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TrueHoop: Kobe vs. LeBron

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A few days ago, Kevin Arnovitz, author of ClipperBlog and occasional contributor to TrueHoop, asked me to join several bloggers from the ESPN TrueHoop Network in a round table discussion of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. We spent a few days discussing the issue, and then Kevin edited our thoughts together into a single round table piece.

You can read it here: The State of the Great Debate: Kobe vs. LeBron 2009

NOTE:  Because of space constraints, Kevin had to edit the responses of each contributor down to fit in a single post. So for those of you interested, click on through to read my original thoughts, in full and unabridged.

Here are the original questions, along with my original responses:

It's clear from the results of the MVP vote, as well as our informal poll, that LeBron James is the overwhelming favorite in this debate.  For those of you on the LeBron side of the discussion, what's changed in the last year?  For those of you on the Kobe side, why are you sticking with your guy, in the face of such overwhelming sentiment toward LeBron?

Had I a vote, mine would have gone to Kobe Bryant last year. Not as a sympathy vote or a "lifetime achievement award," but because he was unquestionably the most deserving. The combination of team success and individual dominance were unparalleled, and the team and personal injuries he and the Lakers fought through to secure the #1 seed in arguably the toughest conference in league history were unmatched. Factor in the constant roster turmoil caused by injuries and multiple mid-season trades, and Bryant's ability to keep his team performing at such a high level was truly incredible.

This year, had I a vote, it would have gone to LeBron James, for two reasons.

First, LeBron and the Cavs added the team success component that was missing in previous years, but necessary for him to win the award. He did so with a team that was offensively less talented than Kobe's Lakers, and his individual dominance was unparalleled. At the same time, LeBron's competition came back down to earth just enough to push him ahead of the field. Chris Paul's Hornets struggled, and while Dwyane Wade was brilliant, his team's 43-39 record prevented him from being a serious contender.

Kobe Bryant played some of his best defense (in the NBA) in years and was willing to sacrifice his own offensive dominance to promote the growth of his teammates, while making great strides in leadership. But both Bryant and the Lakers were much healthier this year, the Western Conference wasn't quite as strong, and there was more consistency in the roster. And while Kobe's leadership and individual sacrifices are admirable and will help him in his quest for a fourth NBA championship, it weakens his case for the individual MVP award.

Choosing between LeBron this year and Kobe last year would be nearly impossible, but it's a one-year award, and Kobe hasn't had to overcome the kind of challenges this year that made him such a compelling candidate last year.

The second factor that bolstered LeBron's MVP candidacy (as if he needed it) was his defense, which improved vastly this year, both individually and as the team leader. While Kobe remains the single best perimeter defender in key possessions (or when playing for Team USA), LeBron was better, and more consistent, throughout the course of this season. His defensive improvements contributed directly to his team's overall success.

I would agree that the fundamentals of [Kobe's] game are stronger than LeBron's when examined closely.  And, for me, that counts for something.  For you, it might not.  

So in that spirit, let's widen the scope of the conversation a little bit, even at the risk of speaking in abstractions: Let's discuss each player on a qualitative -- and an aesthetic level.

The MVP changes every year, because it depends so much on circumstances beyond pure skill. It is a statement as to what kind of season a player has had, not necessarily how good he has been.

Which brings us to this: LeBron James is the MVP; Kobe Bryant is the better player.

Both are lockdown defenders, fantastic passers, capable of scoring or facilitating, and excellent leaders of their teams. The primary differences lie in each player's individual offensive repertoires, and the key here is the versatility, polish, and completeness of each player's game.

LeBron James is a player with one primary, ultra-developed offensive skill: His ability to get to the hoop for layups and dunks. At the same time, there are several areas that he has yet to develop. He has improved his three-point and free throw shooting this year, but even so, both are average at best. He has no mid-range jumper, he doesn't use screens effectively, and his post game is suspect. His athleticism and quickness are his primary tools, and his footwork at this point is still fairly rudimentary — which, in part, explains why he's not better in the post. (Imagine what a player of his size, strength, and athleticism could do in the post with Kobe's footwork!)

