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Monday, March 04, 2019

The Paradox of LeBron James

LeBron James baffles and mystifies me more than any other great player who I have observed and/or studied, so it is only fitting that as he enters the final stage of his career he continues to be baffling and mystifying.

James, a 34 year old veteran of 16 NBA seasons, is averaging 27.0 ppg (ninth in the league), 35.5 mpg (eighth in the league), 8.1 apg (third in the league), and a career-high 8.7 rpg while shooting .510 from the field. Based on a superficial look at those statistics, James seems to be having an MVP caliber season--but despite that, he very possibly will not even make the All-NBA First Team, and his L.A. Lakers are collapsing down the stretch, punctuated by an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns, who are a hard team to lose to since they are in full tank mode: the Suns have a league-worst 13-51 record, including a 17 game losing streak from January 15-February 23. Yes, James' Lakers were just beaten by a team that went five weeks without winning a single game.

James is a case study regarding the limitations of attempting to use individual statistics to quantify a player's value and/or compare the value of various players. James' numbers look impressive but those numbers do not accurately convey the large extent to which his leadership, his defense and his effort/intensity are subpar, if not entirely deficient.

It is possible that James is not completely healthy physically and/or that undefeated Father Time is claiming yet another victim--but it is almost certain that James has checked out mentally. His body language shows that he does not want to be on this team--or, at least, to play with this group of players--and it is quite evident that at least some of his teammates do not want to play with James. Keep in mind that Kyrie Irving ran away from James as fast as he could, despite winning a championship with James, and also remember that Kevin Durant has made it clear that he does not want to play with James. Paul George re-signed with Oklahoma City, choosing Russell Westbrook over James, and there is no reason to believe that Kawhi Leonard has any intention of joining James. The mainstream media narrative asserts that James is a great teammate and leader; the evidence paints a much different picture.

The Lakers last made the playoffs in 2013, when the 34 year old Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon crumpled under the weight of singlehandedly carrying the team; Bryant missed the postseason but pushed himself hard and came back to play after missing just the first 19 games of the 2013-14 season. Bryant participated in six games before suffering a knee injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. He played in the first 27 games of the 2014-15 season and in the process he became the oldest player to have a 30-10-10 triple double and just the third player aged 36 or older to have multiple triple doubles in the same season. Lakers coach Byron Scott rested Bryant for three straight games and for eight games over a 16 game stretch, as Bryant was dealing with nagging problems with his Achilles, knees, feet and back. Bryant's season ended after he tore his right rotator cuff while completing a two-handed dunk in a January 21, 2015 game versus New Orleans; despite the injury, Bryant returned to action that game and ran the offense while shooting, dribbling and passing almost exclusively with his left hand. He played 66 games during his final season in 2015-16, putting an exclamation mark on his career by scoring 60 points in his final game, a 101-96 victory over Utah. Bryant outscored Utah 23-21 in the fourth quarter to complete the highest scoring game by any NBA player that season.

When James Harden, who is not 37 years old and has not torn an Achilles, scores 30 points on 25 field goal attempts that is headline news and considered an MVP-worthy performance, but when Bryant doubled those numbers in his farewell performance he was belittled as an aging ballhog who was supposedly holding back the development of the Lakers' young players.

Bryant worked with those young players and pushed them to improve their games. Has James worked with the Lakers' young players? James joined the Lakers on a four year deal that supposedly signified his patience but his first season with the team was not even half over before he was trying to get the coach fired and half of the roster traded. Remember what Pat Riley said after James left Miami? Riley said that he would no longer have to deal with "smiling faces with hidden agendas."

No one knows if Anthony Davis wants to join General Manager/Coach/Player LeBron James in Los Angeles. It was not easy to be James' teammate when James was the best player in the world, and it figures to be more difficult to be James' teammate as his skills erode but his behind the scenes maneuvering does not stop.

The media can tout James as a great teammate, and Harden as the MVP. As a lifelong NBA fan--never mind being a commentator or analyst--I would rather watch Kobe Bryant seven days a week and twice on Sunday than watch James sulk or watch Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" (as Charles Barkley puts it) before committing a traveling violation that enables him to launch an open three pointer. Bryant left it all on the court, every game. He demanded excellence from himself and from everyone around him. When he had even a decent supporting cast around him, his teams were successful, capturing five championships in seven Finals appearances--and, even when he had subpar talent around him, he battled just as hard, and he carried some squads to the playoffs with players who barely even belonged in the league.

It has been said of highly gifted individuals that they have a "rage to master," an insatiable desire to be the best at whatever they do. That is a perfect way to describe Bryant. You can crunch the numbers any way that you want but you will not convince me that James has surpassed Bryant (and, to paraphrase Sparky Anderson's comment about Johnny Bench, don't even embarrass James by comparing him to Michael Jordan).

Based on James' durability and the sustained success he achieved as a number one scoring option, I would rank him ahead of Scottie Pippen, but Pippen's performance in one key playoff game highlights the risks of trying to evaluate players based purely on numbers; there are some aspects of greatness that are not captured by statistics.

The Chicago Bulls beat the Indiana Pacers 85-79 in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. The best and most impactful player on the court during that game was Pippen, who finished with four points on 1-9 field goal shooting. He also had seven rebounds, a game-high seven assists, and four steals. Why was Pippen the best player? He was a one man full-court press who singlehandedly turned Pacers' point guard Mark Jackson six ways to Sunday. Jackson had a game-high seven turnovers and the Pacers had 25 turnovers. The Bulls scored 27 points off of turnovers, a significant source of easy offense in a game during which they shot just .358 from the field. Michael Jordan scored a game-high 31 points but he shot just 11-28 (.393) from the field. Without Pippen's shutdown defense, the Bulls might have lost home court advantage, and could very possibly have lost the series as well; the game one winner of an NBA playoff series wins the series over 80% of the time.

Steve Kerr, now best known as the coach of the Golden State Warriors but then a sharpshooting reserve for the Bulls, said after the game, "It was an amazing defensive performance by our starters coming out in the third quarter, and that turned the game around. It's amazing to see how good Scottie is in particular. The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn’t have to score a point and he can control the whole game."

