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If you’ve followed the career of Kobe Bryant, you’ve seen him have a multitude of so-called rivals at the shooting guard position, all of which he’s outlasted and obviously bested at one point or another.

The “rivalry” with Tracy McGrady was fun and it’s a shame that it didn’t last longer, and Vince Carter also could have given the Black Mamba a run for his money but didn’t seem interested enough in his own greatness and thus we were robbed there as well.

Allen Iverson provided a great potential nemesis given the contrast in styles, but his size made it as such that he would never defend Bryant in a million years on the hardwood.

That’s left us with Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade, who all at one point or another gave Kobe a terrific matchup and made things both interesting and entertaining for us as fans.

But there is one guy who has been waiting for perhaps the longest time ever to finally get a crack at Kobe. Heck, he’s gotten a few chances here and there, but never the chance, not until today.

James Harden.

The left-handed guard has been victimized by Kobe on more than one occasion, be it NBA floor, or summer league play. And each and every single time, Harden has barked at him and refused to back down.

The one lingering problem that he had was that he could never pay Bryant back because he wasn’t primary option on his team and thus didn’t have the possibilities of just attacking the superstar whenever it best suited him.

For instance, in last year’s playoffs, Bryant tortured Harden in both the pinch post and the low block despite the fact that Harden did one of the best defensive jobs ever seen on KB by anyone not named Bruce Bowen. But Bryant’s singular offensive talent just made Harden look like a petulant fly that kept reviving itself only to consistently land on a windshield. Making matters even more frustrating was the fact that Bryant got the opportunity at times to hide himself defensively and rest by defending the likes of Thabo Sefolosha or even guarding Harden away from the ball.

But tonight?

Best believe that James Harden has remembered all of those times Kobe baited him, talked trash and well, owned him.

It’s worth noting, Metta World Peace will probably spend the bulk of the minutes defending Harden, but on those rare trips when Harden sees Bryant on him in the half-court, he will assuredly be thinking about the opportunity that’s finally fallen before him.

In an interesting twist of fate, Kobe Bryant is leading the league in scoring at 26.9 points per game, but James Harden is right on his heels at 26.7 points per game and might want to narrow that margin tonight against the Mamba.

And if he does?

As fans, we should all be better for it, because matchups of marquee shooting guards are slowly becoming a thing of the past; especially when considering that Kobe’s career will soon be coming to a close.

It might not sound at the moment like a bitter old rivalry at the moment, but it definitely has the makings of one…

And we’re all lucky for it.

The Ever Efficient Kobe Bryant

J.M. Poulard —  November 14, 2012

Prior to the start of the regular season, I predicted that Kobe Bryant would have his most efficient ever season shooting the ball. His health will probably be a concern until he retires given the toll his 17-year career has taken on his body and thus it stands to reason that his physical skills will continue to erode, but the difference this season in comparison to previous ones is simple: Bryant no longer needs to carry the entirety of the load, and he is playing like it.

The way I saw it, the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard would mean that Kobe would get more opportunities to simply stand around on offense and watch things unfold as opposed to being part of every single offensive possession or worry that a play might be doomed without his involvement.

Last season, the Lakers often seemed lost when Kobe went to the bench because it meant that either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol would see swarms of defenders attack them since the purple and gold lacked good knockdown shooters or other players capable of creating good shots for themselves on a consistent basis.

But this season? Forget having any chance of putting the clamps on Kobe Bean.

He is playing just about the same amount of minutes, but he has been less of a dominant fixture as far as handling the ball so far this season. His usage rate (percentage of possessions he uses up) is down from 35.7 to 28.8 thanks in large part to Dwight Howard’s dominating presence in the paint. Bryant now gets more opportunities to play away from the action and then cut to the basket where he can simply catch and finish with defenses worried about D12’s damaging plays on the low block (our very own Phillip Barnett and Andrew Garrison from Silver Screen and Roll wrote an amazing piece on this last week, you can find it here). Also, Bryant has been masterful at running hand off plays or back cuts with his big men — particularly around the high post — where he has simply caught the ball and exploded to the basket. Add it all together and Kobe is shooting a career high 55.1 percent from the field, albeit in eight games.

Given the small sample size, should this be viewed as a fluke or perhaps a trend for the remainder of the season?

I would side with trend.

The Black Mamba is one of the most devastating shooters — especially off the dribble — in league history, but his willingness to at times force up long contested shots or simply get caught with the rock in his hands late in the shot clock have long contributed to his field goal percentage looking pedestrian at times. The difference this season mind you is that the Laker superstar has done much less of this than in recent seasons. Once again, we are looking at a small sample size, but Kobe has completely altered his shot selection thanks in large part to the personnel around him.