Kobe Bryant doesn't have a single dominant skill that far outweighs all others, like LeBron does. Instead, he has the most complete, versatile, and polished skill set in the NBA. Pull-up jumper, leaner, runner, floater, fadeaway, fallaway... mid-range, long-range, close range... pump fake, jab step, up-and-under, dunk, layup... left hand, right hand, face-up, post-up, driving, elevating... strength, savvy, power, finesse, balance, body control, footwork. Bryant can do it all. His footwork, in particular, is unparalleled, and because of it, he is extremely effective in the post, making easy work of smaller players and even taking advantage of larger players without the fundamental skill set to compete with his own.

Simply put, the difference between the two boils down to unprecedented raw athleticism versus unequaled, finely honed skill.

All it takes is a glance at highlight reels to see this in action. The large majority of LeBron's highlights are thunderous dunks, his incredible power, speed, and leaping ability on full display. Bryant, on the other hand, dazzles in every way imaginable. While LeBron is a bull in a china shop, Kobe is a master of his body, and the resulting grace, finesse, and ability to make any shot in the book never cease to amaze. He is fluidity in motion, the movement of his body a continuous display of pure human beauty.

Highlight reels and skill sets are nice, but here is why this matters: Taking away the best part of LeBron's game is very difficult — but not impossible. Few teams can do it, and those teams only face him a handful of times during the regular season. Against the rest, he seems to get to the hoop with such ease that he begins to appear literally unstoppable. As the regular season draws on, his jaw-dropping power and athleticism begin to appear every bit as effective as Bryant's versatility. But in the playoffs, strong defensive teams like the Spurs and Celtics have done what seemed impossible, keeping him away from the basket and forcing him to take shots outside his comfort zone. In the 2009 regular season, in two games that had playoff atmosphere written all over them, the Lakers did the same. As is typically the case when a team successfully builds a wall around the paint, LeBron struggled. And when he struggles, his team, built around him in every imaginable way, also struggles.

On the other hand, take away one aspect of Kobe's game, and he will hurt you with another. Take away his lanes to the hoop, and he'll get his close range shots by posting up. Try to keep him on the perimeter, and he will elevate and shoot over you. The endless array of moves you see in highlight reels? Try as you may to prevent it, that's about to happen to you. And if you try and take away all (or even most) of his strengths? He'll pick you apart with passing, punishing you for overplaying him. All you can do is pick your poison and hope you get very, very lucky.

Currently, LeBron's ridiculous athleticism and power work very well for him, most of the time — and during the regular season, that makes him the most dominant player in the league. But like a team that hangs its hat on three-point shooting, what works in the regular season doesn't always work in the post-season — recent history bears this out. That's where having the most complete player in the game becomes an advantage, and where Kobe's more complete overall skill set makes him the best player in the league.

Should LeBron turn his offensive weaknesses into strengths, there will simply be no stopping him. And hust must. His game right now is built primarily around athleticism and power — in a few years, when age reduces these natural abilities, he will need to have developed a complete skill set to compensate. Like Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan before him, even LeBron James will need to make the transition from talent to skill. Fortunately for him (and for us, who have the privilege of watching him grow), there is little doubt in my mind that he will do just that.

Is it fair to say that each player is more complete than the other -- in entirely different ways?  And which metric you value most -- accessibility, range of technique, fluidity, mastery of the game the way *you* grew up understanding it to be played, total dominance of the court, number of rings, PER, etc -- determines, to a large extent, where you come down on this question.

In some sense, we're not really debating Kobe v. LeBron. We're debating *how* we measure greatness.

