Kobe/LeBron Day: Director’s Cut

May 15th, 2009 by John Krolik


Thing Number One:

I’m up on SLAM today with a column I’m pretty proud of about, of all people, Kobe Bean Bryant. It drives home one of my main themes about Kobe and sports in general, and does it with a fair bit of panache and the benefit of good timing. I suggest you look it up. As fate would have it, probably two of the best columns I’ve written for SLAM have been about Kobe. Oh, twisted fate.

Thing Number 2:

Lest you doubt my allegiance, TrueHoop has excerpts from our giant Kobe/LeBron debate today, and while I like the stuff of mine that made the final cut (there were a LOT of words in that email chain), I sent a giant manifesto, and will publish the director’s cut of that manifesto here, now. The Caveat: playing into what the first piece said, this isn’t my favorite time to be talking about this stuff: what happens over the next few weeks with these two guys is going to be as important in determining how we judge these guys than anything that’s happened in years prior. That said, my thoughts on the two at this current time (I replied to “Josh” who is Josh Tucker of Respect Kobe/Silver Screen and Roll in the manifesto-if context is needed for these things, let me know in the comments. Also, sorry the formatting sucks-when I write posts in Gmail and try to post them, the spacing gets destroyed and this is the best I can fix it.):

1. Can we put a moratorium on “okay, now LeBron is worthy of my accolades”-type sentiments that come out every year? 
He broke out when he posted 26/5/9 in his first NBA game as an 18-year old, and went on to win Rookie of The Year.

He broke out when he upped his averages by 7 points and 2 rebounds and assists in his sophomore year while raising his FG% by 5 and his 3PT% by 6, and SI proclaimed him the best 19-year old ever.

He broke out again when he upped his scoring average by another 4 points, averaged 31.4 points per game as a 21-year old, and won an amazing series with two game-winners and a game-winning hockey assist, then took a vastly superior Pistons team to seven games.

Then he beat the Pistons with one of the great performances in playoff teams and took a rag-tag team to the NBA finals.

Then he upped his regular season averages across the board again, posted his career-high (to that point) PER, and took the eventual champions to the final minutes of a game 7.

But it turns out, from what we’re hearing, that LeBron really broke out and found a sense of purpose when he improved his free throw shooting and defense and got a supporting crew capable of running an actual offense and spreading the floor. Just because LeBron got better doesn’t mean he wasn’t already amazing or even the best player in basketball before, and we shouldn’t discount previous achievements to try and build up what the guy is doing now.

Look, this goes for Kobe just as much as it goes for LeBron-barring a championship, which is eminently possible for Kobe, the achievement of his people are going to remember his his 35 PPG/ 81 point-game season, but last season everyone was talking themselves into the greatness of the “New Kobe,” saying he’d matured in some way to deserve the MVP other than he got competent teammates and voters. (By the way: LeBron deserved the MVP that year, which nobody remembers; he averaged 4 less points but two more assists, had better percentages, and won more games with more or less equally incompetent teammates. And he did actually finish 2nd in the voting. It drives me crazy that nobody remembers this.) 

And Josh just made the point that the “offensive arsenal” that Kobe acquired later on in his career makes him the best player because it allows him to be effective against elite playoff defenses-last I checked, he won three rings pre-arsenal and has two first-round exits and two finals losses post-arsenal. The arsenal didn’t make him worthy of playoff success. He was great before he developed it to the extent it is now. He got better. It wasn’t a magical moment of clarity. 

2. If you’re going to try and compare these guys with any sort of advanced statistical analysis, LeBron’s just going to blow Kobe away. That’s a given, and I think everyone acknowledges it-Kobe’s PER this year, when he finished 2nd in the MVP race and was probably two wins away from making a real run at the award, was slightly lower than LeBron’s in 2006-07, his worst regular season other than his rookie year. It’s not just PER either, win shares, +/- rating, you name it-for years, pretty much any way people have come up with to use numbers to distill a basketball player’s value, LeBron James has been at or right at the top. That’s not ESPN hype-that’s numbers who don’t care that this is maybe the most branded athlete in America and the most-hyped player of all time. It’s really not even worth going into. 

3. Without actual evidence, we get a series of pre-approved myths for why Kobe is as good or better than LeBron. We’ll go through the greatest hits, a lot of which have been mentioned above:

“You can have LeBron James all through the game, but when the game is on the line/you have time to run one play/the pressure is on, I want Kobe and his assassin’s mentality/killer instinct”

Now, from what I can tell, this mainly comes from the fact Kobe wears more jewelery than LeBron does, which is understandable; when it’s all said and done and we’re comparing LeBron and Kobe’s careers, if the ring count is still as it stands now, it’s going to be hard to put LeBron over Kobe. 

