Friday, May 15, 2009

Kobe vs Lebron????

Today on TrueHoop, several prominent bloggers voiced their opinions on the individual rivalry between Lebron and Kobe. This dichotomy is so interesting to me because I can not remember an ongoing argument over who is better in basketball involving two so similar players in my lifetime. I mean, I guess there was the Garnett/Duncan rivalry in the early 2000s, but that was so one-sided that I don't think any logical person ever chose Garnett over Duncan after the years of domination.

In the 90s, there was very little debate because of Michael. Sure the 1993 and 1998 MVPs don't agree with this decade of individual dominance argument, but those were such flimsy awards (and Micahel proved those in the Finals) that they are not worth mentioning. In 2001 the debate between best player in the league was Iverson or Shaq…the next few seasons were Kidd vs. Shaq or Kidd vs. Duncan. We had a Nash vs. Kidd season, Kobe vs. Jordan…there really hasn't been a toe-to-toe dichotomy with two players arguably peaking since Magic and Bird. That dichotomy was so broad that it seemingly defined the decade.

But Kobe vs. Lebron is something different. It's not necessarily a preference of styles (such as the Bird/Magic dichotomy) though stylistically there are significant differences. It's not about size or speed (such as the Iverson/Kidd/Nash vs. Shaq/Garnett/Duncan dichotomies) though there is a significant size and speed difference. What this dichotomy is essentially boiled down to is youthful potential being realized at the exact same moment that youthful potential is peaking.

Kobe, living in the shadows of O'Neal for as long as he did, has struggled with his personal rivalry with Jordan's legacy since Shaq's departure in 2004. Lebron on the other hand is in a personal struggle with the mythical expectations belied upon him by the postmodern media, and the hopes of Stern and the NBA in the wake of Jordan's retirement. The personal side of this rivalry only came into the forefront this year thanks to two independent things:

1. The Olympics – The two struggled to claim the overall leadership moniker and hence the title of "greatest player in the world."

2. Lebron's ascendancy as both super-star, and leader of a top-echelon team (thanks in no small part to his time spent with Bryant in China) gave more validity to the idea that James may have passed Bryant as the best player in the world.

The conversation can be heard in bars, on television, and in blogs. It’s an argument that everyone, young/old, educated/stupid, casual/dedicated, seems to share an opinion on. When I went to the Cavs/Lakers game at Staples Center in January, even Lakers fans, known for going to the mat for Kobe unconditionally, seemed to believe that the torch was being passed before our eyes.

There are DEFINITELY arguments for both players…and though I believe that Lebron passed Kobe approximately two months ago, I believe that the argument is valid and worth discussing. My argument is simply that Kobe GOT OLD. That is not to say that he went through a Chris Webber-esque decline, but that he is an old thirty-one, who has played close to two-hundred games in the last eighteen months. And no one, no matter what anyone says about Howard, James, Garnett, or anyone else, plays these games harder than Kobe. About two months ago, Kobe (and the Lakers) started running out of steam. His drives to the hoop are down, his elevation on his deadly jump-shot is down, and his ability to become an on-fire character in NBA Jam seemed to diminish.

Lebron meanwhile, at age twenty-four (Michael Jordan's age in 1987, or Tiger Woods in 1999), is JUST hitting his stride, carrying a team on his shoulders, and playing a level that Kobe was playing at two years ago. Of course this is just my opinion, but if you were to ask me on March 16th, "who would you rather have?" I'm not wasting any time and answering Kobe. Today, again, not wasting any time, but the answer's Lebron.

Ok, but my opinion doesn't matter at all. One of the facts that I find troubling in the pro-Kobe argument is the "4th quarter assassin" argument. The argument that Kobe is the best player in the league in a one possession game. On TrueHoop today, Royce Young of the Daily Thunder argued:

The thing I see in Kobe is a straight assassin. He's the Travis Bickle of basketball. He's there to finish you, even if your kid is in the other room watching. I don't get that from LeBron. LeBron is a slow cooker -- a guy that needs 48 minutes to beat you. He's absolutely unguardable one-on-one, he can rebound, he can create for teammates and he can man up. But does he have that sense of the moment like Kobe does? Can he just walk on the court and say "I got this" to his teammates. I'm not sure he's there yet.

