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With Magic and Rob Pelinka taking over the front office, fans are understandably excited about where they can take the Lakers over the next few years. One huge component of this future will be whether the Lakers can (finally) lure first rate talent to join the young core, particularly given Magic’s potential gravitas as a recruiter, and Pelinka’s deep connections throughout the league. The news that Paul George is “hell bent” on coming to the Lakers during the 2018 offseason has only fueled this hope.

As a consequence, the Lakers’ immediate and future cap situation under the new CBA becomes critical. If the Lakers are going to sign George or acquire other leading players they will need to have the cap flexibility to make it happen, even in the face of the Mozgov/Deng disastrous deals and the pricey extensions coming to the young core.

Just how much flexibility will Magic and Pelinka have to work with the next few years? Is George a realistic target in 2018? And what can they do to clear out more room? I attempt to work through those questions below, and highlight potential issues and options for building the team under the new CBA. At the outset, I will set out my high level findings, and then work through them in more detail below.

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Where are we? How did we get here? And where are going?

The fundamental questions of theology hang over this Lakers season, particularly as the losses mount. The team is in the midst of perhaps their most interesting rebuild, at least that most of us have experienced. Through a perfect storm of disasters, lottery luck, and drafting prowess, the team has gathered a deep and diverse collection of young players, who we now watch find their way through fascinating and usually frustrating games.

This season feels like the critical moment in the rebuild, when we mostly transition from asset gathering to asset evaluation and development. In other words, we likely either have the primary pieces of the next contending era already in place, or we are halfway (gulp) through a vicious cycle back to the beginning.

This year will tell us much about which direction we are heading, which makes the answers to the posed questions all the more important. Those answers will also, I believe, reveal something about whether the front office is capable of leading the team into the future, which is a question that Jeannie apparently isn’t going to let die.

Let’s start at the beginning.

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We know from everything Luke has said, taught, and done that one of his core coaching philosophies is the need for an unselfish team approach to offense. He speaks more of ball movement than perhaps anything else, and recently emphasized the importance of achieving 300 passes per game as a team. This philosophy is unsurprising given Luke’s style as a player, and given his training under both Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson, who both tried to implement team offensive systems over one on one play. Just today, Luke commented that he learned from Phil that “One bad pass to start a possession can start a chain.”

The Lakers have made substantial strides so far this year on offense, and currently sit 9th in the league in offensive rating at 109.6, which is a stunning increase from where they finished last year (101.6 and 29th). This has made me think about Luke’s offensive philosophy and how his approach compares to some of the great offenses of the past few years.

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Laker fans are understandably anxious to find quick evidence of two things as the season begins:

  • Can Luke transform the way the team plays to create meaningful schematic advantages (like other great coaches), after suffering through two years of Byronball?
  • Are the young players, individually and as a group, making the kinds of developmental strides that are critical to the team turning the ship around?

While the preseason admittedly is an imperfect medium for assessing fundamental questions of this nature—given the sample size and quality of play—I saw glimpses of progress on both fronts that offer real hope. And those observations were supported by a few trends in the team’s preseason statistics, which are highlighted below. As always, I’m sure others saw more interesting things.

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Luke Walton’s hiring rightfully gives Lakers fans hope that the team is trying (at least now) to rebuild in the right ways. The move evidences a humility the team has not seen before — instead of hiring some insider that can restore the team to glory by reinforcing what the Lakers did in the good old days, Luke has been brought here largely to pass on wisdom gained from other spheres in the modern era (during which the Lakers have been a failure).

Yes, Luke has substantial experience within the organization, but that is not the only reason he has the job; he is the coach because of what he learned and experienced in Golden State’s first rate organization. To me, this admission that the Lakers have something to learn from the way others do things is a real turning point in their rebuild, as it suggests a willingness to embrace the revolution. And I do believe that Luke is probably the ideal candidate to bring us into the modern times, even if he (and the team) has much learning yet to do.

And there is a long, long ways to go. Trying to diagnose what went wrong with the Lakers this year is kind of like trying to pinpoint what went wrong when the economy crashed nearly a decade ago – there were too many terrifying problems to find just a single tipping point. The team was a spectacle of dysfunction and incompetence, and following it day in and day out was painful.

This piece will attempt to analyze one aspect of these struggles – the team’s offensive problems. Note the emphasis on team, as I will, largely, not look at the performance issues of individual players, and instead focus on team characteristics. For example, this analysis will look at things like what kinds of shots the team took, rather than Kobe’s TS%. This post will also not look at defense, which deserves a separate analysis, given the team’s last place finish in defensive efficiency.

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Comparing D’Angelo Russell…

Reed —  February 29, 2016

D’Angelo Russell is having an elite rookie point guard season, particularly for a teenager, but it appears to be going largely unnoticed outside of Lakerland.