The long-range 2-point shot has always been a huge weapon for Bryant given his ability to rise and take the jumper when the offense bogged down and the paint clogged; but this season he has decreased these attempts in favor of getting the ball to the rack. Hoopdata tells us that the former Lower Merion star is averaging 2.6 long-range 2-point shots, which represents a career low for Bryant (the site started tracking this data in 2007). He hasn’t stopped shooting the ball though, he has instead replaced those inefficient shots with the most efficient ones: attempts right at the rim.

According to Hoopdata, the perennial All-Star is attempting a career high 6.7 shots right at the rim. For the sake of perspective, his highest figures prior to this season came in both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, also known as seasons in which he was still an athletic marvel. Some might say that Bryant is following in the foot steps of what Dwyane Wade — and to some extent LeBron James — accomplished last season, in reducing his amount of long-range shots, but that would be inaccurate. Wade reduced his 3-point field goal attempts in favor of slightly increasing his amount of mid-range jumpers whereas Bryant has morphed into a rim attacker.

For the sake of perspective, have a look at some notable players that generate shots at the rim and where Kobe fits amongst them so far this season :

Player

Shots at rim per game

Dwight Howard

7.9

Zach Randolph

7.5

James Harden

7.7

Carmelo Anthony

7.0

Kobe Bryant

6.7

LeBron James

6.0

As you can see, Bryant compares favorably to interior players as well as some bigger, taller and stronger perimeter players; and yet he is right up there with them despite his advanced age. The Black Mamba should be at the stage of his career where he floats out to the perimeter and tries to do most of is damage from there, but instead, he has other ideas with respect to spots where his attempts come from.

The change in his shot selection has been assisted by the decreasing rapidity to which defenses have rotated to him because of the tandem of Howard and Gasol. Consequently, Bryant is attacking faster and spending less time with the ball in his hands trying to anticipate how he is going to be defended. The stats bear this out as well.

MySynergySports tells us that last season Kobe spent 27.9 percent of his possessions in isolation situations, and his field goal percentage in such instances stood at 37.3 percent, which isn’t much of a surprise since he often ended up settling for a tough contested jumper after a plethora of pump fakes. This season he has been much better in this respect. According to MySynergySports, Bryant is only utilizing 17 percent of his possessions in isolation situations, and is shooting a blistering 56 percent from the field in these scenarios. Even his post up opportunities have somewhat diminished as he has focused on mixing up his game and striking from all over the court. He is spotting up more (yes, he’s getting more open looks), is much more involved in the pick-and-roll and getting more transition opportunities.

Kobe Bryant, at the tender age of 34 years old, is reinventing himself as a player and taking the ball to the basket more, at an age where these attempts should be progressively decreasing with each passing season. The knock on the superstar throughout his career has been that he has been quick to put up low percentage shots, but far too often the context of some of his attempts were simply ignored. This season, he’s made the necessary adjustments to take advantage of defenses as well as the gifts of his teammates. The scariest thing for the rest of the league is that Kobe’s efficiency might actually improve (!). Most of the Lakers regular season games have been played without Steve Nash, which seems incredibly relevant given the amount of open shots he helped Kobe generate in the preseason.

Between the Lakers’ poor record to open up the season, the firing of Mike Brown, the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, the James Harden trade and the Knicks undefeated record, Kobe’s shooting figures has flown under the radar; and yet one could make the argument that it should be one of the biggest stories of the season given that it’s happening so late in his career.

At some point, the Lakers will have a winning record and this will become a huge topic of conversation, but why wait until then right?

The Other Kobe-LeBron Debate

J.M. Poulard —  October 20, 2012

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):

Player

PPG

RPG

APG

FG%

FGAG

FTAG

Carmelo Anthony

38.3

10.5

2.1

37.8

37.9

8.8

Kevin Durant

38.2

10.5

0.5

39.2

31.6

11.1

LeBron James

33.6

12.7

6.4

45.1

23.9

14.2

Kobe Bryant

32.5

6.8

5.2

36.1

27.7

12.5

Dwyane Wade

25.3

5.1

6.0

42.2

20.7

11.0

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.

The Other Guys: At #7…

J.M. Poulard —  October 12, 2012

Typically, when sports shows present montages of teams that were fortunate enough to win a championship, the underlying message that usually gets thrown out to the fans is that this group of people reached the mountaintop through blood, sweat and tears.

Obviously, the message is often lost on those that rather concentrate on the contributions of superstars; but there is nothing quite like seeing a unit go through some hardships to be the last team standing.

Although, we as the media like to look at the journey from the eyes of the superstars, sometimes the outlook of a player with far less talent can perfectly capture the scene, provided that he is one that plays with heart and hustle.

