March 11, 2008
We’ve come a long way since the contentious summer in Los Angeles when most NBA observers thought there was a slim chance that Kobe Bryant would finish this season in a Lakers jersey. Los Angeles has gone from the graveyard of Bryant’s talent, a place where his considerable skills would waste away, to the favorites to win the NBA title.
Since the start of the season my vote for NBA MVP has fluctuated week by week, starting with Kevin Garnett, briefly stopping on Chris Paul, but most often oscillating between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Boston has the best record, but Garnett’s injury and Boston’s struggles over the last month have dropped him out of the race for now. A legitimate case could be made for Paul taking an undermanned New Orleans squad and making them a contender to win the West, but they don’t have a realistic claim as the conference’s best team.
This is a two-man race between the two best basketball players on the planet: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. LeBron and Kobe will continue to jockey for position as the season wears on, and I could change my opinion next week with another week of evidence. That’s how close it is. Coming into the season I was convinced that the best pure basketball player was Kobe, but LeBron has made his case in compelling fashion. They’re neck and neck there, and they’re equally close in the Most Valuable Player race. Here’s the argument for Kobe Bean…
LeBron’s defense is underrated and he’s made huge strides in that department this season, but Kobe is still the better man and team defender. Kobe has the veteran savvy and the cagey technique. He has superior defensive instincts and knows the tricks of the trade. When focused on the task, no other wing player out there is more capable of shutting down an opponent’s premier wing scorer. He’s physical, he’s smart, he has the respect of the officials and he gets under people’s skin. Kobe can harass a player into poor shots and turnovers, and he can force the ball out of the hands of an opposing team’s best player. Kobe also cheats off his man and gets back on shooters better than LeBron does, even if James has more raw athleticism and size to do so at this point. In the final two minutes of a game I’d rather have the veteran Bryant getting in the face of the Rip Hamiltons, Ray Allens, and Tracy McGradys of the league.
I don’t think LeBron James gets enough credit for his defense. James has become a bruising, physical presence on the defensive end of the floor that plays his man, pillages passing lanes and even blocks a shot a night. Both James and Bryant average an impressive 2.0 steals per game. In the East, LeBron could easily be an All-Defensive Team player this season. It would be his first appearance there. If Kobe is named to the All-Defensive team, as he should be, it would be the eighth time in the last nine seasons that he has been named to an All-Defensive 1st or 2nd Team. He’s the rare superstar that does it on both ends every night, every season.
More praise of Mamba on Kobe Bryant Blog Day after the jump…
James and Bryant are the two top scorers in the league, putting up 30.9 and 28.1 points per game respectively. However, LeBron plays on a more offensively challenged team and is asked to do more in the scoring department as a result. He shouldn’t be faulted for having to play and score more, just as it’s not Kobe’s fault that LeBron plays two more minutes a game and attempts two more shots a game. Kobe has proven in his career that when he was in a situation like LeBron’s he was capable of putting a team’s offense on his shoulders and scoring 35+ points per game as he did in the 2005-06 season. We know Kobe is more than capable of dropping as many points as the Lakers needs (that 81-point performance came in a game where his team trailed at halftime). But give Bryant credit for recognizing all season long that the best thing for the Lakers was for Kobe to take a step back, let other people get involved, let young players like Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar develop their games, and more recently let Pau Gasol get into a rhythm. There’s something to be said for getting players involved, and there’s something to be said for letting players get involved. The Lakers feature four of the NBA’s top 100 scorers and are third in the NBA in scoring as a team. Cleveland isn’t among the top fifteen teams in the league on offense despite LeBron’s heroics.
These two are painfully close in terms of individual offensive efficiency as well. Kobe is the better pure shooter, but LeBron has become better at creating his own shot and taking it to the basket. James shoots just over 2% better from the field (48.7% to Kobe’s 46.4%), while Kobe is better from three-point land (34.6% on 4.8 attempts to James’s 31.9% on 4.9 attempts) and Bryant is by far the better free-throw shooter (84.4% on 9.1 attempts to James’s poor 71.7% on 10.4 attempts). James has been a better distributor this season with 7.4 assists per game to Bryant’s 5.3 assists, but Los Angeles hasn’t been as starved for a distributor as Cleveland has and Kobe hasn’t dominated the ball like James has — Kobe is a willing part of a more balanced offense that keeps more people involved, which is ultimately a better position to be in.
They both turn the ball over 3.4 times per contest.
Kobe Bryant Photo Credit: Jeff Lewis/Icon SM
In the Clutch:
This season two NBA players have stood out in clutch situations, both to the casual eye and according to hard statistics. You guessed ‘em: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. According to 82games.com, “Clutch Time” is defined as the fourth quarter with less than five minutes left or overtime and neither team ahead by more than five points. For the purposes of statistical analysis, that’s a workable definition. In those situations LeBron is averaging a stellar 61.5 points/48 minutes while Kobe is putting up just slightly less at 57.4 points/48 minutes of Clutch Time. These two are clearly the most prolific clutch scorers in the league (the next closest player is Washington’s Caron Butler more than 10 points lower at 47.2 points/48 minutes of Clutch Time), and the difference between the two is marginal. Kobe gets the slight edge in clutch efficiency as he shoots 51.4% in Clutch Time to LeBron’s 50.4%. Again, they’re the two best in these situations and nearly identical.