In many ways, Russell is a victim of the combination of high expectations and the power of first impressions. Lakers’ fans, desperate for a savior—or, at least, a reason to hope—thrust upon him the expectations of the next franchise star. And those are very real expectations for this organization, the franchise of Kobe and Shaq, Magic, the Logo, and so many others. I was admittedly not immune to those hopes, pouring hundreds of hours into pre-draft reading/watching/debating, flying out to Vegas for summer league from across the country, etc. And I was passionately pro-Russell for the pick.

For several reasons—some easily identifiable and some not—Russell had a rough start, failing to burst out of the game like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl Anthony Towns, and has as a result largely been overlooked. Something about Russell’s summer and November just felt off. Maybe it was conditioning, or Byron, or his attitude, or learning the point guard position, or being 19, or Kobe’s insane start, but Russell was clearly out of sorts. He played tentative, with no aggression or confidence, never attacking the basket, and just generally looked lost. There was a lot of fan panic and as the Lakers spiraled, the league’s attention naturally focused on several of the more immediately successful rookies.

But Russell has gradually and unequivocally turned his season around and has put together a sustained stretch of brilliant play for a 19 year old rookie point guard. Statistically, he has gotten better every month. The eye test has shown a truly radical transformation; he’s just a different player now than he was in July or November. Many have written about this recently from different angles, and I’m sure much of what I say will be duplicative.

In an attempt to add some value to the conversation, I have focused this analysis on comparing Russell’s statistics at different points in the season to those of other first year rookie guards over the last decade or so. The table below lists the statistics for 30 such rookie guards. A few preliminary notes, and then my takeaway conclusions will follow:

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It seems that as soon as the championship parade at the Coliseum was finished, Laker fans have been collectively holding their breath in anticipation of an off-season in which two of the team’s most important contributors, and popular players, were free agents. Over the next 45 days Laker fans have been saddened (from losing the Los Angeles born-and-raised 24 year old blossoming small forward Trevor Ariza), maddened (by one David Lee-not the restricted free-agent Power-Forward- but the agent who engineered the Ariza exodus), intrigued (by the idea of Ron Artest and all that his signing means to the Lakers), scared to death (by the idea of Ron Artest and all that his signing means to the Lakers) and, relived (that the LO saga, which was very public and very arduous, ended the way it should have).

During all of this we have glanced around at what other contenders have been doing… “How are the Cavs gonna use Shaq?”-“Does Rasheed have anything left in the tank?”-“Theo Ratliff still plays basketball??”…we have all seen the tracker at the bottom of ESPN and heard the pundits applaud and deride various GM’s. This post seeks to go into the moves that top contenders have made this off-season and see how these moves help them match-up against our beloved Lakers. The way I see it, there are 5 other teams besides the Lakers that legitimately have a shot at winning the title next year: Orlando, Boston, Cleveland, San Antonio and Denver. Because Denver didn’t make any big off-season moves (although I like them getting Lawson and Afflalo for guard depth) I will be looking at the first four teams mentioned above.


Last Season’s Record: 59-23
Playoff Outcome: Reached NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers 4-1.

Players Added/Retained: Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, Marcin Gortat, Matt Barnes, Ryan Anderson
Players Lost: Hedo Turkoglu Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, Tony Battie

Big Risk, Big Reward Move: Acquiring Vince Carter. In deciding to let Hedo walk and pulling the trigger on the Vince Carter move, Magic GM Otis Smith has made the decision to go all-in with this team for the next couple of years. Along with Vince, the team added big-time payroll in the form of solid PF Brandon Bass and highly sought-after backup C Marcin Gortat. These moves have put the Magic in heavy tax territory. Vince only missed 2 games last season, and he is still capable of tossing up 22-24 pts a game. The guy can create off the dribble, pass better than most give him credit for and hit a high percentage from behind the arc (38%+). However, the big risk involved in this move is how he will affect the team chemistry, most notably the team defense of a team that went to the finals last year. Courtney Lee, even though a rookie last season, showed the ability to guard Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant and anyone else he was asked to cover. This is Carter’s chance to show he can be part of a winning team. Considering his sulky past behavior and almost open admission that he quit on the Raptors, Carter will have to show he can play winning ball. To do this he will have to buy in on defense

Low Risk, Big Reward Move: Signing Matt Barnes. Barnes will be able to provide 3pt shooting and toughness on defense. Any playoff team could use these things, but Barnes may fit particularly well on the Magic. Most likely having to match-up with the Cavs and/or the Celtics in the playoffs, Barnes provides a player (along with Pietrus) that can, in theory, guard Paul Pierce and Lebron James for long stretches.

Stan Van Gundy’s Rest of Summer Wish List: Dwight Howard working on his back-to-the-basket game, Jameer Nelson getting healthy for the beginning of camp and Pietrus and Gortat staying injury free at the Euro Championships.

