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Lakers-Cavaliers: The Numbers Don't Lie, The Writers Do

Ryan McMonagleCorrespondent IApril 19, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 19:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers walks next to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a break from the game at Staples Center on January 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Before I get started, I know what you're thinking: a "Mainstream Sports Media suffers from Big Market Bias" article is about as original a topic for a writer from Cleveland as a "5 Reasons Why LeBron James Will Sign With the New York Knicks in 2010" article is for a writer from New York.

I feel your pain, so I'm not going to bore you with that kind of article.

The fact, is, I don't care about bias one way or the other.  Allegiances inevitably breed bias and that's okay.  

What really concerns me is how supposedly professional sports "journalists" manipulate statistics to pander to specific groups of fans or ignore those statistics altogether in order to write an article that creates controversy.  

One need look no further than the articles comparing the Los Angeles Lakers to the Cleveland Cavaliers to see both those dubious approaches at work. 

Right now, as far as I can tell, all the articles on this topic basically fall into one of two categories: the "Lakers are a better team" articles and the "LeBron James can transcend the fact that the Lakers are a better team" articles.  

The "Lakers are a better team" articles, in their effort to pander to Angelenos, tend to cherry-pick certain statistics and ignore others.

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For instance, they focus on the fact that the Cavaliers went 0-2 against the Lakers head-to-head and went 3-6 against Los Angeles, Boston and Orlando combined.

They claim that the Lakers played in a tougher conference, pointing to the fact that 8-seed in the West is the 48-34 Utah Jazz, whereas the 8-seed in the East is the 39-43 Detroit Pistons.

But do these stats tell the whole story?  The Cavaliers' 0-2 mark against the Lakers seems compelling until you realize that the head-to-head record only really mattered, from a practical standpoint, for the purposes of a potential tie-breaker between the teams.

That mark became statistically moot when the Cavaliers clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs because they had the best record in the NBA.

On top of that, the Cavaliers gave up fewer points per game (91.4 to 99.3), had a better scoring differential (8.9 to 7.7).  

But what about the "Lakers faced tougher competition" argument?  Well, the fact is, they did play in the tougher conference, top-to-bottom: that's true.  But the Cavaliers actually had a better winning percentage against the West (.866) than the Lakers did (.846).

In addition, the Cavaliers went 26-4 against the West whereas the Lakers only went 21-9 versus the East.  I dare you to find an article that mentions that prominently.

As bad as statistical cherry-picking may be, though, I must admit that it's so common that it hardly marks the downfall of sports writing as we know it.  

In reality, the worst journalistic offenders are the writers who make claims that ignore stats altogether.  Articles arguing that the team around Lebron James is inferior to the team around Kobe Bryant do this in spades.  

To begin with, these articles make the general assumption that Kobe is surrounded with other "elite stars" (see Chris Broussard's article on espn.com yesterday) whereas LeBron lacks such support.  

I know that this may be true from the standpoint of name recognition, but do the statistics really support that claim? 

If Andrew Bynum is an elite star for averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds over 50 games, how does one account for Zydrunas Ilgauskas averaging 12.9 points and 7.5 rebonds over 65 games?  Does one point and half of a rebound make the difference between role player and elite star? 

While we're at it, can you really say that Trevor Ariza's 8.9 ppg and 4.2 rpg trumps Anderson Varejao's 8.6 points and 7.2 rebounds? Or that somehow Derek Fisher's 9.9 points and 3 assists makes him more "elite" than Delonte West, who averages roughly slightly more assists (3.5) and more points (11.7)? 

The writers who ignore these stats will counter all of this by pointing out that Pau Gasol is a bigger star and a better second-fiddle to Kobe than than Mo Williams is to LeBron.

Yes, Pau score score 18.9 points and grab 9.6 rebounds, and shoots at a very high percentage (.567) from the field, but Mo averages 17.8 points, 4.1 assists, shoots at a very high percentage (.436) from three-point range and over 90 percent (.912) from the free throw line.

Again, is the difference between a schlub and an elite star two points per game? And does this comparison even work considering that Gasol is a center and Williams is a point guard?

All sum told, here's how the four-players-not-named-Kobe stack up statistically against the four-players-not-named-Lebron.  The Kobe bunch averages 52 points, 24.2 rebounds and 9.9 assists per game. The James gang averages 51 points, 21.3 rebounds and 11.5 assists.  

The rest of these "elite" Lakers average (drumroll please) one more point, three more rebounds and two less assists.  

Actually, the strongest argument to be made that the Lakers have a better supporting cast is the one that you will never see made in these articles: that Lamar Odom is better than anyone the Cavaliers have coming off this bench.  

Now the statistics do seem to bear out this argument, but what sportswriter could bring himself to claim that Lamar Odom is or even could be the difference-maker for any team?

Granted, the next-four off of the Lakers bench scores more than the next-four off of the Cavaliers' bench (28.5 to 24.2), but they rebound less (14.5 to 16.5).  And overall, the Lakers just give up more points per game.

In the end, I think the differences between these teams is simply statistically inconsequential whether one factors in LeBron and Kobe or takes LeBron and Kobe out of the mix.  These are the two best teams in the NBA and the odds-on favorites to meet in the finals.

Just because the differences are inconsequential however, does not absolve sportswriters from examining all of them and giving a full and objective picture of the debate.

If you're a Cavaliers fan, though, you will probably never see such an article.  

Picking favorable statistics in order to satisfy more readers in a large market and ignoring statistics in order to cause controversy among readers in a small market is just good business.  

Stoking the fire of the big-market fan's psychological superiority complex and throwing gasoline on the small-market fan's pathological inferiority complex will gain a writer more readers in both.

So my advice? Stop reading articles comparing the Lakers and the Cavaliers (after you tell all your friends to read this one) and focus on the only statistic that matters no matter what team you root for: 16 wins.

Regardless of points, rebounds, assists, blocks or +/- differentials, that's the only number that is going to win a team an NBA Championship.

And, for both the Cavaliers and the Lakers, it's only 15 more to go.  

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