Kobe Bryant, LeBron James: Would You Prefer a King's Talent or a Mamba's Heart?
Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem defended teammate LeBron James in the aftermath of the Heat's defeat in Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals by declaring that regardless of the outcome, James was still the best player in basketball.
I'm sure after the Heat's 4-2 series loss to the Dallas Mavericks it would be easy to find a few people who would disagree with Haslem's statement, but it would be a little harder to find anyone who would could name two players in the NBA more talented than James.
I have conceded that James is quite likely the most gifted player I have ever laid eyes on, and in truth, he may be the most unique player to ever grace an NBA court.
Sorry, Dirk. I know that as the newly crowned Finals MVP and the greatest seven-foot shooter in the history of the NBA you're probably feeling yourself a little bit right now, but don't get it twisted.
What Dirk did to LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company was pretty impressive, but LeBron has a talent level that could make Dirk's achievement look pretty small by comparison, if he could ever live up to his potential.
James may be the most athletic player to ever dribble a basketball, and he has the ball-handling skills of a point guard and the strength of a power forward.
Defending James is usually a choice of "pick your poison" as his combination of vision in the open court, quickness and agility off the dribble, and his power in the post makes him a nightmare to defend.
In other words, James has the type of game that cannot be emulated because no one has ever seen a player who possesses the same type of natural gifts to match all that basketball skill.
That opinion does hold truth, but is there another player who has ever been as successful borrowing from a player's game as Bryant?
Bryant doesn't have James' natural physical gifts, and even during his most athletic days, he could never match James in that category.
But Bryant does have something that James has yet to show, and everyone reading this article has felt it beat in pressure situations.
How you respond to that distinct thump under your shirt usually defines what type of person you are in your personal and professional life, and in the NBA, it's no different.
If the NBA postseason is an evaluation of overall performance, then James has failed and so has Bryant.
But the only difference is Bryant has found occasions to rise to the challenge, and he has yet to play a single Finals series where his heart has been questioned.
In Bryant's two Finals losses in 2004 and 2008, I found plenty of room for criticism, but James' performance against the Mavericks, particularly in the fourth quarter, left me at a loss for words.
An 18 points per game Finals average against a team who prefers to push the tempo and is not really known for playing great defense?
Those elements would seem to be the perfect setting for a historical performance from James, and it was, but for all the wrong reasons.
James certified his place as one of three two-time NBA MVPs to never win a championship, and he undoubtedly gave the worst Finals performances from a preordained chosen one in NBA history.
This is no knock on James, and I, at least partially, believe in the concept that says a player's postseason performance and his team's success, or lack thereof, has no bearing on that player's skill level.
But it would also be ridiculous to ignore what recent events have shown us.
I will not argue with one person who says that James is more talented, and at this point in their respective careers, a more athletic player than Bryant, but you will still have to convince me that James is better.
Because when it is really all said and done, a truly great player will have to prove it at some point in their career in the postseason.
Bryant's detractors are quick to point out that his first three NBA championships are the direct result of Shaquille O'Neal, and Bryant was only along for the ride.
Well, by Game 2 of this year's NBA Finals, it was clear that Wade was Miami's best player. And for all his tremendous talent, James still failed to prove he understood what postseason play was really all about.
Maybe he should ask Bryant.
Like James, Bryant has had his postseason ups and downs, and so far, he has lost just as many NBA Finals series as James has competed in.
The Lakers' 4-0 loss to the Mavericks will likely go down as one of their worst postseason defeats ever, but Bryant has already shown the ability to rebound from that type of failure and excel.
The comparisons between Bryant and James will likely continue until Bryant decides to hang up his sneakers, and with each minute played, it will become even more clear that James is a far superior talent.
But ask Steve Nash, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley if superior talent really matters.
In the end, the ring is the thing, and no matter how much anyone wants to say otherwise, James' talent is too great to be judged in any other context. And it doesn't help his case that Wade and Bosh are his running mates.
Even if you attribute James' 2007 Finals loss to youth, what do you say about this year?
Even Dallas center Tyson Chandler said it was intimidating to think that Miami had three of the best four players left in the postseason before his Mavericks faced the Heat in the Finals, but he must have been envisioning Haslem's version of James.
Like Haslem says, James may be the most talented player in all of basketball. But when it comes to the NBA Finals, even though both Bryant and James have lost two series, at least you know Bryant was there.
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