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: Even though the Lakers won 4-1, I don’t need to remind folks how close 3 of the games were, and how great of a season the Magic had. However, much like the Lakers, next year’s Magic will be different. They have added length in Bass and Anderson and have kept Gortat. This will help them against the Lakers main strength outside of Kobe-the frontcourt trio of Gasol, Bynum and Odom. The Magic have also added a player to guard Kobe, Matt Barnes and a player who can score with Kobe, Carter. This is all to supplement their core of Howard, Lewis and Nelson. The Magic should be strong contenders next season, but the toughest job may fall on SVG and it will be interesting to see how he tinkers with the lineup. The main strength the Magic had was the two-SF frontcourt with Hedo and Rashard. Now SVG can go to a bigger lineup with Bass or Gortat teaming with Howard in the front-court. This may be the move that allows them to be a better team.


Last Season’s Record
: 62-20
Playoff Outcome: Knocked out in 2nd Round by the Magic 4-3

Players Added/Retained: Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels
Players Lost: Stephon Marbury, Miki Moore, potentially Glen Davis

Big Risk, Big Reward Move
: Signing Rasheed Wallace. This move wasn’t financially risky, as Wallace received the MLE over 3 years, but the move is risky in a basketball sense. Rasheed’s FG% has slowly been decreasing over the last few years and his interest level seems to have taken a corresponding dip. Maybe it was the rut the entire Pistons organization was in (unable to get past being a good team), but Rasheed doesn’t seem like the guy to lead the Celtics back to the top. This move suggests that Celtics GM Danny Ainge feels the team can once again count on KG to be the player he was in 2008 and Wallace can essentially be a combination of Leon Powe and PJ Brown. If Ainge is wrong on KG then the Celtics will again be undersized and undermanned. If Ainge is correct and Wallace is hitting from beyond the arc and giving Howard fits on defense, then the Celtics will again be the class of the East.

Low Risk, Big Reward Move: Signing Marquis Daniels. The Celtics have basically gone through two seasons in which Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have not had a suitable backup. Now they have one for each and it comes at the price of one player. Daniels can handle the ball and create for others off the dribble. If he can adapt to their defensive philosophy, he will be a great piece because Paul Pierce looked dead tired towards the end of that Magic series, and Daniels will allow him and Allen to get much more rest during the regular season.

Doc Rivers’ Rest of Summer Wish List: KG is getting healthy, Ray and Pierce are getting rest and Rajon Rondo is shooting 1,000 18 foot jumpers a day.

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: A front-court of KG, Perkins and Rasheed, coupled with the ability to throw Allen and Pierce out against Kobe suggest the Celtics match-up quite well with LA. In the Finals the Celtics lack of depth would not be so glaring as rotations shorten up, so not having a quality back-up PG isn’t too much of a concern should the Celts meet the Lakers in the finals. However, any injuries to their front-court would severely hurt the Celts chances and should make re-signing the still in-limbo free agent Glen Davis a priority.


Last Season’s Record
: 66-16
Playoff Outcome: Knocked out in the ECF by the Magic (4-2)

Players Added/Retained: Shaq, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker
Players Lost: Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith

Big Risk, Big Reward Move: Acquiring Shaq. Although the price was not too high, the implications of acquiring Shaq are huge. Shaq had a strong year last year, but his team didn’t make the playoffs and his defense, especially on the pick-and-roll was even worse (if that is possible). Furthermore, everyone knows how he feels about his post touches, so how will his presence in the paint affect LBJ’s ability to drive the lane, and how will his lack of mobility hurt the Cavs defense. These issues and the risks associated with them are exacerbated by the fact that LBJ will be constantly questioned about his free agent status and the team will carry a higher profile with Shaq on board. Yea, this is the type of move that either works out really well, or really bad.

Low Risk, Big Reward Move
: Signing Anthony Parker. Parker is a legitimate 6’6 swingman, something the Cavs sorely needed. He is a low-maintenance guy in the sense that he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He will play well off LBJ because of his spot up shooting ability and he will be even more important on the other end of the court because he will now allow Mike Brown to have a lineup devoid of 2 midget guards.

Mike Brown’s Rest of Summer Wish List: Shaq doesn’t get hurt on his reality show, LBJ keeps working on his ever-improving jumper,

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: Adding Shaq to an already tall and long frontcourt helps the Cavs match-up size wise with the Lakers. They have multiple defenders to throw at Gasol and Bynum. In addition, signing Moon and Parker now gives the Cavs two more guys to guard Kobe than they had last season (when they had a total of 0 guys to guard Kobe). The length the Cavs have added on the wings may prove to be more significant than trading for Shaq, however, the Cavs still lack a versatile 4 man and in a series against the Lakers that means they have nobody to cover LO. Adding a 4 man that can defend the perimeter and hit the 3 may be the difference between a title and losing LBJ…get on the phone Danny!