Indiana coach Larry Bird commented about Pippen's impact: "Obviously, that hurt us offensively. That was the first time that I have seen a player get up on a point guard and not really foul him but get his hands in there and dig the ball out. Next game, we need to do a better job of getting Mark open going down the court."

Pippen could not care less about his numbers. He did what needed to be done to win that game, as one big stepping stone on the path to winning his sixth title in eight seasons. When Pippen played, you could see his passion for the game, and his dedication to do what was best for the team, as opposed to doing what would cover him in the most individual glory.

James has a thicker resume than Pippen, and the capability to be a deadlier scorer, but if I needed a small forward to win one big playoff game--and if I already had a number one scoring option playing at any of the other positions--I would have to at least consider taking Pippen over James. 

After the San Francisco 49ers lost 34-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks during the 2008 season, Mike Singletary, then the  49ers' coach, issued a soon to be famous press conference rant: "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."

Davis, who went on to rank among the NFL's all-time top 10 career yardage leaders for tight ends, never forgot Singletary's words and, nearly a decade later, he publicly credited Singletary for correcting his life path: "That was the moment that turned everything around. Once I saw that, I was like, 'Wow, this guy is really serious.' There’s nothing I can do. This guy right here, he's just tough. I can't beat him. So I just have to straighten myself up, and that's what I did. I straightened myself up and did everything he asked me to do. I became a different person."

Lakers' coach Luke Walton is a dead man/lame duck walking. Wouldn't it be something if he delivered a similar speech to James? James--despite his superficially gaudy numbers--seems to be in "chill mode" until the Lakers give him the coach and teammates that he prefers. If I were a Lakers fan, I would rather see five guys on the court who are passionate about the game and care about their teammates than see a player who (sometimes) says the right things but meanwhile has sabotaged the team from within and who refuses to put forth full effort on a consistent basis.

LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time. Nothing he does on the back nine of his career will change that, but watching the way he handles himself one cannot escape the feeling that he could have won even more had he taken a different approach, and had he been more focused.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 AM



At Monday, March 04, 2019 3:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron and his supporters always hide behind his numbers as if they are an impenetrable force field. One of the biggest examples of this was the 2014 Finals. James averaged 28.2/7.8/4.0 on .571 FG% and many people scoffed at the idea that he should be blamed for his team losing the series in five games. The reality is that James spent most of the series padding his stats in garbage time as he was out-hustled by Kawhi Leonard, who was a role player at that stage of his career. The Heat were the two-time defending champs and they had considerably more offensive firepower than the Spurs. James was by far the best player in the series and the third option for his team, Bosh, probably would have been the first option offensively if he were on San Antonio. The 2014 Spurs were a very good, well-rounded team but they were not some kind of historically great team and they did not have one All-Star/Hall of Famer in their prime. The Miami Heat had no business losing the final three games of that series by about twenty points each, including both home games, and Lebron's numbers did not reflect his actual impact or lack thereof.

If James were purely concerned with winning and not so concerned with controlling the narrative he would not only still put up exceptional numbers but more importantly he would have five rings instead of three at this point in his career. The path to matching or even surpassing Jordan would still be open but the reality is that James has probably played in his last NBA Finals.

At Monday, March 04, 2019 5:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


James reminds me of the Fast Eddie Felson character from the classic movie The Hustler. After Fast Eddie was up on Minnesota Fats in their first match, cleaning Fats' clock, Fast Eddie lost it in the end. After the fact an observer told him point blank to his face that the reason why he lost was he was a LOSER. Fast Eddie was clearly the superior talent but he lost on account of inferior character. Fast Eddie was a supremely talented loser, nevertheless, he was a loser. Minnesota Fats persevered and won in the end on account of superior character. Of course, the movie is about how Fast Eddie built character by the end, and redeemed himself and proved himself worthy of his talent. But until Fast Eddie redeemed himself, he was a loser.

When Pat Riley called James out as a "smiling face with a hidden agenda," I thought his words were echoes of the guy in The Hustler who called out Fast Eddie as a loser. James has managed to win three championships because basketball is a five-on-five sport and he's so supremely talented that a legit contending team can make up for his character deficiencies. Lebron and Kobe are more or less equivalent talent-wise, perhaps James gets the slight nod on account of his size advantage. But Kobe was hands down the better player because of his superior character and competent leadership, what you say about his demand of excellence from himself and his teammates. I get the sense that Lebron has been bailed out, by the super-team in Miami, and that one moment in his career during those last three games of the 2016 Finals where he was zoned in like he'd never been before and will likely never be again. Thing is, Kobe was pretty much zoned in like that throughout his career, game in and game out, hence five championships. Not to speak of Jordan.

Pippen is much the inferior talent to James, but you make a compelling argument that given a first-rate scorer to bear that burden, Pippen would be an arguable choice in a deciding game because of his superior character.

Great article David!

At Tuesday, March 05, 2019 12:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that if LeBron had played up to his potential then he would have won more than three rings by this point and I also agree that his fans and media supporters "hide" behind his superficially impressive individual numbers.

One of the top unreported--or, at the very least, underreported--NBA stories of recent years is that top NBA players do not want to play with LeBron James. That was a charge that was widely and falsely thrown at Kobe Bryant but it is true of James. The short list includes Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.

At Tuesday, March 05, 2019 1:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The LeBron/Fast Eddie analogy is on point. LeBron has incredible talent but he lacks something critical in the mental/psychological department and the something that he lacks is something that Russell, Magic, Bird, Jordan and Bryant (and a handful of others) had in abundance. Abdul-Jabbar, Duncan and Erving had it as well, though they expressed it in different ways than the players listed in the previous sentence.

