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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"The Mamba Mentality"

Kobe Bryant's new book The Mamba Mentality overflows with insights that the five-time NBA champion learned during his 20 year career. The text is illustrated by photos taken by Andrew Bernstein, the visual James Boswell to Bryant's Samuel Johnson during Bryant's career. This book is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in what makes Kobe Bryant tick, and for any basketball player who is looking for a blueprint for improving one's basketball skills.

Bryant mastered all facets of the game. It is that technical, all-around completeness combined with incredible competitive drive, a fanatical will to win and the capacity to play through injuries that separated Bryant from all of his contemporaries and elevated him into basketball's Pantheon.

I had the privilege of watching Bryant play in person on many occasions, during several of which he went head to head against LeBron James. During most of the times that they faced each other when I attended in person, Bryant was at the top of his game while James was a great player who was still learning his craft. The mainstream media narrative had James surpassing Bryant some time before that actually happened; even during a 94-90 Cleveland win over L.A. in 2007, an observer with an educated eye could see the difference between Bryant and James:
Andrew Bynum had 17 points and 11 rebounds but he missed two free throws that could have tied the game with 11.9 seconds left. Bryant stormed in to the lane to rebound the second miss and called a timeout, giving his team one last chance to win or tie. Someone asked Bryant about how he got that crucial rebound but Bryant laughed and said, "I'm not giving up my secret. I told him (James) I was going to get it. That's just years of experience." Bryant winked to a courtside camera after the play, provoking boos from the crowd when that image was displayed on the giant overhead screen...
Later, after most members of the media had left, I asked Bryant if in his current injured state the court seems much larger and harder to traverse than usual due to his limited mobility and his eyes widened in acknowledgment as he said "Yes" before reiterating his earlier comment: "But I'm going to go in the gym, work on my jumper and figure out how to get through this."
In The Mamba Mentality, Bryant--while not specifically referencing that crucial rebound or that game--explained his approach to playing against James and, in the process, confirms what educated, informed observers could detect when watching these two all-time greats square off. The book includes Bryant's scouting report-like take on his matchups versus several different players. The section on James begins with, "I enjoyed contact. LeBron is bigger than me in height and width, but I enjoyed hitting, and getting hit, a lot more than him. That impacted our head to head matchups" (side note: as enjoyable as this book is, it would have been even better with a more skilled co-writer, or with an editor who knows to write "LeBron is bigger than I am" and "a lot more than he did"). A major part of the "secret" of Bryant grabbing that key rebound versus Cleveland is that Bryant thrived on contact and knew how to use body contact/leverage to his advantage. By virtue of size, position and team role, James was always going to average more rebounds than Bryant, but from a fundamental standpoint Bryant was a superior rebounder, and it was always apparent that, if necessary for one key possession, Bryant could go get the ball in ways that James could not or would not, much like Michael Jordan put together a string of big rebounding performances for the second three-peat Chicago Bulls during one of Dennis Rodman's extended absences from the lineup.

Bryant added, "When he was defending me, LeBron would use his body and not cushion with his forearm because he was used to being stronger than everybody else. With me, though, that worked to my advantage. I like the physicality, and I know how to use my hands to move him back just enough where I could turn the corner." Bryant noted that sometimes James would front him in the post to combat Bryant's superior technique/footwork and Bryant would play mind games with James, teasing James about fronting a much smaller player.

James' footwork and defense improved over time, but he never used his physical advantages--which are greater than Bryant's--to the extent that Bryant used his, because James has never enjoyed physicality to the extent that Bryant did.

James surpassed Bryant as a regular season performer some time around 2009, as James hit his physical prime while Bryant entered a stage in his career during which managing his body so that he peaked during the playoffs was the primary concern. Bryant remained the more technically sound player--James has still not surpassed prime Bryant in that regard--and Bryant remained the better, more consistent playoff performer but the younger, bigger, stronger James was better equipped to weather the 82 game regular season grind. However, despite the physical advantages James enjoys over Bryant, peak James never quite reached the same level as peak Bryant. Slightly past his peak Bryant won back to back titles alongside Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a bunch of role players, while peak James went 2-2 in the NBA Finals while playing alongside future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals overall, while James' Finals record currently is 3-6. No, that is not the only metric that matters and yes, one could write a book dissecting all of the contextual factors that affected both players' Finals resumes--but the bottom line is that prime Bryant had no skill set weaknesses, he lifted bad teams to the playoffs, when he had the weapons he almost always brought home the title and he did not make excuses or pout or quit.