Last Season’s Record: 54-28
Playoff Outcome: Knocked out of 1st Round by Dallas 4-1

Players Added/Retained: Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Dajuan Blair, Theo Ratliff
Players Lost: Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto

Big Risk, Big Reward Move: Acquiring Richard Jefferson. This was an aggressive move by Spurs Owner Peter Holt, who usually doesn’t foray into tax-territory. By making this move the Spurs are signaling that they want to compete as much as possible while Duncan is still an elite player. However, adding payroll doesn’t guarantee success. Getting Jefferson means the Spurs are committed to playing Duncan as its Center with Ginobli, Parker and Jefferson on the perimeter and McDyess presumably as the other big. Jefferson will have to show that he can fit with the Spurs system

Low Risk, Big Reward Move: Drafting Blair. I was hoping the Lakers drafted Blair when he was available, and I am sure the Spurs are were ecstatic. Blair is a natural for the Spurs, he is a rugged defender and a rebound specialist. His size may not meet the measurables NBA scouts drool over, but if he is able to stay healthy, he will be the Spurs 1st contributing big off the bench.

Pop’s Rest of Summer Wish List: Tony Parker gets healthy, Manu Ginobli stays healthy and Tim Duncan gets plenty of rest

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: As I mentioned above, the Spurs are going to be playing with Duncan as their tallest player. The Spurs had their best success with Duncan as PF and a legitimate Center covering him defensively and hitting the mid-range jumper. McDyess is no slouch on defense and can definitely hit the mid-range jumper, but at 6’9, he will have problems trying to guard either 7’1 Gasol or 7’0 Bynum. The Spurs have closed the talent gap between the two teams, but in spite of adding Ratliff, Blair and McDyess, the Lakers should still enjoy a size advantage against the Spurs. Also, the Lakers have the wonderful luxury of having Odom as an X-factor against Spurs, who don’t have a versatile 4 man to guard LO.

–Kwame A.

Deconstructing Kobe

Reed —  June 16, 2009

There is no doubt that this title meant as much to Kobe, and to the public’s perception of his legacy, than perhaps any title has meant to any player in recent memory. In that spirit, we have been showered with stories praising Kobe, dissecting his relief, evaluating his transformation, figuring his place in history, analyzing his relationship with Phil and his teammates, etc., etc., ad nauseam. This has been fun, even if much of it is puffy, revisionist, or based on somewhat distorted generalizations about the facts (both statistical and otherwise).

But we’ve also seen something of a Kobe backlash. This must be the case with Kobe, who polarizes and divides the sports world in strange ways usually associated only with religious/political figures. When you watch Kobe, you care. You don’t lukewarmly clap as you do with Lebron, Wade, Paul, Duncan, or even Jordan. You follow with whole-souled loyalty and love or unbreakable hatred and opposition. No matter where you stand, you care about Kobe; you are interested in him; and you watch him with real emotional investment. Accordingly, having Kobe push through the finals every year is a boon for the league. No one stands at the water cooler debating Spurs-Pistons, or even something seemingly epic like Celtics-Cavs.

The sports world might be more obsessed with Kobe’s legacy than perhaps any player in league (or sports) history. Jordan dispassionately ascended to the pinnacle; Duncan and Shaq are casually placed somewhere in the top 5-10 range; we didn’t argue about Magic and Bird’s place, they just kind of arrived near the top. But we argue and wrangle and declare Kobe’s place in the hierarchy of gods with a different spirit – one attended by stretched stats and forced comparisons. By the time his work is finished he’ll have put together a stunning body of work. If he plays another 5-6 years and LA makes several more deep playoff runs, we could be looking at something in the realm of 5-6 titles, 8-9 finals appearances, multiple finals mvp awards, 15-16 all nba first teams, 12 all nba defense teams, 3-4 all star mvp awards, 3rd all time scorer, all time playoff scorer, two time olympic gold medalist, not to mention the unparalleled highlights. He’ll have won the title with two wholly different teams, both opposed by (potentially) all time top 5 greats in their prime (Duncan and Lebron). This may be optimistic, but it’s more possible than you think.

The Kobe haters sense this and know that this title acts as a swift and final counter to their long paraded criticisms. They see that Kobe is on his way to achieving something un-rebuttable (if that is a word) and that drives them mad. And so, we hear old and new criticisms whispered (or trumpeted in Simmons case) against Kobe:

This Laker team was just the least flawed among a flawed group of contenders.

Kobe still has not learned to trust his teammates and make them better.

His relationship with Phil and his teammates is staged; they can’t stand him at heart.