The popular parlor game of comparing James to Jordan is just silly; James never surpassed Bryant (from a historical standpoint; obviously, James surpassed Bryant after Bryant aged and then suffered injuries) and Bryant never surpassed Jordan. Pippen did not have the physical talents or offensive skills that James has but I would trust Pippen more to do what is necessary to win than I would trust James. James will give you an empty 35-11-11 and after losing talk about how he is the best basketball player in the world, while Pippen will give you 17-8-7, shut down the opposing team's best perimeter player and then slip out the back door of the locker room while his team's leading scorer gets the glory and does all of the interviews. In the right circumstance, Pippen could have been the best player on a championship team, but ideally he would be the second best scorer but best all-around player. James needs a lot of help around him, a lot of coddling and a lot of praise; if things get tough, he may just bail out into chill mode, passively collecting numbers while other players actually take over the game.

At Tuesday, March 05, 2019 6:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, when I speak of "character" I mean strictly in the basketball sense. As Jalen Rose might say, Lebron is clearly "winning at life" and the man is an upstanding citizen who has something of a social conscience. I'm not judging Lebron as compared to Kobe et al. in terms of personal character. Not suggesting that Lebron is a loser as a person. But he has underachieved career-wise to the point where, in basketball terms, he is a supremely talented loser in my estimation. The way in which his stint with the Lakers is now unraveling is revealing of the Fast-Eddie type character that's been on display in the league these last 16 years.

At Tuesday, March 05, 2019 7:45:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

The thing that makes me even more disgusted, is the general media coverage of Lebron. He gets a free pass. Not one single news outlet has gone after him for his role in completely selling out all of his young teammates...While he was sitting out injured! Also, they soundbite him throwing mad shade at all his teammates. I just, I can't watch them anymore. I derive no joy from watching the Lakers. It's...putrid. And the thing is, the Lakers DO have talent. Ingram, Kuzma, and Ball are all good players that just need time and consistency. If the Lakers fire Walton in the offseason and retain James, it'll be the last time I watch the Lakers until Lebron is gone. Jeannie Buss and Magic have let Lebron sully a once proud franchise. Of all of the HOF players that have put on the purple and gold, none of them have felt they were bigger than the franchise. Let alone believing they transcend the entire sport.

I hope the Lakers do trade him...though he's destroyed his own trade value as well.

At Tuesday, March 05, 2019 9:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean, Wade and Bosh wanted to play with James. Anthony Davis apparently wants to play with James.

Not clear the evidence is so strong here. And placing stock in Kyrie's judgment, in particular, seems like a questionable choice.

At Wednesday, March 06, 2019 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, I understood your comment to refer to James' basketball character, not his character as a person. Relative to his talent and his capabilities, James has underachieved as a basketball player. I feel the same way about Shaquille O'Neal, who achieved a lot but could have achieved even more.

At Wednesday, March 06, 2019 4:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Some media members hold James accountable. Frank Isola does so during his morning show on Sirius XM Radio, for instance. I agree with you, though, that in general the media gives James a free pass. Henry Abbott and others wrote reams of nonsense about Kobe Bryant supposedly destroying the Lakers during Bryant's last season or two (in terms of his large contract and the unsupported allegation that other players did not want to play on the same team with him) but those same critics say nothing about how much money James is being paid while he is sabotaging/undermining the front office, the coaching staff and his teammates.

James is acting like he can rest on his laurels in L.A. because he won two titles in Miami and one title in Cleveland but he does not seem to understand that the only way to be a Lakers legend is to win a ring (or at least sustain high level performance over many years, as Elgin Baylor did). No one in L.A. cares about what James did before he got there, nor should they. James is being paid a lot of money to eventually deliver at least one championship but he seems to be much more focused on his away from the court business endeavors.

At Wednesday, March 06, 2019 4:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Dwyane Wade is perhaps LeBron James' best friend. Chris Bosh knew that he needed to pair up with at least one elite player to ever win a title. We don't know if Anthony Davis wants to play with James; all we know is that his agent, who essentially works for LeBron James, prefers that Davis join forces with James.

Kevin Durant has made it clear that he does not want to play with James. Paul George chose the much-maligned Russell Westbrook over James. There is no indication that Kawhi Leonard wants to play with James; reports suggest that perhaps he will join the Clippers, if he decides to leave Toronto. That would be the ultimate indictment of James: a player choosing to go to L.A. but not play with the historic franchise because he would prefer to not play with James.

Kyrie Irving is a perennial All-Star who won a ring alongside James, yet he could not get out of Cleveland fast enough. That may say something about Irving, but in light of the above it also says something about James.

At Wednesday, March 06, 2019 11:36:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I haven't been watching the Lakers play much recently, but this made me reconsider my earlier assumptions.

Prior to 2012, when LBJ won his first title, I thought he was the closest thing we will ever see to a Wilt Chamberlain - someone far more talented than every other player but trapped by his own narcissism to the point that he could never figure out the secret to basketball.

But in doing so, I actually under-estimated Wilt Chamberlain - just because he actually changed his game according to his coaches. He went from a super-duper scoring machine from his first 6 or 7 seasons to an all-around balanced player who rebounded and played defense and passed the ball more to his talented teammates with the Sixers under Hannum, and then to a Bill Russell-type of defender during the back-nine of his career as a Laker.

This means Wilt was willing to sublimate his game in order to win.

LBJ has not done so, and being 34 years old, he has decided to stop playing defense in order to conserve energy to keep his stats. This actually hurts the team because you can't lead if you aren't setting an example on the floor.

Until and unless LBJ changes his game in order to win, he will no longer be a winner.

At least Chamberlain led his team to the Finals 4 out of his last 5 seasons.

At Thursday, March 07, 2019 12:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(different anonymous)

The Lakers should very seriously consider trading LeBron. He does not have a no-trade clause right now.

Is four years of guaranteed constant drama and potentially trading away whatever assets they have worth it given the small (and getting smaller) chance that they might win something with him?

I don't think so.

And there is also the reputation of the franchise to think about -- this is not some random late 80s expansion team with no history, it is what is arguably the most storied franchise in the league (the Celtics have one more championship but the Lakers have been consistently good for much longer and have had more Pantheon players over the years). You cannot let yourself be held hostage to the whims of a single player if you are in that position.

