(First, Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day. It seems to mean a bit more this year.)
Lakers: 31-8 (1st in West), Cleveland (1st in East, by % points over Orlando)
Offensive Rating: Lakers: 110.4 (1st), Cleveland: 110.0 (2nd)
Defensive Rating: Lakers: 102.0 (5th), Cleveland: 96.2 (1st)
Rebound Rate: Lakers: 51.6 (5th), Cleveland: 52.1 (3rd)
Pace: Lakers: 97.5 (4th), Cleveland: 91.8 (25th)
Projected Lineups: Lakers: Fisher, Kobe, Radman, Gasol, Bynum
Cleveland: Williams, Pavlovic, Lebron, Wallace, Varejao
Lakers Coming In:
When the schedule came out over the summer, a few stretches stuck out as extra important – in which the team would be tested and revealed as true title contenders or needing improvement. We are in the midst of one of those stretches right now, and it is not going particularly smoothly. This game finishes off a brutal four game gauntlet: at Houston and San Antonio back to back, followed by Orlando and the Cavs at home. I’m not particularly worried about the consecutive losses. We were missing key players in both, having to play unnatural lineups to compensate for the total lack of guard depth off the bench. The Spurs game was the second night of a back to back on the road against a team that was playing possessed. Despite having all three of their stars bring their “A” game (all had 20+ points), and shooting at a scorching rate (57% from the field and 50% from three), the Spurs needed a lucky last minute shot, foul, and non-foul to beat us by one. Sometimes that just happens. I’m confident that if we played them 10 times they’d only play that well once. The Orlando game also showed us how hard it is to beat a great team firing on all cylinders – Howard went off for 25/20, Nelson had 28/8, and all five starters scored in double figures. They couldn’t miss down the stretch and we couldn’t make. Again, sometimes this happens.
Yet, all of this begs the question: why are teams playing so well against us? There are some recurring red flags. Our last seven opponents all scored over 100 points (even with our increased pace, that’s a bad sign). Houston and SA both shot over 53%, an alarming rate. Houston and Orlando both destroyed us on the boards (Orlando by +14, with 15 offensive rebounds). SA and Orlando both made more than 10 threes at over 42%. Too often, our defense seems to be lost in its rotations – the slightest bit of penetration off a pick and roll or otherwise leads to massive over-help in the lane, with other teammates either not helping the helper, or doing so very slowly. The result is too many open three pointers and poor positioning on the rebounds when shots go up. I don’t think the loss of Farmar, Sasha, or Walton explains any of this. Or a fundamental weakness in our personnel. It’s simply a failure to execute our defensive schemes and play smartly. This must change.
Walton might play tonight, but I wouldn’t expect him to get many minutes with Lebron the opposing small forward. Ditto Radmanovic. When Lebron is at the 3, I suspect we’ll see a lot of Ariza, as Radmanovic and Walton simply have no chance against him (unless Kobe surprises me and guards him heavy minutes, which I don’t think would be good). When Lebron slides down to the 4, then we’ll probably put Odom on him. I look for many of our key players to have fresher legs given the two days off. Fisher has played 36+ minutes in seven straight games; Kobe has been over 40 the last three and over 37 in seven straight. Sasha is back to spell both. This could help as our guards really seemed worn down at the end of the Orlando game (Kobe just ran out of gas and started throwing up impossible threes).
Cleveland Coming In:
The Cavs are also banged up, but you wouldn’t know it from their play. Even though they lost to Chicago on Thursday, they rebounded the next night and throttled New Orleans. Last week, they destroyed Boston. That said, I do not think we will see their best side. First, Ilgauskas and Delonte West are both out, arguably their second and third best players (West is second in +/- and Z third; both figure in Cleveland’s most effective 5 man lineup by point differential). Despite the continued parade of victories in his absence, Z has been missed. He’s always been underrated and is having another solid season: 21st in PER (21.15, ahead of Garnett, Billups, Joe Johnson, David West, Alridge, Carter, Durant, etc.), spreads the floor for Lebron on offense with his perimeter shooting at the center position, and is part of perhaps the best rebounding front line in the league. Despite all the buzz about Mo Williams, West has been the better player, making more threes at a much higher %, playing better defense, and sporting almost double the assist to turnover ratio. Williams arrival has influenced the Cavs rise, but maybe not as much as West’s improvement. With him out, everyone slides up a notch: Pavlovic starts, and Wally and Gibson get more time. All can shoot lights out from distance, as well as Williams, so things are always set up for you to get drilled if you help too much on Lebron. Varejao and Wallace are first rate rebounders and defenders (both on and off the ball), so they will make life difficult for Drew and Pau. Really, the team has no discernable weakness: 2nd in offense, 1st in defense, 3rd in rebounding, guards who shoot lights out from 3, bigs who defend and rebound, and . . . some guy named Lebron.
