April 1, 2009

Who Said Size Doesn't Matter?

Print More

Height is not something one can learn. While drinking milk and eating vegetables may contribute, there is little anyone can do to affect his or her height, especially after a certain age.
In basketball, size is a skill. In the same way shooting and dribbling are skills, size is hugely important. Shaquille O’Neal was no more coordinated or athletic than most of his fellow NBA players, but he dominated the sport for several years because he was more coordinated and athletic than the few players who could match his size.
The difference in height gets to the heart of the Kobe-LeBron debate of “Who is the best player in basketball?” When compared to LeBron James, Kobe Bryant has a better jump shot, better footwork, more experience and plays a more fundamentally-sound game. Nevertheless, James is the much better basketball player of the two.
James’ edge is derived primarily from one major difference between the two: size. While the 6-6, 200-pound Bryant dwarfs 99 percent of people, he barely compares to the 6-9, 270-plus pound James. Despite the fact that LeBron can’t match Kobe in most traditional skills, the difference in size allows him to excel in ways that Bryant could never imagine.

Even though most people consider Byrant a better shooter, James is on-pace for his fifth consecutive season with a better field goal percentage than Bryant has ever had. The reason is simple: James is able to take easier shots. James is so big and so quick that no single player is able to stop him from getting to the basket. As a result, James takes 37 percent of his shots in the immediate basket area, of which he makes 71 percent. Bryant is only able to get to the basket for 21 percent of his shot attempts, of which he makes 65 percent. Their field goal percentage on jumpers is closer than most would expect because defenders must give James space in hopes of preventing a drive. Also, James is so tall that he is better able to shoot right over opponents.

James’ size advantage helps him in other areas as well. James is sent to the free-throw line two and a half more times per game than Bryant, as desperate opponents are forced to foul him to prevent a dunk. James is also able to soar for over two more rebounds per game than Bryant corrals.

LeBron’s superior size is nearly as much of an asset on the defensive end, where he is able to disrupt an entire offensive set. He is so big, so quick and so athletic that he routinely flies across the court to block seemingly-open shots. As a result, LeBron is second to Dwyane Wade among perimeter players in blocks per game.

Last year, Kobe Bryant beat out LeBron James (as well as Chris Paul, who finished second) for the MVP award. The reason LeBron trailed the other two players was because of his team’s uninspiring record compared to the dominance of Kobe’s Lakers. The theory was that LeBron’s stats were only better than Kobe’s because Kobe was sacrificing individual stats for the good of the team.

This season, it is hard to imagine an argument that favors Bryant. LeBron’s Cavaliers have the best record in the NBA, even though the Cavaliers have a relatively mediocre supporting cast around LeBron. LeBron’s stats are head and shoulders above those of anyone else in the NBA, with the possible exception of Dwyane Wade, whose team has a less-than-stellar record. LeBron has clearly established himself as the best player in the NBA. Those who fail to see that are simply missing the big picture –– no pun intended.

Some will point to Kobe’s more complete game in the sense that he has every move in the book in his arsenal. Others will explain that on the last possession in a close game, they would prefer to have Bryant. What they ignore is the enormous value of LeBron’s greatest weapon. Kobe has hit more difficult clutch shots than LeBron has, but LeBron is the master at getting all the way to the basket with the game on the line, while Kobe typically has to settle for contested shots that he makes only 1/4 of the time.

A large portion of basketball fans still feel that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the sport. Although the general public is coming around on James, the torch was actually passed long ago. Despite Kobe’s hard work and relentless pursuit of perfection, he is helpless in trying to offset LeBron’s most prized asset: the size that allows him to dominate.