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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

LeBron Lights Up MSG: 52-11-10

The basketball world buzzed with anticipation about what wonders LeBron James might perform in New York in the wake of Kobe Bryant's record breaking 61 point game and, like the great ones almost always do, James was more than up to the task: he dropped 52 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on the Knicks in a 107-102 Cleveland victory (2/6/09 edit: the NBA has taken a rebound away from James, so he officially had a 52-11-9 performance). James shot 17-33 from the field (including 2-7 behind the arc) and 16-19 from the free throw line while joining Michael Jordan as the only two visiting players to have two 50 point games at Madison Square Garden; James is also the first NBA player to have a triple double while scoring at least 50 points since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975 (yes, kids, Andrew Bynum's coach was that good).

Bryant and James should be savored as the two best players in the game today but it is inevitable that people will compare James' performance with Bryant's, so I will offer my take on that subject. Of course, I will do this a little differently--actually, a lot differently--than just about anyone else. For instance, in the postgame show on the MSG Network, Al Trautwig talked about how James smiles more than Bryant and seems to be enjoying himself while Bryant is "a lot more intense." Who cares? What does that have to do with anything? Does anyone think that Bryant does not enjoy playing basketball or that James is not intense? What interests me is to compare and contrast the skill sets of the league's two best players.

Team Productivity:

Bryant's Lakers beat the Knicks by nine, while James' Cavs won by five. Bryant played 37 minutes and had a plus/minus number of +19, while James played 44 minutes and had a plus/minus number of +7. Plus/minus numbers can be "noisy," particularly in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that Bryant's plus/minus exceeded his team's victory margin by 10 while James' plus/minus only exceeded his team's victory margin by two.


Bryant shot 19-31 from the field (including 3-6 from three point range) and 20-20 from the free throw line.

James shot 17-33 from the field (including 2-7 from three point range) and 16-19 from the free throw line.

Taking those stats in reverse order, both Bryant and James did a good job of both drawing fouls and making their free throws.

Bryant is a reliable threat from three point range (.500 in the game, .341 during the season), while James is an erratic three point shooter (.286 in the game, .298 during the season).

According to my (unofficial) count, Bryant shot 4-5 in the paint (.800) and 12-20 (.600) in the midrange game; James shot 7-8 (.875) in the paint and 8-18 (.444) in the midrange game. That latter area is what still sets Bryant apart from James: As ESPN's Tim Legler said last night, "Kobe Bryant is the only offensive player in the NBA who does not have a weakness. There is nothing he cannot do on the court offensively." James is a tremendous force in the paint but he shoots a subpar percentage from virtually every other zone, as I detailed in a previous post. Against the Knicks, this difference did not matter too much but it is a major reason why Bryant was able to lead the Lakers past the Spurs in last year's playoffs while James' Cavs were swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals: elite defensive teams sag off of James, taking away his driving lanes and passing angles, thus forcing him to shoot jumpers. When James is hitting the midrange shot he is unguardable but he has yet to master that shot on a consistent basis, so it is hard to understand what the Knicks were doing defensively, particularly in the fourth quarter of a winnable game (the Cavs only led 82-78 after three quarters). James shot 3-3 in the paint in the final stanza but 0-4 outside of the paint, yet Knick defenders repeatedly crowded him and all but forced him to drive. On the possessions when Wilson Chandler correctly backed off from James, James offered several half hearted fakes before missing jump shots after Chandler did not come closer; James clearly wanted to drive and was justifiably reluctant to shoot. On subsequent possessions when other Knick defenders bodied up to James he blew by them and scored or drew fouls. The most bizarre defensive possession was when Chandler backed off of James, the shot clock ran down and all of a sudden Nate Robinson--looking like Troy Polamalu on a safety blitz--ran over to trap James; naturally, James simply passed to Robinson's man and Daniel Gibson knocked down an open three pointer. Why would Robinson leave a knock down shooter to double team James behind the three point line? That just makes no sense.


James finished with 10 rebounds, while Bryant did not have any rebounds, so James obviously wins this category even if you take out the inconsequential board that James snared as time ran out (he admitted after the game that a teammate told him he needed one rebound for a triple double but he good naturedly refused to identify who tipped him off). James is normally a small forward and he spent some time versus the Knicks at power forward when the Cavs went small, so he played a lot closer to the basket at both ends of the court than Bryant did.


James had 11 assists and three turnovers, while Bryant had three assists and two turnovers. The low turnover totals for both players are remarkable considering how productive they both were. It is important to understand that the Cavs and Lakers run completely different offenses. Almost every Cleveland possession begins with James handling the ball, while the Lakers run the Triangle Offense and other players besides Bryant can initiate the attack. No Cav other than James had more than three assists, while four Lakers had at least four assists versus the Knicks.

Overall Verdict:

Trying to rank one of these performances over the other is like arguing about whether Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is a "better" work of art. Bryant showcased his full scoring repertoire and he made the passes in the Triangle Offense that eventually led to scoring opportunities for other players; his zero rebounds are a statistical anomaly (he had nine rebounds versus Toronto tonight). James powered his way to the hoop, made just enough outside shots to keep the defense honest and did a remarkable job of filling up the stat sheet in other categories besides points. When I watched James do his thing in the wake of Bryant's great game I did not think so much about who is better as I reaffirmed my conviction that these two players have separated themselves from everyone else in the NBA.

The Sunday showdown between the Cavs and the Lakers is "must see TV."