Today, the seventh best Lakers role player of all-time exemplifies this journey…

Kurt Rambis

To many, Kurt Rambis is the guy that used to play for the Lakers with the cool/goofy glasses. But to diehard basketball and Lakers fans alike, he was so much more.

The big man joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981 and was immediately part of the rotation because he gave the team some interior defense as well as some much needed rebounding. With Rambis backing up at power forward, the Los Angeles Lakers won the world title in his rookie season.

By his second year with the Lakers, he was getting 23.2 minutes per game, and played the part of a reliable big man for the team.

Mind you, his minutes took a dip the following year (1983-84 regular season), as Norm Nixon was traded and Byron Scot joined the team. That combined with the emergence of James Worthy meant that the Lakers would occasionally use Big Game James at the power forward spot with Scott and Michael Cooper taking over duties at shooting guard and small forward on occasion.

The Lakers fell at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, and the Lakers redefined themselves ever so slightly. With Jamaal Wilkes’ rebounding numbers on the decline, Pat Riley once again started giving more minutes to the Santa Clara product in order to help shore up the defense and protect the backboards.

The Lakers faced the stigma of being a soft team with their loss at the hands of the Celtics in the ’84 Finals.

They were Showtime.

They outran teams, executed better and played sharper than most of their opponents, but were they tougher? Many felt they were not after being humbled by Boston.

The truth was that although they were a finesse team, they certainly knew how to impose their will on the game and even occasionally get scrappy.

Kurt Rambis was one of the players that exhibited the Lakers’ grit perfectly. During the purple and gold’s run through the 1980s, the man with the glasses appeared in 493 games, averaged 18.7 minutes per game, 5.3 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game on 55.3 percent field goal shooting.

The numbers are rather miniscule in truth, but they do not tell the whole story.

The Santa Clara product was called upon to defend power forwards, set screens, rebound, get out of the way on offense — literally — and finish plays whenever defenders completely forgot about him. The tasks might not sound like much, but every now and then, Rambis had to play the role of enforcer, where he took a few hard fouls and refused to allow opponents to punk either him or his team.

On a team renowned for flash, glamour and glitz, Rambis was one of the few guys in the rotation that had to play ugly for the team to be successful.

Consequently, his contributions often get overlooked or even marginalized, but he was a big part of the championship puzzle in the early 80s; as he was called upon to defend the ever clever Kevin McHale, who is considered to have the most devastating array of post moves in NBA history.

With Rambis patrolling the paint next to Abdul-Jabbar, the Los Angeles Lakers rebounded in the 1985 playoffs and defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

In ensuing seasons, his playing time decreased as A.C. Green would become a more prominent player for the Lakers given his ability to help execute the zone trap, and Mychal Thompson was acquired to help defend the post, which in turn made Rambis the odd man out. He still got some regular minutes, but nothing quite like what he enjoyed in his first two seasons with the club.

Nonetheless, the 6’8’’ forward was a contributor to the greatest Los Angeles Lakers teams as voted by our own FB&G panel, and he also managed to be part of one the few NBA dynasties.

He eventually left the team and joined a few other ball clubs before returning to the Lakers for his final two seasons before retiring.

Some might argue that both Bob McAdoo and Rick Fox should have been ahead of Rambis, and that is certainly debatable, but Rambis edged both out by spending the first seven seasons of his career playing for the Lakers during their most successful run since moving to Los Angeles. With Kurt Rambis alternating between starter and reserve big man, the Lakers made seven appearances in the Western Conference Finals, six trips to the NBA Finals and won four titles.

Rambis may not have been the most important player for the Lakers, but he most certainly illustrated in many ways what the Lakers were not. They were not soft, they weren’t just style over substance and they were not a gang of chumps.

Kurt Rambis not only gave the Lakers blood, sweat and tears, but he also represented it better than most.

The Other Guys: At #8…

J.M. Poulard —  October 4, 2012

One of the most obvious truths that you will ever read here at FB&G is that not all role players are created equal. How could they be right?

Some have unique skills that can elevate them over other players in a team’s pecking order while another batch might just play with more energy, grit and hustle, which also can help a team reach its goal.

Once again, these are somewhat evident facts, but then we have another batch of role players that come with decorated careers. Indeed, a player may have flourished individually in a previous situation but failed to achieve team success; and then joins a contender and takes that new team to another level given the things he brings to the table but also the sacrifices he chooses to make to help them win.

Not to pick on him, but this is how many thought Tracy McGrady’s career would eventually unfold. But if T-Mac is the version of how it went wrong, Bob McAdoo is the McGrady version of how things went right.

Our eighth best Lakers role player of all time…

Bob McAdoo

Before joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982, the former Tar Heel was viewed as one the league’s best players; one that had enjoyed considerable individual success with his immense basketball skills.

