Unequivocally and undeniably, LeBron James has become the face of the NBA.
The coinage of his nickname “King James” has led to innumerable gimmicky ESPN commercials and gaudy magazine ads.
His spectacular dunks and raw physicality have made him an immediate fan favorite for the kids, while his ability to fill a stat sheet made him an immediate favorite for commentators and columnists.
He is the sole reason the Cavaliers are in contention for as much as a top-five seeded playoff spot this year, and the only reason the Cavaliers were able to squeak into the Finals in 2007.
Already in his young career he has established himself as a certain Hall of Famer and a human highlight reel. For that matter, he’s established himself as a lot of things, but not as the best player in the league.
Statistically, LeBron is more in the driver’s seat than any player in recent memory. His supporting cast members are decent enough to feign the appearance of an elite NBA squad, but not quite talented enough to demand that the basketball be spread around, and that is exactly why the stat book cannot determine who “the best player in the league” really is.
Truthfully, the already age old question of “who is the better player” between Kobe and LeBron shouldn’t even exist. As talented as LeBron is, there are just too many glaring holes in his game for him to rightfully be considered “the best.”
His free throw shooting ability, or lack thereof, makes him the biggest target to the “Hack-a-Shaq” approach since...well, Shaq. And for all the talk about how “unstoppable” LeBron James is, when teams collapse the lane and make him into a jump shooter, he sputters.
Ask yourself how the Lakers were able to hold him to 23 points in the first of their two meetings this season and later held him to 16 on the road, simultaneously stripping him of his undefeated home record.
Like it or not, there is a formula to stopping LeBron James.
Now, Kobe Bryant isn’t perfect—no player in the history of the game ever has or ever will be. With that said, Kobe has no glaring weaknesses. Play him too tight, he’ll blow past you. Sag off him and he can shoot from almost anywhere on the floor. Foul him and he’ll not only camp out at the line, he’ll roast marshmallows.
Versatility and consistency. These are attributes on which LeBron James would need to make significant improvements in order for him to be rightfully Kobe’s superior.
Sure, LeBron gets a ton more rebounds than Kobe. He doesn’t have a legitimate big man on his team. Ben Wallace has been the closest thing to an inside presence the Cavaliers have had, and he’s a far cry from where he was during his days as a Detroit Piston.
For all those about to scream the name "Zydrunas Ilgauskas" at the top of their lungs, try actually watching Ilgauskas play. He is undoubtedly the softest 7’3” center I’ve ever seen. Think about how many mid-range jumpshots he’ll take during the course of a game, and then think about how often he’ll get knocked and shoved around in games against real centers.
Of course, LeBron has dished out more assists than Kobe—he has nowhere near the number of playmakers on his roster as Kobe does. Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, and Jordan Farmar are all terrific passers. LeBron has…Mo Williams? That’s all.
Though in a way, LeBron’s lack of help is a testament to him as a player. Remove LeBron James from the equation and the Cavaliers would be fortunate to end a season with 40 wins. Remove Kobe Bryant from the Lakers and you’ve still got at least a 50-win team on your hands. The fact that LeBron has managed to take the Cavaliers this far earns him respect in my book.
One edge LeBron will always have over Kobe is that he came into the league at a higher level, and because of that he will likely finish with higher career statistics than Kobe, regardless of what team he may find himself on in the future.
That last bit was an attempt at stretching out an olive branch to all the kiddies and crazed Cavs fans who by now have probably ripped out more than a few handfuls of hair, not that I think they’ll appreciate it.
I’m not naïve; no matter what I say, there’s always going to be that one obnoxious guy who sat through an ESPN broadcast for too long and decided that the stat book was indisputable proof of LeBron’s “superiority” over Kobe.
Stats do have meaning, but they don’t paint the entire picture. For those incapable of truly understanding the game, stats are the only way to sound somewhat knowledgeable over a subject in which they have no knowledge.
Those who really are capable of thought realize the stat book isn’t the athlete’s version of the Bible. I really do pray that I live to the day when people actually analyze stats and not just memorize them.
Regardless of whether people choose to see the light or not, I look for this argument to fade over the next couple of seasons. After all, the rivalry between Kobe and LeBron will become increasingly irrelevant, after it becomes clear that LeBron isn’t coming out of the East anyway.
The Cavaliers really haven’t proven they can beat either the Lakers or the Celtics in a single game this season. (And no, I don’t count the Cavs' win against Boston earlier this season, because it came during the Celtics' god-awful downward spiral in which they were losing to the likes of Golden State and Charlotte.)
Though I don’t expect the Cavaliers to be swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals this year, I think they would be hard-pressed to make their seemingly-inevitable series date with Boston require as much as a Game Six.
The last thing I’ll say about Kobe and LeBron’s rivalry is that it reminds me a lot of Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s. Although at first glance Anakin may have appeared to be the superior of the two, Kenobi’s knowledge was a perfect counter to Anakin’s greater strength.
We all know how that fight ended.
P.S. For all the Star Wars nerds out there trying to counter me—no, LeBron James will probably not evolve into a Darth Vader.