Category Archives: Comparing Players / Teams

Comparing Kobe

Hey! Been a while. Sorry about that, internet. I’m glad to see you held up nicely without me for a few weeks. Now that David Blatt’s firing in Cleveland is generating all types of internet chatter, it looks like you’re going to be just fine even after I abandoned you.

I might have some hoopservations about David Blatt one day, but it looks like just about all the angles are being covered. Today’s hoopservation is about Kobe Bryant, who announced his retirement recently. Since the announcement, I’ve heard lots of folks engaged in hoopservations about his legacy. His career is really a fascinating one, because it provides evidence for a wide range of opinions. Hate Kobe? You’ll be able to point to his lousy record without Phil Jackson, and hanging on for what now looks like about 3 years too long. Love Kobe? You’ll be able to point to the unparalleled (I think, but invite all 8 of you readers to correct me if I’m wrong) career path of winning 3 championships as the second-best-player, then emerging as the best player on 2 other championship teams. At the rate this season is going, the Lakers’ win percentage will fall below .150 somewhat soon, and Kobe’s career shooting percentage will fall below 35% shortly thereafter. Before either of those things happens, I submit a few guidelines for comparing great players:
 
Let’s be realistic about evaluating the teammates of a champion – I laugh when I hear people say “yeah, Kobe won two without Shaq, BUT LOOK WHO HE HAD! He had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.” Pau Gasol’s a nice player, but he hasn’t won anything significant without Kobe. And Andrew Bynum? C’mon. Kobe Bryant’s achievements are diminished because he was carried by Andrew Bynum?

The career arc matters – Kobe came into the league as a sort of phenom, with talent that was recognized as unique. He wasn’t selected at the top of the draft largely because there wasn’t precedent for a guard coming straight from high school and excelling. But, when he did excel, it wasn’t a shock. Thus, it can’t be diminished as the consequence of playing with great teammates, or for great coaches. It’s an important distinction between the great ones like Kobe, and guys who are drafted lower, wind up in a great situation, and excel. To name a few such guys, I’m thinking of Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Nobody compares those guys to Kobe, but the point is more general. Part of the analysis of a player’s career requires us to look at what he was expected to be, and also the situation he stepped into. Before we get carried away saying a second-round pick is better than a consistent All-Star, because the second round pick makes important contributions to a winning team, we should consider the career arc. The guys who we regard as the best in the league should be the ones who made a bad team competitive or a mediocre team great. Making a good team better is a meaningful achievement, but if nothing in the career arc points towards superstardom, we shouldn’t regard those guys as superstars. I think what Kawhi and Draymond are doing this season is remarkable, but before I rank them among guys who have shown the ability to be the best player on an otherwise mediocre team (Carmelo, CP3, Bosh), I need to see them join an otherwise mediocre team and make that team good.

The entire career matters – Kobe is now in his third season of not being an impact-making NBA player. It doesn’t erase his achievements over the rest of his career, but it’s not irrelevant, either. Every season a great player decided to play is part of his legacy. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are boosting their legacies by playing at a high level after so many years, while Kobe is hurting his. Kobe can’t be blamed for his injuries during the past two seasons, but at some point you’re simply playing past the point of being effective. Better to call it a career after 17 years and be judged on those achievements than to stay for 3 more ineffective years. At the same time, a short career is harder to view as a top-10-of-all-time career. Larry Bird, for example, played 13 seasons. Comparing Kobe to Bird, the fact that Kobe was in his 17th season before his production really declined is a feather in his cap. But, this is one of the hardest cross-era comparisons to make because the longevity enjoyed by modern athletes is the result of nutrition, training, and rehabilitation advancements that simply weren’t available previously.

The circumstances matter – All a player can be asked to do is win with the team he started with. If he doesn’t win, there are circumstances that might excuse coming up short. If, say, his teammates are always terrible, there’s room to speculate about what would have been accomplished with better teammates. If he wins, there might be factors that diminish the shine. If, say, he never won with his original team, and then went ring-chasing to a better team, the shine is diminished. Kobe’s career achievements are boosted by the fact that he stayed on one team for 20 years, through some great times, some challenges, and some disappointments. Most will respond “why would he leave? His team was awesome.” That’s valid, to a point. Yeah, he needed Shaq to win his first three titles. Then Shaq left. And Kobe stayed. Over 20 years, he battled whatever adversity was in front of him, with varying degrees of success. When the dust settles, it’ll be clear that he had some lousy years, fell just short a few times, and accumulated 5 rings along the way. Those circumstances matter, the same way it would matter to the legacy of a different all-time great if he – GASP! – quit on his team, signed with a team that already had, say – hypothetically of course, because nobody would ever do such a thing – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and then won two. Wanna be considered among the absolute best of the best? Then go earn it. Kobe certainly tried to.

Where he ranks on the list of all-time greats will be the subjection of conservations – ahem, hoopservations – for many years to come. But why wait? I hope to hear your thoughts in the comments.