When the Anthony Davis trade discussions were going on and it became clear that a deal including the young players was not going to happen, if I were the Lakers, I would have offered a straight up LeBron for AD swap, and solved many of my problems - get a young superstar big, get rid of the locker room cancer that is LeBron, and also suddenly become attractive to free agents again (most of them don't want anything to do with LeBron now). Such a trade made a lot of sense (though perhaps not so much for the Pelicans).

At Thursday, March 07, 2019 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

@different anonymous

This was my exact thought. The Lakers should have traded Lebron straight up for AD. This would have been a GoT type move by Jeanie Buss. Dump "the King" into a place where he loses all his leverage. Bring on a supposed "generational talent" that is exactly on the same timeline with the rest of their young improving core (and the Lakers most glaring weakness currently). Not gut the entire team for 1 player and instead, retain their depth (which has become a necessity in today's NBA to navigate the regular season...Zubac would have been the ideal backup btw). Prove to your young core, that the Lakers do place value in them. But most importantly, prove to your city that the Lakers brand is greater than any one individual. That the Lakers are proud and won't be held hostage by an aging diva who is pooping all over every aspect of what the Lakers have traditionally placed value in.

Trading Lebron would also save the team a bunch of money and would allow them to maintain max cap flexibility going into this summer to add not 1, but possibly 2 free agents. Bring Klay Thompson home? How does Kawhi NOT think hard about the Lakers at that point? Bonus, a Lebron trade would have put a ton of pressure on their co-tenants as well, because they'd be in the same exact position, only with AD and with the Lakers brand (though, no more Logo :(

I'm holding out hope the Lakers trade him in the Summer. It's the only thing motivating me to stick out the rest of this season.

At Thursday, March 07, 2019 8:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is important to note not only that Wilt--as an aging player who had major knee surgery in 1969--led the Lakers to four Finals in his last five seasons but also that during his career he played on the two greatest regular season teams ever up to that point (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers) and he led both of those teams to titles. The argument that LeBron feasted on relatively weak Eastern Conference teams during the bulk of his career is boosted by what we are seeing this season, when he is struggling to even make the playoffs in the West.

At Thursday, March 07, 2019 8:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Different Anonymous/Jordan:

I understand the point that you are making and I see some validity to it, but the reality is that it is highly improbable that the Lakers would trade LeBron James less than one year after signing him to a four year deal.

It will be interesting to see if that changes if things continue to go south next season, and by that point it will be interesting to see if any of the teams that have enough cap space to take LeBron would be seriously interested in acquiring him along with all of his baggage. It is one thing to look past the drama LeBron brings when he is leading his team to the Finals every year but what organization would want to pay top dollar for LeBron's drama while not even making the playoffs?

At Friday, March 08, 2019 8:13:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

I agree that Lebrons leadership has not been good lately. All along he should have been having his teammates believe that they can win. Then when the offseason came the Lakers could have signed a big name free agent. Before lebron went down with an injury the Lakers were in position to make the playoffs. Then others got injured.

About LeBron in the 2014 finals against the Spurs, no other teammates played well that series. It was one sided. Now 2011 is a different story. But the Narrative here is that LeBron had the more talented team, star power vs a team with all stars/hall of famers that were past their prime and failed to lead his team to victory.

What if you put Kobe in place of LeBron in the 2014 finals. What if they lose to spurs? What your Narrative be that Kobe had all of this star power and couldnt beat an old spurs team? Or would the Narrative be that Kobe didn't get enough help from his teammates in order to shift blame away from him.

At Friday, March 08, 2019 10:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AW, that's an excellent point about the 2014 Finals. However, James didn't play that great, even if his numbers suggest that. Leonard(a role player at the time) outplayed him the final 3 games of the 5-game series. That cannot happen, and wouldn't happen to Kobe. MIA with Kobe still might lose, but it would've been much more competitive, and MIA wouldn't have gotten blown out 4x. James was 30yo in that series. When Kobe was 30yo, he was dominating ORL in the 2009 Finals.

James is probably one of 5-6 players in the GOAT discussion, and he's achieved a lot, and possibly Kobe/Jordan wouldn't have won more than 3 titles if they mirrored James' career(though it's extremely hard to believe that), but Kobe/Jordan's teams would've been much more competitive in the regular season and postseason than James' teams have been overall for his career.

At Friday, March 08, 2019 12:49:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...


That Spurs team was better than the Orlando team that Kobe faced. Kobe's teams suffered some embarrasing loses also.
Look at the 2004 finals. Not saying Lakers shouldve won but shouldn't it have been more competitve? What about the 2008 nba finals with his team losing that big lead in game 4 and getting blown out in game 6. The Mavs team that beat the Miami swept Kobes team. Why couldn't Kobe lead his team to at least one win vs the Mavs?

You say with Kobe in place of LeBron in the 2014 finals that it wouldve been more competitive. But what if it's the same result? If it was more competitive and heat still lose would you still criticize Kobe for losing to a team with past their prime allstars/ hall of famers with all of the fire power he has or would your narrative be his teammates didnt step up enough.

Even if the series was more competitive with a loss non Lebron supporters would still bash him for the loss.

As for LeBron his leadership is bad. Blaming everyone publicly but himself for how the season is going.

At Friday, March 08, 2019 2:46:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


Not sure what the impossible to prove hypothetical conversation is for, but I will say Kobe getting swept by the Mavs was when he was 33 years old with his second best player being Pau Gasol...in the West.

Lebron was 29 and was playing with what most talking heads say is the 3rd best shooting guard of all time (Wade) and a player comparable to Pau Gasol (Bosh). So...you're point is?

Also, it's weird. Because, Kobe did get bashed by the media, by fans, etc. when he didn't win with the talent he had. David writes the truth about this all the time. Yet Lebron has never (until, perhaps this season), faced the level of scrutiny that Bryant faced throughout his career. The narrative has always been that Lebron has not had enough help.

The only time Kobe every bashed his teammates was when he had Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton, and Lamar Odom as his starting five. And, when Shaq demanded to be the alpha, despite not putting in the effort. And even then, Bryant didn't go to the media to air their differences. Though Shaq did. Lebron has blamed his teammates at every stop during his career.