His numbers look sparkling but he was inefficient and selfish; the real credit belongs with Ariza, Gasol, and others.

Even with this title, Kobe is not Jordan and is now worse than Lebron.

The goal of the Kobe hater is clear: undermine, undermine, undermine. Now, as a Laker blog we are duty bound to defend our shining knight. More significantly, we are a blog devoted to reason, evidence, and substantive discussion. We despise fluff and all of its corollaries. As this recent wave of Kobe attacks are based on shallow and/or false interpretations of the factual record (or no facts at all), they will be addressed in turn. Above all of that, I’m bored and enjoy arguing, so I will take on take on some of these Kobe criticisms.

Now, in full disclosure, I am an unabashed Kobe homer. But I am reasonable and mostly capable of objectivity. Above all, I support my conclusions with facts. I don’t interpret facial expressions, read minds, reconstruct conversations, or analyze hugs and handshakes. Such is irresponsible journalism, and, even though I am not a journalist, I find it somewhere between silly and offensive.

1. Kobe is Not Jordan

This is often used in support of the go to anti-Kobe argument: that he is not Jordan. How many times have we all heard this? “Yeah, well, he may have X, but Kobe’s still not Jordan no matter what he does.” The most relevant and simple response is, of course, who cares. We have nothing riding on Kobe being Jordan. We care about titles and glory for LA and we receive an abundant portion of both. Furthermore, as Dex noted so eloquently, why this fascination with ranking athletes? Given the wildly different context in which every superstar plays, we are fundamentally incapable of objectively comparing them. Wilt vs. Shaq? Stockton vs. Cousy? Bird v. Lebron? There’s no way to accurately make these comparisons. But even if we could, why do we need to? More Dex: we don’t sit around and rank Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Joyce. They are all transcendent geniuses and we simply appreciate that they mastered their craft and brighten our world in different, though always brilliant ways.

Nevertheless, as Kobe comparisons with Jordan will never go away, let’s ensure that they proceed on the facts, not some revisionist and agenda-driven notion of them.

This chart represents four sets of finals statistics from MJ and Kobe. Which set is the most impressive? It has to be Player D, right? Although he shot a somewhat lower percentage from the field than Player B, this is more than overcome by the higher free throw and 3 point %’s, along with significantly higher rebound and assist totals. Players A-C is Jordan during his last three finals runs (98, 97, and 96); Player D is Kobe in 2009.

Beyond showing that Kobe is indeed firmly in Jordan’s ballpark (at least “Phase II Jordan”), these statistics rebut a few attacks levied against Kobe recently. First, they show that Kobe is as willing of a passer, if not more so, than Jordan – and this is at the end of Jordan’s career, when he was supposedly the most team-oriented. Kobe has been accused of recklessly jacking up shots on a solo mission, with Jordan held up as the prototype. But Jordan shot as frequently as Kobe, even though his shooting percentage in two of the three finals is lower than Kobe’s. Jordan didn’t just pass to Paxson one day and ride off to a pass-happy, gunner-controlled sunset.

Did Kobe take some ill advised shots? Undoubtedly. But what does that prove? What superstar wing doesn’t? Besides Jordan, only two other players in nba history have averaged 30 points and 7 assists in the finals – Kobe and Jerry West. Kobe’s unselfish playmaking in the finals is nearly unparalleled. By way of comparison, Wade, who gets so much credit for his 2006 finals run, averaged 3.8 assists per game – half of Kobe’s total.

Second, Kobe was as efficient as Jordan during his last three title runs. Jordan’s free throw and 3 point percentages were lower every year. Much is made of Kobe’s struggles in games 3 and 4 of the finals, but Jordan was equally capable of having an off night. In the 98 finals Jordan shot over 50% once and put up shooting nights of 9-26, 14-33, 15-35, and 13-29. In the 97 finals, Chicago lost games 3 and 4 as Jordan shot 9-22 and 11-27. In 96 against Seattle, two of the final three games witnessed 6-19 and 5-19 performances. My point is that it is disingenuous to knock Kobe for having an off game now and then. Yes Kobe sometimes forces things when he doesn’t have it, but it is revisionist history to say that Jordan didn’t sometimes do the same. Much like Kobe’s Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls were complete teams that were fully capable of winning when he showed his mortal side. And, like Kobe, Jordan was capable of controlling a game even with a struggling jumper.

When evaluating and comparing efficiency, we also need to place these performances in their proper context. Kobe’s last two finals runs have been against the teams that finished first in defensive efficiency (Boston and Orlando). Is it fair to hold it against him that he shot a few percentage points lower than usual? Continuing the above comparison, Jordan’s 98 finals were against the league’s 16th ranked defense (Utah), and the 97 finals against the 9th ranked defense (Utah). If Kobe played against Milwaukee or Dallas in the finals (two middle of the road defensive teams), what would his numbers have looked like?