Put even more simply, Bryant played 20 seasons for one franchise and during that entire time his main focus was winning championships. That does not mean he did not make mistakes or did not have other interests--he is now an Oscar-winning filmmaker--but Bryant's life centered around winning titles. James has always been chasing the next contract, the next team, the next side interest; he has put up great individual numbers and he has won championships but no one can honestly say that he devoted his life to winning championships the way that Bryant did.

Bryant was by no means a flawless technician from the start but he was a quick study. The book includes a picture of a young Bryant defending Jordan in the post. Bryant points out flaws in his balance and technique, and states that he looked at pictures and film in order to eliminate those weaknesses. I remember a young Bryant struggling to guard Portland's Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith in the post during the playoffs but Bryant's post defense markedly improved in a short period of time after that.

Bryant discussed the evolution of his relationship with Phil Jackson. I remember Jackson once publicly calling Bryant a "hard-headed learner" who would not accept anything at face value and who constantly had questions. Bryant acknowledges that Jackson interpreted those questions as a challenge to his authority but Bryant insists that he simply thirsted for knowledge. Jackson and Bryant worked together much more smoothly the second time that Jackson coached the Lakers, and Jackson accepted Bryant's need to understand the reasoning behind certain decisions.

Bryant's observations about his various rivals and about the nuances of the game crackle with insight. I will offer just a couple examples and I urge you to read the book to get a full taste.

One, Bryant described a 1997 matchup with Clyde Drexler as a "seminal moment"; after an awful first half, Bryant scored 27 points in the second half. Bryant declared, "I always admired Clyde" and Bryant noted he learned a lot about defense from competing against him. For instance, Drexler would use one hand to obstruct the offensive player's vision while using the other hand to go for deflections/steals, a technique that Bryant added to his defensive repertoire.

Two, Bryant explained his mentality about playing through injuries, which was the point of the question that I asked the hobbled Bryant after the game during which he used one of his "secrets" to snare a crucial late game rebound, and which is why Bryant was pleasantly surprised by a question that acknowledged the essence of the nature of the challenge he faced in that moment. When Bryant was injured, he assessed what he could do and what he could not do and then adjusted accordingly. That may sound simple and obvious but Bryant's approach took this to the next level. For instance, Bryant admits that the avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand never completely healed and this forced him to permanently change his shooting stroke. His index finger used to be the last finger to touch the ball prior to releasing the shot but Bryant switched to using his middle finger. "Making that change took a couple of practices. Not average practices, though. Days flooded with mental and physical work. I had to mentally download the software that was the new form, and then drill it in." Bryant is not sure if the new form made him a better shooter or not. He deems that to be an irrelevant question; the injury forced the change, and the change was good enough to win a championship that season (and the next season), which is "the only thing that matters."

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:56 PM

28 comments

28 Comments:

At Thursday, December 27, 2018 12:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

"Slightly past his peak Bryant won back to back titles alongside Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a bunch of role players, while peak James went 2-2 in the NBA Finals while playing alongside future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals overall, while James' Finals record currently is 3-6. "

This is such a weird argument. Bryan had Odom and Gasol for four years (and Gasol for longer) and went 2-1 in the Finals (being eliminated in the second round in their final year together). James went 2-2 in his four years with Wade and Bosh. How is making the Finals one extra time worse somehow?

In a related story, James has made the Finals 9 times to Bryant's 7. That is ultimately a pretty meaningless statistic as is their respective record therein, given the radically different contexts of how they got to their respective Finals and who they played when they got there. Kobe made four of his seven Finals as the second-best player on Shaq's team, while Lebron made all of his in a depleted Eastern conference. Kobe never played against a Pantheon-level player in the Finals while Lebron went up against Tim Duncan three times, plus the Warriors (who are much better than any team Kobe beat) four times.

Of the teams that beat Lebron in the Finals during Kobe's (relevant) career, two had Duncan and one had Dirk. That Dirk team swept Kobe's reigning champion Lakers in that same playoffs, and Duncan knocked Kobe out of the playoffs twice himself (though Kobe also got the better of Duncan several times, including once without Shaq).

There are plenty of strong arguments for Kobe over Lebron, but I don't think "record in the Finals" is one of them. Stick Lebron next to apex Shaq for eight years or throw Kobe against the 2010s Warriors four times and their respective Finals records would look a lot different.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

While I'm picking nits...

Saying Kobe had "no skillset weaknesses" is pretty charitable to his three point shooting. He's a career 33% shooter, with all of zero seasons about .400 (the usual bar for "good" three point shooting in his era). I know the excuse of "hand grenade shots" is a popular one but I can't imagine they shave 7% off his career numbers.