Lebron vs. Kobe:
Which, brings us to the subplot we care about most (or, better said, The Plot): Kobe vs. Lebron. They are widely recognized as the game’s best two players, they lead perhaps its two best teams, they spearheaded the Redeem Team to gold, they are the league’s preeminent marketing personalities. A favorite nba pastime is to debate this vs. that star’s merits. For the last season or two, that debate has often centered on Lebron and Kobe. A word about that.
First, I’m an unabashed Kobe homer. I have researched and argued the technicalities of certain provisions of the Colorado criminal code. Last week, I was teaching my two year old girl how to write letters for the first time and led with, “think of a word you really like, some person or thing you love and I’ll write that word.” Her immediate reply, unprovoked: “Kobe.” I’ve advocated for him endless times in mvp debates, his place among the greats of all time, his feud with Shaq, etc., etc. Yet, in this current debate, I must give way to clear reason and cry uncle. As a basketball player, Lebron is better. Than Kobe has ever been.
Random Lebron points:
• His PER this season is 32.0. That would be the best mark . . . ever. Jordan’s high was 31.7, Wilt’s 31.8, Magic’s 27.0, Bird’s 26.3, Kareem’s 29.9, Shaq’s 30.6, Duncan’s 27.1, and Kobe’s 28.0 (24.7 this year).
• To put his PER in perspective, Lebron uses 33.16 possessions a game. Those possessions result in 42.5 points. That means that if Lebron used all of his team’s possessions, they would end up with an offensive rating of 128.3 (LA leads the league at 110.4). Kobe uses 31.51 possessions a game and those result in 37.9 points, leading to an all Kobe offensive rating of 120.2. Both are off the charts, but the gap between the offense Lebron and Kobe create is huge.
• Lebron is more efficient in scoring the ball because he shoots a better percentage, which is primarily the result of both getting to the basket more and finishing at a higher rate when there. Lebron shoots 40% of his shots inside at a 74% clip; Kobe shoots 23% inside at 65%. Kobe shoots better on jump shots, but only by 5%.
• Lebron shoots 2.1% higher in true shooting %, assists on 5% more of his possessions, and rebounds at a 3% higher rate. He simply creates much more offense, more efficiently than Kobe, and uses the ball at about the same rate. And, remember, all of this comes in Kobe’s preeminent year in terms of scoring efficiency.
• Whatever the difference is between them on offense, it is bigger on defense. When Lebron is on the court, other teams score 97.9 points per 100 possessions; when he sits they score 105.9. When Kobe is on the court, other teams score 104.9 per 100; when he sits they score 104.2. Lebron makes his team 8.0 points per 100 better on defense; Kobe makes his team 0.7 worse. As a result, Lebron is 4th at individual defensive rating and second in defensive win shares. Lebron is the anchor of the league’s best defense. Kobe is a significant component of a strong, but far worse defense.
To me, these individual stats from Lebron reveal why Cleveland is so dominant as a team. When you first look at the team around Lebron, you see a lot of solid players, but nothing overwhelming. None of his teammates will be all stars this year, even in the weaker East; none will compete for all nba or all defensive honors; the bench is okay, but nothing like LA’s. Is Cleveland’s second best player (probably Ilgauskas) as good as LA or Boston’s fourth? Yet, Cleveland leads the league by a wide margin in both point and efficiency differential. They are having a historic season on both fronts. The reason is Lebron. Whatever you think of PER, he is having one of the single best seasons that any player has ever had – at both ends of the court – and is doing so in a way that directly translates to team dominance. And that’s not a point to glide past. He is putting up all time dominant individual numbers and helping all of his teammates have career years themselves. He is one part Michael and one part Magic. And he’s only 24.
Now, none of that is to discount Kobe. He will go down as one of the ten best players of all time, the second best shooting guard, perhaps the all time scoring leader, and owner of multiple rings. Beyond all of that, Kobe brings something to the table that Lebron does not. Kobe captures our attention and imagination in a way that Lebron has not, and probably could not. Lebron is like Shaq in the sense that his success is almost entirely physical – with Shaq an unparalleled combination of size and power, and Lebron adding speed and skill to the equation. As with Shaq, there has never been someone with Lebron’s physical gifts before, and there may never be again. He simply is bigger, faster, stronger, and jumps higher than everyone else. This is not the case with Kobe. There have been endless players with his physical traits that have not made it, or that have not made it like him. (Put another way: if Lebron had Kobe’s body would he still be a superstar? what if Kobe had Lebron’s body?).