At Friday, March 08, 2019 5:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

2014 SA was maybe marginally better than 2009 ORL, but you're missing the point, which I already stated in my previous post. James did have help in 2014. And Kobe was outstanding in the 2009 Finals, while James wasn't in the 2014 Finals. Whether Kobe wins or not with 2014 MIA if he replaced James is an entirely different argument.

Kobe was injured and coming off his CO trial, Shaq was playing lazy. After that, there wasn't much to that LAL squad. Everyone else on the team was atrocious in the Finals. It was amazing they even made the Finals. Kobe was getting outplayed by anyone and was injured. If he was fully healthy, even if only 2 on 5, LAL would've at least had a fighter's chance.

IN 2008, BOS had a much better squad than LAL. If Kobe/Pierce swapped teams, BOS wins in a sweep. Again, nobody is outplaying Kobe in the Finals that year. Kobe kept that series very competitive, and BOS was very fortunate to win game 4.

Not a great series by Kobe vs DAL in 2011, but Kobe was past his prime here, unlike James in 2014. And didn't get much help either. Dirk's cast was amazing during the playoffs in 2011. James was no better than the 3rd or 4th best player in the 2011 Finals. Wade was much better than James in the Finals. If Kobe had a teammate playing much better than him, while he's in his prime or even near it, could you really see his team losing?

I wasn't criticizing James for his 2014 failure. I simply pointing out he was outplayed by a role player at the time. Take it for what you will. 2014 SA played excellent team ball in the playoffs. I'm not criticizing James for not winning a title that year, but someone who is supposedly the GOAT in a lot of people's eyes shouldn't be getting outplayed by a role player. It's often not if you win/lose, it's how you go about your business. James admittedly coasts, and has quit on his teams multiple times, and times when his team is the superior team, which makes him all the more confusing as a player.

At Friday, March 08, 2019 6:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I'm sure I'll live to regret wandering into this conversation, but my thoughts:

* 2014 SAS was light years better than 2009 ORL, and that's not the series anybody should be killing Lebron for. Nobody else on Miami showed up for that series. Wade and Bosh *combined* for a stat line of 29/9/3.5, while Lebron was putting up 28/8/4. Nobody else on the team averaged double figures or more than 5 rebounds per game (and only Chris Andersen got more than 3). MIA's defense was helpless, as all of SA's top 6 dudes shot at least 48% and all of them except Duncan (who didn't take any) shot over 40% from 3. Little to none of that is on Lebron.

You can put Jordan, Kobe, or Doc on that team in place of Lebron and maybe you push it to 6, but that series was a beatdown any way you slice it. If you wanna slam Lebron for not winning, 2010 and 2011 are the years to hit him on, not 2014.

* This "Kobe never got outplayed" stuff is silly. Come on. He shot 38% in '04, .405 in '08. Pierce hit every big shot in that series and KG was a defensive hurricane. This isn't Kobe bashing--Jordan and Hakeem are probably the only two guys who were *always* the best guy in a series during their primes, and even with them you could probably find one where they weren't-- but the way people act like Kobe was this unimpeachably consistent basketball god undercuts their credibility. He was really really good, but he wasn't Jordan.

* That said, he's certainly more reliable than James.

* THAT said, it's pretty clear to me that ceiling James is better than ceiling Kobe. Better scorer, better rebounder, more versatile defender, probably slightly better passer (though Kobe's passing tends to get underrated). The difference--and the reason Kobe might b better, all things considered-- is that ceiling Kobe shows up more often, and that Kobe's weaker series are usually the product of bad play or strategy (or injury, if you're feeling charitable), not passivity.


At Friday, March 08, 2019 6:37:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

* Kawhi Leonard played excellent ball in 2014 but saying he "outplayed" James is a pretty big stretch. Despite Kawhi's defense, Lebron put up 28/8/4 one 57/51/79 shooting. Kawhi averaged 18/6.5/2 on 61/58/78. I'm the first guy to say stats aren't everything, but I watched that series and the Spurs won with a group effort, not because Kawhi outdueled--or even stopped-- Lebron.

Similarly, calling a guy who put up those Kawhi numbers a "role player" may be technically accurate, but certainly doesn't reflect his value in that series. It'd be the equivalent of calling Manu Ginobili in his prime a "bench guy." You're right, but only in a pedantic, annoying way that doesn't actually mean anything.

* We can all agree Lebron wilted against Dallas but I do not buy the implication that Kobe would have killed them; he also got his butt kicked by that same team two series earlier. Everybody acts like Dallas were this lucky jobber team that should have been roadkill, but they beat a solid Portland team, a two-time defending champion with multiple HoFers, a feisty OKC team with three future MVPs, and then the Heatles. That Dallas team was legit and there's a fair chance that even peak-engagement Lebron would have had a hard time with them.

* You can make the case that Lebron "quit" against GSW last year but it's more of a footnote than an argument; there's no version of Lebron that's winning that series against that team.

I agree with the larger sentiments that:

1) Lebron benefitted tremendously from playing in a weak Eastern Conference.

2) Lebron sometimes wilts under pressure and become weirdly passive and ineffective in a way other great players generally didn't.

3) Lebron made his bed in LA and it's hilarious to watch him pout in it (sorry, Jordan).

I also agree with David that I'd rather bet my life on Pippen as long as I've got somebody else who can help carry the scoring load around.

But some of the arguments being made against him are... well, let's call them exaggerated.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 12:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nick Feldman!

Many of the exaggerations result from recency bias. After LeBron's ECF last year, some called him the GOAT. Now, the goat. All are oversimplifications -- ditto the monolithic evaluations of Kobe and others.

Nice to see you adding some perspective.

-- Mr. J

At Monday, March 11, 2019 12:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

2014 SA was probably better than 2009 ORL, but certainly not light years. Howard was much better than anyone on 2014 SA. James put his up usual big numbers, but often with the case with him, they're numbers that aren't as impactful as they suggest. James didn't play poorly by his standards, but he has no excuses when a role player is outplaying him for the final 3 games. At least win your own matchup for goodness sake. James shares some blame for MIA's helpless defense, too. This wasn't a great series for James by any stretch. If he's able to get it to 5 games, it's hard to believe almost any Pantheon member in their prime who's playing at a relatively level that's fully engaged couldn't do better(at least not let their team get blown out 4x). James wasn't fully engaged either.