I wish we had more tracking data from his prime, but for the three years we did have it, he shot 29%, 38% and 30% with no defender within 4 feet, and 36% and 32% with no defense within 6 feet. Even if we posit that he shot 3% better on those attempts in his prime (unlikely, spot up shooting is perhaps the basketball skill least effected by age) those are still bad numbers on open looks.

Worth noting since I'm sure it'll come up, Lebron is not much better, with his career average mostly buoyed by a single +.400 season.

If we *really* wanna get nitpicky Kobe also had issues with late-game clock management, shot selection, and help recovery (though he was a great helper, he often neglected to get back to his man if the play continued, leading to a lot of big nights for one-dimensional spot up shooters like Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, etc.).

Kobe was great. I have him as somewhere between the 8th and 13th best guy ever (and based on your Pantheon and comments you've made in the past about him relative to other guys in it, I'm pretty sure you've got him in a similar range). But we don't need to pretend he was better than he was to build him up.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) My point about the Finals is that what one could term Bryant's "second," slightly past his prime career is at least comparable to what James achieved during his prime years. Similarly, I would argue that Bryant's performance level during his last three Finals appearances is comparable to Jordan's performance level during his last three Finals appearances, though of course Jordan's teams went 3-0 while Bryant's teams went 2-1.

As I stated in the article, one could write a book about all of the contextual factors involved in the careers of these two players. I provided my take and I gave some of the reasons supporting my position. More detailed explanations of my take can be found in the many, many articles on this site about Bryant, James and player evaluation in general.

2) Shaq played with Penny, Wade, Nash and James at various stages of his career. I know that he was not in his prime when he played with all of those players but the reality is that in a long career Shaq went 1-1 in the Finals without Bryant and 3-1 with him. So I do not completely buy the age old, throwaway comment that many have made to the effect that anyone would have won multiple titles with Shaq, because many tried to do so and only one player accomplished this. I also think that James (or Jordan for that matter) would not have blended as well with Shaq as Bryant did. Bryant grumbled about running the offense through Shaq but he did it. Would James and Jordan have given up touches/points/glory to let the focus be on Shaq? I doubt it.

3) "Hand grenade" shots played a role in Bryant's shooting percentages but the larger point here is that Bryant was a credible threat from three point range for most of his career. Teams had to guard him out there and that opened up opportunities for his teammates. Teams deliberately went under screens and gave James a wide berth from three point range for most of his career. You often talk about Nash and Curry spreading out defenses. I have never seen anyone (other than maybe Jordan) distort defenses to the extent that Bryant did. Some of that may have been related to the relative quality of Bryant's teammates, but it was not uncommon for Bryant to have three guys sent in his direction, with the opposing team begging for anyone else to shoot the ball.

4) I am not "pretending" that Bryant was better than he was. I am assessing him objectively, and I am correcting persistent fallacies that are presented by other media outlets. There are certain players--Bryant and Scottie Pippen immediately come to mind--who are appreciated much more by their peers, coaches and scouts than they are by the media and the general public.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:36:00 PM, Anonymous Rk said...

Nick

Why are the finals the only matchup that matters in terms of how good the other team is? How many 50 60+ win teams did Kobe beat on the way to the finals as opposed to LeBron? Perhaps LeBron's final matchup was tougher than any team that Kobe has played (which I disagree with, seeing as how the Celtics he played were one of the best defensive teams of all time,and as you're so fond of saying defense wins rings)? I also thought this whole "Kobe was carried by Shaq the whole time they were together" was put to rest already? Their first ring together sure, but rings 2 and 3 Kobe was not "second best". I don't see how playing in a way that maximizes your big man's potential makes him second best. As far as facing Duncan in the finals, he was only playing at pantheon level maybe once out of the handful of times LeBron played against him. Prime LeBron shouldn't be losing to old duncan. And as long as we're talking hypotheticals, give Kobe any team resembling LeBron's heat squads and I'm sure his ring count would be even higher. Give him a ball handler on the level of Kyrie and a true stretch 4/rebounder like love (instead of washed up gasol trying to shoot 3s) and he would probably beat the warriors.

And yes Kobe shouldn't have been shooting 3s at some points. Definitely his biggest weakness.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

1) Fair. I agree that their achievements are comparable and may have misunderstood your point.