Kobe’s success, much like Jordan’s, comes through mastery of detail, mental dominance, and unbounded intensity, will, and ambition. He is, and always has been, obsessed with the nuances of the game. His entire focus and energy has always been directed at one thing – basketball excellence (whatever you think of how he balances personal and team success). Kobe’s “faults,” his “dark side,” all stem from this mad desire to be the best at the game. This is a two sided coin, with “heads” producing possibly unmatched clutch performance and spurts of brilliance, and “tails” leading to destructive interactions with underperforming teammates or team officials. The result, ironically, is a personality that transcends the game. Kobe, perhaps more than any present athlete, commands interest, passion, love, hate – he forces you to take a side, and to do so zealously. We marvel at Lebron’s almost unfair physical abilities and accomplishments, but he does not move us like Kobe. Everyone is happy when he succeeds; no one cares when he fails. Lebron makes us wonder at his physicality; we marvel at his dunks, his leaping ability, his strength. Kobe draws deeper reactions; we wonder at his mystique, will, and spurts of godliness. We won’t care about Lebron’s day to day life when he retires, like we do with Jordan, and like we will with Kobe. If someone wrote a tell all biography of Lebron’s non-basketball activities, it would be greeted with a shrug and a yawn; such a book about Kobe would be impossible to put down.
In a sense, both players are deep contradictions. Kobe grew up the son of a professional basketball player, living in Italy or affluent suburbs. He didn’t need basketball to make it in life. Yet, we have perhaps never seen an athlete so driven, both mind and body. He has the work ethic of someone who fears life is on the verge of collapsing, but he’s always had everything. He is that strange rich kid with a chip on his shoulder, who goes on to rule the world, but does so coldheartedly. He grew up on the basketball court, with his father’s teams, but has always found being part of a team unnatural. He plays as if the embodiment of the American Dream, but grew up to riches and the finest of Europe. Despite unbounded personal ambition, he hasn’t overly “branded” or “corporate-ized” himself, letting (whether by choice or Colorado) his focus extend first to the game. We are left confused, but always captured. We care not only what Kobe does, but why, and what he thinks, and what he’ll do next.
Lebron is also a mystery. He is the kid from nowhere that speaks of himself in the third person, and has open (and realistic) dreams of being the Global Icon. Despite goals that clearly far transcend on the court success, and that are purely individualistic, he is perhaps the consummate “team” superstar, playing in a way that unites individual and team success, making others better, always preferring the easy pass to one on one play. His is the face of Nike; branding personified. He is openly willing to turn his back on his hometown and the throngs that worship him there for a higher corporate platform; but he plays with uncanny unselfishness. He also confuses us, but our interest only runs basketball deep, despite his broader pursuits. Sometimes his antics get old.
If I had to choose which player to start a team with today, I would pick Lebron. If I had to choose a player’s career to follow, from cradle to grave, it would be Kobe. I have had the good fortune of fulfilling the latter, watching most of his games since he was a rookie, and I doubt any future athlete will so completely be worth my time and emotion. We should be grateful for these days when gods again grace the court.
Keys to the Game:
Back to the game at hand. Both teams need this game. Cleveland needs to continue to prove that they are legitimate cream of the crop contenders. LA needs to prove that the last two games were bumps in the road and not indicative of deeper problems. It appears as if every game will count in the race for home advantage, which is so crucial in the bizarre 2-3-2 finals setup. I think the Lakers win this game by over-neutralizing Lebron. Double and triple teams, traps as soon as he gets the ball, etc. This won’t always work given his ballhandling, speed, and incredible passing ability. But without Z and West, he will more often be surrounded by unskilled bigs clogging the lane and shooters that can’t create offense if chased off their spots. As the numbers above reveal, when Lebron “uses” a possession (by shooting or assisting), Cleveland’s offense is off the charts. Make others beat you, especially as his teammates are banged up and might be less sharp on the road. On offense, run the offense inside-out. Wallace is a great defender, but he gives up significant length to both Pau and Drew. Put those guys on the block and let them shoot over him. Force Cleveland to collapse in and work the ball weakside to open shooters or Kobe for a pick and roll. Don’t, under any circumstances, let Kobe get sucked into a duel, especially if Lebron is guarding him.
This is a game to care about. Put on your Lakers (or Forum Blue and Gold) gear, give the kids cough syrup and send them to bed early, fire up the grill, and enjoy basketball at its best – two elite teams trying to prove themselves, and, above all, a battle of two very different basketball gods.