Monday, January 25, 2010

A Few Idle LeBron Thoughts

Just a few idle thoughts on just another week in the career of LeBron James, in which he averaged a 34-8-11 while leading the Cavs to a 3-0 week despite some major backcourt injuries, with all three wins coming against .500+ teams, including a showdown win vs. Kobe & the Lakers, and a last-second block of Kevin Durant to secure Sunday's win vs. OKC:



So, there's been lots of LeBron food for thought over the last week or so, including the very good LeBron column by Bill Simmons.

Simmons noted, "As crazy as this sounds, [LeBron]'s been the most underrated story of the 2009-10 season." As much as anything, the column was a reminder that - for all the day-to-day subplots of the season, and the legitimately compelling narratives of Kobe vs. LeBron or the quest to see which player (Kobe, Shaq, Duncan) can be the first to five championships - the overriding big-picture narrative in this era of basketball revolves around this question: To what heights LeBron James can take his game?

Zach Harper had a good post on Hardwood Paroxysm last week, as he pondered whether, if we can't come to a definitive answer across the board on LeBron vs. Kobe, then can we even say there is a best player?

I was quoted in the piece, and was fairly adamant in my feelings:
    "I think that LeBron is clearly the best player, and frankly, think that those who think Kobe is better are wrong. People always want to focus on W-L at a certain point, and underestimate the quality of teammates. The Lakers have an overwhelming amount of talent surrounding Kobe, the Cavs have a good collection of talent around LeBron. If the Lakers hadn’t acquired Pau, I don’t think that LeBron v Kobe would even be a conversation."
I say all this without the intention of demeaning Kobe Bryant in any way. It's certainly compelling to watch him continue to add to his game, and to see how high he can rise on the list of all-time great players. But he won't ever challenge to be no. 1 on the list; there is no comparison with Jordan.

And that's the thing: LeBron has a chance to challenge for no. 1. Yes, Kobe is a more accomplished player and ranks higher than LeBron for his career as of now. But LeBron has a chance to challenge for best player ever, and Kobe does not.

Matt Moore was much more nuanced and elegant than I in the Hardwood Paroxysm post, with the following quote:
    "It’s LeBron. And I say that not because of Dwyer, Simmons, Ford, Bucher, or anyone else’s opinions, which are all the same, but because it’s a fact. The problem is that it instantly creates a slant on Kobe. But that’s not true. Kobe is as good as I can possibly imagine Kobe Bryant being. And there are literally dozens of things that Kobe does better than LeBron. But you don’t need to be perfect to be the best player, you need to be better than everyone else. And a player that is that size, with that speed, that power, that strength, that range (check out his f***ing three point numbers! For a forward!), with his vision, leadership, game-domination-ability, and playmaking ability, is better than everyone else. He does so much during a game it’s insane. It’s just insane. Kobe can take over. LeBron is constantly doing everything. He’s the best player in the game, and that doesn’t mean I doubt Kobe for a heartbeat. It just means that LeBron’s better right now."
After I watched Kobe score from the low post on Thursday, and then read Matt's comment on Friday, I was reminded of what I think is a key distinction between the two players: Kobe has clearly realized more of his potential than LeBron, and it's not even close. There should be as little debate about this as there should be about whether LeBron is a better player overall.

I'd even argue that Kobe has possibly realized as much of his potential as any of the elite players in history. But LeBron's physical advantages are just too much to overcome, even if his game is not as fully realized.

Something that stands out about LeBron is that it's remarkable he's producing at such historically great levels when it still seems like there are so many ways in which he can improve his game and make it more efficient:

- What if he develops and mixes in a low-post game? His size, strength and quickness should make him impossible to single cover in the blocks, and his passing ability should make him dangerous to double.

- What if the Cavs ever start to run a little? I've said it in this space multiple times before, but LeBron is possibly the most devastating fast-break finisher in the history of the game, yet Cleveland plays at the third-slowest pace in the league, and ranks 18th in fast-break points.