2) I agree with some of that and disagree with some. Shaq from 2000-2002 was better than any other Shaq and I think a lot of guys could have gotten at least 1 or 2 titles with him in that era, if not all three; Kobe was not even yet his best self in 2000 and arguably 2001. I do agree that at least Jordan and perhaps James would not have been able to mesh as well with Shaq, however. My point was more that Lebron never had a teammate who was, you know, one of the best 15 players of all time (exempting Shaq's corpse in 2010) and likely would have done pretty well if he did, and that Kobe's opponents in the Finals were a bit less impressive than James'. That said, this was mostly in reaction to the misunderstanding on my end mentioned in the above point, so perhaps largely irrelevant.

3) I certainly agree that Kobe distorted defense but he did so primarily inside the line; he pulled them in more than he spread them out. Curry's effect is unique, and Nash's value had more to do with either making improbable passes (which Kobe also did, albeit less often) and/or drawing defenses int the paint/out of position with his ability to maintain his dribble.

I do not agree that Kobe's 3 point shooting stretched the defense much, although it perhaps had a trickle-down effect of forcing his primary defender to stand a step closer, and other guys inside the line to likewise shade a step. I personally think (and the Celtics did this a bit, with varying results) the smarter way to guard him would have been to play off him a step to challenge his drives and live with him making roughly a third of threes with a hand only semi in his face.

Regardless of wider effect on the defense, Kobe certainly took more threes than his percentage warranted, particularly post-Shaq.

However, I do not think "warrants being guarded" is the same as "not a weakness." Dennis Rodman warranted being guarded within five feet, but I would not describe his finishing ability as "not a weakness."

4) I agree that Pippen is vastly underrated by the media, and your coverage to that effect is some of my favorite of your writing. I don't think Bryant, especially post retirement, gets nearly the short shrift you seem to perceive; in fact it seems most major media outlets consider him one of the 5-10 greatest players ever and he is constantly lauded just about everywhere. There was a period during his career where he was perhaps slightly underrated (ironically right around the time he won the MVP), but I am not seeing the same witch-hunt you seem to, and in fact think he's often a little bit overrated relative to other Pantheon-level guys.

Perhaps I am skewed by living on the West Coast, but I don't know a player MORE highly rated by the general public than Kobe except for Jordan.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:45:00 PM, Anonymous Rk said...

Just wanted to also remind everyone here that prime LeBron with the leagues best record and best defensive efficiency got spanked by a Dwight Howard squad that got summarily smoked like a Christmas ham by Kobe and co. That was probably the closest we ever got to witnessing the Kobe lebron matchup but we all know what happened there. LeBron stat pads and plays in his selfish self glorifying ways which leads to his weak playoff and finals records.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:51:00 PM, Anonymous Rk said...

One last hypothetical: if you ask Duncan who he would rather play against in the finals he would probably say LeBron, since a player and coach of that caliber knows how to stifle a player like LeBron as opposed to Kobe. LeBron plays are probably child's play to dissect and defend against as long as you have someone like Duncan defending and a mind like pop coaching.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

RK-

I don't disagree that Kobe had a harder path to the Finals; I alluded to that with the comment about Lebron's easier Eastern road; my point is more that comparing their Finals records is silly on both sides for a variety reasons, including Kobe's harder path there and Lebron's tougher competition when he got there, as well as their respective casts. Lebron is not better because he's been more times and Kobe is not better because he won more times when he got there. No matter who you think is better, that shouldn't be the reason.

I do no think Kobe was "carried" by Shaq. I think he was the second-best player on one of the six or seven greatest teams of all-time. That is not a knock, but it is obvious that Lebron has never had a teammate as dominant as Peak Shaq.

I'm not sure how well Kobe/Wade's games would have meshed given that they played the same position but you could probably move Kobe to the 3 and win at least one ring in that era, for sure. I think Lebron's specific switchability was pretty key to those teams' defense, so I hesitate to say Kobe would win *more*, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out. Again, my wider point was not that I think Lebron is better (I don't), but that I think comparing their Finals records is largely irrelevant.

I think Lebron did exactly as well as he should have against Duncan, old or otherwise. He had no business beating him in '07, got by him in '13, and just didn't have the horses in '14 to compete with not only Duncan but an ascendant Kawhi and a deep, strong, well-coached team (especially with Wade pretty nearly washed by that point).

I disagree that Kobe-on-Cavs would have beaten the Warriors even once. The Warriors have better defensive options against Kobe than they do against Lebron (though you obviously can't truly stop either of them) and Kobe does not allow them to "go big" against the Warriors, which was one of the keys to their success. Kobe could also not play part-time rim protector against the Warriors the way Lebron did. Owing to his smaller size, he would also not be as effective a screen partner for Kyrie as Lebron was.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:55:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

Unabashed Lakers homer here, who agrees with you that finals appearances (and record) shouldn't have much weight when discussing player A over player B. Still, homerism compels me to go ahead and nit pick your picking nits.

