For the past few seasons, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have been the two biggest names in basketball and thus have been endlessly compared to each other.
The conversation is about to take a new turn as people in the media and fans alike have begun to stir the narrative in a different direction as it pertains to both athletes.
Although there will be times when it happens, the argument of rings (five versus one), MVP trophies (three versus one), Finals MVPs (two versus one) and All-Star game MVPs (four versus two) is now a thing of the past.
Instead, the conversation has slowly shifted to the inability of both players to consistently deliver late in ball games, but with a twist: both are now being compared to each other.
In what has become perhaps the most fascinating and yet somewhat under the radar topic in the NBA, many are clamoring for one superstar to emulate the next one.
Advance analytics has made it as such that many feel as though Kobe Bryant is overrated in crunch time, and thus should take a page from LeBron James’ book and hit the open teammate if the situation calls for it late in a tightly contested ball game. Mind you, those that “simply watch the games” will stand by Bryant and speak of him in reverential tone given the many hearts he has already cut out.
On the other side of the spectrum, the game watchers will tell you that LeBron could learn something from Kobe’s assertiveness down the stretch of games given his penchant for dishing off the ball whenever he senses the extra defender approaching whereas Bryant is more than happy to take the big shot regardless of the amount of defensive attention. However, stat geeks will argue that James’ production in the clutch goes far beyond just the shot, as he defends at a high level, rebounds well and helps his team produce high percentage shots.
In a nutshell, the argument has become as such: Kobe needs to be more like LeBron; but James needs to embrace his inner Black Mamba.
It’s an intriguing conversation considering the many views involved with respect to the Mamba and the King. Seriously, both players faced heavy criticism last season for their shot selection or lack thereof late in ball games and yet the narrative has become that they should both try to follow in each other’s footsteps.
Try to wrap your head around that one.
Obviously, the debate completely ignores how terrific both athletes are in the last five minutes of the game in facets other than scoring.
Kobe may coast during games on defense, but when things get tight late in the fourth quarter, he typically turns on the intensity as well as his level of aggression and bumps, grabs, pulls and gets into the personal space of whichever perimeter player has it going. His brilliant 16-year career has afforded him a level of respect with the officials that most players can only dream of, but the Lakers superstar still understands how to get up into his opponent and force him towards his help defenders all the while avoiding getting exposed off the bounce.
Also, he is a terrific playmaker that understands how to anticipate defensive rotations and either takes advantage of them by creating a shot for himself before the help can get to him, or by feeding a teammate on occasion for an easier shot.
Lo and behold, LeBron James has some of the same qualities in his game.
The newly crowned NBA champion is an excellent on and off the ball defender late in ball games that uses his chiseled frame to keep opponents away from the basket by bodying them up, and much like Bryant, he keeps his hands low into his defensive stance but high enough to contest jumpers without fouling. Watching both players operate on the defensive end late in ball games is a thing of beauty, given that they not only take advantage of angles and the knowledge of where their help is coming from, but they also understand how to defend areas as well as individuals quite physically all the while avoiding the whistle.
Furthermore, some may lament LeBron’s assertiveness in late games, but he actually does a good job of creating shots for both himself and for teammates. Many will point out that he shrinks in the big moment and prefers to defer to either Dwyane Wade or possibly another teammate; and there is some truth to that. There have been occasions in which he has been more than comfortable relinquishing the reins to Wade and camp out on the weak side of the court as his superstar teammate went to work and brought the game home.
Mind you, to think such has been the case for the entirety of his tenure in Miami would be completely erroneous considering the plethora of plays he has made with games hanging in the balance.
Part of the problem for Kobe and LeBron is perception.
During the 2010-11 regular season, LeBron missed a couple of game winning shots in a couple of nationally televised games in a row and the narrative eventually became that he could not seal the deal in crunch time. As it pertains to Bryant, once clutch statistics became available, people started paying more attention to the amount of missed shots in the final minutes of ball games and thus the perception has become that both players need to learn from each other because of perceived failings.
The irony of it all of course is that both players are not only great in clutch situations, but one could make the argument that they are the best perimeter players in the league when the last five minutes of the game rolls around. Have a look at how they stack up against Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade; players that currently carry huge reputations for clutch production; below is a spreadsheet with their clutch figures — clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points — courtesy of NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, projected over 40 minutes (points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, field goal attempts and free throw attempts per game):
Between scoring, setting up teammates, rebounding, defending, making shots and getting to the free throw line, there might not be two players better than James and Bryant in the NBA when the game is up for grabs. Their output during the entire course of the game as well as its final moments is matched by very few; and yet the current debate centers around their inability to come through with the game on the line.
Superstars that can avoid these situations are far more valuable than those that cannot, but should it arise nonetheless, there are very few players in the league that are more trustworthy in the clutch than the pair.
Neither needs to become the other one, instead we should simply embrace how unique both superstars are and how they achieve success in different ways.
A basketball player is far more than his final shot, and yet this seems to be how superstars are measured at the moment. But if we look at the totality of the contests, we’ll notice that there is far more to being great than just making the final shot of the game.
*Statistical support provided by NBA.com.