Friday, July 17, 2009

Thoughts on LeBron James (and Kobe Bryant)

An unbiased and smart basketball fan or analyst would easily pick Kobe Bryant as the best player over LeBron James. But, also, an unbiased and smart fan or analyst would also be able to say that LeBron has the potential of becoming the best.

If we look at both players’ statistics, LeBron’s numbers are more impressive. But only na├»ve fans would make the stats the only determinants on who is the better player. It’s deeper than stats. Kobe can get triple-doubles, too, but he does not need to dominate with a great team like the Lakers (that’s what teammates are for… not tools to get your stats, but co-workers to get the most important stat of all: wins!)

Oh, LeBron James is great. He scores, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals… and has higher stats than Kobe in the past season. But he also has the tendency of dominating too much that he takes his teammates out of the game. Yes, in the past regular season, he made them better most of the time, and got the best record in the NBA, that’s why he’s the MVP.

But the Cavaliers’ system was doomed to fail, I had no doubt about that, that’s why I want the Lakers to face them in the Finals since I believe the Lakers can easily beat them. But it was the Orlando Magic who capitalized from the Cavs' flaw. The Cavaliers system of letting LeBron dominate was good enough to have the best record in the NBA, but was never that good to win the championship. Because in a playoff series, the Cavaliers would be playing with a team for straight games, and not a different team in a next game like in the regular season. Thus, it would allow a good opposing team to read and adjust to Cavs' play. Mike Brown never impressed me as a coach. The offensive system they had in the regular season was good because every Cav was moving (and that system was formulated, from what I read, by Brown’s assistant coaches), but they abandoned this in the East Conference Finals, and he panicked and allowed LeBron to do it all and his teammates just stood around. The Cavs could have a chance if they played like they did in the regular season (but in the end, their system would be read and counter-attacked by a smarter and calmer Lakers). All in all, the Cavs was a one-man LeBron team from the start, and such team is easily read and defeated in the end.

LeBron has the strength, athleticism, and skills to help him become the best. He has the stats to prove his talents. The only thing for him is to realize that being the best is not about the stats. He has to go deeper. If he does not do it, he will continue remaining as the second best.

Let me analyze…

Offense. LeBron James has the size and speed to dominate and bully himself inside. The problem is driving inside is not always effective. He should improve his perimeter and three’s. Sure, he make jumpshots and three-pointers, but not as dangerous as Kobe’s. So, though LeBron is a very good offensive player, he is not close to Kobe’s deadliness. It’s hard to stop Kobe because he can score effectively from anywhere (even from 30 feet!), that’s why he was christened “unstoppable.” Back down, and Kobe’ll shoot a three-pointer, close in and he’ll drive to the basket, and guard him tight, well, he’ll only make that unblockable turnaround fadeaway of his (which LeBron lacks). LeBron does not have Kobe’s wide arsenal of moves, footwork, and shooting. If he develops Kobe’s deadly shots into his own, defenders would be wary on stepping back and would guard him closely, allowing him to drive. Imagine if LeBron gets Kobe’s offensive arsenal, he already had the size, strength and speed, he would be more unstoppable than Kobe.

Passing. LeBron’s assists per game would tell you he is the better passer, right? Wrong! Yes, LeBron also makes his teammates better and involve when he makes those assists, but not in the long run. But LeBron holds the ball too long that ball movement dies with him sometimes, thus if LeBron passes the ball there is not enough time to make a second or third pass but to shoot it. This encourages teammates to be idle and not move. Offensive flow stops. Sure, LeBron gets many assists, at the price of his teammates getting uninvolved in the end (again the East Conference Finals…). Kobe, however, is a brilliant set-up master. When double or triple teamed, he waits for the defender to fully commit and made those passes (and why is he double teamed and triple-teamed? Because he is the kind of guy that can score anywhere and get 81 points against a zone defense). Also, he does not kill much ball movement, there is always time and chance for another or several passes. But I do not blame LeBron for this, I blame Mike Brown – he has no great play to maximize LeBron’s brilliant passing. On the other hand, Kobe has the triangle offense and that makes his passing and set-ups very good (plus, he has better teammates).

