The debate that is infiltrating barbershops, classrooms, and water coolers all over America is who's better, Kobe or LeBron?
Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like they were poised for greatness behind the spectacular play of their superstar, LeBron James. To the naked eye it seemed as if the Los Angeles Lakers, led by legend Kobe Bryant, were just a bit stronger and just a bit hungrier. The stats, however, were clear. The Cavs were the best team in the league last season, and it wasn't even close.
Stats are the perfect backdrop for this debate because to just about anyone who watches basketball, it is clear that Kobe Bryant is the better player. Kobe has more moves than LeBron. He can counter any defense. He's got the post game. He's got the outside game. He's got the midrange game.
There's literally no situation on the court that you can put him in and be confident that you can stop him. But then at the end of games, the box scores and the advanced statistics say that LeBron is a more productive player.
Doth my eyes deceive me?
Let's just say that the statistically dominant Cleveland Cavaliers got bounced in the Eastern Conference finals last year while the less statistically dominant Lakers went on to win the championship.
Advanced statistics try to over-simplify the game. Their creators have the audacity to think that they can measure greatness in formulas and numbers. The statisticians believe that their approach to the game is more objective—smarter.
Yet, the greatest basketball minds have formed a near consensus that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league right now. Sporting News recently released a poll of the most influential basketball minds who picked Kobe as the best player in the league over LeBron by a wide margin.
It is because they understand that the most important factors in winning and losing cannot be captured in box scores or advanced statistics. Each game is different and in order to understand greatness, you must understand context.
With Michael Jordan being the lone exception, it is generally understood that Kobe Bryant is the greatest clutch player to ever play the game. The statisticians try to suggest that Kobe's not that great in the clutch. His percentage is lower in the last five minutes of games than other stars.
Those stats don't add context. They don't tell you how many times a star abandons responsibility by passing up a shot. They don't tell you how many times a star doesn't get the shot off or how many times there's a turnover instead of a shot.
But those who observe the game—those who watch—they know. They know what the stats don't tell us, Kobe's a killer. Period. Who would you rather have with the ball in their hands down one with three seconds to play? Exactly.
There's two numbers that don't lie. Four and zero. Kobe's got four rings; Lebron has zero. That's an objective statistic. Championships are never lucked into. It takes perfection to win one. The competition is too great—no matter how good your team is—to just luck into one. That's why champions are respected and are given the benefit of the doubt. That's why the game is played.
"Give LeBron Gasol, Odom, and Bynum," they say. "Switch Kobe with LeBron and the Lakers would be unbeatable." On pace for 70 wins this season, the Lakers are already unbeatable, but that is missing the point. Switching LeBron with Kobe would be disastrous for the Lakers precisely because LeBron is so statistically dominant.
If you switched LeBron with Kobe on the Cavs, they'd be alright. Kobe, in '05-'06, led a team with Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Brian Cook starting to the playoffs in the Western Conference and took a great Suns team to seven games. I'm sure you give this better, smarter Kobe the Cavs in the weak East and they'd be just as good as the Cavs are now.
But LeBron won't be averaging seven assists with the Lakers. It is an equal opportunity offense. Everyone is a threat. The Lakers would be much worse if they relied on LeBron setting people up as their offensive scheme. The Lakers have great passers throughout the roster and having one guy control the offense makes it too predictable to work.
LeBron wouldn't average seven rebounds on the Lakers. Gasol is a better player when he boards. Bynum is a better player when he boards. Odom is a better player when he boards. Basketball is about letting each person contribute to their strengths.
Kobe understands that his team is stronger when he doesn't do it all. Players feel a greater sense of ownership in the game when they are contributing and when they feel they can have substantial influence on the outcome of the game.
LeBron wouldn't be No. 1 in player efficiency rating on the Lakers because championship players understand that they must allow others to produce and allow others to make their mark on each game.
And then there's the weaknesses of LeBron as a player. He doesn't have the post game that Kobe has. He doesn't have the ability to set players up in the post that Kobe has. He doesn't have the defensive tenacity or fundamentals that Kobe has.
I compare Kobe to Phil. If you're trying to build a contender, you might pick any number of coaches in the league. If you're trying to get a good team to win a championship, there's only one coach you pick first. Phil Jackson.
If you want to build a contender, pick LeBron. If you are good team that wants to take the next step to champion, you pick Kobe. Kobe's skill set, his professionalism, and his intelligence allows him to influence wins at the highest level. This ability doesn't show up on stat sheets or box scores, but if you watch, it is there.
There's one things that our eyes can add that statistics cannot: context. And that makes all the difference in the world.