Kobe played poorly his standards in the 2004 Finals(injured, btw), but he was still much better than Rip/Billups. DET wins in a sweep if Kobe replaces either of them. Pierce was very good in the 2008 Finals, but Kobe was still much better, and I bet BOS in a sweep if Kobe/Pierce switch teams.

James never had a season like Kobe's in 2006, so can't agree with your ceiling comment. James is not a better scorer/shooter. James is a better rebounder overall, but not for position. James is more versatile as a defender, but Kobe was clearly the better defensive player overall.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 1:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually it does mean a lot when I say 'role player' about Kawhi. He was nothing resembling even a low-level AS at any point during his career through 2014, until the Finals. James is supposedly the GOAT or in the GOAT discussion. Regardless if he deserves that recognition, that doesn't look good for him at all. Even if Kawhi was MVP-caliber Kawhi at that time, James still needs to win that matchup for him team to win. Regardless of players #2-10 do or which team wins that, it's hard to a win playoff series when a young, inexperienced player is winning the matchup with James, especially when James wants everything about his team centered around him.

2011 DAL was very good, but hardly a juggernaut, though they peaked in the playoffs. Kobe was good but played below his standards against DAL, though not in his prime any longer. But even at this level, it's hard to see DAL win against MIA if he replaced James. Dirk was good, but not exactly great either in the 2011 Finals, if you remember. MIA should've destroyed them and likely would've if James didn't wilt.

MIA lost by 2 in game 2 with James having a subpar game. MIA lost game 4 by 3 points with James playing awful. MIA lost by 9 in game 5 and 10 in game 6 with subpar games from James. In MIA's 2 wins, James had 1 good game, which the other wasn't good. James was terrible by his standards, especially since he quit on his team, and every game was still winnable. I'm sorry, but this wouldn't have taken anywhere near-peak James to win this series. When Jason Terry is winning the matchup between him/James, even when Terry(a below-average defender) is defending James, of course MIA will lose. You get a picture of just how great James' cast was given that the series went 6 games, and each game was certainly winnable.

It's not about whether CLE could've or would've won against GS in 2018, it's how James played. And it's KD winning the H2H battle again, something that has been a reoccurring theme in James' playoff career, getting outplayed in his H2H matchups very often or by much lesser players(Rondo, Terry, Iggy to name a few others).

The Pippen(for one game) theory is probably correct, but not for a season or playoffs.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 1:42:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I have a suspicion this is the old Anonymous here, so I may well be wasting my keystrokes, but...

SA vs. Orlando

Orlando had no player you could count on to score against a set defense in crunch time. San Antonio had four of them. Orlando had one above average passer (Turk), San Antonio had 5 (Parker, Ginobili, Diaw, Duncan, Leondard). Orlando had one elite defender (Howard), San Antonio had three (Duncan/Leonard/Green). Orlando had a boring, predictable offense that was overly reliant on Dwight Howard's iffy passing game and Hedo's shot creation, San Antonio had a famously inventive one. Orlando's best bench guy was probably Pietrus; San Antonio had Ginobili, Diaw, Mills, and Bellinelli.

Basically ORL had a better player at the 4 (Lewis) and flashier stats at center (Howard, though I happen to think Duncan was still better given all the non-box score value he brings and the fact he could make a damn free throw). That's it. Particularly in the Finals, where their PG (Nelson) was injured and a ghost of himself to the point of not even starting.

On '04 DET sweeping if they had Kobe instead of Billups or Hamilton: Assuming the stats hold, Kobe lowers their PPG with his gunnery (he shot 5% worse than DET as a team and 15% worse from 3) and probably cost them the series. It is fair to speculate that his FG% might be higher on DET, against a weaker defensive team, but OTOH there was no Shaq on Detroit to eat up defensive attention, either. Additionally, Hamilton or Billups isn't out-attempting Shaq and it's likely his touches increase as a result, so I like LA's chances in that scenario.

I don't even agree that '06 is Kobe's best year (I prefer either the '02-'03 era when his defense was truly elite or the '08-'10 era when he'd figured out how to maximize his impact without becoming the entire offense unto himself) but suffice it to say I would not take that impressive but largely one-dimensional campaign over a peak Lebron season, and I certainly wouldn't take any Kobe playoff series over '16 Finals Lebron.

By way of a snapshot, '06 Playoff Kobe put up 28/6/5 on 50% shooting (defensively he didn't matter much in that series, mostly just roaming looking for steals and allowing Raja Bell to shoot 46% on mostly open 3s). '16 Finals Lebron, meanwhile, put up 30/11/9 on 49% shooting and was everywhere defensively.

If you prefer '09 Finals Kobe (32/6/7 on 43%) or '10 Finals Kobe (29/8/4 on 41%) I would still not take either of those performances over '16 Lebron, even before factoring in the disparate levels of competition.

I stand by Lebron having the higher ceiling.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 1:59:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


You can enjoy this moment for sure. God knows the Lakers inflicted a ton of pain on the Suns over the years (quick aside: despite the cluster-muck that is Sarver and the ship he runs, I love the collection of talent Phoenix currently has and have been impressed with Ayton's development. He's already made strides as a defender!). I'm hoping the Suns go on a 14-game win streak, while the Lakers complete a season-ending 21-game losing streak.

I agree with most of the stuff you wrote about Kobe, which is weird to write. You are correct, there were times he did get outplayed. I think it's important to note, however, it was never for lack of trying (Game 7, round 1, in 2006 notwithstanding. Differing opinions on the strategy behind his "passiveness"...let's not revisit).

Also, I will have to slightly dispute your "higher" ceiling comment. From ability, size, speed, skill set weakness, versatility, etc. Lebron would appear to be the easy pick for higher ceiling. But, even during his GOD mode stretch against the Warriors to come back and win the chip, he still relied on Irving to take and hit the big shots. Lebron's fear of the line puts a clear cap on his ceiling.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 3:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I am less enamored with the Suns roster than you are. I do like Ayton but we're over-invested in Booker for how good he is, and I'm not sure anyone else is going to pan out. We're a dumpster fire and apparently always will be.