Rebounds. No problems here. Both Kobe and LeBron are good rebounders. But why does LeBron James get more rebounds than Kobe? First, obviously, he is bigger and stronger. Second, it’s about roles… LeBron is a small forward. Kobe is a shooting guard and is not always inside for the best position for a rebound and he allows his forwards and center to get it, instead he runs to shift back at offense and makes transition. Third, related to the second reason, it’s because of Kobe’s defensive role…

Which leads us to defense. Who is better? Seeing LeBron’s blocks and steals averages, it’s LeBron, right? Wrong again. Kobe is still the better defender. Kobe is a brilliant one-on-one, lockdown, perimeter defender, thus he gives the one he guards (usually the opposing team’s best scorer) a hard time scoring as he forces missed shots and locks his opponent down to kill the opposing team’s ball movement. And why is that better than blocking and stealing? So, LeBron averages two blocks and two steals – that’s a total of only four turnovers for his opponents (and that is assuming that those blocks did not go out of bounds). But Kobe’s defense allows more missed shots which means more rebounds, more chances for his team in getting the ball. And by playing as a defender like this, he will not always have the chance to steal or block the ball. Steals and blocks are usually made by waiting. Isn’t it more impressive that Kobe makes most of his steals by playing one on one, which is harder than intercepting a ball in the passing lane? If Kobe would also play a waiting defense game, I think he will also have those averages LeBron has. And because Kobe plays perimeter defender, and is concentrated on shutting down the opponent, he does not have many chances to rebound for the ball. Now, for LeBron, if he uses his size and speed to play lockdown defense more, he would become a very good defender.

I.Q. No contest. Kobe is smarter. Yes, LeBron is also a leader. But LeBron does not have Kobe’s coach-like skills.

Clutch and free throws. Again, no contest. It’s Kobe. Clutch shots usually means perimeter shots since it is now harder to drive in the last minutes because opponents would tighten up. Kobe is the better free throw shooter, and it is a valuable skill in clutch. (Again, the Eastern Conference Finals sees LeBron missing valuable free throws in Game 4).

Oh, if LeBron can improve on this aspects, obtain Kobe’s skills and I.Q., add this up to his already raw talent, size, and strength, he would easily become the best. But, until then, Kobe is still the best.

* * *

It was very good marketing (especially the puppets). Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. Thus, the only participants in the “Who’s the best?” debate is the two of them. This seems disrespectful to Dwyane Wade. He is one of the best players we see in NBA history. He was a champion. A Finals MVP. We forget that.

But then again, he has not the advantages LeBron has. LeBron is younger and has more potential. And the Kobe of Dwyane’s age was better than him.

But, again, in my opinion, the Kobe Bryant in his early twenties was better than LeBron James when he was that young (kindly watch again the playoff games in the Lakers’ threepeat championship era). And when Kobe was 24 years old (which LeBron was last season), his performance was more impressive even if the Lakers did not win the championship (getting beaten by the Spurs in the second round).

I may sound biased. But my real point is, people tend to forget (or discount) those brilliant performances by Bryant.

* * *

It was a bad move to get Shaq. For the sake of having someone to match Dwight Howard (and Pau Gasol), the Cavs sacrificed LeBron’s greatest offensive skill: driving to the hoop. Defenders of LeBron tend to back down and clog down the inside and would rather take a chance in leaving LeBron open for a jumpshot than allow him to drive. This pays off (again, what Orlando did in the ECF last season), since LeBron’s perimeter shot has lower chances than his dunks. Now, Shaq takes too much space in the inside, and would prevent LeBron to make those drives. Shaq would be giving the opposing teams a favor by clogging the inside and helping them in shutting down LeBron.

But this could also be an advantage. Maybe, in the next season, since Shaq clogs the inside, LeBron would be forced to improve himself in those perimeter shots.

* * *

I want LeBron James to leave the Cavaliers for the Knicks. The Cavs is a boring franchise. But the New York Knicks has the biggest stage of them all – Madison Square Gardens The Knicks have the best fans in the league. And has the hype and glitz that almost rivals the Lakers. Business wise, it would be better if LeBron was in the Knicks.

The Knicks is my second favorite franchise team, next to the Lakers. And I want them to have some success. Starting with LeBron.

Think of it. NBA Finals 2011. Kobe vs. LeBron. LA Lakers vs. NY Knicks. It would be big!!! Great great show… super profits for the NBA. Very exciting.

However, the Knicks do not have the management that the Lakers have, always having an exciting and entertaining and winning (and championship potential) team throughout the years. (That’s why the Lakes is the best!)

But I hope the Knicks, as my second fave, would have success in the near future. Getting LeBron and building a great team around him.

(I could also live with a scenario where Kobe, which looks good in the Knicks uniform, would be traded to New York, and the Lakers would sign LeBron in 2010. Kobe and Knicks vs. LeBron and Lakers… wow!)

* * *

So, these are some of my thoughts on LeBron James. I hope he does not fade like Vince Carter who failed to meet his expectations. LeBron has the potential of becoming the best in the NBA next season. But Kobe Bryant has a bigger potential of being the greatest player ever in the history of the NBA.

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