Now, my point is not that Kobe is as good as or better than Jordan. He has obviously not put together an equivalent body of work. And, it is fair to point out that Jordan was 32-34 during the three finals runs listed above (although with much less mileage than Kobe will have at a similar stage due to college and baseball). More importantly, Kobe has not approximated Jordan’s first three finals runs, which are simply off the charts. For example, 1993 against Phoenix: 41 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists on 50.7% shooting. Although even these great early finals runs for Jordan need to be read in context. With respect to the Phoenix series, note that (1) Phoenix had the 9th ranked defense, and (2) the league shot almost 2% points higher in the early 90s compared with recent seasons. I keep harping on the former point because it is salient — in any year it is difficult to maintain peak efficiency against the very elite defenses. Consider that in those same 1993 playoffs Jordan faced the league’s #1 defense in the conference finals (New York) and had a nightmare series, averaging only 10 makes on 26 attempts, good for 40% shooting. In the first three games of this series, he shot 10-28, 12-32, and 3-18. In the final game he went 8-24. That represents 4 of the 6 games (although he did have a huge 54 point explosion in game 4, when the Bulls were down 2-1 and needed a win).

Still, Kobe’s not Jordan. His career resume and best playoff performances still fall short. We don’t ultimately care, but many of the arguments that attempt to discredit Kobe by pointing to Jordan simply get the facts wrong. I don’t want to hear that Kobe’s on a stubborn solo mission, won’t pass, and has too many mortal games — and have Jordan thrown in my face. Kobe just put up a finals that was on par with and probably eclipsed Jordan’s last three finals, and he did so against the league’s best defensive team.

And, in some respects, I’m glad Kobe’s not Jordan. I’m glad he doesn’t “command” a room the same way. Kobe’s devotion is basketball and basketball alone. (Can you imagine if Simmons told Bird he wasn’t as good as Magic because he couldn’t “command a room”? He’d be appropriately slapped in the mouth). Maybe Kobe will also avoid some of Jordan’s pitfalls along the way — diminishing comebacks, failed front office ventures (the irony is that Kobe got more out of Kwame than Jordan ever did). But that’s all besides the present point. By any measure Kobe just put up a grade A finals for the ages — even if it’s compared to the Basketball Prototype.

2. Kobe is Not Lebron

Now, this is also true: Kobe is not Lebron. But now I’m speaking metaphysically as opposed to comparatively. The common argument goes something like this. Lebron is better than Kobe because his stats are far superior; the only reason Lebron didn’t beat Orlando and Kobe did is because Lebron’s teammates forsook him.

The truth is that Lebron’s stats against Orlando (and during the regular season) are far superior to Kobe’s, but they don’t tell the whole story. Lebron and Kobe’s stats vs. Orlando:

What do we make of these numbers? Well, in terms of pure volume Lebron wins out. He also shot a significantly higher percentage from the field. But I want to extrapolate from the team offensive efficiency and three point shooting numbers. Both LA and Cleveland demolished Orlando’s league leading defense with 110 ratings, but LA did it as a team and Lebron did it alone. One way of viewing this is to praise Lebron over Kobe; the other is to recognize that Lebron was less capable of opening up the game for his teammates. I posit that Kobe’s refined offensive game actually is much more conducive to creating and enhancing teammate opportunities, even if Lebron is usually praised as the more willing passer.

Ric Bucher actually got me thinking about this in a Simmons podcast. He said that while Lebron put up sparkling numbers, he did so very inefficiently – but not in the sense that he shot a low %. Instead, Lebron’s lack of post game and three point shooting force him to dribble endlessly while searching for an opening to penetrate, eating away at the shot clock and leaving teammates standing stagnant. The result was often a powerful Lebron drive or free throws, but it came at a heavy cost for team play – the defense can largely play him one on one, play off him a few feet, and stay at home on his teammates. Orlando did this beautifully and Lebron fell for the trap, leading to his teammates really struggling to get easy opportunities from the field. It was Lebron or nothing every possession.

Compare this with Kobe’s game against Orlando. Kobe is the single best post up guard in the league – his strength, footwork, and moves render him deadly on the block. As a consequence, Orlando had to double team Kobe every time he got the ball down low. Furthermore, Kobe’s unlimited range force his man to stick with him out past the three point line, even on the weak side. Kobe can score from anywhere with very little effort, whether it’s in the post, outside the three point line, on a pick and roll, in the midrange, etc. He’s also a deadly free throw shooter so the defense has to play him honest. The result? Kobe is much more capable of efficiently breaking down a defense than Lebron. Why was Fisher wide open for the game-winning three in overtime of game 4? Because Orlando had to double Kobe in the post. Why did Trevor Ariza shoot dozens and dozens of threes with no one within 10 feet of him? Ditto. Why do Pau and Odom work such an effective high-low game after Kobe initiates the pick and roll? Because the defense knows Kobe can pull up quickly from anywhere. Why did Gasol see so much single coverage? On and on we could go.

