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Black Mamba or Self-Proclaimed King?

Black Mamba or Self-Proclaimed King?

Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

Let’s bring the Kobe versus LeBron debate into perspective. Earlier this week Brian Windhorst of Espn.com reported that back in 2007 the Los Angeles Lakers contacted the Cleveland Cavaliers inquiring as to the availability of LeBron James. According to Windhorst, the Lakers offered Kobe Bryant in exchange for LeBron. This storyline has brought the Kobe-LeBron discussion to a fever pitch. The “professional” commentary following Windhorts’ announcement prompted this post. The media has arrived at the conclusion that the Lakers would have won more championships if the offer was accepted and LeBron was traded to Los Angeles. Well, the facts disagree with that media consensus.

What are we basing this position on? His size and strength? Maybe. His selfless play? Potentially. But LeBron is not just bigger and stronger than Kobe, he’s bigger and stronger than most players in the NBA, hence the reason people claim he would be effective as an NFL tight end. But has LeBron’s size or strength enhanced his ball handling, jump shooting or post play? No.

Lebron is now a 13-year veteran and has yet to earn respect as a consistent shooter beyond 18 feet. This criticism could never be lobbed at Kobe Bryant. Kobe has been a lethal scorer from anywhere on the court since his third year in the league. In fact, Kobe was so dangerous from the outside during the 2000-2002 championship run that opposing defenses wavered on who would receive the double-team, him or Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq).

Post play is critical for all basketball players. As they age, first step and athleticism wane, thus, fully developing skill away from the perimeter is essential. LeBron’s post play never evolved to the level of finesse admired by greats like Kevin McHale or Patrick Ewing. Sure he backs most guys down like Barkley, because he’s bigger. But those aren’t moves. He is literally taking steps backwards. Also, that archaic practice of backing down a defender is time consuming and ball stopping. No offense flow from a ten second post back down. We’ve waited long enough for LeBron to develop a post game.

In contrast, Kobe realized his speed and agility would inevitably falter. So not only did he improve his post game, Kobe mastered it! He was Hakeem Olajuwon in a guard’s body. Don’t believe it? Ask budding star Andrew Wiggins or former MVP Kevin Durant, as non-post players, who they tailored impressive post games to emulate - Kobe Bryant.

After Windhorst’s report, folks immediately jumped on the “LeBron would have won twice as many championships” bandwagon. To which I respond, “the facts say otherwise.”

Lebron played on arguably the greatest team ever assembled. Yes, better than the 72-win Bulls, better than the Showtime Lakers, even better than Bill Russell’s Celtics. That Miami Heat team had FOUR, future hall of fame inductees, three of them in their primes. Chris Bosh was the undeniable best power forward in the game. His only rivals at that position were Serge Ibaka and Kevin Love – both great in their own right, but not on Bosh’s level. Since Kobe was past his prime and starting to slow, Dwayne Wade took over as the league’s preeminent shooting guard. Don’t forget surefire first ballot hall of famer Ray Allen. Allen, who is certainly one of the top five long-range jump shooters of all-time, was also on that Heat team. The point guard, Mario Chalmers was no slouch either. Though not destined for the Hall of Fame, he was consistent and highly skilled (remember, he led his Kansas team to a championship over John Calipari’s Kentucky squad that far exceeded Kansas in pure talent).

To say that Heat team underachieved is like saying basketballs are round. We already know they underachieved. But they underachieved in epic fashion! They lost to two teams that were significantly less skilled. Did that ever happen to Kobe? The facts say no. The two teams that beat Kobe in the Finals were better, period. The Detroit Pistons team coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown, had one of the all-time greatest starting lineups: Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and the Defensive Player of Year award recipient for that season, Ben Wallace. That Pistons team was stacked, and Shaq who seldom took conditioning seriously, and failed to lose the excess weight he added the previous off-season, was no match for Rasheed and Ben Wallace in the frontcourt. The only other team to get the better of Kobe’s Lakers in the Finals was the 2008 Celtics. Again, people conveniently dismiss the fact that Kobe and the Lakers played the 2008 playoffs without a low-post presence. Bynum was hurt – per usual, but against a team with Kevin Garnett (future first ballot Hall of Fame inductee) and Kendrick Perkins playing in the post, beating them would require all hands on deck.

