Special thanks to Alvin Chan for submitting his take to the Lakers Nation and giving us the rights to post it on the blog. Once again, if you have your own take and want to see it on TLN, feel free to e-mail it to us at Articles@theLakersNation.com.
I think we’ve all seen the countless articles that circle through the Internet about who is the better player. It seemed as though after the Lakers played the Cavaliers in January, every sports fan was going out of his way to give his own two cents on who was the better player to whomever was willing to listen. I’m going to give you guys a little treat and just tell you, so you don’t have to think of it on your own.
Look, Lebron James is an incredibly gifted player. He passes with the best of them, he is almost unguardable most of the time and his size gives him the defensive advantage on most small forwards. For the record, I love James. I think he’s a great player, but I don’t want you to be confused by the difference between ability and efficiency because players understand the subtleties but it seems as though a lot fans don’t quite get the nuance.
When you describe a player as “good” or “great”, you are describing his abilities and skills, but when you describe a player as being “effective” or “productive”, you are describing efficiency. And this is where there is a huge difference between Bryant and James. “Good,” “Great,” and “Best” imply all of the different skill levels and abilities when it comes to the game of basketball. “Effective” or “Productive” have to do with the impact a player leaves on the game. If you ask for the best player, you are asking for who has the highest abilities and skill level, not necessarily who is the most effective, and if you think in terms of skill level, James really doesn’t come close to Bryant. I watch a ton of both players and I can tell you where the differences are in their skill level.
Post: Despite James’ size, he really doesn’t post a ton. Kobe on the other hand posts quite a bit because of the design of the triangle. Every time he has a height or size advantage, Kobe brings it down low and calls for the ball. His speed on the blocks is astonishing and while they say every post player just needs one move and counter, Kobe has an array of different moves because his footwork is so solid and he has decent recognition of when he should put his shot up.
Long Range: James is shooting a very respectable 48% from the field this year, but this is in spite of his three point shooting. He is only converting on 30% of these long range jumpers. Scouts report that he either takes the three or drives the ball, but if I had to choose, I would make James take the three.
On the other hand, Kobe is shooting a decent 35% from the line, but I would have to attribute that percentage to the fact that Kobe takes way too many 3s with people in his face. When he’s unguarded, he knocks them down with quite a bit of regularly. But because we’re only interested in ability, I’d have to say Kobe.
Mid-Range: This is similar to long range. Lebron is actually a lot better in the mid-range than people give him credit for and I feel as though if you leave him open, he’ll hit 8/10. But that said, the mid-range shot is Kobe’s bread and butter. This is what makes Kobe so great, is his ability to rise up and make contested mid-range jumpers.
Dribble and Handles: Kobe has great handles and seems to have remedied that problem he once had, where he would get picked often. But the problem with Kobe is he’s too often stripped while rising to take a jumper and this is where he starts to lose his edge. Although Lebron does commit slightly more turnovers a game, he is pretty solid when going to the rack. His strength plays a huge part as in why players can’t strip him when he goes up for a shot or when he’s finishing at the rim.
Drive: If you don’t remember, Kobe had an amazing drive at the beginning of his career. But like Jordan, he uses his drive less and less because of his age and his lack of quickness. Don’t misunderstand, Kobe is fast. He’s one of the fastest 29 year olds I’ve ever seen, but his drive really isn’t as good as Lebron’s. It’s understandable because he is getting older. Lebron is too fast, too strong and too skilled in this department to be denied.
Finish: This one is really a toss up. Both players are fantastic when it comes to finishing, regardless of situation. But the difference is both players use different techniques to do it. Lebron uses a lot of his strength when he finishes, he’ll hit you and then while you’re falling back he’ll have a wide open shot and finish nicely. He’s also fantastic at taking the best angle to the basket or using idle players as screens. If there are people occupying the area around the restricted area, Lebron is fantastic at coming from the strong side and using those players as a screen and then finishing on the weak side.
Kobe is a finisher who uses more skill and less contact. Although he does love contact to settle himself, he’s very good at stopping quickly and letting his defender blow past or slipping the ball up quickly before a shot blocker and reach it.
Both are great finishers.
Floor Vision: This is where a lot of people would give it to Lebron, but I’m not so sure. Lebron is very good at finding players on the floor and feeding them in places where they can finish or take an open shot. This is a simple version of floor vision and Lebron is very skilled at it. But if you look, Kobe is really like the Peyton Manning of Basketball. Although he doesn’t make the same passes as Lebron as often, he reads the defense well and adjusts his play to it. For example, if he has the ball up top and sees a seam on the right side between his man and the defender on the outside, he’ll drive every time. If he sees the lane is blocked, he will pull up for a jumper. He’s really good at reading the defense and making their plays work to his favor.
Pass: Both Kobe and Lebron are very good passers. Lebron often makes a lot of fancy passes and a lot of very good passes, but the problem that a lot of people don’t see is that he takes a lot of risks with the ball. And a lot of the time he gets away with it. He banks possessions on the fact that defenders are not looking at the ball and that can occasionally cost him. His skills of passing between defenders on a pick and roll are almost as good as Nash’s.
Kobe on the other hand is just as good, even though he doesn’t always give the ball enough of a bounce when slipping the ball on the pick and roll to a big. You could see that early in the Suns game that he made decent passes but the ball just didn’t bounce high enough for Gasol to reach. Regardless, Kobe is a very good passer, but he doesn’t always feel like he should pass it (and there in lied the criticism).