We should, however, keep in mind that Cleveland is more frequently playing from behind, and so they are required to force the offense and score more points more often. Late in the game the Lakers tend to play with a lead, so they are frequently slowing the pace of the game down and more often it’s not incumbent on Kobe to score as early in a shot clock. Like many other places in this debate, I realize we’re splitting hairs here.
What puts Kobe over the edge late in the game is the aforementioned defense and free-throw shooting. As we all know, NBA games often come down to a sequence of fouls and which team can execute at the charity stripe; which team can gain a lead and sustain it by knocking ‘em down at the line. As the season’s playoff races heat up and once we get into the postseason, it becomes more commonplace and more crucial. This is the one and only glaring hole in LeBron’s game: he shoots a very poor 71.7% on free throws. Kobe is an elite free-throw shooter at 84.4% percent. That comes into play not only after the players are fouled in crunch time, but also in influencing the other team’s decision to foul. Both players can seemingly draw fouls at will, but at the end of a tight game you might intentionally put LeBron on the line and have success doing it. You can’t touch Kobe, you’re handcuffed.
The Track Record:
I understand that this season’s MVP award is about who has been the best this season, not over their careers. This isn’t a lifetime achievement award. Kobe doesn’t get bonus points simply because he’s deserved an MVP several times in the past. Still, it’s impossible to ignore Kobe’s record of outstanding play in big games of the regular season and postseason. He’s money, he’s clutch, and he’s been proving it for a decade.
LeBron may end up overtaking Kobe here at some point, but right now his body of evidence pales in comparison to the career Kobe has had. We’ve seen Bryant perform at his peak for NBA Championship teams in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and we know he can get it done against the stiffest competition. LeBron James’s performance against the Pistons in the the Eastern Conference Finals last season was eye-opening to say the least. But when he matched up against Bruce Bowen and San Antonio in the NBA Finals last season LeBron folded, failing to shoot better than 42.9% from the field, failing to score over 25 points and turning the ball over 26 times in a 0-4 defeat.
We have every reason to believe LeBron will eventually get better against elite defenses focused on him. We already know what Kobe will do in those situations: he’s money in the bank. There is tremendous value in that.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Their Team’s Present and Future Success:
The common argument for LeBron James usually hinges on the fact that he’s accomplishing more with less talent around him; that Kobe has a stellar supporting cast and LeBron doesn’t. Let’s not forget that Los Angeles didn’t come into the season as a title contender in anybody’s projections. They’ve developed into one this season, and Bryant has been at the heart of it. He’s being more unselfish, playing fewer minutes and scoring less. It’s working because he actually has a cast that can support him, and kudos to Kobe for recognizing it.
The Lakers have faced adversity as well. They have been bitten by the injury bug, losing Trevor Ariza for the season, losing young stud Andrew Bynum for the last two months, and making adjustments on the fly to major roster shakeups. Kobe has been able to adapt his game to teammates and situations. Before Bynum went down Kobe had his Lakers atop the ultra-competitive Western Conference for a spell. Then he took on the scoring load and sustained them until the Paul Gasol trade. After Pau came to town, he adjusted and adapted to the arrival of another star who needs the ball. Normally it takes time to adjust to another star presence on offense, like we’ve seen in Phoenix with Shaq, but the Lakers have somehow seamlessly incorporated Gasol and put up the league’s best record this side of Houston since the deal. Over the last year Kobe has adapted to and built his game around a completely new team, and done so admirably.
And that new team, well, they’re the current favorites to win the title. The NBA MVP is rewarded to the player who performs the best in the regular season, it’s not a postseason award and it’s not a team award. I understand that. After our Handicapping the NBA MVP Race column last week Matt Moore at Hardwood Paroxysm asked me, “What the hell do odds of winning a championship, which could change dramatically by a week after the MVP vote is cast, have to do with a regular season MVP award?” It’s because the entire purpose of the regular season, the entire value derived from it for franchises and players, is to position themselves as best they can to win an NBA Championship. That is what the regular season is about, and Kobe has put his team in better position than LeBron. Yes, the Pau Gasol trade was huge. But Kobe has worked with a roster of youngsters, newcomers, misfits and scrappers and formed a cohesive unit out of them that is currently the favorite to win the NBA Finals.
The fact is Kobe’s team has achieved a better record in a far more competitive Western conference and they have a much more realistic shot at an NBA title. And as much as I hate to resort to this kind of reductionism, because these two have performed at such an equally high level all season it comes down to this: team record, and team positioning for an NBA title. They’re both deserving candidates this year. The “best team” argument is the tie-breaker. The Lakers are atop the West, while the Cavs will be lucky to earn the third seed in the weak East and don’t have very strong odds at a title. I don’t see Cleveland getting past Detroit again or Boston.
Basketball success is about winning titles, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to factor that into a definition of the “value” of a player even if this is a regular-season award. No, this isn’t an NBA Finals MVP award. But the fact that Bryant is the unquestioned leader and best player on the NBA’s best team counts for something.
I feel guilty making a hard argument for either of these guys. I’m playing Devil’s advocate as much as anything here because it’s almost an Anton Chigurh coin toss to me at this point. But on March 11th, Kobe Bryant Blog Day across this great country, The Mamba is my NBA MVP.
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