Would LeBron have elicited a different outcome? Could he have somehow willed his team to beat Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rondo at the peak of his reign as best point guard?

Who had the privilege of playing with more talent, Kobe or Lebron? LeBron’s Cavs teams receive the most ridicule and blame for his playoff failures. But looking at their roster objectively, top to bottom, the teams weren’t as bad as media members will have you believe. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Damon Jones, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson.

Sure, Kobe had Shaq, but that’s it! You can try to convince yourself that Derek Fisher was better than Daniel Gibson, or Rick Fox was better than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but deep down you know it’s not accurate. Seven of the worst players Kobe dragged to MULTIPLE championships were Devean George, Aleksandar "Sasha" Vujačić, Stanislav “Slava” Medvedenko, Jordan Farmar, Tyronn Lue, Luke Walton and Mark Madsen. Lakers fans recognize these names, because they were scrappy, logged a ton of minutes, and assumed a Kurt Rambis like role. But they weren’t good. They weren’t even kind of good; they were awful. Playing with Kobe, and experiencing lots of post-season success elevated public perception of their talent.

It’s always been an odd dichotomy of how the teammates of Kobe and LeBron are discussed in the press. The running theme seems to consistently imply that LeBron carried garbage to the Finals while Kobe had a silver spoon served on a golden platter. It’s laughable to think that one player had significantly more around him than the other. Both players dragged bad teams to the finals. But only one player won with bad teams.

Fabricating the narrative that Kobe somehow failed to fulfill expectations considering the immense talent surrounding him is nonsensical. Madsen and Medvedenko were first off the Lakers bench, meaning significant role players. No respectable sports writer would ever say either of these two were better than Damon Jones, they just weren’t. Shaq in Orlando was legendary. Shaq in Los Angeles was good, really good, in fact at times he was great! But Shaq was no Kareem. His weight significantly increased upon moving to Los Angeles and his stamina decreased. That is not a winning combination. Shaq lacked the discipline and will necessary to take the Lakers to the next level, and Kobe understood this. Did Kobe push him out of Los Angeles? Maybe. But maybe Shaq was holding Kobe back. Kobe went long stretches in the regular season accommodating the void left by his aging, out-of-shape center.

Ilgauskas and Gooden each grabbed over 240 offensive rebounds and Varejao grabbed 191. These three fueled the Cavs to a rank of ONE in the entire league in that category. Does LeBron get credit for that also? Unlike defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds are collected thanks to one quality, effort. LeBron controls his own effort, but not the effort of every player in uniform. LeBron has not only played with energetic big men in Cleveland, he also had the luxury of quality guard play. LeBron apologists forget how prolific all-star Mo Williams was.

            - I don’t need to say that in Kobe’s entire career, he never played alongside another great shooter. I don’t need to mention that because you already know.

If Shannon Brown was so awful in Cleveland, then folks need to apply that same analysis to his play in Los Angeles. He didn’t transform into a new player. He just played alongside Kobe Bryant. Stop claiming LeBron played with a cast of misfits. His Cavaliers team worked, and it worked quite well together. Naturally LeBron was the glue holding that group together. But pretending their team chemistry and skill had nothing to do with their success is disingenuous.

People often criticize Kobe’s low shooting percentage in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against Boston. But they won – they WON! And Kobe’s 23 points were more than any other player on the court! Folks also conveniently ignore the fact that Kobe went 11-15 from the free throw line and grabbed 15 rebounds en route to that Game 7 victory. He grabbed more rebounds than ANY Celtics player, including Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace.

Revisionist history has sadly clouded the judgment of many respected sports commentators when they utter such blaspheme as “LeBron over Kobe in their prime”. They must have forgotten just how dominant Kobe was in his prime. They forgot how incredibly competitive the Western Conference was during each of Kobe’s championship runs. But holding them accountable for losing perspective is important. LeBron James is many things. He is a champion, a selfless teammate, and a unique physical specimen. But the gym rat with the manic obsession for evolving, for perfection, for winning, his name is Kobe Bryant and trading him away, even for LeBron, would have been a mistake. 

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