- What if he stops shooting so many threes? Yes, LeBron is at a career-high .360 3PT%, but his 5.0 threes attempted per game (also a career high) still feel like far too many for a player whose advantages lie in size and strength more than shooting ability. It still seems like he should take the lead of Dirk Nowitzki, who reduced the number of threes he attempted down from a career-high of 4.9 per game in 2002-03 down to the 2-3 per game range (which actually feels too low for a guy shoots it as well as Dirk).

- What if the Cavs offensive schemes ever improve? The John Kuester era offered a brief hope for a more fluid Cleveland offense, but the team appears to be in a more stagnant mode once again, which too often ends up with LeBron going one-on-one starting from 25 feet away from the basket.

Specifically, I wonder: What happened to the UCLA sets, which looked so promising to me at the start of last season, but soon disappeared? They allowed LeBron to receive the ball around the elbow/high-post area, a la Nowitzki, where he is just impossible to guard, and also set him up nicely to run screen/roll with Varejao at the foul line, a potentially devastating combo from that spot.

So, that's the thing that's crazy: there's still so much room for improvement. If all the pieces come together, how scarily good can LeBron be?

One last idle thought...
- I noticed on the immediately indispensable site Hoopdata that LeBron's career-high FG% of .510 can partially be explained by a career-best mark of .755 in shots at the rim (he's been in the 71-72% range previously).

Something that caught my eye is that the number LeBron's field goals at the rim which have come off of assists from teammates is *way* up from previous seasons, at 50.9%, when that number's been at 37-38% in previous seasons. Not sure what the Cavs are doing differently to cause that change this year. I wondered if it was fast-break related, but Cleveland's fast-break points per game are up only 1.5 points over last year.

Coincidentally, Cavs: The Blog has an excellent breakdown of which players have assisted LeBron's dunks and layups. Check it out. Mo Williams has been the primary setup man - it'll be interesting to see if LeBron can keep up his career-best efficiency with Mo out.

14 Comments:

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Jesse said...

I agree with a lot of this and I'm a Kobe fan and a Laker honk. Right now Kobe, to me, is the player I'd rather have in an important game in the playoffs. It's not because Kobe's "better", it's because Kobe HAS realized more of his potential and I trust him more to win the game. His stats might not be as good, but I KNOW that he knows how to win. As great as LeBron is, I still think he makes a lot of mistakes in the clutch. Just my take. (By the way, let's throw out Kobe's recent injury plagued play because he's clearly not his usual self right now.)

However, LeBron is such a physical and athletic beast. We've really never seen anything quite like him. You add to that his crazy bball talent and bball IQ and, I agree, he has the CHANCE to be the greatest of all time. A chance, though, and a reality aren't necessarily the same thing.

Wilt is still the most athletically dominating big man the world has ever seen, yet he's not the all time best player. He didn't realize all of his talent. There are a lot of "what ifs" in your column. IF LeBron realizes even half of them, he will be an overwhelming beast. The thing is, we just don't know if he will realize that talent or not. There have been other players with all time talent who never made it (Derrick Coleman comes to mind). I'm not saying Brons like Coleman, I'm just saying that we just don't know.

That actually makes LeBron a more compelling player than Kobe, since he's a story that's still unfolding. It will be interesting to see where he ends up. Will he be the all-time best or will he end up "only" being one of the ten best. Yeah, pretty high ceiling, right?

 
At 11:37 AM, Blogger Izzy said...

I, like Jesse, am a huge Kobe fan and a lifetime Lakers supporter, but I do have to give you all credit for putting out one of the most compelling Lebron vs. Kobe articles I have ever read.

I do think that your arguments show why Lebron WILL become a better player than Kobe, but it seems that your argument that Kobe has realized more potential at this point is an argument as to why Kobe is a better player right now. The fact that Lebron has a chance to be #1 and Kobe does not is not an argument as to why Lebron is better than Kobe. It seems like you are weighing Future value of a player (Lebron) vs present value of a player (Kobe) which is a tough thing to measure.

Nonetheless, tremendous article. I've been a reader for a while, and will continue to be. Keep up the good work.

