The Eclectic Quill

March 29, 2009

Getting Defensive about Kobe and Lebron

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kelly @ 6:08 pm

Over the last few weeks I’ve done a couple of entries highlighting in whole or in part, a comparison between these two players, widely accepted as the candidates for best player in the world and/or the top candidates for MVP of the NBA. One of the arguments in favor of Kobe that often goes unchallenged is the notion that he is the superior defensive player. I set about to see if that notion is true. You might find the results surprising.

From the outset let me say, I know most people would say that Kobe is a vastly superior defensive player and will probably look at what I’ve written here and chalk it off to some platitude about "statistics not telling the whole story" or something of the sort, and respond with a comment about how "everybody knows Kobe is better" and then point to his all defensive team awards as the evidence. However, I’d like to point out that those awards are given based on perception, which may or may not be accurate. For instance many of the same people will say that, in the clutch, Kobe is the man you want taking a game winning shot, however the facts show a different story. There are 35 players in the NBA who have taken at least 20 "game winning" shot attempts in the last five year. Of those only Chauncy Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal and Mike Miller have a lower field goal percentage. So perhaps he is the one you’d want taking that shot…if he’s the fifth guy on that team, but then, maybe you’d prefer someone else entirely. In contrast, with six fewer shot attempts (50) James has made three more shots for a total of 17 game winners in the last 5 years, the most of anyone in the NBA. My point here isn’t really to get into a discussion about who’s the better clutch shooter though, it’s to show that simply because something is perceived to be so it isn’t necessarily so. It could actually be the other way around. Such is Kobe and defense.

Measuring defense is a bit tricky. There’s not a lot to go by with conventional ways of measuring stats. Generally there are only two, steals and blocks, which find their way into the box score. Lebron clearly has the edge there with 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game compared to Kobe’s 1.4 steals and .5 blocks. The problem with those though is that at most it’s going to tell you what happened on three or four plays out of the roughly 75 plays a player is going to have on defense in a typical NBA game. So what’s he doing the rest of the time? How can you measure the other 95 percent of the defense? Well there are a couple of different stats divined by some pretty smart basketball people like Hollinger and 82games.com. The only thing is that those numbers don’t read into the things that we typically understand so they get met with a certain degree of chagrin by the typical fan. The numbers aren’t the kinds of numbers we are used to seeing. So I set about to resolve that issue.

What’s the main thing a player is supposed to do on defense? It’s not to get a block or a steal, it’s to stop his guy from scoring, or helping someone else to score. Points and assists are things we’re used to seeing in box scores so I set about to see had given up more points and assists. I went through the box scores of every game of the season for both teams and tracked their opposing counterpart’s numbers. I also kept track of what they averaged during the rest of the season. The reason for this is simple. If Kobe Bryant held Wade to 15 points in a game while Lebron James surrendered 14 to Richard Jefferson then it would hardly be considered a better defensive performance by Lebron because Wade is a far better scorer. To accurately measure their respective performances I wanted to see not only how they did, but how good their opponents were as well. I’ll start off with the raw totals and then give you the comparative totals after that.

So the first look at scoring is pretty telling. Lebron’s opponents have fewer shot attempts, make less shots, shoot for a lower field goal percentage and score fewer points, and at 2.59 points, or roughly 15 percent, I would say significantly fewer points. However as I stipulated before the quality of the opponent matters as well and the question deserves to be asked, are Kobe’s numbers coming against better players? Let’s take a look at their opponents season averages.

