When people talk about The Best Player in Basketball, the names they usually mention are Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. True , Dwayne Wade and Kevin Durant are sometimes mentioned in the discussion but Durant is still a couple of years away and Wade has been handicapped by playing on an inferior team with it’s concommitant lack of post season glory.I usually stay away from such discussions because (a) one’s choice is always subjective, (b)the criteria for one’s choice vary from person to person and (c) there can never be one definitive answer.
As a Laker fan who reads the Laker message boards regularly, I am well aware of the arguments made for each of these players being the best. Kobe supporters point to his ability to deliver in the clutch time and time again, his all-round game and above all the post season success that has led to championship rings, four and counting. They sneer that , for all his success in the regular season, LeBron has never won even one championship. LeBron fans, on the other hand, focus on his stats and his consecutive MVP awards. They dismiss his lack of championship rings by saying that he has never had a good supporting cast and that Kobe only has as many rings as he has because of Shaq and ,more recently, Pau Gasol.
Since it is futile to try to prove that either one is better than the other , all I will say is that I much prefer Kobe to LeBron . I find his game more exciting to watch and I think he has developed into a team player, something that LeBron has yet to do. There is an artistry to his game which I do not find in LeBron’s. LeBron’s game is more physical; he overpowers opponents , bowling them over , going through them rather than weaving past them. LeBron is superior physically , is much stronger and bigger than Kobe and is a better shot blocker and rebounder. Physically, the gap between them can only widen as LeBron is still improving while Kobe has already peaked.
I think that LeBron’s undoing has been that he was too successful, too early. From the moment he joined the Cavaliers as a kid fresh out of high school he has been the top dog. Whatever he wanted he has gotten as coaches, teammates and even the owner have kowtowed to ” the King”. As a result he has became a petulant brat, boastful in victory and surly in defeat. Who can forget his ” forgetting” to shake hands with the Magic players after Orlando ousted Cleveland in the playoffs last year? Or the victory celebrations that so angered Joakim Noah when Cleveland beat Chicago last year? However, except for stray whispers, his behavior has not been criticized until recently. It is only now, particularly after Cleveland’s lopsided loss to the Celtics in Game 5, that we are beginning to hear about his lack of dedication to the game, his pre-occupation with commercial ventures ,his immaturity and his refusal to accept blame for any setbacks.
In some ways, LeBron and Kobe are a lot similar. Kobe too came out of high school and immediately morphed into a star. He too went through his bratty period four or five years ago , the low point of which was LA’s loss to the Suns in the playoffs in 2006 in the deciding game of which he took only three shots in the second half. That was also the time when he complained publicly about the ineptitude of his teammates and demanded to be traded. However, he has made a 180 degree turn since then. He has been more willing to share the ball and has developed his game year by year. He has worked harder than ever, playing through injuries and doing whatever it takes to win. Success has come as he has learned to trust his team mates more,to build them up rather than tear them down .Michael Jordan went through the same process in Chicago before the Bulls became perennial winners.
There are four things which have helped Kobe’s development.The first was that he had a strong coach in Phil Jackson for most of his career, and particularly when he was starting out in the NBA. The zen master guided him with a firm hand and got him to play within the system; well, most of the time anyway.Secondly, when Kobe joined the Lakers, Shaq was already the top dog which meant that Kobe had to keep his ego in check. Of course, this led to problems later on but , at the time , it was good for Kobe to play second fiddle.Third, the hotel room incident in Denver caused Kobe to re-focus his energies on basketball and fueled his all-consuming desire to win. Last, Kobe has always been a keen student of the history of the game , perhaps because his father too was a pro basketball player; he is keenly aware of what is needed to take his place among the legends.All this has caused him to become the hardest working of the elite players. Year after year he has honed his skills and added to his arsenal. This past off season he worked with Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post up moves. He realized that as he grows older there would be less of those slashing drives to the basket and that he needed some new tricks in his offensive repertoire.
LeBron to date has not shown any such circumspection or dedication, relying only on his natural talent. His coterie of hangers- on , his high school chums feed his ego but do little else. Granted that he does not have the same supporting cast that Kobe does in LA, he still should have gone all out in every game and he and the Cavs should have gone down fighting. The Cavs were his team ; the rest of the players looked to him to set the tone. In game 6 last night , I thought for a brief moment that he might redeem himself when he sank two long threes to bring his team within four, 78-74. But the Celtics immediately ran off ten straight points to push the lead to 14 , helped in no small part by LBJ’s turnovers. For all practical purposes , the game was over. LBJ’s stats line reads well ( 29 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists ) but he also had 9 turnovers and even more important, he failed to take over the game in the fourth quarter.
It is his curiously lackluster performance in Game 5 that has NBA observers scratching their heads. With the teams knotted 2 -2, with everything on the line in a pivotal game LBJ appeared to mail it in as the Celtics embarassed the Cavs on their home floor. I’ve read all sorts of explanations for his curiously passive performance. “LBJ was fatigued “; “LBJ was saving himself for Game 6”; “LBJ was sending a message to management”. None of them make sense to me. The worst thing about his play was not that his team lost but that they ( and he) did not even appear to trying. With that dismal performance, his reputation has taken a severe hit ; he will have a tough task living it down.
It is unfortunate that fans and even sportswriters ,who should know better, consider the number of championship rings a benchmark of greatness. If that really were the criterion, Robert Horry would be ahead of everyone else other than the old-time Celtics of Bill Russell. Winning a championship is a team effort and even the greatest players need a good coach and a good supporting cast. It is true thatLeBron has not had that luxury in Cleveland. However, after what has happened in this series, he needs to win at least a couple of rings to validate his greatness.Until that time, he does not deserve to belong in the same category as Kobe Bryant or even Dwayne Wade. He is still young, only 25, and he has the physical tools to do it but it will need more dedication to the game than he has hitherto shown.