1. I don't want you to undersell how easy the path to the finals has been for Lebron in the East. From 2007 until 2017, there were only 3 seasons where the 8th or 7th seeded team did not have a sub .500 record. And if you take the average for those 11 seasons, 1 team per season had a sub .500 record and still made the playoffs. This does not take into account the teams that squeaked in at .500.

2. Pau Gasol is a top 10 favorite player for me, and probably my favorite NBA human being. At his peak, it could be argued he was better than peak Bosh (depending on how you value Bosh's defense which was light years better than anything Gasol provided). But comparing Odom to Wade...

3. Lebron with prime Shaq, would not have worked out as well as you seem to think unless we're talking NBA 2k. Both are front runners, and Shaq always needed needed a closer (which, to nitpick even further, makes your "second" best player on the Lakers comment only relevant for that first year. For the second two, Kobe was just as indispensable). Lebron is a shaky freethrow shooter, who has consistently shied away (disappeared, quit, what have you) in the biggest, most crucial moments. Lebron's needed a "closer" too. Wade (Ray Allen), and Kyrie. We'll see who that is on the Lakers, though I suspect Ingram has the mentality to be that, even as their games as currently constructed aren't meshing at all.

Also, spacing. Lebron's main weakness was/is his midrange game. In Shaq's prime, Kobe spaced the floor by being an elite midrange jump shooter who learned to cut and move without the ball -- two things Lebron doesn't do, but Wade and Kobe were at worst proficient at. (Though, you can make the argument that Lebron's a better 3-point shooter). I personally don't think Lebron/Shaq would've worked out too well.

And while the narrative is now shifting against him this season (as David has continually pointed out for the past 10 years), he is a ball dominant player who demands others fit with his game and who historically has passed blame onto his teammates. I was talking about Lebron in case you got em mixed up. :)

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 2:59:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David/RK-

As an aside/query, Kobe vs. Lebron is one of a handful of Finals matchups I feel we missed out on and were kinda owed by the basketball gods. Do you have any? My list:

Kobe vs. Lebron (Between the two of them they appeared in 12 straight Finals (and 16 out of 19) but never met; both have made remarks about "not holding up [their] end" in various years)

Kobe vs. Shaq (Never had the right support at the same time; talent-wise '05 would have been ideal but neither guy had the horses with him that year)

Hakeem vs. Jordan (I'll go to my grave believing Hakeem would have killed him pre-Rodman)

Young Doc vs. Young Kareem (we saw a lot of them against each other in the 80s but I would have loved to see a matchup between the two in the mid-70s with relatively weaker supporting casts on both sides).

2010 Suns vs. Celtics (Suns lost fair and square but I wanted to see the best offense of the era vs. the best defense of the era and for a second there it looked like we might get to)

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 3:04:00 PM, Anonymous Rk said...

Last comment sorry Nick for flooding your comments:

My main gripe about this Shaq carrying Kobe thing is that any coach or player would and should play to their given teams strengths. Obviously for those early 2000 Lakers that focal point was Shaq because let's be real here: nobody outside of Duncan was stopping him and even then Duncan wasn't always successful. Kobe feeding Shaq down low is more a testament to Kobe's willingness to play the right way..in other words the way that will most likely result in a win. Does that make Kobe second best? Compare that to LeBron who refuses to run plays set by coaches (except in Miami when Riley wasn't having none of that) and instead runs plays that results in his stats looking good. LeBron always had capable big men around him to utilize..he just didn't. I remember there was a finals series where Tristan and love combined for 20 pts and 20 rebounds a game, and yet LeBron "had no help". That makes no sense to me. LeBron could have won 2 or 3 more rings had he played with some semblance of a game plan as opposed to "let's rack up my triple doubles so that I am absolved of all blame".

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 3:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

1) Agree.

2) Also agree. Didn't mean to imply Kobe's supporting cast was as good as Lebron's. Sorry if it read that way. It wasn't.

3) I am undecided as to how well Lebron and Shaq would/would not have meshed. I think generally if you have two of the best five players in the league you're likely to win the title, regardless of fit (see also: Jordan/Pippen, Magic/Kareem, Doc/Moses, and Curry/Durant). My point was not meant to be that Lebron would have done just as well as Shaq (though I feel confident he'd get at least one ring) but that he has never had a teammate even in that talent stratosphere.