 
At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron is the best! Kobe is a distant #2 (if he's even #2, I'd rather have Durant, Roy, Dwight, Wade if I were a GM, but mainly just because of age). LeBron does work in the post, from time to time, and when he does, he usually shows his dominance. He passes better in an average game than Kobe passes in his best game. He defends in ways Kobe could only dream of defending. When he wants to will his team to victory, he's impossible to stop. The ONLY thing Kobe has, and has had for a considerable time, is Kobe's willingness to carry his team for 40+ minutes, LeBron is usually content just doing it the final 12 minutes of a game.

 
At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

^Anonymous what the hell are you talking about.

 
At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the way I see it...a lot of the time I hear the Kobe/LeBron argument broken down to "If the game is on the line in the last 5 seconds, you want Kobe over LeBron". However, I always say, "If you play the first 47:55 of the game with LeBron instead of Kobe, you probably won't need to have a heroic buzzer beater to win the game." The last five seconds are just one microcosm of the whole argument. You have to look at the whole game.

 
At 1:51 PM, Blogger Izzy said...

i know the comment section has been sabotaged. i just know it.

 
At 2:01 PM, Blogger Bradley Hartsell said...

If I had to have a game where my one of my players had to go 8 for 27 with 4 assists and 4 turnovers, I'd choose Kobe.

 
At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Jay said...

Everybody says that Kobe "knows how to win", but he bottled it against the Pistons with a stacked team, blew it against the Celtics with an even team, and allowed a (superior) Suns team to come back from 3-1 to knock his squad out, including the infamous game where he decided to sabotage his team during the middle of the playoffs just to prove a point.

Lebron hasn't yet lost in the playoffs where his team should've won (apart from MAYBE against the Magic last year).

Kobe is a great player, but all the talk about his incomparable "will to win" is a bit much for me; especially if being compared with Lebron

 
At 6:20 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

Looked at now, in light of his most recent championship, we all tend to see Kobe in a much better light. But as a previous commenter noted, Kobe has tanked it big time over the years in way I don't think any great player would ever dream of doing.

On the other hand, it was just a few months ago that the buzz was if Kobe won a couple of more championships, he would certainly at least be in the conversation as the greatest player ever. Even Simmons was talking that stuff, which is why I find him entertaining but tend to take him with a large grain of salt at times.

At any rate, how many championships did Michael win after age 33? Hmmm...Kobe is only 31. Lebron clearly has the higher ceiling physically, but the story is still unfolding. Lebron, as to where he might end up, and Kobe, as to what he will do over the next few years with his already realized potential.

Nice article. Keep up the good work.

 
At 12:59 AM, Anonymous Jay said...

Everybody says that Kobe "knows how to win", but he bottled it against the Pistons with a stacked team, blew it against the Celtics with an even team, and allowed a (superior) Suns team to come back from 3-1 to knock his squad out, including the infamous game where he decided to sabotage his team during the middle of the playoffs just to prove a point.

Lebron hasn't yet lost in the playoffs where his team should've won (apart from MAYBE against the Magic last year).

Kobe is a great player, but all the talk about his incomparable "will to win" is a bit much for me; especially if being compared with Lebron

 
At 6:41 AM, Anonymous Stuart said...

What's crazy is LeBron is better not...AND he hasn't reached his potential yet. Kobe is a great player, but LeBron is in a class of his own with his all-round game. On the court and off it LeBron is class of the league.

 
At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Stuart said...

What's crazy is LeBron is better noW...AND he hasn't reached his potential yet. Kobe is a great player, but LeBron is in a class of his own with his all-round game. On the court and off it LeBron is class of the league.


(Meant to say 'now' rather than 'not.')

 
At 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you look at lebron's high school game and his games now, you will find a lot more physicality in his play... that has probably got to do with the fact that the cleveland system emphasizes physical play... he had a different shooting action then... lot more finesse...that said his numbers are staggering for an unrefined game...he needs a little polishing and he can probably be the best player ever...

 
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