April 26, 2009

LeBron vs. Kobe: King James Reigns Supreme

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Two years ago and maybe even last year, it was worthwhile to compare LeBron James to Kobe Bryant. But today, some fans have not yet acknowledged the obvious—King James reigns supreme and it’s not even close.
Purists tell us that we can’t judge a basketball player by his statistics. That approach holds little merit. It is impossible to put a number on a player’s will to win and his leadership ability. Yet, the only way in which we can objectively assess the performance of a given player is by examining his relevant stats. No one stat can encompass every component of a game, but the use of stats can reveal trends from which we can make accurate value judgments about players. If basketball-metrics weren’t useful, NBA teams wouldn’t be hiring statisticians left and right.
[img_assist|nid=37216|title=All hail the King|desc=In 2003-04, King James was named NBA Rookie of the Year, becoming the youngest player ever to win the award.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]I will use data from the 2008-09 NBA season because it is a large sample and it most accurately reflects the current ability of Kobe and LeBron. For the purposes of this study, I am not interested in measuring these players at similar points in their careers or in investigating their careers as a whole. This is about who’s better right now.
On the offensive end of the floor, Kobe and LeBron are completely different players. The Lakers’ star has the best skill set in the game, using every shot fake imaginable to create room for his deadly jumper. To date, 19 percent of Kobe’s shots are three-pointers, 60 percent are two-point jump shots and 21 percent occur near the basket. By contrast, 36 percent of LeBron’s attempts come from close range and he draws fouls on 19 percent of his shots (11 percent for Kobe). James’ ability to drive affords him more uncontested outside shots. The Cleveland forward has actually attempted more three-pointers than his Laker counterpart, and has done so with equal success.
Since field goal percentage does not account for free throws and three-pointers, it is reasonable to examine the scoring prowess of these superstars through the lens of true shooting percentage. James outpaces Bryant .588 to .560, a fairly substantial margin when one considers the amount of shots each player has taken over the course of the season. Few would argue that LeBron is the more skilled or fundamentally sound player, but his sheer size and athleticism allow him to make plays that Kobe can’t. Size counts in basketball and we shouldn’t punish James for his physique. Likewise, it would be foolish to award Bryant brownie points for his more slender build.
Offense isn’t just about scoring though. A well-rounded offensive player takes care of the ball and sets up teammates for open shots. LeBron has earned an assist on 38.1 percent of his teammates’ baskets as compared to 24 percent for Kobe. Granted, assists do not fully take into account a player’s ability to create offense for others; the pass before the assist is often the most important. However, both of these players receive ample opportunities rack up assists. Cleveland’s offense usually revolves around James driving and dishing, while swingmen of Bryant’s ilk (think Scottie Pippen) usually rack up big assist numbers in the triangle offense.
The difference in their assist percentages shouldn’t come as a surprise. LeBron forces defenses to collapse by attacking the rim while Kobe’s jump shots create few opportunities for his teammates. Kobe can still drive to the basket and break down a defense, but he just doesn’t do it as often or as well as does LeBron.
One way to quantify the effectiveness of Bryant and James is to calculate how much better the Lakers and Cavaliers performed with their superstars in the game than they did with them on the bench. We measure this with the “on court/off court”. LeBron has played 78 percent of the available minutes during the season and the Cavs have averaged 116 points per-100 possessions in those minutes. (Note: we must calculate points scored on a per-possession basis because every team plays at a different pace. Teams that play at faster paces score and give up more points than teams that work at slower paces. We use the “100” in order to avoid long decimals.) Without James on the floor, Cleveland averages 102.2 points per-100 possessions. So LeBron’s net value to his team on offense is 13.8 points per-100 possessions, or +13.8. Kobe participated in 75 percent of his team’s minutes this season and with him in the game, the Lakers score 117 points per-100 possessions. Without Kobe, that number drops to 103.6, a net of +13.4.