2 Comments:

  • HowMyAzzTaste

    I’d like to hoopservate Kobe dying in a fire. All Kobe has ever cared about is Kobe, and trying to make people compare Kobe to MJ. Because that was the measuring stick which he himself defined, and he came up way short, I think we have to conclude that for all its sparkle Kobe’s career was a failure.

  • JGrub

    I think you have to respect what Kobe has done. Never mind his last 3 yrs of injury. Jordan had Pipen, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Lebron with Wade and Bosch, Kobe had Shaq and Gasol. Bynum is a bum and a fat over rated one at that. He was what Eddie Curry was to the Knicks. Lots of potential even some flashes but never consistent. Also some would say Kobe was selfish etc.. but aren’t we judging on his Bball skills and what he had done. If we had to throw in the personal lives and pass judgement then do we bring up Chambelin being a man whore and using women, Jordan’s gambling? I’m not saying I like Kobe but you have to respect what the man has done. Even more impressive is he did this straight out of HS. I have to put him in the conversation of top 15 probably, maybe 10.

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One of the themes that will be explored here this season is that, today, championships have come to be over-rated, and competitiveness has come to be under-rated. To be clear, when I say that championships have come to be over-rated, I’m not saying it as one of the people who think everyone should get participation trophies just for trying. And when I say that competitiveness has come to be under-rated, I’m not saying it as an old crank lamenting that the game is not as competitive as it used to be. Yes, I liked the Knicks’ physical style of play of the ‘90s. (Go New York, Go New York, Go!) But, the truth is that I’ve only fouled someone hard once in my life, and when I did I felt so bad that I thought about sending him a box of chocolates the day after.

When I lament the lack of appreciation for being competitive, I’m talking about something else altogether. I’m saying that because we’ve come to view winning a championship as the only achievement worthy of any celebration, we’ve arrived at a strange place. Teams now “tank” somewhat regularly, on the theory that being extra-bad now will increase their odds of winning a championship later. The Sixers are the most egregious example, because they’ve been at it for a while and haven’t turned a corner yet. But other teams are tiptoeing on the line between rebuilding and tanking, and the game is suffering because of it.

The players themselves are a large part of the problem. LaMarcus Aldridge was on a Portland team that won 50+ games for a few straight years, and then he hit the free agent market this summer. He wound up on the Spurs, reportedly because he wants to win more. Along the same lines, Dirk Nowitzki consistently gives up millions of dollars of potential earnings, because he’d rather have more talent around him than compete on an even playing field with guys at his level who get paid what they’re worth. And I won’t get started on that “star” who used to play in Minnesota. You know, Kevin Love – a/k/a Kevin “Competing Is Not A Thing That I” Love.

The fans deserve plenty of blame, too. Many roast Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, for making what they deserve, while celebrating the likes of Aldridge, Nowitzki, and David West. I’m supposed to be angry at the guys who make what they’re worth, and celebrate the guys who take less so they can win? Why don’t we just give up on the idea of competition altogether, put playoff spots and championship rings up for bidding on eBay, and give them to the players who are willing to pay the most?

In upcoming posts of this thread, I’ll argue not only that tanking teams are hurting the game, but that tanking is ineffective as a long-term strategy. I’ll also argue that fans should adjust the way they analyze and credit players, and that the NBA should make certain changes to its structure to address this problem. For now, if you disagree with any of the above, I hope to hear from you.

4 Comments:

  • Bret

    Tanking worked for the Spurs in ’97. They folded up shop after David Robinson got hurt that year and were rewarded with Tim Duncan. The decision to tank seems to have paid off nicely.

  • Damon Bailey's Ghost

    Tweener (if that’s even your real name): I can’t wait to hear your more fully thought out observations on this notion that the noblest goal of all NBA players is “making what they deserve” and, on the flip side, taking a pay cut to play with better players, winning more games, enjoying your career, and giving yourself a shot at winning a ring that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life are ideals that threaten the very fabric of NBA society. “Know your worth” as an ethos has limited value in most contexts outside of Drake and Beyonce songs, and is especially inapt when you’re trying to dictate how NBA stars “should” act in free agency.

  • Tweener

    @Bret, the Spurs in ’97 had David Robinson, who had won the MVP two seasons before, and had been named one of the 50 greatest players of all time. None of the current tanking teams have anything close. In any event, Robinson sat because he broke his foot. If the organization did anything that constitutes tanking, it involved not rushing back an injured great player, to play in a handful of meaningless games. The Sixers have been tanking for years, and the tanking activities pursued by other teams (or desired by their fan bases) go far beyond sitting a great player for a handful of meaningless games.

    @Damon Bailey’s Ghost, if you’re gonna make music references you expect me to understand, you’re gonna have to stick to Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Sorry.

  • 'House

    The sixers are awful. Can’t even tank correctly and think it’s ok to take flyers on injured big men year over year. NBA does control it by the ridiculous lottery process, which I will never understand. Philly fans should be ashamed. I know DrJ, Iverson and even Aaron Mckie are. ‘Ain’t not father to my style.

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