But first, will we ever settle Kobe vs. LeBron?
Kobe vs. LeBron, Revisited
On Christmas Day, in a matchup that probably didn't deserve all the hype it got, I finally found the answer to the LeBron James-Kobe Bryant question. But it wasn't one I was expecting.
Kobe and LeBron are very different players. Yet because both score a lot, do things that inspire great awe, and have been perennial MVP candidates, they get compared -- even by those who know how different they are. Bryant now relies more than ever on craftiness and precision, though you wouldn't have known from watching him on Saturday. LeBron, on other hand, is increasingly defined by his otherworldly court sense and elemental strength and speed when he drives to the basket. James walked away with a triple-double and the easy win; Kobe looked awful in defeat, and was left to make mystifying comments about the Heat caring more than the Lakers about games like this.
As each player continues to step out of Jordan's shadow and define the wing position for himself, it become increasingly clear that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are not in competition with each other.
No, this doesn't mean we should give any credence to Kobe's statements; of course, the game's two best players see each other as rivals. Each is a big winner who dominates games and is expected to contend for championships. However, even when the Heat demolish the Lakers, the "who's better" question remains utterly moot. No, it's not a question of whether or not LeBron is the leader of that team. Dwyane Wade is phenomenal, but James is historic. Similarly, it's disingenuous to act like Pau Gasol isn't an elite big man, or Lamar Odom isn't having the kind of year he was brought to LA to provide.
LeBron James may be better than Kobe Bryant today, in large part due to the difference in age. But there will always be a part of Kobe's game that James will never be able to match, and vice-versa. Bryant has always been a master technician, a gym rat who perfects a new move each week. He's methodical, even cruel, and yet when he's on, it's something akin to boxing's sweet science. James, by contrast, seemingly refuses to learn even the most rudimentary post game. That's not to say he's raw or unskilled, or hasn't put in work to improve his game. For one, his jumper has made tremendous progress since he entered the league. At his best, though, LeBron's game is exultant, spontaneous. Kobe makes micro-decisions; James treats the court like his canvas.
Maybe it's a matter of taste, or team allegiance, that keeps this kind of battle going. Maybe LeBron and Kobe are locked in some kind of philosophical battle for the soul of basketball. Regardless, not only will we never see the question of "who's better" satisfactorily resolved -- what keeps it going is that, at bottom, the two represent two very different approaches to the game. It's the impossibility of one ever really surpassing the other that keeps this debate going.
You see something similar with Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Except there, you get an admission that the two have very different strengths and weaknesses. When Williams first established himself as Paul's equal, we wondered which earned the title "best point guard in the league." After a couple of seasons, though, the terms of the debate shifted: would you rather have Paul, with his mercurial play-making, unmatched speed, and smaller body, or the hardy, deceptively athletic, and thoroughly bad-assed Williams? Lately, it's become key to the argument that Williams will likely enjoy a longer career than Paul. It's not even "who is the better player," but "what kind of player is better for a team to have?"
What began as the most heated kind of comparison has, over the years, evolved into a kind of relativism. Or, if not quite that, then at least a way of seeing two players that not only recognizes their differences, but discusses how each of them brings something very different to the table. Both Williams and Paul are franchise players; and yes, they play the same position. However, comparing them should be a way to better appreciate what makes each so good, not an artificial attempt to consider them out of context -- and apart from exactly what makes each of them so great.
So it is with Kobe and LeBron, too. It doesn't matter that, in a couple of years, Bryant will be on the downside of his career, and the league will belong to James. History doesn't exactly go away, and it's not like there are decades separating the two. As long as LeBron plays, he will be compared to Kobe. Not because he plays like him, or even because it's a debate that can be settled. Rather, it's a way to make sense of the league, even the world, that by its very nature will never resolve itself. If it did, the game would be the weaker for it. (BS)
The Other Superstar Calls
There's a common belief that superstar players get preferential treatment from referees. By virtue of their reputations as elite scorers, they get trips to the line that others wouldn't necessarily get, both because great players don't miss shots for no reason and because the best players score a lot, and part of the way they do that is by getting to the line. If that sounds like a circular argument, then congratulations, you are smarter than most; this entire concept doesn't logically make sense. Why not call every player the same way and let their scoring numbers sort themselves out?
The NBA is supposed to be a meritocratic league where the players who perform best reap the most benefits. By this train of thought, superstar calls unfairly tilt the balance of power towards those who are already in control, creating a wide and unfair gap between haves and have-nots. We want an even-playing field, and these ref tendencies don't allow for it.
