Is Kobe Bryant Still the Best 1-on-1 Player in the NBA?

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates in the second half against the New York Knicks at Staples Center on December 29, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Knicks 99-82. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant has for years been considered the best one-on-one player in the NBA. This is with good reason. He has the deepest bag of offensive tricks and he's one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the history of the game. 

When you put all-world offense together with all-world defense, you get an all-world one-on-one player. It's inevitable, though, that he loses the presumptive title of best one on one player in the world. I'm sure even the most ardent Lakers fans would agree that he will no longer be the greatest at 87 (though they might quibble at 86). 

When does that happen, and has it already happened? 

With the understanding that stats are the bane of some people's existence, they are the most objective way we have of measuring things. Whether they tell us what we want or what we don't want, they really don't care. They just say what happened, nothing more.

Now, I'll grant they don't say why things happen, but they do say what happened. 

It's also true that sometimes it's hard to say who is "better" and arguing who is "better" based on who would win a one-on-one matchup is difficult to say. Who would win between Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard

Their positions and styles are so different that it's almost impossible to say, and it's also irrelevant. What matters is how they play against the players they play against. 

Synergy sports tracks every play of every game of the NBA season. They also track what type of play there is. The closest play (and there is some difference) to one-on-one play is the isolation play.

The other advantage is that it gives us an idea of how players perform against a host of different kinds of players. Bear in mind that while this is a "one-on-one" within the parameters of a "five-on-five" context, it's really the only context that matters. 

In 1972, Bob Lanier beat Jo Jo White in the one-on-one tournament. Jo Jo White made it to the finals. That tells you how much one-on-one has to actually do with the NBA. 

Who would win a one-one-one tournament is both impossible to say and a totally moot point. What is more important is who the best one-on-one players in the context of a game are. 

Theoretically, we can gauge that by taking a player's isolation points per play on offense, and then subtracting what they give up on defense. While that might not be the end all and be all, it's a good starting point. 

Kobe Bryant was one of the best isolation players in the NBA last year, averaging .99 points per play out of isolation. 

LeBron James, the player most frequently argued as being the one who is ready to take over the title, averaged only .92 points per play. 

That gave Kobe an average difference of .07 points per play.

On the other end of the court, Kobe Bryant gives up .76 points per play in isolation compared to .78 for LeBron James. That's a difference of .02, once again in Kobe's favor.

Kobe was .23 points per play better in differential. James was just .14 points per play better. That's a pretty significant difference.

Does that mean he's the best in the world? Well, it means that last year, in isolation, he fared better than LeBron James. 

Derrick Rose scored 1.05 points on offense, and gave up just .64 points per play on defense. That's a dramatic difference of .42 points per play. Chris Paul had the same difference as Bryant. 

While Synergy doesn't have any sortable ranking system, the only two I can find as good or better than Bryant in isolation are Rose and Paul. 

While there are going to be those who cast aspersions on me listing Rose at number one here, I made up neither the stats nor the concept of basic algebra. 

At least in terms of perimeter players, right now Kobe is tied for the second-best one-on-one player, or if you prefer, isolation player, in the world. Someone has taken the title over, just not the player you think it is.