Tag Archives: Kobe Bryant

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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As noted here, one of the themes to be explored this season is that a dangerous trend is developing in the NBA, where a belief that championships are the only achievements worth celebrating has led us to undervalue competitiveness. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is the prevalence of “tanking,” whereby teams are purposefully not as competitive as they could be in the short term, on the belief that it will maximize their chances of winning a championship in the future.

As a fan of the game, interested in seeing the league – not just my favorite teams – be good, I have a number of issues with this. This line of thinking, which accepts being terrible as an acceptable “means to an end,” takes fan loyalty as a given. To use the Sixers as an example, it assumes that Sixer fans have infinite patience, and are going to remain interested in the team over many years of lousiness. It also assumes that the Sixers have no obligation to the overall product the league is putting out; no obligation to contribute to making the league itself more interesting to the casual fan who isn’t predisposed to watch basketball all the time.

As a fan of the game, I have a gripe with those assumptions. We live in a world where people have multiple options for how they spend their time and money (making it harder for the NBA to attach a casual fan’s attention), where people move between geographic regions regularly (diminishing their connection to the team they grew up rooting for), and where people can access information about all teams almost equally (further diminishing the likelihood that they remain loyal to one team that is terrible for years). The Sixers are assuring that there’s at least one game on the calendar, each night they play, that a casual fan would have no interest in watching. I recognize that the Sixers are pursuing tanking to an extreme degree not matched by other teams. Even other teams that tank, though, are testing the loyalty of their fans and hurting the overall game, while not as dramatically as the Sixers.

In any event, for now, I’ll put aside whether tanking is good for the game, and assume that it’s an acceptable means to an end for a particular team to follow. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. Even assuming that a team’s only obligation is to maximize its chances of winning a championship “soon” – as opposed to, ya know, not being pathetic for multiple years – it’s not a good strategy. Look at the standings from the last 3 years: 2013, 2014, and 2015. The same teams miss the playoffs over and over! The following teams have missed the playoffs each of the last three years: Philly, Detroit, Orlando, Utah, Minnesota, Sacramento, Phoenix. Two others were in the playoffs in 2013, then fell into the lottery and show no signs of getting out; Denver and the Lakers. One of the teams that was able to pull itself out caught lightning in a bottle: Cleveland. Others who have been in the lottery at least once in the last three years hardly lit up the playoffs during the other years: New Orleans, Charlotte, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee.

It’s easy to say that the same teams are in the lottery every year because they don’t know how to draft. But look at who they’ve picked, and it becomes clear that they often aren’t drafting “busts.” DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Andrew Wiggins, Victor Oladipo, and Gordon Hayward were all drafted by one of the teams that’s been in the lottery each of the past three seasons. None of them can be considered a bust. Anthony Davis is certainly no bust, yet he’s now in his fourth season and New Orleans has no playoff series wins to show for it.

There’s more to be explored here, but to wrap this up for now there are a few reasons why the same teams wind up in the lottery over and over:

1. Players who can make a bad team competitive are extremely rare. LeBron joined a terrible Cleveland team and made them instantly competitive. Carmelo joined a terrible Denver team and had them in the playoffs every year he was there. To different degrees, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Steph Curry, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, and Derrick Rose all deserve credit for doing that, but in today’s game that’s about it. Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant joined teams that were going to be good without them, but let’s give them credit for belonging in this class, too. Let’s throw in Durant, Westbrook, Lillard, and Aldridge, even though it’s not clear exactly who deserves credit for the success their teams had. That’s 18 guys. In a 30 team league. Over a looong period of time – Pierce, Kobe, Garnett, and Duncan have each been in the league for about 20 years. Yet people think it’s sensible for a team to make itself purposefully bad in the short term on the expectation that it will make you good in the long term? I don’t get it. Seems to me that, if you’re purposefully bad in the short term, the only guarantee is that you’ll be bad in the short term.

2. When you’re bad, you’re drafting to “hit a home run.” When you’re competitive, on the other hand, you’re drafting for someone to fit into a structure that works. Just about all of the good teams have guys they drafted outside the lottery. Consider Kawhi Leonard on the Spurs and Draymond Green on the Warriors, to illustrate. Those guys are great – in the roles they’re being asked to fill. There’s no evidence, however, that they could make a bad team good. It’s not a knock on them, just an illustration of why it makes more sense to get competitive rather than stock up on ping pong balls in the lottery. Even look at my man Kristaps (what, you don’t think Kristaps is hanging out with losers who sit around blogging while stuffing their face with Doritos?) to illustrate the point; he’s exceeding anyone’s reasonable expectations, and the Knicks are suddenly 8-6, after being atrocious last year. But as good as KP6 has been, he’s only averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds. If he wasn’t on a team with Carmelo putting up 23 and 7, Knick fans would have much less reason to expect some success in the near future.