I don't much care if superstars get preferential treatment, in part because I've long been a believer that guys like Kobe get knocked around far more than their free-throw totals indicate. What I find fascinating about the superstar call concept is something only indirectly related: the idea that certain role players get their own reputation-based calls when other players who do the same things well do not.
Players like Derek Fisher and Shane Battier have effectively graduated from being thought of as useful pieces for a solid team to being seen as superstar-level talents within the realm of role players. They are not just Guys Who You Want Around, but Guys Who Help Teams Win, and in basketball there is nothing more impressive than a winner. Over time, these high-level role players gain their own reputations as top-level defenders or intelligent veterans who know how to get to the right place on the court. If there's a charge/block call to be made, Battier is likely to get the benefit of the doubt more often than a less established, yet quality defender like Nicolas Batum. If there's a close call where Battier is involved, he'll often get the call because the referee assumes that he was there in time. That's not a knock on referees -- the modern game is played so fast that they cannot possibly see every play -- but simply an admission that assumptions necessarily play off reputations rather than the facts of a play. The same goes for superstars who get foul calls -- if they miss a shot they normally make, then something illegal must have happened to cause the miss.
Fisher is a more bizarre case. The Lakers have struggled defending point guards for years because of his deficiencies, but the wily veteran continues to get calls based on the belief that he makes up for his issues with veteran smarts. The details of these skills are unclear -- maybe he pulls jerseys where referees can't see, perhaps he uses so much of his brains that he only gets to places where he knows a charge will be committed. On Saturday, though, he somehow got a Dwyane Wade finger-roll nullified by arriving late, shuffling his feet on the charge, and standing close enough to the protected area that he might have been inside it. All of this is to say that even when Fisher "gets to the right place," he sometimes doesn't. Still, with five rings he has crafted a reputation as a winner, and winners beget their own success.
Whether or not this tendency to reward role players for their reputations is as pervasive as similar kinds of calls for superstars is largely irrelevant -- the point here is that both kinds favor established players. If there's an unfair division in the NBA, it's between veterans and youngsters, not superstars and role players. In a lot of ways, this difference in officiating makes sense: young guys come into the league needing to learn things that older players already know. Yet Russell Westbrook came into the league as a better defender than Fisher has ever been, and he still hasn't earned calls at the defensive end that Fisher gets routinely.
If there's a lesson here, it's that the NBA's uneven playing field is a problem of seniority rather than talent. If games are called unfairly, look to the ages of the players who benefit rather than their respective talent levels. They often don't get calls until they're thought to have earned their stripes, even if they came into the league deserving of many. (EF)
What's In A Chant?
Bethlehem Shoals: This weekend was a great one for basketball. It was Christmas, which is a special day for everyone. Also, a lot of player got MVP chants. Notable ones I heard: LeBron at Staples; Monta Ellis; Blake Griffin today. Do these make you upset?
Eric Freeman: If I were a logician who watched basketball mostly to decide on year-end awards, then yes, they would. Obviously Ellis and Griffin are not legitimate MVP candidates; their teams suck and both have considerable holes in their games. But I also think it's silly to claim that the fans who chant for Monta and Griffin actually think those guys should win the award. So what are they chanting for?
BS: Good question, Eric. In Monta's case -- and I don't know why I'm answering this, since you're the long-suffering Warriors fan -- it's excitement over having such a dominant player in their uniform, helping them win games. I would argue that Monta's on a level that even Baron Davis never reached. In Griffin's case, it's more a natural reflex, like belching or farting. How can anyone watch him and not think "this might be the best player in the league!!!!" Are those two even different? I guess one is local, the other global.
EF: Right, I think "MVP" has in many ways just become the reflexive chant for the best player on the home team (or, as is often the case for Kobe, the road team). If I were to chant "MVP" for Monta, it would be because I paid to see him play and wanted to shower him with love, to let him know that to us he is as valuable as Kobe or LeBron. Obviously this is not objectively true, but for the faithful, in the heat of the moment, it is.
BS: Here's the difference between Griffin and Monta: in Ellis's case, it's inaccurate and shows a lack of imagination. Or is at least really, really subjective. For Griffin, what else are you supposed to say? A primal scream would get you thrown out.
