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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Shane Battier on Guarding Kobe Bryant: "The Absolute Pinnacle of Challenge in my Profession"

Ben Cohen's February 10, 2020 Wall Street Journal article titled "He Didn't Know Kobe. But He Did" (subscription required) details Shane Battier's experiences playing against Kobe Bryant. Battier's approach to guarding Bryant became a hot topic for discussion after Michael Lewis wrote about this in the New York Times in February 2009, and I wrote several articles about this subject as well; links to some of those articles are provided below.

Battier always spoke intelligently and realistically about his matchups with Bryant, and this is true of his conversation with Cohen. Battier told Cohen that Bryant was the most difficult player for him to guard, and the one player he never quite figured out: "He was the only guy. What Kobe represents is the absolute pinnacle of challenge in my profession. He made me feel the most alive I ever did on the basketball court. I knew I had to be at my absolute best. If I wasn't, I was in serious trouble. Even when I was, I was in serious trouble."

Battier enjoyed not only the physical challenge of matching up with Bryant, but also the psychological game within the game. "I always prided myself as a guy who could get in the mind of another player," Battier said, and he added that his best psychological duels were those versus Bryant: "Nothing in my life has even come close to replicating that."

Battier first faced Bryant in 2002, during Battier's rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Bryant outscored Battier 56-6--and Bryant did not play in the fourth quarter! Bryant shot 21-34 from the field and did not commit a turnover in 34 minutes of action. Battier said, "Everyone remembers his 81 point game. There's no question he would've scored 80 points if he'd played the fourth quarter."

Battier declared that the best defensive game of his career was Houston's 104-92 win over the L.A. Lakers on March 23, 2008. That victory extended Houston's winning streak to 22 games, a streak that ended when they lost their next game by 20 points to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. Bryant scored 24 points in 47 minutes, but he shot just 11-33 from the field. Battier has no illusions about being able to stop Bryant, but Battier took pride in making things as difficult as possible for Bryant, and in trying to encourage Bryant to settle for the shot that Battier considered to be Bryant's weakest (weakest being a relative term): the long two point jumper off the dribble moving to the left.

Battier regrets that he and Bryant never shared time together off of the court to discuss their matchups: "The physical battles were what they were, but there are very few people who could understand the psychological battles. I don't think I could have that conversation with anybody else in the world."

A Partial List of 20 Second Timeout Articles About Kobe Bryant and Shane Battier:

1)  Shane Battier Talks About Kobe, LeBron--and Chess (January 14, 2009):

I interviewed Battier one on one in Cleveland after Battier's Rockets lost 99-90 to LeBron James' Cavaliers. Among other subjects, Battier explained the difference between guarding Bryant and guarding James:
In transition, you really have to find Kobe (on the perimeter). LeBron has improved his three point shooting but with Kobe you really have to start looking for him once he crosses halfcourt. But with LeBron, you better know where he is when he crosses the other free throw line because if he has a step and he is going full bore he is tough to stop in transition.
2) Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0 (April 4, 2009):

Daryl Morey insisted that LeBron James is the NBA's best player, and is unguardable, but the results from that season showed otherwise: 
Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).

3) "He Can't Guard Me": Bryant Says It and Bryant Proves It (May 7, 2009):

Bryant did not rest on his regular season laurels, but he went straight at Battier during the 2009 playoffs:
Kobe Bryant has apparently heard more than enough about Shane Battier's defensive prowess; Battier played good defense against Bryant in Houston's game one win over the Lakers and Bryant still scored 32 points with a solid .452 field goal percentage. In game two, Bryant's actions and words both spoke loudly as he poured in 40 points on 16-27 (.593) field goal shooting in a 111-98 Lakers victory; on several occasions, Bryant loudly proclaimed, "He can't guard me," eventually receiving a technical foul for taunting. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to have at least one 40 point game in four straight postseasons; Michael Jordan had eight year (1985-92) and four year (1994-97) streaks, while George Mikan (1948-51), Elgin Baylor (1959-62) and Allen Iverson (1999-02) each had four year streaks.
4) Energetic Lakers Shut Down Rockets in Game Seven (May 18, 2009):

The Rockets did not shut Bryant down during the 2009 regular season, and they did not shut him down during the 2009 playoffs, either: 
In my series preview I wrote, "This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use 'advanced basketball statistics' to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range." While Bryant did not match his exceptional regular season production versus Houston, during this series he still averaged 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting and .344 three point shooting. Bryant averaged just 1.6 turnovers per game in the series despite being guarded by All-Defensive Team members Artest and Shane Battier and despite being almost constantly double and triple teamed; Bryant had no turnovers in two of the games and his series-high four turnovers took place in the Lakers' 118-78 game five rout. Bryant averaged 26.8 ppg and 2.6 tpg in the regular season while shooting .467 from the field and .351 from three point range, so there is an 11 game sample size (four regular season games versus Houston plus this playoff series) that suggests that even with two All-Defensive Team members at their disposal the Rockets' "stat gurus" have not been able to prove--on the court, where it counts, as opposed to in newspaper articles--that their "advanced metrics" give them any kind of real advantage versus Bryant. In fact, after the Rockets seized homecourt advantage with a game one win and could have taken control of the series with a game two victory Bryant bounced back with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting, a clutch performance in a must-win game for the Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM



At Wednesday, February 19, 2020 10:09:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I know for many people the LeBron/Kobe debate ended quite a few years ago in LeBron's favor but one aspect of Kobe's game that should never be overlooked is his complete skill set. Kobe was lethal from midrange, he could post up while utilizing impeccable footwork, he was an excellent free throw shooter, a solid three-point shooter and an underrated passer. There wasn't anything you could concede to him without paying dearly and all of this combined with his relentless competitiveness made him the five-time champion that he was.

LeBron certainly has several skill set advantages over Kobe which include size, strength, explosiveness, dribble penetration and his passing ability but throughout his career there have been gaps in his game that other teams have exploited; an erratic shot from his outside jumper to free throws, no real go-to move, not completely taking advantage of favorable matchups and an inconsistent effort level in the playoffs. I don't have a huge problem with people ranking James ahead of Bryant in terms of all-time greatness but it is a bit irksome to hear people say that James has completely eclipsed Bryant's legacy.

At Thursday, February 20, 2020 8:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that the fact that Kobe had no skill set weaknesses is an underrated aspect of his greatness.

LeBron is obviously and without question one of the greatest players of all-time, but I also find him to be perhaps the most puzzling of the players who are on that short list. As you note, his game still has "gaps" and there is also the significant issue of his inconsistent effort level.

There is no sensible way to argue that LeBron has "completely eclipsed Bryant's legacy." That is nonsense. I would also question the notion that LeBron has surpassed Kobe at all. LeBron has physical advantages over Kobe, and--barring a sudden, unexpected injury--it appears that LeBron will prove to be more durable than Kobe. However, Kobe won more championships, enjoyed a better Finals winning percentage, and--as noted above--had a more complete skill set.


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