April 26, 2009

LeBron vs. Kobe II: Bryant Dethrowns the King

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Of the several arguments that pervade the National Basketball Association today, there is none more controversial, more polarizing, and more litigious than the debate on whom the best player in the game is: Kobe Bean Bryant or LeBron Raymone James. Kobe Bryant embodies an extremely talented, hard-working, technically sound prodigy whose work-ethic is unknown to most of his peers. In LeBron James, players and fans alike see an enormously gifted, duly scintillating, freak of an athlete who is perhaps the only player in all of sports that has exceeded all the hype surrounding him, having garnered national attention early in his career. So which of these players is better? That would be Kobe Bryant precisely because of the following: his ability to create his own shot, his defense, his effectiveness at the most critical moments of a game, and lastly, though quite as important, his peers’ opinion.
[img_assist|nid=37227|title=Now you see it, now you don’t|desc=In 2007-08, Kobe Bryant earned his first MVP trophy and lead his team to a Western Conference championship.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Frankly, one can make strong arguments for either of the two players. Indeed, many who engage in this popular debate often find themselves, while arguing for one player, making the case for the other. And therein lays the subtle truth: the margin of difference between these two outstanding athletes is minuscule. But there is a margin of difference and it is the objective of this article to address this disparity. Before proceeding to fulfill this mission, it is important to be mindful the topic being debated here: not who has the better statistics, not who is more enjoyable to watch, not who is more likeable, not who makes the better teammate; simply who is the better player.
Over their careers both players have been very consistent. Kobe’s career statistics are as follows: 25.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, while shooting 45.1 FG percent. James has mirrored, if not exceeded, such statistic consistency: 27.5ppg, 7.0rpg, 6.7apg, while shooting a dazzling 47.1 FG percent, two points better than Bryant. Both James and Bryant are also prolific scorers and finished second and third respectively this season in scoring average, only behind scoring leader Dwayne Wade. James averaged 28.4 ppg while Bryant managed 26.8 ppg. While these statistics are important, they say very little about who is better because they only display partial reality. For example, a fact these statistics do not indicate is that Bryant has played seven more seasons more than James; neither do they indicate that Kobe has played with several championship winning teams with perennial all-stars, and therefore does not have the same responsibility to put up impressive numbers like LeBron.
A very important statistical category LeBron fans often cite is the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). The PER tries to statistically rank the best players in the NBA, and truthfully it provides a fairly accurate reflection of the league’s best. Any statistical measurement that doesn’t have LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant close to the top would be immensely irrelevant, and the PER definitely avoids this pitfall. According to ESPN analyst John Hollinger’s PER, LeBron is not only better than his current associates, he is currently having one of the best seasons ever in the modern era. Using the PER to compare and contrast a plethora of players might not be as effective as most think, however. PER is weighted in favor of players who have games predicated on scoring closer to the basket and playing in the paint. Such players collect many more rebounds and also accumulate higher field goal percentages, compared to players who spend most of their time playing around the perimeter. Proof of this comes from the fact that the top 100 individual season PERs in the history of the NBA are dominated by the greatest Centers and Power Forwards in the history of the game. In fact, if you look at the all-time career PERs you’ll see blatant proof of the power player favoritism: Clipper Forward Elton Brand has a better PER than Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, etc!!!
In short, LeBron plays small forward, has guard skills, and has a power forward’s body. He spends most of his time abusing people on drives to the basket. Kobe Bryant, for the most part, does the reverse. He spends most of his time launching butter soft jumpers from the perimeter. These differences become apparent in their respective PERs. So while effective statistical categories such as the PER are useful in evaluating the best players, they do not tell the entire story. What is more important is the means by which each player achieves the consistency displayed by these categories.