This is how a team starting Smush Parker, Brian Cook, and Kwame Brown finished 8th in offensive efficiency in 2006. Think about that. So, while Kobe may not shoot the same percentage from the field as Lebron, his diverse, quick-hitting, polished offensive game makes him much more capable of breaking down the heart of a defense and opening up opportunities for others. All of those easy shots were there for Fisher, Ariza, Gasol, and Odom because of Kobe. And credit to them for rising up and making them.

I recognize that Lebron may have had a superior regular season than Kobe, but remember that one of them consistently cracked the elite teams and the other did not. In terms of driving a team to success, Kobe is still miles ahead of Lebron.

3. Kobe Remains a Poor Leader; He Does Not Make His Teammates Better and They Dislike Him

This is the final criticism I’ll address, and by far the most infuriating. There are variations on this theme, but the attacks usually boil down to Kobe being simply unlikable and/or selfish.

First, Kobe as likable. Really analyzing this requires the kind of facial expression and lip reading mastery that I don’t yet have a degree in (Simmons rejected my application). And, while I do believe that Kobe’s teammates like him, at least much more than they ever have before, that is ultimately besides the point to me.

Kobe is the leader of that team; the general. I honestly don’t care whether he has bubble baths with the guys after hours or not. I don’t care whether he makes them laugh or plays cards with them. I’m guessing that Lebron, and most nba alpha dogs, are much better at these things than Kobe. The question is whether the leader commands his teammates respect and brings out the best in them on the court. And it is simply dishonest to say that any other superstar in the league gets more out of his teammates than Kobe.

First, it is acknowledged by all, friend and foe, that Kobe had a transformative effect on the other Redeem Team members. He is unmatched as a worker, professional, and student of his craft, and this quickly rubbed off on Lebron, Wade, Howard, Melo, etc. They were all quick this year to point this fact out and credit Kobe for their career years. Everyone, even Simmons, recognizes this (although he did find some way to pervert Kobe’s Olympic experience into a “mistaken” and “foolish” sharing of trade secrets… blah blah barf. Simmons, here’s a column suggestion, how about comparing Paul Pierce’s splendid USA basketball experience in 2002 with Kobe’s?). The maturation of Lebron, Wade, Melo, Howard, Paul, Deron and co. seems to be initiating another golden era for the league (leaving behind the carter-iverson, spurs-pistons and other ice-age-ish periods). Shouldn’t Kobe get some credit for this?

If Kobe proved so powerful in transforming superstars on the Olympic Team, then why don’t we believe he has had a similar impact on his Laker teammates over time? If you look back at recent Laker teams and players, you’ll see that this has to be the case. The last few Laker teams are absolutely littered with mediocre players that achieved some measure of never to be reproduced success next to Kobe.

Kwame Brown. Smush Parker. Chucky Atkins. Brian Cook. Chris Mihm. Kareem Rush. Jumaine Jones.

Where are they now? Will we ever hear from them again? Do you realize that the 2006 Laker team won 45 games in the West with Smush Parker starting 82 games (3rd leading scorer), Kwame Brown 49, Brian Cook 46, Chris Mihm 56, and Devean George as the 6th man? Really ponder that. Will Smush Parker ever play again in the nba? Will Brian Cook ever play in the rotation again for a playoff team, much less start? Consider that Smush Parker has a 12.5 PER playing on the Lakers and a career 6.9 PER otherwise; for Brian Cook it is 14.6 with Kobe and 8.5 without. Doing this kind of PER comparison could be its own post.

Now think about Kobe’s teammates on these finals teams. Will Radmanovic ever start again for a finals team? Will we ever hear from Sasha or Walton again if they leave Kobe’s side – and both have been critical performers on finals teams? How many career three pointers did Trevor Ariza make before Kobe gave him his shooting program last summer? (Nine). Would Gasol ever have made an all nba team or been considered a top 10 overall player on Memphis? How much money has playing with Kobe earned Ariza, Sasha, Walton, Smush, Cook, Kwame, Turiaf, Fisher, etc., etc.

Some people in life are simply uncomfortable with mediocrity. They do not stand for it. Kobe is that teacher we all had in high school that was all business, made you do four hours of homework every night, show up every day, and pour everything you had into each assignment, paper, or test. You hated that teacher. You may have often complied out of fear, but by the end you learned a hell of a lot more than you ever had before and appreciated it. That’s Kobe Bryant. He may not be Mr. Kicks and Giggles, but you will absolutely work your tail off and play better than you ever have before under him. As Jerry West said recently, “Kobe approaches the game the right way. Not smiling around and glad-handing guys on the other team. I watch some of these guys laughing and joking before the game or on the bench. If it’s that damn funny … maybe that’s a sign of weakness.” And all of this is on top of how easy he makes the game for others on the court, which we’ve addressed.

