak side. This Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action is a major reason that the Lakers' offense has been so good and it not only helped them make it to the Finals but it is why Gasol's field goal percentage with the Lakers is much higher than it had been at any previous time in his career.

While a lot of people picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics because of the coaching matchup or the supposed superiority of the Lakers' bench, I picked the Lakers because I did not believe that the Celtics could defend the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll without giving up open jumpers to Bryant, dunks to Gasol or wide open three pointers to the perimeter players on the weak side. The Spurs and Jazz made it to the 2007 Western Conference Finals but neither of those teams could successfully stop the Lakers’ offense in this year's playoffs.

The Lakers have not been able to execute their offense well on a consistent basis versus the Celtics in the Finals. The Lakers executed their offense well for some stretches in the first half of game one, in the fourth quarter of game two, during some stretches of game three and during most of the first half of game four. If you add all of that up, the Lakers have probably run their offense well for seven quarters out of 16 but of course they only have one win to show for it.

In the first half of game four, we saw the Lakers running their offense almost perfectly, even though Bryant did not make a field goal. The reason that Bryant did not make a field goal is that after Gasol set screens and rolled to the basket the Celtics trapped Bryant, who then made the proper passes (Bryant also made the correct passes when the Celtics double teamed him in the post). Perhaps the best example of good execution of the Bryant-Gasol screen play happened at the 10:06 mark of the first quarter: After Gasol set a screen for Bryant, Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins trapped Bryant, Lamar Odom flashed to the paint, Bryant passed to him and Odom made a touch pass to Gasol for an easy dunk. Another excellent example happened at the :35 mark of the first quarter: After Gasol set a screen for Bryant, Bryant read the defense correctly and fired a crosscourt pass to a wide open Trevor Ariza, who drained a three pointer.

Compare those two plays to the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that happened after Kevin Garnett’s free throws pulled Boston to within 83-82 with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter: Gasol did not set a good screen, so the defenders did not have to switch or trap, the other three Lakers stood around and Bryant had no good options. Eventually, Odom got the ball in the post and he took a wild shot that was way off the mark. Eddie House buried a jumper on the next possession and the Celtics never trailed again.

Bryant scored 10 points on 4-8 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter and he also had three assists, meaning that he accounted for 16 of the Lakers’ 18 points. ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy said that the Celtics changed their screen/roll coverage by playing the screener softer instead of trapping Bryant but that is only part of the story; if Gasol had set better screens then the Celtics would have been forced to trap or switch. Also, no Laker flashed to the high post (like Odom did in the first half), which would have forced the defense to react, created more room for Gasol to roll and provided Bryant with another passing option.

In the first half, the Lakers scored in the transition game and as a result of their screen/roll action. When House and James Posey came into the game, the Celtics got better offensive spacing and scored more frequently. The reduction in Boston’s missed shots and turnovers essentially killed the Lakers' transition game. That made it vitally important for the Lakers to get some productivity out of their screen/roll game. Paul Pierce deserves credit for accepting the challenge of guarding Bryant and making it difficult for Bryant to post up but, as Bryant said afterward, the Celtics sent bodies at him wherever he went because they were determined to not let him beat them.

After the game, the writers should have asked the following questions of Coach Jackson, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom: (1) "In the first half, Pau Gasol rolled to the hoop aggressively after setting screens for Kobe Bryant but in the second half he just kind of meandered around aimlessly, neither going to the hoop nor stepping back to shoot the jumper. What is the reason for this change?"; (2) "In the first half, after Pau Gasol set screens for Bryant, Lamar Odom flashed to the free throw line, forcing his defender to choose between guarding him and guarding Gasol as Gasol cut to the hoop. Why did Odom not continue to do that?" The answers to those questions would have formed the basis for a much more timely and relevant story than the tired Jordan-Bryant comparisons that are now dominating the headlines.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:48 PM



At Sunday, June 15, 2008 3:04:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

This is a great article David. As you know, I don't always agree with you, but I know I can always count on a knowledgeable, insightful, fair take on basketball when I read something on this site, and that is what makes it one of my favorites. Please keep it up, we need as many sensible opinions as we can get.

I too find the trend of declaring that Bryant should never, ever be compared to Jordan again after every game that doesn't have a storybook ending for the Lakers absurd. It seems like most writers and commentators have rewritten history and come up with some fairy tale image of Michael Jordan. Apparently, Jordan took and made every big shot in every big game, and he never "let" his team lose. I really don't think the criticism of Bryant now is specific to the Lakers blowing the huge lead. I have felt throughout the playoffs that anything short of a championship would be enough for all the talking heads to come out and declare that Kobe had failed and Jordan would never have "allowed" his team to fall short. As you pointed out, Jordan has had poor shooting performances in big playoff games, but often times his team still played well enough to win. This leads to the following situations:

1. A great player has a bad shooting night but his teammates step up and the team wins anyway.

Media Spin: the great player "refused" to let his team lose.

2. A great player has a bad shooting night and his teammates play poorly and the team loses.

Media Spin: the great player couldn't rise to the occasion, is a loser, and should never again be compared to (enter name of some other great player) again.

The Michael Jordan worship in the media is much worse now than when he actually played. Sometimes I question how much some of these idiots, like Hollinger, even know or remember about Jordan. (Marc Stein even claimed that Doug Collins was his first coach...and how much does he get paid to be so misinformed?) When Jordan's Bulls faced a clearly superior team, they lost. Period. Yet when Kobe's teams lose to clearly superior opposition (it happened the last two years, and it looks like it is going to happen this year), Kobe becomes unworthy of mention in the same sentence as Jordan. It's sickening, and a slap in the face to Bryant, and really every other great player who has played this game to deify Jordan in such a manner.

At Sunday, June 15, 2008 3:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One of the things that I have most enjoyed about running this site is not only do I have the opportunity to present some objective, fact based NBA coverage but I have attracted readers who are more knowledgeable than many of the so-called experts.

It's not likely to happen but it would be hilarious if the Lakers somehow came back from 3-1 to win this series and all of the game four stories are exposed as the frauds that they are; the reality is that, regardless of the outcome of this series, those stories are still fraudulent. What if Kobe-Gasol-Bynum win the next three championships? Will Kobe still be defined by game four of this series? The whole story of Kobe's career has to play out before a final verdict can be rendered. I don't think that Kobe has had a greater career than MJ to this point but nothing that I saw in game four swayed my opinion about that one way or the other. I think that Kobe has an opportunity to put himself in MJ's class but he has to be as productive in his post 30 years as MJ was, which will obviously be difficult to do.

At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 12:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, I don't compare players because there are some many things that are different which make it hard to compare players, size, teams, eras etc all different so why media does it?? Well to draw attention, to get everyone worked up. I am one who doesn't fall for that stuff and I try to avoid much of the media opinions and try to enjoy talent when I see talent. I wish media would just state the facts and let people be their own judge, I enjoy articles like this with no bias, just facts, ESPN.com writers need to take a course in writing from you. Great article.


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