The “on court/off court” stat, however, is more a measure of a player’s effect on his team’s offensive performance than a gauge of his own offensive performance. Dean Oliver is a statistician for the Denver Nuggets who devised an offensive rating formula, which measures the number of points produced by a single player per-100 possessions. LeBron’s offensive rating is 121, six points higher than Kobe’s. None of these metrics are in complete agreement with each other, nor do they measure the exactly same thing, but they all suggest that LeBron is at least as good, if not a significantly better offensive player than Kobe.
Even if we acknowledge that James is the better overall offensive player, we’re still giving the ball to Kobe when the game is on the line. He is the best closer in the NBA…right? Wrong. If we define clutch situations as possessions that take place in five point games during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime, then LeBron has actually performed better than Kobe this season.
The Laker guard has played 27 more of these clutch minutes than has the Cavs star so we must normalize their stats per-48 minutes of action. Their respective shot attempts per-48 minutes—30.9 for LeBron and 38.8 for Kobe—demonstrate that both the Lakers and the Cavs run a ton of isolation plays for them at the end of close games. Even though Bryant hoists up far more shots, he only averages two more points than did James per-48 minutes in these close and late situations.
[img_assist|nid=37218|title=Can’t touch this|desc=James nearly recorded the NBA’s first 50-point triple double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished such a feat in 1975. James registered 52 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds against the New York Knicks on February 4, 2009.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]The reason, once again, is efficiency. LeBron has a nine percent advantage in field goal percentage, gets to the foul line more frequently and is slightly more accurate from behind the arc than is Kobe. Since only 15 percent of Bryant’s baskets are assisted, as compared to 20 percent of James’, one might justify some of his efficiency issues by arguing that he does more work without the help of his teammates. Kobe creates more of his own shots, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Part of being a good basketball player is moving without the ball and getting open. Judging by percentage of assisted baskets in clutch situations, LeBron does a better job of playing within the flow of an offense late in close games. That he averages more than twice as many assists per-48 minutes in these situations, only reinforces this point.
So we’ve established that James was a better offensive player in the clutch during the 2008-09 season, but what impact did these players have on their teams under these same circumstances? With LeBron on the court in clutch situations, the Cavs outscored their opponents by 43 points per-48 minutes. The Lakers outscored their competition by 39 points per 48-minutes when Bryant was on the floor. While James has performed better than Kobe in the clutch, Kobe’s reputation as a great closer is deserved. He and James are far and away the two best finishers in the league.
It is much harder to quantify defense than it is offense, especially when examining a single player. The two most conventional defensive stats, steals and blocks per game, have little value because they do occur on approximately one-fourth of possessions in the NBA. Since defense is the most team-oriented aspect of basketball, I will turn to the “on court/off court” defensive ratings to compare LeBron and Kobe. With James, the Cavs allowed 7.3 points less per-100 possessions than they did without him. The Lakers actually allowed .9 points more per-100 possessions with Kobe than they did without him.
The “on court/off court” metric is not without its flaws. Kobe and LeBron spent the majority of their minutes playing with starting-caliber players. If Kobe spent most of his time on the court with poor defenders (presumably they logged significant minutes for their offensive contributions) and less time with the Lakers’ better defenders, his net defensive rating might be skewed slightly to his detriment.
This could have occurred if Kobe played significantly less with Trevor Ariza than he did with Luke Walton throughout the course of the season. Ariza and Walton each spent time in the starting lineup this season and Los Angeles considers the former a better defensive player than the latter. As it turns out, Bryant spent slightly more time on the court with Ariza than he did with Walton. In addition, the Fisher-Bryant-Walton-Gasol-Bynum lineup gave up an identical number of points per-possession, as did the same lineup with Ariza replacing Walton.
One might also argue that because LeBron played a lot of minutes with Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao (two of the team’s better defenders), that his “on court/off court” number is inflated. However, James also spent the majority of his minutes with defensively-challenged Mo Williams. In other words, the flaws in the “on court/off court metric” are so minute that they do not damage the integrity of the statistic as a whole. Might LeBron’s rating be a little high and Kobe’s a bit low? Possibly, but the gap is so astronomical that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this comparison.