Bill Simmons just wrote an article that alleged Kobe has not changed from last year. He even pointed to fancy numbers showing that Kobe’s playoff performance this year was similar to last year. He doesn’t realize that he’s proven my point. No, Kobe has not changed from last year. He’s the same dominant superstar that drove his team to blitz through the most brutal conference in decades. But his teammates have changed, and Kobe was the one that changed them. That is the story of these playoffs — the transformation of Gasol, Ariza, and Odom from timid softies to rise to the moment men. They now own Kobe’s work ethic and killer instinct. And they are doing things that no one thought they would ever do. Just like Lebron and Wade and Howard and Melo before them… The Lakers won 65 games; they did not lose three games in a row all year or two in a row during the playoffs. They were 4-1 in closeout games and simply crushed their opponents in each of the four wins. Why? Because the team possessed the spirit of Kobe.

4. Finally, a Word to Mr. Simmons

I like Bill Simmons. I am genuinely excited when he writes a new column on the nba. I will buy his new book the first day it comes out and probably enjoy it. But sometimes you need to call a spade a spade. Bill’s had a rough playoff run. He’s said things like:

• “I have been saying that for 2 months now. What we’re watching this spring is basically the 2006 Lakers, only with Gasol replacing Chris Mihm, Kobe being 15% worse, Bynum being 20% better and Ariza being a slight improvement over Ariza. It’s a limited team that lacks toughness and can be beaten.”

• “The ’09 Cavs are the ’91 Bulls reincarnated… everyone keeps underestimating them and nobody realizes that they are about the blow thru these last 2 rounds.”

• “The Magic just needed 7 games to beat a Celtics team that had 2 scorers with dead legs, Scalabrine/Marbury/House as their bench and actually ran a game-ending play for Glen Davis. Don’t start thinking Orlando is good please.”

• “Dwight Howard couldn’t score 40 points in a game if he was going against Yi Jianlian’s chair.”

These ironclad, can’t be otherwise predictions have proven not just wrong, but embarrassingly wrong. That would be okay given that he’s just a fan like the rest of us – we all are wrong and most of us didn’t see Orlando coming. But he has the hubris to persevere in omniscience. Whenever Simmons is wrong, he always follows the same pattern: (1) blame the failed team’s coach, and (2) use hindsight to tell us what the losing team should have done to win. Just admit you blew it, Bill. Admit that you misread Cleveland, Orlando, and LA. Admit that instead of blaming Cleveland’s loss on bad coaching and the failure of Cleveland’s role players you should have considered these facts before making your predictions – that Brown’s offensive lack of creativity and the playoff inexperience of Cleveland’s role players might be a problem after all. Monday morning quarterbacking doesn’t become front page espn writers.

While we know you have to undermine LA’s title as a Boston fan, do you really want to start comparing how our team was built with Boston’s current roster? Do you really want to talk about non-repeatable good fortune? Do you want me to list your quotes damning Doc and Ainge for openly tanking in 2007? Do you really believe that LA’s roster is some cosmic accident wholly unlike every other title team in history? Because if you do, I have some Paul Pierce 2002 FIBA World Championship cards I need to sell.

And, while you were quick to point out that LA didn’t have to play Boston in this years finals (which is assuming a lot), you failed to note that Boston was lucky not face Ariza or the one-legged Bynum. Do you have any idea how painful it was to watch Radmanovic guard Pierce as opposed to Ariza? I would gladly replay the 2008 and 2009 finals, both against Boston, with LA’s current team. Would you?

But, beyond that, Simmons most recent attack on Kobe is agenda-driven nonsense. We get it, Bill. We know you hate Kobe. We know you hate that he now has more titles than Bird. We know it eats away at you that the Celtics are probably a one and done band of mercenaries while the Lakers are built for the long haul. We know that the Lakers have won 9 titles and been to 15 finals in your lifetime compared to 4 and 6 for the Celtics. We know those 60s Celtic rings came in a different NBA — pre-expansion, salary cap, globalization, etc. We know that, as a Celtics fan, you have sworn a blood oath to discredit and undermine LA and Kobe at all costs – even if it infects the tone and quality of your writing. But, please, give us Laker fans the courtesy of relying on actual facts and evidence to support your arguments. Don’t rewatch the finals celebration a dozen times searching for one missed high five or false smile. Don’t read Phil’s mind. Use your army of researchers to give us something meaningful to actually chew on and think about. Because what I see when I study Kobe is the game’s preeminent player, leader, teammate, and winner.