3. When you’re bad, you’ve eliminated other ways to make yourself good. The best
free agents generally aren’t leaving their team to join a bad team. And superstars hardly ever get traded for draft picks. So, if you’re bad, your only reasonable hope to get better is to do it through the draft. And that rarely works. (See item #1, above.)

Enough outta me for now. All of this will be explored further this season. For the moment, the point is simply this: Forget trying to wind up with the magic ping pong ball. Wanna win? My suggestion is to try winning, for starters.

Thoughts? Hit me up.

4 Comments:

  • Steve Alford's Kid

    Other than the Sixers, who else among the playoff-missers could be characterized fairly as “tanking”? What if some franchises just don’t get it–because of limited resources, bad management, disinterested fan base? With the lottery system revamp, any geek with a calculator should be able to tell management that playing for ping pong balls isn’t a good strategy. So maybe “tanking” is being conflated with “poorly run” or “unlucky” or “indifferent” in this analysis.

  • Tweener

    @ Steve Alford’s Kid, I guess you weren’t listening to sports radio in NY last year, when folks were mad every time the Knicks made a game competitive, because they were in a race for the Knicks to be as bad as possible as quickly as possible.

  • Tweener

    Also, the Lakers have been, to some extent, tanking. I acknowledge that there isn’t always a bright line. But if we define it loosely as “a team not making every effort to be as competitive as it could be now, while stopping short of unreasonably restricting its flexibility in the future,” then the Lakers are there. They essentially pushed Pau Gasol out the door without any veterans who could come close to replacing him, and focused their offseason moves on adding high draft picks who weren’t ready to contribute. Sure, Gasol left as a FA so it’s unclear how responsible the Lakers were for it, but it’s not like the Lakers moved heaven and earth to get him to stay. He was benched for large parts of his final season there. And sure, maybe they simply misjudged Randle and Russell. But, if you’re pushing out productive veterans, and replacing them with 19-year-old rookies, that’s some degree of tanking. For all I know, Randle and Russell might turn out to be great years down the road, but right now the Lakers are terrible and there’s no indication that they’ll be competitive any time soon.

  • Lance

    You’re right – tanking is never the right way to go, however, let’s look at the top 3 teams in the NBA right now. Not sure if they got extremely lucky or their scouting department is just superior to others…

    Spurs – landed Duncan when they didn’t have the best odds in the lottery. Stuck with what everyone thought to be an average coach in Popovich (he was fired previously). I like to think picking Parker and Manu was smart scouting. But Kawhi – the 15th pick! He couldn’t shoot a lick in college and now he’s almost a 50% 3 point shooter. He’s the best defender in the league and probably a 1st team all NBA player. The Spurs (mainly Pop) deserve tons of credit for developing him, but they got a little lucky right? You’re telling me 14 teams looked at Kawhi and said, eh he’s not that good, but the Spurs scouts knew something else? I don’t believe that. Of course Pop gets the most out of nobodies (fat Boris, Patty “lights-out” Mills and BOGAN) and that is HUGE, but the Spurs aren’t the dynasty that we have come to love without a ton of luck.

    GSW – Curry fell to them at 7 in the draft. The Wolves picked 2 POINT GUARDS ahead of him (Kahn). That was ridiculous when it happened and still ridiculous. And no one thought this little Davidson shooter was going to be this good…no one. And Draymond – 2nd rounder who really freaking competed but had weight and height problems. Turns out he’s the absolute perfect fit for this Dubs team. And you’re totally right – no chance does Draymond make a terrible team great, but on this Dubs team, it’s the perfect harmony. Again – lucky?

    Cavs – besides for the obvious luck of Lebron being born in Cleveland and feeling the need to bring a championship to his hometown, they’ve won the lottery how many times? 4 – which has netted them Lebron, Kryie and Love (via Wiggins). (Sidenote, because I know you hate Love, – there’s a lot of talk about what he can’t do, and that’s very valid – below average defender, can’t rim protect, sometimes hangs out on the 3 point line too much, etc. But let’s talk about what he can do – he’s a double double machine, excellent defensive rebounder, excellent passer and elite stretch 4 on offense (which is quite possibly the most important position in today’s NBA). Oh and his basketball IQ is well above average. All this talk about trading Love is nonsense.

    My point is – I don’t know. But I do know that tanking is clearly not the right strategy, but not tanking is also not going to get you there. Maybe my point is – luck plays more of a role than we’d like to think?

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