EF: Well, I think the most basic chant you can do is rhythmically yelling the guy's name. Except "GRIF-FIN" sounds sort of dumb and doesn't get across the full terror of what he does on the court. As you say, primal screams would get you kicked out, and as far as I know humans cannot roar like dragons. So they chant "MVP" because it's something people do for great players. The difference for me is that Griffin plays in a way that limits your chant options, whereas Monta is so creative at the rim that you should do your best to match him.
BS: You're the Warriors fan. Why can't you guys come up with some funny catch-phrases, or wacky vocalizations? But then you get into this weird thing where fans basically do their own calls of the game. Yelling. All at once. Saying different things. That sounds awful.
EF: We've had a hard enough time coming up with a good nickname for Monta; my favorite is "Montaneous Combustion" and that's just because it's so terrible. By the way, when did we decide fans had to be rational? Didn't everyone love it when Cleveland fans burned LeBron jerseys. And would it actually sound better if Warriors fans did "M-I-P" for Monta (I think he could win it again) or Clips fans did "R-O-Y" for Griffin? Crowds are supposed to be manic and exist outside the boundaries of regular social comportment.
BS: The best thing about all this? The MVP award makes no sense and has absolutely no clear criteria for it. So who's to say what makes sense and what doesn't?
EF: Right, some people might argue that Ellis and Griffin actually are the most valuable players for their teams? Maybe they'd both go 0-82 without them. Also, in Griffin's case I think you can even make the argument that bringing relevance to the Clippers is the most impressive achievement of the NBA season.
BS: Wait, is MVP valuable to team, or to the league? You could argue that Griffin being this good on the Clips is terrible, and it would be better if he waited until he played somewhere else.
EF: We don't know what MVP is. I think some writers vote for the guys most valuable to their fantasy teams.
BS: That's the only explanation for the LeBron chant at Staples, right? Or were they making fun of him for winning it without winning a title?
EF: I just assume that every LeBron chant is now sarcastic. I thought the standard was "Count the Rings," though.
BS: When he's announced as "at small forward," that's sarcastic?
EF: Maybe people should just be introduced by their accomplishments from now on. That why all the fans can organize their chants and get their facts straight.
BS: Introductions are about the past. The future is still wide open.
How The West Was Won
This weekend's biggest movie, at least based on an informal sample of a bunch of people on Twitter, was the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit". The Works has already dealt with the long and storied career of Jeff Bridges, but "True Grit" is more than just a vehicle for Bridges. It's one of those new-fangled Westerns that mixes up all of the genres -- and the perfect lens through which to understand, say, the all-over-the-place Orlando Magic. Actually, the Western in its many forms helps us understand many of the leagues best teams:
Classic Western (guy with a hat rides a horse and saves the day)
Team: New York Knicks
Analysis: All was wrong at Madison Square Garden until Amar'e Stoudemire came to town and ridded the site of all bad vibes. Just give him a six-shooter and a ten-gallon.
Noir Western (a dark, moody Western preoccupied with psychology and the implications of violence)
Example: "Blood on the Moon"
Team: Denver Nuggets
Analysis: Carmelo Anthony still leads the Nuggets into battle, but it's unclear what's going through his mind while he does it. Is his heart still in it? Does he want to get out of the game?
Spaghetti Western (a mostly silent anti-hero saves a desolate town from bandits)
Example: "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly"
Team: Chicago Bulls
Analysis: Derrick Rose is a bad interview with the media and succeeds on the court with a no-nonsense style of hard drives to the hoop. He'd fit right in with Sergio Leone.
Posse Western (in which a bunch of mercenary guys join forces to be awesome together).
Example: "The Magnificent Seven"
Team: Miami Heat
Analysis: LeBron, Wade, and Bosh banded together for one purpose: to win multiple championships. That's a far cry from doing it for the money, which usually happens in these movies, but the mercenaries always end up as morally strong heroes by the end.
Parody Western (has a little fun with the genre)
Example: "Blazing Saddles"
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Analysis: The Grizzlies have a pass-first point guard, a solid all-around shooting guard, a dynamite scorer, a 20/10 power forward, and a rugged center. So why is everything they do so damn funny?
Post-Western (deconstructs, or strips the romance away from, the Western)
Team: Utah Jazz
Analysis: The Jazz get the job done with the same pick-and-roll play and hardnosed defense that has defined Jerry Sloan's teams for decades. Still, they very rarely seem to be having any fun while they do it. (EF & BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.