I semi-agree about the closer thing, but I think it's less that Lebron isn't a closer and more that his closing ability comes and goes; the same is true to a lesser extent for Kobe, who had just as many crunch flameouts and triumphant victories, though one sticks out more brightly in our memories than the other. That said, I certainly prefer Kobe's playoff mentality and would rather bet on him in crunch time than Lebron.

THAT caveat caveated, I'm not sure that distinction would have cost the Lakers a title if we toss prime Lebron back there; his other attributes may well have meant fewer crunch times would need closing.

Lebron's size/post ability would have given the Lakers a high percentage option to go to if/when Shaq got in foul trouble, and with Shaq's ability to keep opposing front courts deep in foul trouble, Lebron would likely face little resistance in those scenarios.

I disagree that Lebron is a poor midrange shooter, though obviously Kobe was an even better one. That's a conclusion based on eye-test, though, so if you've got stats to change my mind, it's open.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 3:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

RK-

What makes Kobe second best is that Shaq was the best player on the planet. Kobe did the right thing for those three titles (*braces for David's rage* then the wrong thing in '04) but "recognizing that the right thing to do is feed the guy who's better than you" doesn't make him not better than you. '00-'02 Shaq is arguably the most unstoppable force the league has ever seen (though there are of course other nominees) and I just don't see a reasonable argument for Kobe being the better player during those three years.

Yes, Kobe should get credit for deferring to Shaq. But he deferred for a reason: Shaq was better.

I would not say that Lebron "had no help" but I would say that most coaches would probably rather have peak Shaq than Love/Tristan combined. I would say that in general Lebron's title teams had less help than Kobe's early Finals teams and more help than his later ones.

I do not agree that Lebron's goal has been statistics, but I do agree that he probably left a title or two on the table for primarily psychological reasons.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 3:49:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I forgot to specifically respond to this "Shaq always needed needed a closer (which, to nitpick even further, makes your "second" best player on the Lakers comment only relevant for that first year. For the second two, Kobe was just as indispensable)."


By that logic, Sam Jones was just as good as Bill Russell. I disagree. I think the 46 minutes of Shaq dominating are more important than the 2 minutes of Kobe batting cleanup (I am exaggerating slightly for effect here, please don't quote MPGs at me). Kobe was absolutely great in those title runs but he was not as great as Shaq and I think even Kobe would probably tell you so (at least in recent years, since they've adopted a more conciliatory tone). Shaq absolutely demolished opposing frontcourts not only with his scoring and rebounding but with his ability to draw fouls and physically exhaust his opponents; the attention he drew created tons of space for not only Kobe but also their deep roster of one-dimensional perimeter shooters and while his defense is often rightly lauded, during that run he was a paint-patrolling nightmare who forced many an opposing offense into low-percentage mid range shots.

Finals MVPs are not the be-all, end-all but there's a reason Shaq got all three of them. Looking at just the Finals (and just scoring, to say nothing of Shaq's rebounding, foul-drawing, screen-setting, or defensive value), these numbers tell a specific story:

'00 Shaq: 38 PPG .576 TS%
'00 Kobe: 15.6 PPG .411 TS%

'01 Shaq: 33 PPG .575 TS%
'01 Kobe: 24.6 PPG .501 TS%

'02 Shaq: 36.3 PPG, .636 TS%
'02 Kobe: 26.8 PPG, .623 TS%

Kobe had an important role as secondary scorer, primary initiator, and defensive stopper, and played at an All-NBA First Team level in two of those Finals but Shaq was playing at a GOAT-type level over the same stretch. It just isn't close.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

One more addendum to the "missed out on a Finals showdown" thing:

Doc vs. Barry- We probably would have gotten it if Doc had jumped to the NBA or if Barry had stayed in the ABA, but they didn't, so we missed out on seeing the two greatest SFs of the 70s duking it out on the big stage (though we did get one playoff series between them in the ABA, which Barry won, but it was only Doc's rookie year). I'd have loved to see them in '75 or '76.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

RK:

I agree that entire playoff careers should be considered and not just the Finals.

I also agree that Kobe likely would have done more with LeBron's supporting casts than LeBron did, and that LeBron would not likely have done any better with Kobe's supporting casts than Kobe did.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Just go back and look at Lakers versus Celtics and Cavs versus Celtics during Boston's Big Three era. The Celtics went under screens and dared LeBron to shoot, which made it harder for LeBron to drive or find open teammates (the Spurs did the same thing during the 2007 NBA Finals as well). The Celtics rarely if ever dared Kobe to shoot. Kobe's three point shooting percentage is a product of many factors and does not give a full picture of how dangerous of a threat he was. If he was not dangerous from there then he would not have been guarded there. Good defensive teams do not tend to guard non-threats. As coaches often say to bad shooters who justify shooting because "I was wide open": "You were open for a reason."