The fundamental goal of the game of basketball is to score; and most fundamental skill in the game of basketball is the jump shot. Both LeBron and Kobe can effectively score, but what separates them is the means of scoring. If the most fundamental skill of the game is the jump shot, then Kobe is more fundamentally sound than LeBron, because his mastery of the this skill is beyond anything LeBron has ever displayed. Simply put, pick a shot and the Kobe Bryant can make it—no matter the level of difficulty. (You-tube the dude). More important, though, is his rare ability to create his own shot. When good defenses clog the lane—which they often do—a player’s ability to score relies exclusively on his ability to create his own shot and make those shots. Kobe Bryant is perhaps the most renowned specialist in this aspect of the game.
Future Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning views this ability, among several others, as the reason why Kobe beats LeBron, without hesitation, in the argument of the better player: “… He doesn’t need anybody else to hit shots to open up the offensive opportunities for him. He can create a shot any time that he wants to and I think that Boston [i.e. the Celtics] exposed the weakness of LeBron last year: if you shut down one part of his game, keep him out of the paint and force him to shoot jump shots, then it is going to be a lot tougher night for him, as opposed to Kobe–he can put the ball in the basket any time he wants to.”
Of course, many fans and “stat gurus” intentionally ignore this skill, because it is not as glaring as say, driving in and dunking the ball ferociously, as James often does. While both methods of scoring—driving and shooting—are equally as important, shooting clearly takes precedent, because if mastered, it is not as easily inhibited as a player’s driving ability. Moreover, LeBron’s physique allows him to shadow some of his blatant shooting ineptness behind his titanic ability to dominate weaker and slower players in the paint. But this is not a knock on James at all; indeed his frame is part of what makes him the player is. For a second, though, let’s imagine a circumstance in which LeBron had Kobe’s physique and vice versa. If Kobe was as big and strong as LeBron James, but retained his current skills he could score 50 points every night at a 50 percent or higher clip if he wanted. Give James the exact height, weight, speed, and jumping ability as Kobe than Kobe blows James away because his physique gives him the edge in driving ability but his superior shooting ability is totally unmatched by a smaller LeBron. The point here is that driving ability can be impeded, and with age LeBron will realize this, but the ability to create a shot at anytime of the game cannot be deterred—and for this reason, Kobe’s skill and ability is more essential and makes him better.
In addition to his distinguished shooting ability, Kobe is better than LeBron because he is a more consistent defender. Although I can already imagine the reaction on James’ fans with this assertion, the claim is not without proof. As Kenny Smith, former NBA player and current basketball analyst claims, contrary to what many fans and non-experts seem to believe–the extra .9 bpg that James averages compared to Bryant does not make James a better defensive player than Bryant. Smith continues, asserting, in part,: “James has more highlight dunks and more weakside blocked shots but he is neither a more versatile scorer nor a better defender than Bryant.”
In fairness to James, his defense has gradually improved since he came into the league. According to LeBron’s coach, Mike Brown, James’ defensive mentality was honed during the Olympics last summer, when James helped the Americans win back the gold medal. But a higher rate of improvement does not therefore elevate James’ defensive play to Bryant’s. Indeed, whenever the Lakers play the Cavaliers, Bryant assumes the role as the primary defender on James for almost the entire game; James, however, handles defensive duties on Bryant late in contests. As Smith notes, what this shows is that although James may now be considered an All-Defensive Team caliber player now, he is not to be compared with Kobe Bryant, a six time member of the All-Defensive Team, whom Smith considers a “wilier and more complete defender.”
Also important is Kobe’s effectiveness at the most critical moments of a game, an aspect in which LeBron doesn’t come anywhere as close. Mr. Bryant has the keen ability to will the ball into the basket, when the pressure is on, whether it be on a three-point shot, a mid-range jumper, or a mere free-throw. Even if Kobe’s career ended as is, he will be remembered as a player whose last-minute/ last- second heroics were third only to Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan. In a 2004 regular-season finale game against the Portland Trailblazers, for example, Bryant hit a game-tying shot in regulation and then capped the game off with a game- winning three pointer in the overtime period; the Lakers won the Pacific Division on Bryant’s shot. That game has come to epitomize Kobe’s heroics for much of his career. A much more recent example can be seen in last summer’s Olympics, when Bryant took over in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game that left his teammates—including James—dismayed.
