Wednesday, May 5, 2010

LeBron is better, but Kobe's THE BEST

Does that title make sense to you? Because if you know anything about basketball, it should.

It's difficult to deny that LeBron James is a better player right now than Kobe Bryant looking at the stats, not that stats mean everything. But 29.3 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds for James beats 27.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists for Kobe pretty handily.

We know Kobe has a better supporting cast and therefore needs to do less than LeBron for his team to win, which is why James was the right choice for this season's MVP award (and possibly why his stats are so much better).

So yes, LeBron James at age 25 is better than Kobe Bryant at age 31. But when I say Kobe is the best player in the league, it's about more than just numbers, athleticism and talent.

It's about which player I want in the final five minutes of a playoff game. I remember when LeBron scored the Cavs' last 25 points to lead his team to a double-overtime victory in the 2007 playoffs and while Kobe has never put on a performance quite like that, he is the still the player I trust most when the game is winding down.

Kobe has proven to be the game's best closer throughout his career and I'm never surprised when I watch him take over at the end of a playoff game. He is a better pure jump shooter than James which is a distinct late-game advantage, as it's much more difficult to get to the basket during crunch time, James' specialty.

LeBron still needs work on his post game and playing with his back to the basket, an art that Kobe has perfected throughout his career. Whether it's a fadeaway jumper or a drop step into a spin move, Bryant always finds a way to shake his man and get a clear look at the basket. His footwork is simply magnificent and that's a product of his nearly 15 years in the league and countless weeks and months perfecting his craft.

On the other hand, James will often dribble in place for 3-5 seconds and pull up for a 17-footer if he can't get to the rim. Which shot inspires more confidence when you NEED a basket?

While James' teammates tend to stand around watching him dribble because there isn't much else to do (not an indictment on his supporting cast), Bryant's teammates can cut to the basket or spot up behind the arc and take advantage of potential double teams on Kobe in the post. And if you don't double him, he will score almost every time.

LeBron's late-game repertoire is nowhere near as developed than Kobe's, mostly because it doesn't have to be. James, like Bryant at age 25, can rely on sheer athleticism to get the job done. But as Kobe has gotten older and logged more miles on his body, he has had to adjust his game.

At age 31, he relies more now on his experience and studied knowledge of the game, while still being one of the league's most talented players. The fact that Bryant has multiple moves at his disposal makes him so difficult to guard in the clutch, while LeBron is difficult to guard mainly because of his strength and athleticism.

LeBron might eventually reach Kobe's level but he's not there yet. Because when it comes playoff time in the NBA, it's about more than just pure talent. If you want an example of that from a team standpoint, just look at the Hawks this season. They have so much ability and athleticism, but they are young and inexperienced and that has shown so far in the playoffs.

I would love to see a Lakers-Cavs matchup in the finals this season, if only so that everybody can see that Kobe is still king of the court as the Lakers take home their second straight title. Game's best closer, game's best player when it matters the most. And isn't that all that matters?

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