Rebound: This might surprise you guys. Lebron is a 6’8 forward while Kobe is a 6’6” guard, so you might naturally think that Lebron is the better rebounder. The thing is that he’s not. That might sound crazy because Lebron averages almost two rebounds more a game, but if you consider a few things you might agree with me.
Kobe has always been a pretty strong rebounder, despite his position. When you play as a forward, you get more rebounds just because of position. The two plays farther away from the basket. But there was a portion of this season when Kobe slid down to the three out of necessity and there he averaged double digit rebounds every game. It wasn’t a fluke either, it was like 10 games straight of high rebounding numbers. There was a season he averaged 7 boards a game so it’s not out of his nature. He’s smart with the bounce of the ball. If Kobe played the three on a normal basis, he would average 10 boards a game. He just doesn’t play 3.
Ability To Create: Both of them are great at creating for their teammates, but I feel like Lebron is probably better here. Creation is really rooted in the drive because when you drive you can kick. And Lebron’s drive is more of a threat than Kobe’s.
On Ball Defense: Despite what we saw in January, Kobe is a much better on ball defender than Lebron. Lebron was able to stop Kobe a few times, but it really had more to do with fatigue in Kobe. Earlier in the game when Kobe was fresh, he slipped past Lebron a few times with the drive and was able to hit a few jumpers over him. On the other hand, Kobe is known for just straight up suffocating defense. When he wants to play on ball defense, he can stop whomever he wants. From McGrady to Allen to Wade, Kobe has proven he cannot just slow, but stop them all.
Steals/Gamble: Lebron is averaging a little over 2 steals a game right now and Kobe is a little under two steals, but Lebron is playing a few more minutes than Kobe so I’d have to say it’s about a tie statistically. But Lebron seems to game a lot and that leaves one of his teammates out in the cold. Lebron makes most of his steals off of intercepting passes or picking up other people’s deflections, Kobe has amazingly fast hands. It’s not uncommon to see him “pick the pocket” of a relatively capable ball handler and a lot of the steals his teammates get are from his quick hands deflecting the ball. He always seems to know where the ball is going to go and like Chris Paul, he likes to attack the second move instead of the first. He anticipates the dribble well. He’s not completely innocent to gambling, but he seems to gamble when there is not a huge chance he could get burned.
Help Side: Neither of these players really play a ton of help defense in comparison to the four and the five, but still it would have to be Kobe because he is very “Jordanesque” when he roams. A lot of the time you will see Kobe coming from the help side to swat shots away or to trap. He’s not much at deterring players away from the basket though, this is where James might have a slight advantage. But overall, it’d have to be Kobe again.
Block: Lebron almost doubles Kobe’s block total, and although he is better, it’s not by as much as people might think. Lebron blocks shots because of his ability to explode off the floor and his decent anticipation. He’s a scary blocker because of his size and length. Kobe on the other hand, has a lot of Jordan in him. Jordan was a very good blocker for someone his size and Kobe is no different. Kobe’s strength though lies in the surprise. He normally helps on an isolation on the post where the center is playing one on one with the opponent. Kobe is very good at sneaking behind his center and anticipating when the shot will go up. (YouTube “Kobe blocks”, and you’ll see one of Yao, Duncan, Shaquille, etc) But in the end, blocking is a size game and Lebron would win it every time.
Decision Making: Lebron and Kobe both handle the ball so much on their respective teams that they make a lot of the decisions as well. Kobe is a great decision makers, but there are still places he can improve. A lot of the time he will sit behind the arc and allow the offense to become stagnant. Then he’ll take an ill advised 3 that bricks more often than it goes in. He also can get sucked into one on one games, although that has greatly decreased. But that being said, he showed examples of that when he played against Lebron. He was playing a perfect game and the Lakers were winning, but because Lebron challenged him to play one on one, he took the offense of its flow and ruined the chemistry. Lebron on the other hand makes a lot of very good decisions, when to take over and when not to take over.
Clutch: As this year has progressed, we’ve seen Lebron become a much more clutch player. He is leading the league in points in the fourth and is regularly bringing his club back from a deficit to win in the fourth. As he claims, the fourth quarter is his quarter. But the reality of it is that there is no player more clutch than Kobe. He has been hitting game winners for years and shows no signs of slowly down in that aspect. He continuously hits dagger after dagger in big games and takes over when he feels he should.
Footwork: There’s not real contest here, Kobe has the best footwork in the game.
Count them up, Kobe 9 Lebron 5. Kobe almost doubles Lebron’s total, and I felt I was being generous with Lebron’s “wins.”
But the real point I want to make it that Lebron is very effective in games. He is super effective and he leaves a huge impact on the games he plays in. He provides a lot of intangibles that raise his game closer to Kobe’s. Although Kobe is very effective in games, he is only really effective because of his skill. Lebron is effective because of his size. So while they may both be just as effective in games, Lebron has a few blemishes he needs to strengthen before he can be considered the best (like long range, mid range, and on ball defense).
So if you ask me who the best it, I’d tell you who is the most skilled and has the most ability. Every player agrees and every coach will tell you the same person. As Carlos Boozer said recently, he has no flaws in his game.