Tag Archives: Larry Bird

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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The anger that I devoted a five-part series to has been subsiding recently.  In fact, it’s almost completely gone.

That’s because a funny thing happened on the way to the King’s Corronation… people finally started to realize that King James didn’t deserve the crown.  And once that happened, I had nothing left to be angry about.

Basketball fans everywhere are talking about LeBron these days.  The conversation is all over the internets and the sports radio airwaves.  I’ve been following it intensely, and, while I generally agree with most of what I’m hearing, I think people are missing the point.  Have no fear, Tweener is here to set the record straight…

First, some context.  When people talk about the best basketball players of all time, there is a ceiling on how high a guy who never led his team to a title can go.  Because of that, no serious basketball fan will rank Barkley, Malone, Stockton, or Ewing among the top-10 ever.  To crack the top 10, or even the top 15, a player needs a ring.

The reason why a player needs a ring to crack the Upper Level is that people – correctly, I believe – recognize that the ability to lead a team to a championship is something that very few players have.  Those who have put that feather in their cap have obtained the most impressive credential for a basketball great to acquire.

The mere notion that a Guy Who Might Be King could run to a team that already had a superstar with that feather in his cap, and somehow validate himself by “winning a championship” on that guy’s team sent me into a tizzy.  To even think that it was possible for a guy to “validate” himself in such a cowardly fashion is to undermine the very essence of basketball greatness.  As I watched the Heat march through the early rounds of the playoffs, and heard multiple people say that LeBron was inching closer to “validating” himself as one of the all-time greats, my head spun.

As I blogged in December of 2009, long before hoopservations.com took over the internet (ahem), one of the reasons why I felt that LeBron was overrated was that Bill Simmons – a widely-respected basketball maven – actually undertook the effort to rank the top players of all time, and put LeBron – who had only played 6 seasons at the time – at #20.  The implication seemed to be that if this amazingly-talented youngster simply kept doing what he was doing, he was well on his way to landing in the top 10, or even top 5, or perhaps even on The Throne.  Why didn’t LeBron have to lead a team to a championship in order to deserve that kind of credit?  I had no idea.

More recently, hearing knowledgeable people talk as if a Heat championship would put LeBron in the Upper Level — without considering the possibility that Wade deserved to be ranked ahead of him — tormented my basketball-loving soul.

Well, that’s water under the bridge now.  Since the last time I wrote, the lights got brighter.  The pressure got more intense.  Dirk stepped up for the Mavs, and has been brilliant.  Wade stepped up for the Heat, and has demonstrated himself to be the team’s leader.  And, most importantly, PEOPLE HAVE TAKEN NOTICE.  The Guy Who Might Be King has games where he just blends into the scenery, and the basketball universe is responding as if the wool has been pulled over its eyes for the past 8 years.

Even Bill Simmons, he of the top-20 ranking for LeBron a few years ago, now acknowledges that the Heat is Wade’s team.  Checka, checka, check out what Simmons is saying now:

If you watched Games 3 and 4 in person, you knew Miami belonged to Dwyane Wade. That was the hardest thing to shake. We made so much fuss about LeBron these past two years and he’s not even the most important dude on his own team.

Amen.  I’m glad you’ve seen the light, Bill.  Wish I could take some credit for showing you what you had been missing, but only 8 people read my blog, so I highly doubt that I had anything to do with it.

Of course, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.  I don’t know what’s gonna happen later.  For all I know, LeBron will put up 35-15-12 over each of the next two games, and the Heat will win the title.  But I know this… In any given came, LeBron might do something that neither Michael nor Magic nor Larry nor Wilt could do.  He’s simply that talented.  It’s also true that, in any given game, LeBron might do something that neither Michael nor Magic nor Larry nor Wilt would do, like disappear completely when his team needs him most.  He’s simply that inconsistent.  When it comes to the ability to rise to the moment when the pressure is highest — sometimes called “killer instinct,” sometimes called “greatness,” and sometimes called “leadership” — LeBron simply can’t compare to the guys in the Upper Level.

As this is probably my last posting of the 2011 season, I’ll close by saying… Go Mavs. Well, sort of.  I don’t really care anymore.  No matter what happens in the rest of the series, I’ll head into the off-season knowing that my sport is going to be ok.  (Unless, of course, LeBron puts up two big games, and people forget how often he needed to be carried by Wade.  If that happens, the rants will re-commence.)

1 Comment:

  • The VIrtuoso

    Great hoopservations! Like you and the rest of the hoopservational universe, my bros and I have been discussing the same stuff recently. I am interested to read your next post, because last night’s final game was really, well, telling. There were sequences when Lebron got the ball WIDE OPEN five times in one possession and still wouldn’t dare to shoot. You mention greatness, leadership, killer instinct–this was more like “I have no confidence at all and, oh, by the way, I had my balls chopped off last night. I think I’ll drain a three with a minute on the clock when the game is already out of reach.”

    Unbelievable playoffs and finals.

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