Early on in his career, he was a scoring and rebounding machine, putting up double doubles with much regularity. His knack for snatching balls around the basket and scoring made him a three-time scoring champion — he averaged over 30 points per game in those three seasons in succession — and league MVP.

Mind you, for all of his talent, his teams rarely accomplished much. In his first nine seasons in the league, McAdoo’s teams made the postseason four times and he played on five different teams.

He bounced around in the late 70’s and early 80’s, going from Buffalo, to New York, then Detroit and New Jersey.

He finally joined the Lakers in December 1981 in what became the perfect situation for him.

Instead of being asked to carry a franchise or take on a heavy burden all the while doing things outside of his comfort zone, the North Carolina product was simply asked to come off the bench, feed the post on occasion and score.

And just to make sure things didn’t get too complicated for him, he had Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson feeding him whenever he got into scoring position.

Mind you, given that he joined the Lakers about a month after the season started, the task of including him into the team’s scheme was not an easy one.

Bob McAdoo was a 6’9’’ forward with a great knack for scoring, but at that point in his career, he was no longer an elite rebounder nor was he a great defensive player. Given that the Lakers already had the likes of Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes on the team, it was important that the team had a few bangers on the interior as well as defenders on the perimeter.

Cooper was the wing stopper while Kurt Rambis and Mitch Kupchak did the dirty work on the interior. This meant that the Lakers often used three-guard lineups consisting of Cooper, Nixon and Magic for defensive purposes but also to run opponents off the court.

Thus, McAdoo did not see many minutes during the regular season. In his first season with the Lakers, he averaged 18.2 minutes per game but an event during the course of the season changed the dynamic of the team: Kupchak was lost for the year due to injury.

Consequently, by the time the playoffs started, Riley had to rely more on his new forward. This meant that McAdoo’s minutes increased, and the same thing happened to his scoring.

The Lakers liked to have the North Carolina product play small forward catch the ball at the pinch post or on the low block where he could make just one move — Mac was an at best average ball handler — and get to the rim or just shoot it from there.

The McAdoo wrinkle in the Lakers’ offense instantly became problematic for opposing teams that were already worried about the myriad of other scoring options for the purple and gold.

Riley liked to have Mac come off pin down screens set by Abdul-Jabbar where he drifted to the perimeter, caught the ball and fed the post. If McAdoo’s man sagged a little, the former Buffalo player just cut straight to the basket where the league’s all time leading scorer dished the ball for an easy basket.

As problematic as things were when opponents defended the Lakers, they became infinitely more complex when McAdoo went to the pinch post and the team ran some action on his side of the court. One of the most famous plays in Lakers history resulted from McAdoo’s sheer presence on the court: the 6’9’’ forward would set up on the pinch post with Cooper standing at the wing on the same side of the court; Coop would act as if he were going to set a pick on McAdoo’s man only to sprint to the basket as the former Tar Heel would set a sweet back screen for the “Coop-A-Loop”.

Bob McAdoo understood his role and fit in quite well playing alongside his talented teammates and never really got in their way. He shot the ball when open and mostly attempted field goals that were within his range, thus resulting in his high shooting percentage as a member of the Lakers. He consistently scored in the teens and provided some scoring punch off the bench when his team needed it.

On the other side of the ball, McAdoo was hardly a stopper, but he did just enough to help out defensively. Indeed, players could get by him off the bounce but his long arms allowed him to recover and contest shots. Also, he could get himself into help position off drives and clog the paint or make it difficult for players driving down the lane to convert shots.

In essence, Bob McAdoo does not often get mentioned for his contributions to the Lakers, but his scoring and rebounding were undeniably a huge plus for the team and he made the jobs of his teammates easier because defenses had to account for his presence given his ability to score.

In his four seasons in Los Angeles, the Lakers made the NBA Finals every time, winning the world championship twice along the way. He had modest averages of 12 points per game and 4.4 rebounds per game on 49.4 percent field goal shooting and stepped it up with a little increased playing time during the playoffs to 13.4 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game on 50.7 percent field goal shooting.

By the end of the 1985 championship run, McAdoo was 33 years old and still had a little game left. But with thoroughbreds such as James Worthy and Byron Scott now on the team, keeping the former Tar Heel no longer part of the plan.

Mac joined the Philadelphia 76ers and then retired the following season.

Although he did not retire as a member of the Lakers, McAdoo contributed to the franchise’s dominance of the decade. Granted, the former league MVP was not part of the ’87 and ’88 championship units, but the Los Angeles Lakers were still an impressive 231-97 during the regular season from 1981 to 1985, and they also sported a 49-20 postseason record during the same span.

Needless to say, Bob McAdoo had something to do with winning time.