Regarding ceiling, that's an interesting point, but one I see differently. In Miami we saw Lebron take and make the big shots plenty of times (at least post 2011), so I'm not sure how much of it was relying on Kyrie and how much of it was trusting Kyrie, if that distinction makes sense. Going one-man-show in crunchtime might have been very bad for morale (and we know Kyrie is delicate to begin with), so I'm hesitant to label that deference as "fear" rather than "trust."

However, even if we allow that premise, I would still take ceiling Lebron over ceiling Kobe. Crunchtime chops matter a ton but we tend to over-value them over the first 46 minutes, and for those first 46 minutes Lebron is likely giving me more points on fewer shots with a significant edge in rebounding and assists, as well as providing some level of rim protection (which Kobe couldn't do). Kobe's ceiling man defense is probably a hair better than Lebron's but Lebron's is still elite, and comes with the added benefit of being able to guard almost anyone (whereas Kobe can't really handle 4s and 5s).

Also, IIRC, while Kobe was a very willing cruchtime shooter, he wasn't a particularly efficient one relative to his (approximate) peers, though I may be misremembering that.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 5:38:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


You aren't misremembering. He wasn't all that efficient. And, for sure, there were (many) times I wished he passed instead of shot. But, seeing Lebron up close now, has made me appreciate the mentality Kobe brought to the table even more than I already did as a semi-Kobe stan. Results/narrative be damned, Kobe was determined to win it or lose it. Jordan had the same mentality, he just won more than Kobe.

Yes, Lebron has taken and made many big shots, but it seems he only takes the ones where the downside is mitigated...like the score is tied, or last second situations where a prayer is needed (his off balance 3-point off the backboard as he fell out of bounds against Washington comes immediately to mind). I've seen him pass up shots and/or, not push in the closing minutes because there was too much downside to him going for it. For example, having his efficiency stats go down if he tried to shoot the team back from a deficit.

Efficiency in the closing minute(s) isn't as important to me (in game as well...Kobe never passed up shots as the shot clock winded down (insert Kobe never passed jokes -- full stop)). I think "closers" need to have an IDGAF attitude. And, Lebron has proven time and time again that he too much GAF. He cares too much about the narrative. "Broken hand" and blame deflection and "not good enough roster" and "young teammates lack of postseason experience", etc. etc.

Not sure Booker is a superstar either, but Bridges, Jackson (who just needs to be given structure), Ayton, Oubre, and Warren make up a solid collection of talent with plenty of room for growth. I even like the Tyler Johnson get. Add a top 4 pick this year...

All that said, Sarver will probably find a way to ruin it.

At Monday, March 11, 2019 11:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I have written so much about Kobe and LeBron that there is not much more to add. LeBron enjoys obvious physical advantages but Kobe consistently played harder. I would not take peak LeBron over peak Kobe because I would be worried that LeBron might quit. Nick may be correct that in some theoretical, analytical way it could be argued that peak LeBron was better and/or more efficient than Kobe but even if that is true the margin is small and is more than overcome by the fact that you did not have to wonder if Kobe would show up for the big game.

Jordan is right that LeBron is way too preoccupied with narrative as opposed to doing what needs to be done to maximize his team's chance for success.

It is also evident that LeBron is, in many ways, a toxic presence for many of his coaches and teammates. His supreme talent has caused that to be brushed over/ignored but as his talent declines it is becoming more difficult for his media lap dogs to cover up the downside of bringing LeBron into an organization. I think that Charles Barkley called LeBron a drama queen once but it seems to be more than that. LeBron brings not only drama but a kind of cutthroat, Machiavellian takeover mentality that involves purging from the organization anyone he cannot control. He did it twice in Cleveland, he is doing it now in L.A. and the only reason he did not do it in Miami is that nobody is doing that to Pat Riley. Dwyane Wade tried that a couple times in Miami and the second time he did it he ended up in Chicago (the first time, he tried to dictate personnel moves without committing to re-signing and Riley essentially told him that unless you are committing to us long term then you play ball and I'll make the personnel decisions without your input).

At Tuesday, March 12, 2019 1:49:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


I don't trust the Suns' player development staff much either, unfortunately. We've seen them fail to get much out of a lot of guys who seemed to have potential (and punt on others; they gave the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic basically for free). I like Oubre fine but I'll like him a lot less when the Suns pay him eight figures next offseason. Tyler Johnson I've seen a lot of in Miami and you don't want him to be anything more than your fourth guard, and you certainly don't want to pay him his current pricetag (although in theory that should go down when his contract ends).

I don't really disagree with your analysis of Lebron and Kobe but I was originally speaking in terms of their "ceiling" versions and Ceiling Lebron is the one that 1) does not quit, and 2) takes and makes the big shots. That being the case, I'd take his best series, playoffs, or season over Kobe's.


As I noted to Jordan, I'm talking about the ceiling versions of both guys-- there is no debate that outside that context Kobe isn't more consistent, or at least if there is it isn't coming from me-- and ceiling Lebron is obviously not the version that quits (that'd be kinda the opposite, in fact; Basement Lebron, if you will). Essentially, I am saying that Lebron's best performance is better than Kobe's and I don't think (81 points against Toronto in the regular season aside) there is much reasonable debate against that, nor do I think it's a particularly theoretical or analytical corner-case; dude is bigger, more efficient, and has a wider skillset. Ceiling Kobe's advantage is pretty much down to a razor-thin margin as a positional defender and a somewhat larger margin as a midrange scorer (which is more than mitigated by ceiling Lebron being a better long range and interior scorer).

Removed from the specific context of "ceiling vs. ceiling," Kobe makes up that ground in consistency and mindset and which one I would ultimately take* comes down to what sort of timeframe we're talking about and what the supporting context is (Lebron's had more healthy high-end years than Kobe at this point but as you noted probably needs a Pat Riley type in place to reign him in).