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 PM



At Thursday, February 05, 2009 2:05:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

But David! Don't you know that a 52/11/10 is automatically better than 61/0/2? And I can tell you that without watching the game!

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 2:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I like all of your articles. I visited here since last year and really enjoy reading. It's very details and spot on unlike those other so called sports writer in Yahoo, ESPN and CNNSI.


I also doesn't know that 52/11/10 is better than 61/0/2. Did you watch both the Game? if not then better keep your comment.

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 3:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you very much.

By the way, Free Cash Flow comments here frequently, so I can say with a high degree of confidence that you should not take his comment literally: I'm sure that he meant it as a tongue in cheek poke at the way that other people will talk about these games.

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 1:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


lebron was a triple double it was great him and kobe was even 61 is a record.

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 5:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, FreeCashFlow, I would say that Kobe's game was better. Statistically speaking (and having watched them both.)

But Lebron is a lot better than Kobe. It's really not even close.

As I always do, let my just boil down your scoring analysis. As scorers, this year, Lebron scores slightly more on a pace adjusted basis and is marginally more efficient, with a ts% that is currently .8% higher.

And he is a lot better than Kobe in every other aspect of the game other than turnovers, where Kobe has a small edge.

So, my old refrain...

Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player and a prolific scorer, but he is simply not at the same level as Lebron, Chris Paul, or Dwight Howard this year.

I will give Kobe the award for artistic merit though, he definitely has the most aesthetically pleasing game in the NBA, or so critics like you tell me.


At Thursday, February 05, 2009 7:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The question of which game is "better" does not interest me as much as how the games are similar/different.

It is flat out wrong to say that LeBron is "a lot better than Kobe," just as it would be flat out wrong to say the opposite. They are very evenly matched but have diverse skills sets. Kobe is more complete from a technical aspect, while LeBron is bigger and more explosive. As the Celtics and Spurs showed in the playoffs the past two years, it is easier--relatively speaking--to deal with raw power than to stop someone who has no skill set weaknesses; those teams played off of LeBron and forced him into low shooting percentages and high turnover rates. The Spurs had no answer for Kobe, while the Celtics threw everyone but the kitchen sink at him and prayed that Kobe's teammates would come up short, which they did.

To say that Kobe is not at the same level as the players you mentioned is simply asinine.

Where in my commentary have I praised Kobe's "artistic merit" or even made any kind or remark along those lines? I am analyzing these players from a technical standpoint based on my observations as well as the informed observations of people who understand the sport. In contrast, you are blindly relying on what a spreadsheet tells you.

For instance, even though Kobe "only" had three assists versus New York when he was in the game Gasol only faced single coverage in the post. Gasol is a good enough player to merit double coverage but he will rarely if ever see double coverage when Kobe is in the game. When Kobe was out, the Knicks made a run and they also trapped Gasol on the block, making it much harder for him to score (Gasol did get some buckets in transition when Kobe was on the bench). Assists are not the only--or even the best--way of determining how a player impacts his teammates' ability to get open shots.

At Friday, February 06, 2009 8:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone done an analysis of how the hand check rule has inflated scoring since it's been in effect?

I'm also not just talking about additional FTs being awarded, but psychological effect of backing off to avoid committing the foul. (this may be harder to gauge)

At Friday, February 06, 2009 8:55:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

These performances are great but can someone hard foul someone? Or double team? Karl Malone said can someone get undercut. Thats harsh but the Knicks didnt try to do anything. The Knicks are a joke and embarrasing by the matador defense they play. They didnt except the challenge at all. To let James come in and throw smoke in the air and then do what he did is a disgrace and its similar to when Snoop crushed the buildings in NY.

I like the fact that Lebron actually watched Bryants game and excepted the challenge. And there is nothing wrong with getting that 10th rebound. Im sure someone told Bryant the MSG record and he remained in the game when the game was already over.

James'jumper definitely isnt there yet because he should of had at least 65 with the open jumpers he missed. I dont like his release or the inconsistency of his jump shot package. Sometimes he shoots a set shot from 3 and sometimes a jump shot. Thats terrible and he needs to figure out how he wants to make it perfect. Bryant has made his perfect. He has obviously studied more of Mikes tapes because if you look at the release of Bryants jump shot release its the same as Mikes. Even Bryant three dribble and ball spin at the free throw line is Mikes. At least Bryant is consistent.

At Friday, February 06, 2009 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't know if anyone has formally analyzed this but a lot of commentators have observed that the rules changes have undoubtedly helped perimeter offensive players; after all, that is why the rules were changed in the first place.

At Friday, February 06, 2009 3:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Undercutting someone is hardly the right play, though it is not surprising that Malone said that considering how many dirty plays he committed during his career. I saw the segment when he said that. He and Kenny Smith acted like there was a lot of defensive resistance during Malone's 61 point game but Malone shot 80% from the field and the Jazz beat the Bucks by nearly 50 so how much resistance could there really have been?

D'Antoni's philosophy seems to be the Lenny Wilkens' approach: single cover the superstar with your best one on one defender and hope that he "shoots himself out" and that his teammates do not get involved or get a rhythm. The Knicks broke down against Cleveland when they trapped James at inopportune times and created passing lanes, otherwise the strategy may have worked because the Knicks almost won. If you single cover Kobe it is just death on most nights because he will keep shooting and keep making shots.

At least you acknowledge that it is a good thing that Kobe emulates MJ's jumper :) Sometimes people act like it is a bad thing that Kobe models his game after MJ's.


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