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Kobe versus LeBron debate


It goes around and around: Who's better? Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?

Now, I am a fan of sports villains -- the guys who have the inveterate drive to be the best, regardless of how anyone perceives them. Call it the "Richard Nixon" factor. Figures in this mold are Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds. The guys you love to hate.

Kobe Bryant is very much in this group, his media personality rehabilitation aside. His spats with Shaquille O'Neal. His 40 shots a game to get 35 points. His wah-wah crying when things don't go his way.

But let's look at how he plays the game. At age 30, he isn't really that explosive of an athlete, although at 6'6'', he can dunk easily. But let's be honest; Kobe can't jump very high. But watch how he moves on the court -- effortlessly, like Gale Sayers. At only about 205 pounds, he is still strong enough to corral Dwight Howard from dunking on him. I've heard that he can squat 500 pounds. He looks like he has about 5-7% body fat, maybe lower.

He's been shooting about 90% free throws throughout the playoffs (although he had a bad game in this area when the Lakers lost in the Finals). The ball releases from his hand as if he shoots 1,000 jumpers a day, each with perfect form.



It doesn't matter if he's shooting a fallaway from the extreme baseline corner or a 1-foot finger roll 1/10th of a second before the shot blocker's hand appears. Every shot, every ball fake, every dribble, every pick-and-roll is technically and fundamentally sound. He plays the game as it was meant to be played. Kobe has great physical gifts, but his determination and fidelity to the game pale in comparison to that.

Kobe is not even that great on defense, physically speaking. Simply compare his athleticism to a player like Denver Nugget Dahntay Jones, who he scorched after Jones tripped Bryant on purpose in the Western Conference Finals. Jones can touch his head on the rim, Kobe not even close. Why does Jones score in single digits while Kobe averages about 35 in every game that matters?

Kobe Bryant's comparison is not LeBron James. It's Steve Nash, who uses his footwork and skill to be one of the best point guards in the NBA; Nash was two-time MVP for a reason.

LeBron has fantastic skill: he's one of the best passers in the NBA; it's nearly impossible to stop his dribble drive to the basket with the current no-hand-check rule; his hustle on defense is amazing. But one can't get away from the fact that he's a physical specimen. He is probably the fastest runner in the NBA. His vertical is nearly 50 inches even though he is 6'8''.



But even LeBron is not using his body as well as he could. Because he is so heavy -- about 260 pounds -- he fatigues and gets cramps at the end of games. Look at LeBron's chin outline. By my rough estimate, he has 11-13% body fat, maybe even more. Kobe eats chicken, fish, and vegetables; LeBron eats McDonald's. Unless you're blocking out rebounders for a living, there's no reason to be heavy at all in the game of basketball. In fact, why even worry about lifting weights so much? It's better to shoot 250 extra jumpers and gain 3% on one's three-point shooting percentage than spend 30 minutes or an hour a day in the weight room. Kobe doesn't care if his chest or deltoids puff out. Why should he?



When I pick up a basketball, I think, "Kobe." I don't think "LeBron." LeBron James has an unreliable jumpshot, the most basic task in the game of basketball. His much-improved free-throw percentage is still barely above 3 out of 4 -- 78%. When he shoots only 34% on three-pointers, why does he shoot them so often? And why, for God's sake, would anyone ever shoot an off-balance three?

LeBron hasn't even gotten close to the point where he has no weaknesses in his game. On the contrary, his game hinges on the fact that he's the best physical specimen in the NBA. A sprained ankle kills his effectiveness.

If LeBron knew where to get double teamed, maybe his team would not have gotten knocked out of the playoffs. When Kobe passes out of a double team, how many times has Trevor Ariza or Derek Fisher had an open (or totally open) three-pointer? The same can't be said of Mo Williams for the Cavs.

My conclusion is that Kobe Bryant is a better basketball player than LeBron James right now. Both are hyper-competitive and want to win every game. Arguably, Kobe isn't really that great in the leadership area, in fact, despite the dozens of game-winning shots he has made. Teammates probably play harder for LeBron.

But it doesn't matter, does it? By having no weaknesses in his game, by matching his body maintenance in order to maximize his basketball skill, and by understanding the game like the greatest players of all time -- Jordan, Stockton, Bird, Kareem, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson -- Kobe Bryant is the best in the game right now.



Update: I was just watching some highlights, and realized that Kobe actually could be more physically awe-inspiring but chooses not to because he doesn't have to. In contrast, LeBron will wow crowds with thundering dunks. Let's see if he does what Kobe does when he's 30.
 
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