I'm sick of people saying that he is. No disrespect to LeBron -- he's definitely top two -- but Kobe Bryant has been the best basketball player in the universe for quite some time, and still is. And no, this isn't only about Kobe's incredible performance last night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals...it's more than that. Much more.
When comparing two players of this caliber, people overvalue the difference in the current season's statistics. I'll bring them up, for argument's sake:
(Key: p=points, r=rebounds, a=assists, s=steals, b=blocks, t=turnovers)
Kobe-26.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.5 bpg, 2.6 tpg, 46.7% FG, 85.6% FT, 35.1% 3pt
LeBron-28.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.1 bpg, 3.0 tpg, 48.9% FG, 78% FT, 34.4% 3pt
Look at the slight differences in almost every category. Most are negligible, and can be explained by position and team circumstances. When two superstars are THIS good, should we be letting small statistical differences determine the outcome of the debate?
Of course not. We KNOW these two are the best basketball players in the world. When differentiating between them, it's more important to look at skills, and results.
LeBron James is younger, bigger, and stronger than Kobe. Thus he's a better rebounder, and he plays a forward position defensively (often times switching to PF this postseason), whereas Kobe is almost always playing SG or PG. LeBron's more explosive at this stage in their careers, but that carries little weight because they can both get whatever shot they want.
Ultimately, this is what separates the two:
(1) Kobe is a pure shooter, especially in the mid-range. LeBron can shoot, and he's improving, but is still wildly inconsistent at this point. This skill difference is especially significant because playoff fourth quarters often require contested jump shooting, when the defense turns up the screws to the maximum. Kobe thrives in those situations.
That's why he is "the best closer in the game," as the analysts love to put it. If the ultimate goal is to win the NBA Championship, which requires victories in tight games along the way, then shouldn't the best PLAYER, be the best CLOSER?
If the game's on the line, and you want the ball in LeBron's hands over Kobe's, then you're mistaken. Kobe's more effective because of his perimeter shooting and experience. He gets the correct shot when it matters. LeBron often stands around letting the shot clock dip, and eventually gets forced into a highly-contested fadeaway with the 24-buzzer going off. That's not high percentage.
(2) Kobe's been a first-team all defender for years. Head coaches-turned-analysts often say that he's the most intelligent defensive player in the league. He communicates extremely well with his teammates, and completely understands the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.
LeBron, on the other hand, wasn't committed to defense until this season. Michael Jordan and Kobe became defensive forces much quicker than LeBron, relative to their number of years in the NBA.
(3) I briefly mentioned it before, but, experience. Kobe's championship experience -- three championship rings, sixth appearance in the Finals -- helps him maintain composure in the highest pressure spots. LeBron put up big numbers in Cleveland's series against Orlando, but he constantly turned the ball over. One game I believe he had nine turnovers. Yikes.
Kobe understands the value of each possession, and rarely turns the ball over in the second half of playoff games.
(4) The little things. LeBron ends up with higher assist numbers than Kobe, but that's because the ball is in his hands more. Kobe keeps the ball moving in Phil Jackson's triangle offense, so it doesn't "stick," as they say. Conversely, we very often see LeBron dribbling at the top of the key, sizing up the defense, and looking up again to realize that he doesn't have the time to get to the rim. Thus, his teammates aren't involved in the possession and it ends in a tough jumper attempt.
Both of them control the ball in the fourth quarter of big games, but Kobe -- particularly in these playoffs -- has done a better job keeping his teammates in rhythm during the first three quarters. That helps if the opposition decides to double-team hard in the fourth quarter; teammates have to be prepared to step up and knock down critical shots.
(5) LeBron has to prove it to me before he can pass Kobe. Sure he's still very young, but this was LeBron's sixth season in the NBA. He's not a baby by the league's standards.
Six seasons in the NBA, ZERO wins in the NBA Finals. And I don't mean series wins -- we all know he doesn't have a ring -- I mean game victories. The only time he led his Cavs to the Finals they were swept by Timmy Duncan and the Spurs.
So what exactly has he proven, in the results category?
Some will say:
"Well Kobe had Shaq."
But that doesn't matter because Shaq doesn't translate into automatic victories. Those Laker teams had to earn every bit of their championships. Kobe was absolutely phenomenal in those Finals series', and even back then, SHAQ said Kobe was "the best player in the world."
Sorry LeBron, he still is.
(The Red Sox are the new Yankees. How did they make the transition? "JFro," aka John Frascella, is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land."
It's the first full-length book centered on Boston Red Sox's popular
general manager Theo Epstein. Preview or purchase it online at Amazon.com, Barnes
and Noble or Borders. It's currently stocked in Barnes and Noble stores
throughout the U.S. Also, check out John on Twitter.)