Dean Oliver’s defensive rating, which measures how many points an individual player gives up per 100 possessions, lends even more support to LeBron’s defensive superiority. LeBron’s rating sits at a svelte 99, while Kobe’s 105 puts him on par with Gasol and behind Lamar Odom.
If the stats lend credence to the notion that LeBron is a far better defender than Kobe, then why is it that many consider the Laker guard the better stopper? Critics argue that Kobe can shut down any player when he sets his mind to it. That may be true, but to be a lockdown defender is to prevent opponents from scoring on a consistent basis. When compared to LeBron by this standard, Kobe is not his equal. If anything, the Cavs’ playmaker may actually shoulder more defensive responsibility than his Laker counterpart. Los Angeles plays a lot of zone, which does not require as much activity as Cleveland’s predominantly man-to-man defense. LeBron’s size also makes him a valuable defensive force because he can cover guards, swingmen and power forwards.
It is especially difficult to use statistical measurements to judge the rebounding ability of these players. The “on court/off court” data reveals that the Lakers grab 2.8 more rebounds per-100 possessions with Kobe in the game than they do when he is on the bench. The Cavs net just one board per-100 possessions with LeBron on the floor. For rebounding, however, this metric is extremely misleading. Kobe plays most of his minutes at guard, which means that he is always playing with a slew of good rebounders such as Gasol, Bynum and Odom. In other words, the Lakers do not ask Bryant to be one of their primary rebounders and his stellar “on court/off court” rating is more a measure of his teammates’ boarding prowess than of his own. By contrast, James spends significant minutes at forward, which means that he is usually playing with one less big man than is Bryant. LeBron must battle forwards for rebounds while Kobe competes with smaller players for rebounds.
A more accurate measurement comes in the form of total rebound percentage, which measures the percentage of available rebounds that a player grabbed. LeBron defeats Kobe handily 12 percent to 8.2 percent. James was especially good on the offensive glass where he snatched 4.4 percent of possible rebounds. Yet, this metric has major issues as well. James plays closer to the rim than the perimeter-oriented Bryant so he should be getting more offensive rebounds. It is possible that his total rebounding percentage is high simply because coach Mike Brown sees him as one of the best rebounders on the team and uses him as such. The Lakers do not need, nor do they ask Kobe to be a great rebounder because they have Odom, Bynum and Gasol to control the paint. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because James gets to more rebounds, he is necessarily a better rebounder.
Still, by the mere fact that the Cavs assign so much rebounding responsibility to LeBron, it seems that he is the superior player in this facet of the game. At the very least, it is hard to imagine Kobe going up against bigger men and rebounding with the same effectiveness as LeBron.
There are some stats that attempt to measure a player’s overall value to his team. Win Shares, which predict a player’s contribution (in wins) to his team, incorporate Oliver’s offensive and defensive ratings. In theory, a team’s win total should match the sum of each player’s Win Shares on that team. Over the last 35 years, the average difference between the sum of player Win Shares and the team’s actual win total is roughly 3.5—the system is remarkably accurate.
This year, LeBron has amassed 19.7 Win Shares, the fourth best single season total (Michael Jordan has the top three) since the NBA started calculating that stat. Kobe has 13 Win Shares this season, his lowest total in the last four years. Since LeBron entered the league in 2003, he has finished with more Win Shares than has Kobe in every season except his first. James also defeats Bryant handily in John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) and in the Roland Ratings. Keep in mind that these formulas only measure a player’s value to his team, not his actual ability. Yet, we should put some stock into them because a player’s worth to his team is a great indicator of his ability.
Every stat has its flaws, but the numbers that I have used indicate some clear trends. LeBron is the superior offensive player, but the gap is not exceptionally great. It is in defensive performance where King James makes his headway, defeating Bryant in every category by a healthy margin. If defense is a matter of effort, then LeBron’s tenacity has rubbed off on his teammates and set the tone for Cleveland’s strong defensive performance this season. If the Cavs and Lakers meet in the NBA Finals, the Kobe-LeBron comparisons will pick up intensity. Players, sportswriters, coaches and even LeBron himself may declare Kobe the better player. Their judgments are based on perceptions. Reality lies in the stats.