Wade vs. Kobe: Why Player-Player Breakdowns Are Useless in Judging Teams

Robert FeltonAnalyst IIAugust 4, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers is guarded by Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat at Staples Center on March 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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Steve Nash has only been a Laker a month, yet there have already been countless articles suggesting that he would tip the scales in favor of the Lakers over the reigning champion Miami Heat.

The reason why is due to one of the more pointless methods of determining the quality of a team: the player-by-player breakdown. We've all seen this. Player A is better than Player B; therefore, Player A's team has a tremendous advantage over the team of Player B, and so forth.

Analysts are reasoning that since Steve Nash > Mario Chalmers, Kobe Bryant > Dwyane Wade (although I think that's seriously debatable at this point), Andrew Bynum > Joel Anthony, and Pau Gasol > Chris Bosh (I would argue that one as well), that the Lakers clearly have the edge. 

Despite how unsuccessful it has been in recent years in predicting the victor in a playoff series, (how many people picked the Thunder to win the title because they assumed Oklahoma City would win the point guard, center and bench match ups?) it remains the method of choice in breaking down teams.

Here are four flaws with this way of comparing teams:

1. It places too much emphasis on reputation, which throws off the analysis. Look at the Steve Nash versus Heat point guard Mario Chalmers. Most would consider this a major advantage for the Lakers since Nash is a two-time MVP, a future Hall-of-Famer and knows how to run a team's offense. Meanwhile Chalmers, though he's come through big at times for Miami, is an average point guard with neither the play-making talents nor savvy of the veteran Nash.

So easy win for Nash right? Not so fast. Chalmers is a better defender and if he decides to be aggressive offensively against Nash his quickness could give Nash trouble. Additionally, the age gap between the two players has to be a consideration. Although Nash seems ageless at times, he is 38, so there are just things he won't be able to do anymore against the younger Chalmers. No one is arguing that Nash is not a better player than Chalmers. I'm only saying that simply saying "Nash>Chalmers" misses key nuances that could impact a matchup between the two teams as well.

2. It gives every player equal weight in determining the outcome of a series. Even if you are a Laker fan, you obviously know that Andrew Bynum is not better than LeBron James. But when doing the player-to-player match ups, that's what is assumed since every player has the same weight. If Bynum is better than Joel Anthony and James is better than Metta World Piece, does that mean that both players have equal significance in deciding the series? Of course not.

James will have a larger impact on a series than Bynum. If the Heat win only two of the play-to-player match ups against a team, one would likely come to the conclusion that the opposite team is superior. But if James and Wade are dominant in a series (like they were in the Pacers series last season), it changes the dynamic of the series and tips the scales in their favor despite losing more match ups.

3. It doesn't seriously consider what players do well and how it will impact the match ups. Sometimes what can be effective against a player can create a dynamic in a matchup that can provide an advantage that the simple breakdown will not recognize. Look at the center matchup between Joel Anthony on the Heat and Dwight Howard from Orlando. At first glance, this would appear to be a complete shutout in Howard's favor. Howard is a better player than Anthony in virtually every way.

However, one thing that the analysis ignores is the fact that Anthony defends Howard fairly well. Does he stop him? No. But anyone who has watched their previous match ups will notice how his fronting, denying the post and physical play in the paint has given Howard trouble. This is something that should be at least mentioned in any serious analysis when comparing teams. The player-by-player breakdown is just too simplistic for these added variables.  

4. It completely ignores defensive strategies of both teams. Teams hardly ever play one-on-one defense in the NBA. There are often many lineup changes and matchup switches that teams use over the course of the game for defensive purposes. This is a factor that never comes into play when doing a player-versus-player breakdown. Sure, Derrick Rose (when healthy) is better than Mario Chalmers, but if the Heat put LeBron on Rose, and Chalmers is matched up against Kirk Hinrich, do the Bulls still have the matchup advantage?

People assume that Andrew Bynum is going to "dominate" the Heat because they are assuming the Heat would play Bynum with single converge with Anthony. That's not how Miami's defense works. Their defense is a lot like the defense of the Seattle Supersonics team of 1996. They didn't have a great defensive center either (they started veteran Sam Perkins at center, certainly no match for Hakeem Olajuwon), but their defense against Hakeem Olajuwon was arguably better that that of the New York Knicks (who had Patrick Ewing) and the Orlando Magic (who had Shaquille O'Neal) because the traps of their guards and forwards threw The Dream out of rhythm and he struggled.

Miami will not deal with Bynum with one-on-one coverage any more than the Lakers would put Steve Nash on LeBron in the post. They would use their speed and quickness to trap the post and then recover to the open shooters. This strategy would confuse Dwight Howard or Bynum and limit their impact. This is something that is never really considered in these player-player breakdowns.

As a fun way to debate the merits of a team's starting roster, the player-player breakdown can be a spirited diversion. But as a method to make a case for one team's superiority, it is deeply flawed.