*Speaking purely in basketball and basketball-adjacent terms, here; in the real world my personal politics + whatever happened in Colorado means I would take just about anyone this side of Derrick Rose over Kobe, talent be damned, but I'd rather not discuss that any further than this footnote and I certainly don't want to have a debate about it.

At Tuesday, March 12, 2019 4:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's more than just record, but 2009 won 59 games compared to 62 for 2014 SA. ORL also beat 62 and 66-win teams en route to the Finals. They were hardly slouches. They were an exceptional team. It's ridiculously difficult to beat even 1 60-win, let alone 2. I can't imagine this happened very often in NBA history, probably less than 5x.

Kobe would've cost 2004 DET the series? Funny.

You further my point about Kobe having the higher ceiling if you don't think 2006 Kobe was the best version of Kobe. I think you're getting caught up on the stats too much. Kobe's 2006 cast was absolutely garbage. For him to drag that team anywhere near a series win was phenomenal, and LAL was only 1 rebound away as it turned out from winning. James can never be trusted either. Regardless of who has the higher ceiling, Kobe accomplished more with less during his career.

At Wednesday, March 13, 2019 1:56:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


I don't know if your case for Lebron's ceiling is as cut and dry as how you have positioned it. Mentality, in my opinion, is Kobe's trump card every single time. So, you can say, without the mental aspects (if lebron never quit and took all the clutch shots), Lebron's ceiling is higher. But to me, that's like saying, if Isaiah Thomas was 9 inches taller and never had a hip injury, he'd be better than James Harden. We have nearly a full career's worth of Lebron to safely say, he is who he is. So, his ceiling is what we have already seen.

Within the context of the greatest players ever, I'm not impressed with Lebron's efficiency as, even in his prime, it came with several glaring caveats. First and foremost, games played. From 25 through age 32, Lebron averaged like 73 games a season. And, since every team he has ever played on, was built around him, missing games was literally death to his team. Kobe played. Jordan played. They hated not playing.

Also, as I mentioned in my last post, Lebron never tries to take over games that he doesn't feel he has a good chance of winning. So, he's never gunning at the end of games to try and will the team back into it. He sorta just keeps getting stats, but doesn't impact the outcome. Sure, he stepped up against the Warriors, but he had nothing to lose and a couple of other factors opened up the opportunity for him to take over. It's the only time we've ever seen Lebron take over in that way and basically everything had to go right for that situation to take effect.

As crazy as this might sound, I'd take Kobe, game 7 in the 2010 NBA finals, over 2016 finals Lebron. Nothing went right for Bryant in that game, against one of the greatest defenses in NBA history, and yet, he did everything in his power to will that game out. To me, that's Kobe's ceiling. He grabbed 15 rebounds and hit clutch freethrows at the end. Everyone focuses on the putrid 6-24, but a Lebron-led team would have lost that game. He may have put up a triple double and shot a good percentage, but the team would have lost. The narrative following the loss would be that Lebron faced, at that time, the best defense (statistically) in NBA history and just didn't have enough help to pull it out.

You mention Lebron's size, and yes, he's bigger than Kobe, stronger, faster, can jump higher. And while Lebron "could" guard centers, he's never actually done it for an entire series, let alone an entire game. James Harden can capably guard most centers for a few possessions or even a quarter. Kobe "could" do the same. Being a more versatile defender and being a defensive leader on the floor are not equal in my book. A free safety that organizes the defense, is more vital then a player that "could" guard all five positions. Lebron is not Giannis, who actually does defend 5 positions.

I guess our differing opinions are semantics-based. Your definition of ceiling is pie-in-the-sky potential. My definition of ceiling is based off of what actually happened. If this is indeed the basis of our difference, then I agree with your POV.

Regarding the Suns, I'm trying to find some light in this season as my three favorite teams either disgust me (Lakers), are depressing (Suns), or have me optimistically confused (Clippers).

At Wednesday, March 13, 2019 3:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I think you and I disagree pretty fundamentally on the frequency with which Lebron's mentality is an issue. I think it's maybe 4-5 times in a, what, 17 year career? You seem to think it's more often than not.

I also disagree that 2016 was the only time we've seen Lebron "take over in that way." 2012 vs. Boston and 2013 vs. San Antonio are two more examples that spring easily to mind, and I'm quite sure there was Indiana series of similar flavor, though I can't offhand remember which year it was. In fact, I suspect that if you went over his entire playoff career you'd find more incidences of him being that guy than incidences of his mentality turning him into a wimp.

I disagree most of all that Kobe could credibly guard centers the way Lebron can. Come on now.

I do not believe that peak Lebron puts up empty numbers, or even that regular Lebron does so as often as you seem to be suggesting. He's had a few very memorable instances, but they are a small handful of blips in an otherwise sterling career, even if those blips likely knock down 5-10 spots in the all-time rankings. He is not James Harden, whose numbers are empty more often than not. If we're going to define Lebron by 2010 and 2011 then we may as well define Kobe by 2004, 2005, and 2007. That sort of worst-case-only analysis does a disservice to both guys.

I think peak Lebron was absolutely the captain of his defense, though of course he's been slacking on that end as he's aged (just like Kobe did, for the record). I stand by my belief that Kobe was a better positional defender but that Lebron's superior versatility and break-in-case-of-emergency rim protection ability gave him the higher defensive ceiling.

My definition of ceiling isn't theoretical; it's the best version of each guy we got. For my money that's 2016 Lebron vs the Warriors and probably 2009 Kobe vs. Orlando (though there are other nominees in each case). I would not take 2010 vs. Boston Kobe over any of the top five Lebron series, so we differ there. I agree that Kobe has an awesome mentality but I disagree that within the context of peak performance it gives him much of an edge, as within that limited context Lebron's mindset isn't an issue. I agree that in a wider analysis it's Kobe's trump card.

As an aside, it is amusing that both my example of best case Lebron and your example of best case Kobe come from series they probably would have lost if the other team's center hadn't gotten injured partway through; I wonder how different this conversation would be if Perkins and Bogut had finished those series? Talent is important, but luck may matter more, when it all comes down to it.


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