To suggest that Kobe Bryant is a just a scorer is to completely fail to comprehend his game. True, he doesn't pull down as many rebounds as LeBron James – but then, LeBron is two inches taller and 45 pounds heavier than Kobe, at the very least (by many accounts, LeBron is even bigger than his official listing). Sure, Kobe doesn't dish out as many assists – but he also isn't the de facto ball handler and singular focal point of his team; while LeBron is essentially a "point forward," Kobe plays in an offensive system that doesn't have any primary ball handler. The fact is that Bryant has consistently been among the top rebounders in the league at his position, and since becoming a starter in 1998, he has been the Lakers' primary distrubutor and assists leader in nine of the last 11 years.

If anything has ever truly shown the extent of Bryant's regular all-around effect on the floor, it was the Lakers' 101-91 win over the Cavaliers in Cleveland, on Feb. 8. He was as sick and as miserable as we have ever seen him, vomiting and taking fluids via IV in the locker room at halftime. Sure, he hit that mind-blowing fadeaway over LeBron to end Cleveland's comeback attempt and secure the game – but aside from a shot or two, his effect on the game was almost none. All of a sudden, anyone watching should have realized how completely he affects the game on a nightly basis, by the sheer absence of his effect on that one.

In the end, as Kevin mentioned, the Kobe vs. LeBron debate may be less about the players, and more about how you perceive the game of basketball. How you measure success and greatness will determine who you consider most successful, and the greatest.

In basketball, as in football, the consensus since before I arrived on the scene has been that success is measured in rings, and the greatest players have been those that have led their teams to the most championship victories. By this measure, Kobe is already well established, while LeBron still has everything to prove.

But what if you define success by statistical dominance? Certainly, that has become more popular in recent years. Kobe's fans can recall when individual statistical dominance was sometimes used against a player, but there's no arguing with the statistical production of LeBron James. And indeed, if the numbers are what matters to you, then LeBron may already be in the "greatest of all time" conversation, in your eyes.

Maybe you judge success and greatness by overall individual skill. The question, then, is, "Who is better: The player who excels beyond all others in one key area, or the player who is more complete than all others?" If you're Skip Bayless, who argued that Michael Phelps isn't the best swimmer in the world because he didn't race in the 100M Freestyle, you take the former. But then, do you really agree with Skip that Bernard Alain, not Michael Phelps, is the best swimmer in the world? If, like me, you evaluate a player's skill by how complete the overall package is, then Kobe Bryant is your guy, by a mile.

Or perhaps you measure greatness by how a player performs when it matters most – that is, when everything on the line. This refers not only to what happens when a game is on the line, but to how a player performs in the biggest games of their lives. Here again, Kobe's championships speak in his favor. Even more significant than that, however, is what happened in what was, according to them both, the biggest game of both players' lives: the 2008 Olympics Gold Medal Game, between the United States and Spain. When Spain threatened the Americans' lead in the fourth quarter, LeBron was relatively silent, and it was Kobe who stepped up, took over, and almost single-handedly secured the Gold Medal for the United States.

That game was case in point for why, of all of the ways we can measure a player, statistics mean the least to me. Statistics said that LeBron James was the better clutch performer, but when the rubber met the road, the numbers meant nothing.

As I see it, we're evaluating and comparing these two athletes not as winners, scorers, stat-accumulators, clutch shooters, or participants in a skills challenge, but as basketball players. To me, that means that the "best player" should be measured not by one of these standards, but by all of them, and the final decision should go to the player with not only the most complete skill set, but the most complete overall resume, looking at all of the above standards. It shouldn't be about which player is more statistically productive, or which is more versatile. It should be about the total package of championship success, statistics, all around skill set, performance when it matters most, and any other measure relevant to player evaluation.

That is how I view this discussion, and by that measure, Kobe Bryant is the most complete basketball player on the planet, both in terms of skill set, and in terms of his overall basketball resume. LeBron James may be more dominant statistically, but Bryant has the more complete skill set, the championship success, and a long history of being the best player in the building when it has mattered most.

How do you perceive this discussion, and what are the criteria that lead you to your conclusion?

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