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The Myth of Kobe

Things tend the quiet down around ClipsNation during the playoff season. 

So how about a little Kobe-bashing? 

I'll begin by making the main point:  while the meaning of the phrase "best player" is difficult to measure, Kobe Bryant is no more than the third best player in the NBA.   If that. 

The conventional wisdom is that, while LeBron and Wade are clearly superstars, Kobe is the NBA's "best player".  In fact, it seems that any praise given the formers is nearly always followed up by some obligatory mention of the Kobe.  "Right now, LeBron is the game's best player, along with Kobe Bryant, of course."  Kobe is the de facto #1, while the best anyone else can hope for is 1A.  The idea that Kobe Bryant is the NBA's best player seems to survive more on habit and tradition than it does on actual evidence. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his seemingly annual selection to the NBA's All-Defensive team.  It is a subject that has been written about ad nausea by our own Steve Perrin, so I won't belabor the point, other than to say that the arguments in favor of Kobe as an All-World defender are flimsy.  He rarely guards the opposition's best player, and he is often lit up when he does.  His team is not considered one of the league's defensive powers.  The Lakers good offense is hardly the result of solid team defense (the Triangle benefits little from stops and transition).  Were the award for Most Capable Defender, he would certainly be in the running.  He has the talent.  He has shut people down plenty in the past, most recently in Beijing.  But clearly his defensive accolades are inflated based on reputation.  It's all hype.  Meanwhile, Dwayne Wade finished the season second in the NBA in steals and 15th in blocked shots (impressive for a 6'4" guard).  Many of his blocks were at the end of games, some against his man, a la Elton Brand.  For him to be 2nd Team All-NBA Defense while Kobe is 1st Team makes the distinction more of a joke.

That aside, Kobe lags behind LeBron and Wade, in my opinion the game's top two players, in other areas.  They are just more effective players.  Simply looking at Hollinger's PER reveals that even Kobe's best year falls short of LeBron's and Wade's best years.  Kobe's ceiling was 2005, a year in which he averaged 35 points on a team that won 45 games.  Wade and LeBron have had two seasons with higher PERs than Kobe's best season, including this year, in which they both blew his high year away.  The reason for this is that both better team players than Kobe, a component of the game that PER at least take the temperature of.  Their assist totals are what they should be for a player that is the focal point of their offense.   Kobe's are not.

Lakers fans will say, "But it's all about wins."  Of course it is.  The Cavs and Lakers both had great years, winning 66 and 65 games, respectively.  But LeBron led Cleveland to the higher total by being the closest thing to a one-man team the NBA has ever seen.  Kobe has a lot more help.  Take Kobe off the Lakers, and Gasol, Odom and Bynum, led by Phil Jackson, could likely still win 45 games maybe even sniff out a playoff spot.  Remove LeBron from the Cavaliers, and that team would be lucky to win 20 games.   To further the exercise, have the players switch teams.  Put Kobe on this year's Cleveland squad and it is doubtful that they would pull off 50 wins.  (I base this on past performance; Kobe's highest pre-Gasol win total is 45 games).   Put LeBron on this year's Lakers team and they would likely see an improvement, even if only a modest one.  They certainly would not become worse.  (The Heat without Wade would only win 8 games this year, becoming the worst team ever). 

"But LeBron doesn't have a ring.  Kobe has three."  Well, sure.  Kobe did win three championships as the Robin to Shaquille O'Neal's Batman early in his career.  Kobe was certainly a key part of those championship teams.  I would even argue that he was the more consistent performer of two the throughout the playoff runs leading up the NBA Finals, where Shaq then became the dominant player and won the three MVP awards.  Kobe, Wade and LeBron all have made Finals appearances the past three years, but only Wade was able to come away with the trophy (teamed with Shaq, but with Shaquille as the role player).   Kobe has yet to lead a team to a championship, and when given the opportunity, was part of the biggest Finals collapse in history (Game 4) and blown out by 40 in the elimination game.  LeBron was swept by a vastly superior Spurs team in his only appearance.  Wade simply dominated in his Finals. 

"I would want the ball in Kobe's hands at the end of the game".  Really? has a study on that.  While Kobe has made some absolutely huge shots at big moments in his career, he has missed many, and is unlikely to look for his teammates, racking up only one assist in those situations while missing 42 shots and turning it over five times.  LeBron, by contrast, has six assists in end of game situations while hitting a much higher percentage of his game winners, 34% to 25%.  Wade has 3 assists and hits 27.5% of his games winners.  To be sure, I would certainly comfortable with Kobe Bryant taking the last shot for my team.  Of the three, he is definitely the best outside shooter.  But I would rather have the ball in the hands of somebody who can create a shot for a teammate if his own shot isn't there.  Here, LeBron and Wade are better.  Both have career averages of 6.7 assists for their careers, while Kobe's career average is 4.6.  And Kobe has actually had people to pass to for the better part of his career, unlike LeBron and Wade.  In fairness, part of the disparity may be due to the Triangle offense, where assist totals tend to be more evenly distributed, as opposed to the systems of Cleveland and Miami, which run solely thru their stars.  Michael Jordan's career average is just over five assists per game, and he certainly had teammates who could make shots.