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I like your list of Finals that we missed. I think that Doc versus Moses in '81 would have been interesting. Doc would likely have won and that could have changed many narratives. It also may have resulted in the 76ers not acquiring Moses two years later. If Doc had won his only NBA title in '81 as the undisputed best player as opposed to in '83 as 1B to Moses' 1A, I suspect that Doc would rank higher on some people's all-time lists. That would also have meant that Doc would have never lost a playoff series to Bird until Doc was a 35 year old, 14 year vet. It was not necessarily Doc's "fault" that the 76ers lost the 3-1 lead in '81 but I think that the defeat (followed by Bird getting his first ring) damaged Doc's reputation, particularly after winning the regular season MVP that year.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

'09/'0 Lebron was not a good three point shooter but he was the most dangerous driving force in the league at the time. At the same time, Kobe's offense was no longer predicated on explosiveness. Kobe could still drive but it was not his primary weapon nor was he nearly the finisher (at that point) Lebron was.

I would posit that the difference in the way they defended them had more to do with denying Lebron his lanes than it did with any perceived difference in their long range shooting acumen, and teams *did* sometimes dare Kobe to shoot three in his younger, more athletic days. If I were coaching against them, I would be more afraid of Lebron getting past me and getting to the rim than I would of Kobe, but I would be more afraid of Kobe having room to take a step or two and drill a midrange shot.

I would not be meaningfully afraid of either of them killing me from deep.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:34:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

I appreciate how you always strive to support your arguments with data, eye test, quotes, and above all else, context. If your main point for #3 is to say that Lebron never played with a talent like Shaq, I completely agree, because for all intents and purposes, Lebron is/has been his era's Shaq. I too agree that Shaq and Lebron, on sheer talent alone, would have likely won a ring. I just think based off their personalities, abilities, etc. it would have been quite a bit harder for them to win 3 of 4 like Kobe/Shaq did.

Regarding mid-range, I don't have stats at the moment, though if I find time, I'll dig further into that. My assessment is based off of how each were guarded in the playoffs. When Lebron was successfully guarded, the defending teams forced him into shooting midrange shots. Detroit, the Celtics, the Spurs. Obviously, all of those teams were elite defensive teams, but they all came with the same strategy to mitigate Lebron's impact. And while the Celtics did the same to Bryant in 2008, in 2010, Kobe came back and overcame their strategy (yes, yes, yes, game 7...). Lebron toppled the Spurs in year 2, when he started hitting those midrange shots. But, for the majority of his career, that was his greatest flaw (that and freethrows). One other thing, Kobe was certainly a rhythm shooter, but I'd posit Lebron was too, especially from midrange. When he's feeling good, he could hit those midrange shots like nothing. But, in crunch time, under pressure, or if his shot was off that night, he'd either avoid shooting those shots completely, or not be able to get a bucket when it mattered from that range.

Regarding your follow-up post, it goes hand in hand with your "knock" on Kobe regarding not facing pantheon level competition in the finals. He didn't and neither did Shaq. Shaq won those 3 finals MVPs facing against Todd MacCoullugh, Jason Collins, Mt. Mutumbo, and Antonio Davis/Rik Smits (J-Kidd, Reggie, and AI are not, in anyone's opinion, pantheon level players). Meanwhile, Kobe did most of his work against Portland, San Antonio, and Sacto during that same run with Shaq to the finals, where Kobe did dominate.

And while the Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen aren't Pantheon level guys, they are all Hall of Famers. Kobe's second run was an easier path to the finals, but a harder finals imo.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 4:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

That's a really good one I didn't think of. I'd like to think Doc wins that series with his deeper supporting cast, but I wonder if Moses would have just destroyed that Philly frontcourt the way Kareem did in that era? Gun to my head I'd take the 76ers in 6, bu it's a really good what if and I'm glad you brought it up.

I agree that Doc's rep would be higher if he'd won one before Moses got to town, and there's a part of me that thinks he would have if either there hadn't been that fight against Portland or if, strange as it might sound, Kareem hadn't been injured--or at least hadn't missed a game--in '80 (I'm not saying he would have in either case, I'm just curious).

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 5:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I agree that Kobe's second batch of Finals opponents (sans Orlando, who was an overachiever) were tougher than his first batch.