But the last of those championships came seven years ago. Since then, he’s lost two NBA finals while playing for the prohibitive favorite both times. Since Shaq left, he’s been bounced in the first round twice, infamously going passive for the entire second half of a game seven and going 13-33 from the field in the elimination game the next year. Last year, Kobe went back to the finals (and got further in the playoffs than LeBron for the first time LeBron’s rookie year), where “the ultimate closer” allowed the greatest NBA finals comeback of all time on his home floor while he went 6-19 from the floor. 

Look, I’m not saying these things to bag on Kobe’s crunch-time prowess, or lack thereof. But we have this Calvinistic ideal of who is and isn’t clutch, that when you prove your mettle in a big situation, as Kobe did in those championship runs, you have revealed a moral fiber and character that will always rear its head in pressure situations and allow the chosen players to rise while the weak stumble. Again, this is Jordan looming over everything: he won those six championships (essentially) in a row, so we never saw him lose another game for the ultimate stakes. And when we tried to anoit Kobe as another Jordan, we assumed he’d do the same thing. It’s just not true. He has lost big games. Some were even his fault. These things happen to everyone. Paul Pierce, the clutch hero of the playoffs last year, shanked what could have been game-winning free throws in the first round this year. Dywane Wade had the greatest NBA Finals performance, making impossible clutch plays one after another, and hasn’t won a playoff series since. Wilt would’ve beat Bill Russell in a finals if Frank Selvy made a wide-open 15-foot shot, his specialty. The best playoff closer of all time blew a World Series Game 7 and a 3-0 series lead in the ALCS. Does that mean we were wrong about Mariano Rivera’s moral character all along? No. It just means the ball didn’t cut as much as he wanted it to. 

Oh, and it’s almost incidental, but the Cavs and LeBron were absolutely phenomenal in close-games this season, only losing two games by three points or less when LeBron played (both on controversial referee calls) and were one of the best “crunch-time” teams in history over the regular season last year. And they do actually track how well players perform in “clutch” situations, as well as the guys taking the last shot of a game . LeBron’s better at both. 

Myth #2: “All LeBron can really do consistently is dunk and get layups; Kobe’s got a complete offensive game and thus cannot be stopped, even by elite defenses”
It is true that LeBron’s playoff exits have come against teams with forwards strong and quick enough to set up a “wall” on the paint and force LeBron to beat them from outside, and the black mark on his career resume up to this point is his inability to score efficiently against elite defenses in the playoffs. And it’s true that Kobe, with most of his offense coming from the perimeter, gets his points in a more defense-independent manner. 
However, one should remember that in those series, LeBron has been surrounded by absolutely zero offensive talent; the Cavs played very, very, ugly in the playoffs, keeping the game as slow as possible, only having LeBron able to make plays on the floor, and featuring absolutely zero ball movement. 
But to imply, as Josh did by saying that “taking away the best part of LeBron’s game is very difficult but not impossible” that it is literally impossible for an elite defense to stop Kobe Bryant is ridiculous. Kobe went 9-26, 6-19, 11-23, and 7-22 in Los Angeles’ four losses against Boston, and that’s with Kobe surrounded by offensive firepower that had LA coming into the series as one of the best offensive teams of all time. On paper, being able to go over the top on a sagging defense and drive by an aggressive one at will with equally high proficiency would be unstoppable. But because basketball isn’t played on paper, and Kobe is a human being, Kobe is stoppable, and does, in fact, get stopped, like he did last night. If you don’t let him get deep post catches, contest his shots, and step up when helping instead of giving him space around the free-throw line extended, he’s going to have trouble. Of course it won’t stop him every time, but nobody’s impossible to stop or slow down. Here’s the best way I can sum up what’s happening:
(Three passengers are bobbing up and down in a freezing ocean, wearing life jackets and clinging to debris. A coast guard ship comes over.)
1800s-era Kobe Fan on the Coast Guard Ship: What happened here?

Passengers: The ship we were on sank. Thank God you came.

Kobe Fan: What was the ship called?

Passengers: The Titanic.

Kobe Fan: That’s impossible. That ship’s unsinkable.

Passengers: Well, it sunk. It hit an iceberg and it sunk.
Kobe Fan: If the hull was breached, the compartment would’ve been walled off and sealed the water in, keeping the boat from sinking.
Passengers: Look, the flaming wreckage is right over there. See the giant, sinking boat on fire?
Kobe Fan: You guys just don’t understand boats, do you? 