"Kobe scored 81 points in a game.  Let's see LeBron and Wade do that."  True.  Kobe's 81 was an amazing display of #24's (#8?) scoring ability.  He was on fire that night, which happens to be one of the few regular season Lakers games that I have watched all the way through the past few years.  It is very unlikely that LeBron or Wade, or anyone else for that matter, will ever do something like that again.  It was a perfect storm of circumstances.  Inferior opponent, lots of trips to the foul line, lots of threes, all made possible by the refusal of the opponents coach to double team Kobe.  If the question were whether Kobe was the game's best scorer, the answer would be YES!  Maybe ever.  But there is more to basketball than scoring, especially by one player.

"Kobe is a leader".  Actually, I'm not sure even Lakers fans believe that.  Kobe has always seemed to have a problem in this area.  I'm not sure how well he and his teammates get along off the court, but there oftentimes appears to be a disconnect on it.  I'm don't know that his mates know what to expect each day.  Will it be the "shoot first" Kobe today, or will it be Kobe that tries to get everyone involved?  Will he be the guy yelling at the referees for every bad call and non-call, or will today be the day he directs his ire towards Luke Walton or some other scrub, or tries to teach the team a lesson by scoring only 2 points in the deciding game 7 of a first round playoff series vs. Phoenix?  I'm no psychologist, but I do know that unpredictability keeps people on edge a lot more than consistency does.  And what are the Lakers if not inconsistent?  Bill Simmons put it best when he said that the Lakers camaraderie looks forced and strained when compared to that of LeBron's Cavs, who laugh and whoop it up and seem to genuinely like one another and their leader.  Leadership  matters.  Subordinate teammates will almost always assume the character of their leaders.  Look at Denver, whose culture completely changed this season when Chauncy Billups came to town while the Pistons became the Rasheed Wallaces and got swept.  We experienced this here when Sam Cassel joined the Clippers.  Sam brought a swagger that the team had previously lacked, no matter how talented Elton Brand was.   It is important that a team's leader be one who his teammates respect and for whom they want to win.  Here I will let the Lakers fans diagnose their own team.

"Kobe wants to win more than anyone."  We hear that a bunch.  It is quite hard to quantify.  But let's check the evidence.  The aforementioned Phoenix series is a prime example of why this may not be true.  Did D'Antoni's Suns, featuring Boris Diaw at center and Tim Thomas off the bench suddenly become Spurs-like on defense in order hold Kobe to just two second-half points following his 33 point first-half?  Or did Bryant quit on his team?  Can anyone picture Michael Jordan doing that?  Would Michael Jordan have let his team get blown out by 40 points in the elimination game of an NBA Finals?  I have certainly seen that dogged determination and fearlessness in Kobe.  He may indeed be the hardest working player in the league.  But how could a player who supposedly wants to win more than anything perform like that when it matters most?  Down 2-0 to a very good Pistons team in 2007's Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron carried a pretty weak Cleveland team to NBA Finals with a Game 5 performance for the ages.  We know how Dwayne Wade performed when the chips were down (referee assisted or not, he kept attacking and hitting big shots).  Where is Kobe's signature playoff performance?  Shouldn't the NBA's "greatest player" step it up in these moments?

The list could continue.  Kobe's on-court conduct is at times unbecoming of an NBA icon.  Flying elbows, yelling at teammates, cursing out refs, taunting opponents - the Laker great seems to be lacking in the class department.   Aside from Kevin Garnett, whose behavior is rapidly deteriorating even by his standards, true NBA greats typically refrain from engaging in such behavior.  I don't recall Magic, Michael or Larry taunting their opponents.  LeBron or Wade will sometimes pose after a big shot or dunk, but mostly they just try to get back on defense.   Maturity matters. 

Kobe Bryant is among the most talented players in NBA history.  But he is not today's best.  Not when there is a player like LeBron James, who at only 24 is unlike anything I have ever seen.  I can think of no player who has combined such size and speed (in any sport, for that matter).   He has the skills of a point guard and the athleticism of a shooting guard in the body of a power forward.   He rebounds, plays defense, and makes those around him better.  Much better.  He still has much to accomplish before being mentioned in the same breath as Michael or Magic, but he may be well on his way.  He is a virtual hybrid of the two.  For him, the sky is the limit. 

Nor would I consider Kobe a better player than Dwayne Wade.  Not yet the outside shooter that Kobe is, Wade is just as effective scoring the ball and even better at getting his teammates involved.   Plus, Wade's on the ball defense has improved substantially.  He gives all he has to that side of the court.  Anyone who watched the Olympics this summer noticed that everything changed when Dwyane Wade came in the game.  He was Team USA's best player, and certainly the fiercest.  They don't win Gold without his tenacity. 

The above analysis omitted point guards and big men and focused only on the great wing players of today.  That was intentional.  Chris Paul and Tim Duncan undoubtedly belong in any conversation of the NBA's best player.  But for the purposes of this piece, LeBron and Wade are more directly comparable.  They are the three we hear of most in the discussion of NBA's best.  However, in the case of one of them, inclusion in the discussion is relies pertly on smoke and mirrors, and a little bit of hype.

Kobe Bryant is a great, great player.  But no matter how badly the media wants it to be so, he is not the best.