Sunday, February 8, 2009

A different kind of Kobe-LeBron comparison

Note: All data referenced below does not include Sunday's Lakers-Cavs game.

In the days following Kobe's 61pt MSG show and LBJ's subsequent (corrected) 52/9/11 performance, everyone on earth has tried to decide which one was better, which player is more dominant, and so on.

Proponents of LeBron point out that Kobe's line included no rebounds and only three assists, and say he was being selfish, that LeBron was more of the team player. Kobe supporters point out that he shot 10% better from the floor and perfect from the line, so his game was actually more efficient and therefore better.

I'm not here to decide which performance was better, because in all reality it's somewhat trivial. I would, however, like to evaluate their seasons on the whole, and their impact on their respective teams (the two best coming into Sunday's action), using statistics.


I took each player's games and translated the line to a per-36 basis, as this is near each player's average. The only statistics I've used are points, rebounds, assist, and turnovers.

Data was split in a pair of sets, sorted by points per 36 minutes. The first set divided games between the top 10, the middle (29 for Kobe, 28 for LeBron), and the bottom 10, while the second set was similarly divided 15, 19 or 18, and 15. These divisions allow comparison of time-efficient scoring games to others.

Overall the 15 set appears more significant than the 10 set, and is therefore used in most of the comparisons. (Download)


The first thing I noticed was the incredible similarities across scoring sets for Kobe and LeBron. In their top 15, KB and LBJ averaged 34.9 and 34.2 respectively, along with 19.9 and 20.3 in the bottom 15, representing a 43% and 40.5% drop respectively.

Compared to their top 15 games, each sees more than a 20% increase in rebound rate and more than 40% in assist rate in their bottom 15 scoring frequency games, with a bigger bump to LeBron in boards and to Kobe in assists. As a good leader would, the two find other ways to contribute when having an off night scoring.

The two also share more than a 30% increase in turnover rate in their bottom 15 scoring games, when compared to all others. This too isn't a shock, as they'd try to force it in a poor game more than otherwise.


In terms of comparing the change from high frequency to low frequency scoring games for each player, the differences between the two's changes are minimal. On a direct comparison, as you'd expect, LeBron averages more boards and assists, while also having more turnovers.

Comparing the two on an individual level seems to be fruitless.

The Team Effect

Here's where the data gets interesting.

In LeBron's top ten frequency games, the Cavs are 10-0, while in Kobe's the Lakers are only 8-2, with losses to the Magic and Hornets. On the other hand, in LeBron's bottom ten games, the Cavs drop to 5-5, while in Kobe's the Lakers are an astounding 10-0.

This pattern persists when using the 15 game set, as the Cavs 14-1 vs. 9-6, while the Lakers are 12-3 vs 14-1, or on a percentage basis: [Cavs] 93.3% to 60% - [Lakers] 80% to 93.3%.

There are two ways to explain these results in the context of who's the better player, and more important to his team.

Case 1: LeBron James as the MVP

These team effects only prove that the Cavaliers need LeBron James. He is their motor, and there's no stopping them when LeBron is on his game. His ever-improving teammates feed off of his energy, so when he's getting to the basket and being the force he can be, then Mo, Big Z and everyone else can really take it to the opponent.

All these numbers prove for Kobe is that he's stumbled into an amazing supporting cast that covers up all his shortcomings. When Kobe gets greedy, then his team suffers.

Case 2: Kobe Bryant as the MVP

The fact that Kobe can compel his team to victory without having to score off the charts shows his value to the team. Simply the threat of Kobe's jump shot allows Gasol, Odom and Bynum to thrive. The two losses in high scoring affairs for Kobe are actually a result of him needing to take the team on his back, and simply coming up short against hot teams.

The Cavs' numbers show that LeBron can't really help his team without scoring, despite his complimentary stats. When the Cavs are down on an off-night for LeBron, he still tosses up deep shots, which aren't his forte, instead of incorporating everyone else, and the Cavs have little hope.


Both cases are probably valid, but in the end I personally have to give it to Kobe, for many of the reasons in the case stated above. Additionally, there is still nobody in the league that inspires more fear at the end of a game than Kobe Bryant. Nobody since Michael Jordan has compared at the end of the game, and he's getting the ball on the final play ten times out of ten if he's on my team.

That's my MVP.

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