Furthermore, pretending that LeBron predicating his game on driving to the basket while Kobe prefers to go with mid-range shots as some sort of stylistic difference is just wrong. Going to the basket is, universally, the way to get efficient baskets, followed by shooting threes. Midrange jumpers are the easiest shots to get, but the trade-off is that they’re a victory for the defense over time-not one player in the league shot better than 50% on midrange jumpers this season. Kobe’s percentage on mid-range jumpers was 44% this season, one of the better marks in the league. Keep in mind that mid-range shots rarely produce free throws or offensive rebounds. The worst offensive team in the league, the Clippers, had a TS% of 52%. So if your offense were to be entirely Kobe Bryant shooting mid-range jump shots, you would have the worst offense in the league by a very wide margin. 

The mid-range game is definitely the weakest part of LeBron’s game, something he should definitely work on (especially his footwork in the post), and a great plan B late in the clock if you can’t get the corner for a drive or open three. But to say that LeBron’s lack of development and devotion to the least efficient shots in basketball are what keeps him from being as good as Kobe is just fallacious. Not only are mid-range shots inefficient in the long run, but they keep the team from getting involved; instead of getting into the paint, scattering the defense, and opening up teammates, the possession ends with little ball movement and few other players getting involved. On a micro, individual level, a perfectly executed midrange move is pretty and a solid way for one player to score against a defense, but over time the only way to consistently attain offensive success is to get to the basket, which LeBron James does better than any player in the league, not only getting dunks and layups but involving his teammates and opening up the floor. 

Kobe likes to say his floor game is him “playing chess” while everyone else plays checkers; in reality, Kobe’s the guy over at the craps table winning huge every couple of rolls, making people gasp, and telling everyone who will listen about his amazing system while he’s ultimately coming out close to even. Meanwhile, LeBron and his teammates are around the casino at the blackjack tables, counting cards, keeping their heads down, and calling in the big players to make the huge money. (Shoutout to the SGSD’s Kevin Lewis/Jeff Ma!)

Two more quick thoughts on this: I’m not sure how a “lack of versatility” is what LeBron suffers from against elite teams; he’s not as devoted to being a scorer, but has consistently controlled the rebounding game, made passes, and worked amazingly hard on defense in all those series, and because of this the Cavs have consistently won in the playoffs in the past even when LeBron didn’t have his offensive game going. There’s more to being a complete player than being a scorer.  
Also, we’ll see if any team can keep LeBron from getting to the paint over the course of a series now that the Cavaliers, for the first time in the playoffs, have players who can spread the court and move the ball, as well as an offensive philosophy that isn’t just LeBron running into a wall over and over again. 
Final thing as I’ve now gone for over 2,000 words: I know Kobe (more Jordan myth), has always been considered the “two-way player” and has accrued a few all-defensive selections over the years, most of which were based on reputation, but as it stands right now Kobe Bryant has nowhere near the defensive impact LeBron has. Nowhere remotely close: 
1. LeBron played for the 2nd-best defensive team in the league this year, and was a leader on that defense, alternating between giving full effort on the help-side and checking the other team’s best player, and on a crushingly good defensive team had an absolutely stellar defensive +/- of -8.4, behind only Joel Pryzbilla and Marcus Camby, both of whom played for bad defensive teams and neither of whom played nearly as many minutes as LeBron. 
LeBron had more steals and blocks, obviously.

LeBron’s opponent PER was a freakish 10.4-Kobe, whose main advantage is supposedly that he’s a “lock-down” defender while James isn’t, had an opponent PER of 14.2, and the Lakers were actually 1.4 points worse per 100 possessions defensively with him on the floor. I don’t know where the “LeBron can’t lock down his man” crap  that Kobe fans spew comes from-there is absolutely nothing in any possible conceivable metric to suggest that LeBron is anything but an amazing man defender to go with his obvious talent on the weak-side, and I can tell you as someone who watched 82 Cavs games this year (it’s my job), and more than my share of Laker games (I live in LA), anyone who says I don’t watch the games enough to understand this is just wrong. And in the playoffs, LeBron has traditionally stepped up his defense as the games have gotten tighter (although he hasn’t needed to so far in this playoffs), and the Cavs have always been one of the tightest defensive teams in the playoffs largely because of this-look at Paul Pierce’s numbers in the Celtics-Cavs series last year. 

Well, anyone got a problem with any of that?