LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were named the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week yesterday. Bryant averaged 30.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists over a four game stretch, including a 27 point, 9 rebound and 5 assist performance against the defending champion Celtics on Christmas Day. James averaged 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists over a 3-0 stretch for the Cavaliers.
Which player is better?
Kamla compares Kobe and LeBron in eight categories: “shooting, playmaking, rebounding, defending, hunger, leadership, toughness and clutch.”
James gets the nod in playmaking, rebounding, defending, hunger and leadership, while Bryant wins in the shooting and clutch departments. Kamla declares the toughness category a tie.
James is a better playmaker and rebounder. But at 6-9, 270 pounds, is LeBron an accomplished rebounder for someone with his physical gifts? Consider that Larry Bird — at 6-9, 220 pounds — and playing the same position as James, averaged 10 rebounds (3.1 rpg. more than James) over his career. Why do I bring that up? Because if you’re going to compare a 6-6 shooting guard’s rebounding average to a 6-9 small forward’s, it’s important to put that small forward’s rebounding average into perspective. Regardless, there’s no denying the fact that LeBron is the better rebounder.
Kamla says that Kobe is a better man-to-man defender, but gives LeBron the edge as a helpside defender due to LeBron’s ability to “play the passing lanes and block shots.” Kamla concedes that “blocks and steals stats are not a true indication of which player is better on the defensive end” but fails to expand upon his belief that LeBron is the better helpside defender. That’s interesting because Celtics coach Doc Rivers called Bryant “the best help defender since Scottie Pippen” in last year’s NBA Finals.
I don’t know how one can measure “hunger,” but LeBron has been incredibly focused this season. He has a different look in his eye. A look that Bryant has had for years. I think Bryant and James are tied in that category. Both players want to win a championship. Kamla argues that Bryant isn’t as hungry because he’s won three rings. That’s ridiculous.
If I was asked to fill out Kamla’s scorecard I would give LeBron the advantage in playmaking, rebounding and leadership. Kobe gets the nod in shooting and clutch. And I would declare James and Bryant equal in hunger and toughness. Both players are good defensively, but from what I’ve seen thus far this season, LeBron has been the better defender.
That doesn’t mean I’m ready to declare LeBron the best player in the world. I have my own criteria. I don’t put as much stock in numbers. I watch how and when a player scores his points. I look at a player’s role within his team. And I consider the competition. I don’t care how Kobe or LeBron perform against the Bobcats. I want to see how they perform against the Celtics. And while both players have struggled versus Boston, Bryant has performed much better against the NBA champs. Kamla pointed out that the Cavaliers took the Celtics to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but failed to mention that LeBron shot 36% in that series. Cleveland took Boston to 7 games because of their team defense. One could argue that LeBron was instrumental in their defensive effort, and that’s true, but he also gave up 41 points to Paul Pierce in Game 7.
I’m not absolving Bryant of his struggles. Kobe deserves blame for contributing to a 39-point loss in the NBA Finals deciding game, but Kobe shot five percentage points better against Boston than James did. Bryant has put up superior numbers against the Celtics this season too. Bryant scored 27 points on 13-of-23 from the field (.565) and added 9 rebounds and 5 assists in LA’s Christmas Day win. James scored 22 points on 9-of-21 (.429) from the field and added 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a season opening loss to Boston. Granted, the Cavaliers are a different team now. But there’s an easy explanation for Bryant’s relative success against the Celtics: he can shoot. “Shooting” is a pretty big category when a player faces an NBA championship-caliber defense.
Kamla gives credit to LeBron for advancing to the Finals in 2007, but discredits Kobe’s Finals appearance because of the “Pau Gasol donation.” Kamla asks “Would Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have made the Finals without the Gasol trade?” I’ll ask, would LeBron James and the Cavaliers have made the 2007 Finals if they would have faced the Phoenix Suns in the first round?
There is no right or wrong answer. There are brilliant basketball minds on both sides of the fence. In my opinion, Kobe was the best player in the world through the first six months of 2008. LeBron has been the best player through the last six months of the year. I can’t wait to see which star shines brighter in 2009.