While LeBron is a great player, his resume is not as impressive—if one considers it impressive—as Bryant’s. To be frank, his team has not needed LeBron’s heroics recently, as the Cavaliers have been so dominant that their superstar sits out about every other fourth quarter. Before the 08-09 NBA season, however, the Cavaliers were not as good a team as they currently are and when James was at a position to do so, he continually came up short. Several instances provide glaring examples: In a game last year against the Jazz, James missed a free throw that ended up costing his team dearly in their 103-101 loss at Utah. In an earlier game against the wizards this year, James traveled when driving for a potential tying basket in the closing seconds of Cleveland’s 80-77 loss at Washington. LeBron performed the same act in a playoff game, also against the Wizards, although the referees did not call it. For all it is worth, LeBron James has one game-winner in his brilliant six-year career. Of course this is not, in anyway, to suggest Kobe is perfect with the game on the line; any Lakers fan or NBA fan, for that matter, will concede that he is far from it. But you can put your well-earned money on the fact that Kobe Bryant will not travel with the game on the line—not at this stage of his career, nor during his earlier years.
Every great player must be judged by his ability to perform when the game is on the line. As NBA TV analyst Snapper Jones notes, the reality is, and this is true for everyone who has ever been in a last-shot situation: You are undoubtedly going to miss more than you’re going to make, but you still have to believe you’re going to make more than you will miss. What separates Kobe from LeBron in these moments is his natural ability to want the ball at the end of the game—and capitalize. But not only Kobe trusts his own abilities to perform in such instances. According to the latest General Managers poll, conducted by the NBA during the beginning of each NBA season, a stunning 88.9percent of GM’s want Kobe shooting the ball, over James, Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce, and numerous other superstars. This suggests—or at least ought to suggest—a blatant fact: Kobe is better than LeBron James when it really counts.
Still not convinced? LeBron James, in an interview early in his career, sincerely admitted that he did not have Kobe Bryant’s “killer instinct.” Kenny Smith is fast to admit that he does not think Bryant or Jordan would have ever said such a thing about another player, whether or not it was true. So there you have it: LeBron himself just proved my point.
Lastly, Kobe Bryant is a better player than LeBron James because his peers—those who play alongside both competitors—admit so. This phase of the article is not so much to make the recurring point as it is to prove it; yet it is significant, for as much as we spectators think we know, Bryant’s and James’ peers are their best evaluators.
Clippers Forward Chris Kaman, Houston Rocket star Tracy McGrady, Clippers Forward Al Thornton, Magic guard Mickael Pietrus, and Suns prodigy Amare Stoudemire, just to name a few, proclaim Bryant as the best player in the NBA currently.
Says Shaquille O’Neal, current Phoenix Suns Star who has played alongside, Bryant, Wade, and Tracy McGrady: “Kobe’s probably a 10, [he’s] better; LeBron’s a 9.7, 9.8. He’s a fabulous player who does it the right way and gets everybody involved.”
Even Eric Snow, a former teammate of LeBron, who could understandably be biased to the superstar, uttered similar sentiments. “I think Kobe Bryant is the better player: it’s the intangibles. I think there was a time in LeBron’s career when he just wanted to be the best player on the team. (Only) last season was his focus more, ‘I want to be the best player in the league.’ I think Kobe has more of the intangibles from day one ‘I want to be the best ever’ and then it comes out and you see the work that he puts in doing that. It’s been like that from day one, so when I see LeBron James go and spend time with Kobe Bryant (as members of Team USA), then come back and you see a totally different work ethic now you see that this guy (Bryant) is a little ahead of LeBron because he’s made LeBron James realize ‘I’ve got to take my game to another level.”
Overall, while James might personify a more glaring player, a more likable teammate, a highlight producing sensation, and perhaps even this season’s Most Valuable Player, Bryant is clearly the better player. Regardless of popular opinion, Kobe has maintained clear superiority over the league, as shown by his seemingly effortless performances during the last few years. While James might—and most likely will—take over the honor soon, the real King of the league is Kobe Bean Bryant and it is important to give credit where credit is due.