I hate to be the desperado here out riding fences, but in one respect I'm a straight James man. But in another, I want Kobe. It all depends on where we're at on the clock I guess. If I'm starting a franchise and I get to choose one player, I want LeBron. But if I'm taking one shot at the end of the game, I choose Kobe.

OK, so there is a small concession at the end (the "if I'm starting a franchise" comment, but personally the "taking one shot" situation is analogous to the "best player in the world" metric. My argument isn't that this argument is flawed, it's that it simply is based upon NOTHING. While I like Royce Young, and occasionally read his blog, I don't feel that following the OKC Thunder for one season qualifies anyone for making a judgment on who is better in the 4th quarter.

I would agree that up until this season, this might be true; but up until this season, Lebron's best second scoring options have been players that were riding Phil Jackson's bench in crunch time. This season, as the Cavs improved their personnel, Lebron also ascended to the mythic expecttions bestowed upon him as a seventeen year old. But Young is arguing that the thing that sets Kobe aside from James is his CLUTCH abilities. He is arguing that Lebron is a more complete player, but it is Bryant's clutch seperation that makes him more valuable.

This season, per 48 minutes of crunch time (defined by 4th quarter and OT, 5 minutes or less, game within 5 points) Kobe averaged 56.7 points, while Lebron averaged 55.9. These numbers are essentially identical, and by now means is Byrant's edge significant enough to jump Lebron in the dichotomy. Furthermore, Kobe's FG% in these situations is .457% while Lebron's is .556% essentially meaning that Lebron makes a full shot (two points) more than Kobe for every ten taken. Lebron's clutch FG % is only surpassed by Carmello Anthony, and surprisingly, Zach Randolph. Throw in Lebron's peripheral pretty significant statistical advantages over Bryant (14.3-8.4 boards, 12.6-5.7 dimes, 3.5-1 steal, and 1.7-0 blocks) and it would be hard to argue that Bryant is even close to James late in a game. In fact, the only two metrics in which one could argue that Bryant is superior to James are FT% and turnovers. Free throw percentage (James 85 % and Bryant 92%) is nullified by the fact that James shoots two more free throws per 48 clutch minutes than Kobe, and the turnover number (James 4.8, Bryant 3.0) is a result of James doubling Bryant's assist total.

The point of all of these numbers is that, despite Kobe's propensity for being able ot hit back-breaking daggers from twenty feet (often on national TV), he is not nearly as efficient of a player in crunch time as Lebron is. One other incredibly telling stat (one that Young's blurb is actually consistent with) is that Bryant has player 142 minutes in 41 games of crunch time. Lebron has played in 111 minutes in 31 games of crunch time. Lebron's 48-minute "slow-cooker" attack has proved so much more valuable than Bryant's, that his team has not needed him to play the role that he is statistically better than Bryant at playing. THIRTY-ONE GAMES of crunch time. Are you kidding? That number is ridiculous, and in the playoffs, Lebron has won every game by double digits, while Kobe's team is 7-4. And before you bring up the softer competition argument remember this fact – The Lakers were 2-2 against the Pistons and Hawks this season, the Cavs were 3-1 against the Jazz and Rockets.

What this all adds up to is this: The argument over Lebron vs. Kobe is still valid. It probably will go on for another year before Kobe's legs begin to give a little more (though I would not put anything past Kobe's competitive drive carrying him a few more years in the elite), and it will define this era of the NBA. BUT… the 4th quarter assassin garbage, so often called upon by Kobe apologists to deify Bryant's mythology over James's – is simply false. And once all of us, including Royce Young, figure this out, the dichotomy will become a lot clearer.

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