I disagree that Kobe was meaningfully better than Shaq in most (if not all) of those earlier playoff series. Shaq outscored Kobe in 5/9 of them (and basically tied in a 6th). Two of the three where Kobe had a meaningful scoring edge were against the Duncan/Robinson duo, though Shaq was still more efficient and had a much heavier defensive responsibility/workload as those two were SA's primary offense.

There is no series where Kobe's performance is as far ahead of Shaq's (or even close) as Shaq's is ahead of Kobe in any of their Finals wins.

There may be somewhere between 1-3 series over their three-peat where a corner case could be made that Kobe mattered more, but over the balance of their run together Shaq was clearly the better player and an easier case could be made that he was the best player in all 12 playoff series during their three-peat.

Regarding the midrange issue, I think Kobe is a better midrange shooter than Lebron but I do not think Lebron is a bad one. I also think teams were usually more afraid of Lebron getting to the rim than Kobe, which is not a knock on Kobe but a testament to Lebron's obscene finishing percentages, and as such were more willing to concede midrange shots to him than they were to Kobe, who's gap between his midrange and at-rim percentages were much smaller, given he was better at the first and worse at the second.

I agree that earlier in his career Lebron's midrange game was a weakness, but by 2011 or 2012 he was a strong midrange shooter, if not Kobe level.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 5:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

Forgot to address the "Pantheon" issue. While David would disagree with me, I happen to think Shaq did play a Pantheon level guy in the Finals-- and got waxed. I think Hakeem is better than roughly half of David's Pantheon (give or take two guys in either direction) and he swept Shaq in '95.

But yes, neither Shaq nor Kobe beat a Pantheon-level guy in the Finals. They beat Duncan a bunch in the playoffs, which is basically the same, but the original point I was making that brought it up was that comparing straight Finals records is silly for a variety of reasons, two of them being that it ignores the road there and the competition when you get there.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 5:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am pretty confident that the '81 Sixers would have beaten the '81 Rockets. The '81 ECF was the de facto Finals. Yes, the Sixers squandered a great opportunity being up 2-0 versus Portland, and they had a better chance versus the '80 Lakers than they did versus the '82 Lakers, which is one of the greatest teams never/rarely mentioned in the greatest teams of all-time conversation.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 5:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Agreed on all counts. I think the '82 Lakers is probably the best iteration of the Magic/Kareem era, even if on paper the James Worthy teams might be a little better. I'll take still-pretty-much-peak Kareem + Wilkes + Nixon + near-peak Magic over diminished Kareem + Worthy + slightly better Magic. McAdoo off the bench was quite a luxury, too.

 
At Thursday, December 27, 2018 6:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The '82 Lakers had two Pantheon players, a player who should have made the original Top 50 List (Bob McAdoo), a HoF small forward, an All-Star guard (Norm Nixon) and a future DPoY (Michael Cooper). They were almost unbeatable in the second half of the season and the playoffs. When Philly finally took a game off of them I believe that it was the first time in well over a month that the Lakers had lost!

Dr. J did not have a bad supporting cast--Cheeks is an HoFer, Toney had HoF talent had he stayed healthy and Bobby Jones may yet make the HoF--but the Sixers did not have a matchup advantage anywhere other than Erving. Erving was one of the greatest and most consistent Finals performers ever, putting up 20-plus points every night along with rebounds, assists, steals and blocks but that '82 Lakers squad was a machine. I think that they would win a seven game series against any team in the NBA now, including the Warriors even at peak strength/focus.

 
At Friday, December 28, 2018 5:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kobe doesn't get enough credit for what he did from 2008-2010. I don't think it was some kind of historically great example of a player carrying his team but I have every reason to believe that if LeBron had Pau Gasol, Odom, Artest, Fisher and Bynum as teammates they would be widely dismissed as "bums" while if Kobe had Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Jeff Green, George Hill and Kyle Korver this would be considered a more than adequate supporting cast.

LeBron has never won a championship without an elite scorer as a second option, an All-NBA caliber big man as a third option and one former All-Star, former Sixth Man of the Year or future Hall of Famer coming off the bench. There was only one Finals in his prime where he had a legitimately deficient supporting cast and that was 2015 when Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured. The narrative that he has been wildly unlucky with his supporting casts over the last decade is pure propaganda and has bordered on lunacy at times.

 
At Friday, December 28, 2018 10:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you. Kobe’s supporting cast was not historically bad but it was not as good as it was made out to be and if LeBron had the same supporting cast the narrative would be that he did not have enough help.

 

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