Here we see there is some merit to this point, but not enough merit. Kobe’s opponents on average score about half a point more on the season than Lebron’s do. The difference, even if you take that half point into consideration is over two points. Also, if you look at the numbers compared to one another you’ll notice something interesting, Kobe’s opponents actually score nearly two more points playing against Kobe than they do against the rest of the league. Lebron’s opponents on the other hand actually score slightly less, .15 points less to be precise. In both cases, and if you were to do this with any starter in the NBA, it should be acknowledged that the numbers are probably going to skew high. The reason is that there times when a player who is normally sitting on the bench will start for one reason or another and offset his average considerably. Reviewing the respective game logs, while both players had opponents where this occurred neither seemed to have it happen more than the other. Kobe had 15 opponents who normally averaged single digits in scoring while Lebron had 17. I don’t think that’s enough to dramatically alter the outcome. Playing against bench starter rests on the opponents injury situation and as such, is entirely random, and random things tend to even out in the end. In terms of keeping your opponent from scoring we have to conclude that Lebron is a superior defensive player.

There’s another aspect of playing defense though and that’s to stop your defensive assignment from creating players for other players. Therefore, I also tracked how many assists each opponent had and their respective averages as well. Here’s the numbers for that.

Here we see that Kobe gives up more assists but his opponents also average more assists. Again, with Lebron we see that he gives up fewer, even taking into account that his opponents normally average fewer assists per game. However the margin doesn’t seem statistically significant enough to make any major pronouncement. We’ll call this one a wash. Still, considering all these things together it’s hard to say that Kobe is better defensively than Lebron. Lebron gets more steals, more blocks, gives up fewer points and fewer assists, even taking his position into account.

Now that we’ve got that to look at, and it’s understandable that Defensive Rating and the likes are not just stats pulled out of the air, but based on actual play, let’s take another look at their comparisons in some of these formulaic stats.

*Lower numbers are better

In all three of the main formulaic stats we see that Lebron is a superior defensive player. If you want more information on any of them, Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares are at Basketball-Reference.com and the Roland Ratings are at 82games.com. Before hyperventilating about people "twisting" numbers though, I’d advise you take the time to actually take a look at what the formula is attempting to do. Previously people have argued against some of the formulaic stats because they don’t "take into account" such and such without realizing that the entire intent of the formulas was to take into account such and such. Fair criticism is fair game but off the cuff criticism is pointless.

As far as my methodology goes, I can see two potential, and somewhat legitimate points of criticism.  1) Obviously every point and/or assists made by the counterpart of the player in question; additionally bench players could also have totals not included and 2) both players from time to time will guard off-position players.

I ended up considering that there’s no reason to believe that there would be an appreciable distinction in the effect on one player over the other. In other words, I’d find it hard to believe that all the production of Kobe’s players were coming against backups while all of the production against Lebron was coming while he was on the floor. Without some sort of logic to conclude that there would be disparity in the offsets then there’s no reason to think it would change the overall results. In other words, while I accept that both players numbers might be affected separately, there’s no reason to expect one player to be affected more than the other by this occurrence.

As far as guarding someone out of position goes, here’s my thinking. If someone is "hot," particularly at your position your going to want the best defensive player guarding them. I mean you aren’t going to have Kobe guarding a small forward while the shooting guard is ripping the Lakers for 20-30 points. To determine if there was any affect here I checked 20+ performances by each players opponent. Kobe has given up over 20 points 28 times to Lebron’s 14. This angle tends to favor Lebron.

On the other hand, if you’re going into it and facing an opponent that scores over 20 per game then I’m thinking the same logic would apply. The player would cover the star. Therefore I checked what they did against opponents with 20+ averages. In those instances Lebron’s opponents averaged an average of 23.34 normally and 19.2 against Lebron. Kobe’s opponents scored an average of 22.72 normally and 18.8 against Kobe. Lebron’s opponents netted a -4.14 on average while Kobe’s netted a -3.92 on average.

So here’s the point of all this. There’s a possible  assumption in  that factoring in all of that miscellaneous stuff is going to figure in Kobe’s favor, but when you account for it as best you can it seems that it actually favors Lebron.
My take is that there’s not enough statistical difference in these things, nor is there enough reason to suggest that it is going to impact one player more than the other.

Anyway here’s the bottom line on all of this.At the very least it’s hard to look at all of this and say that Kobe is a better defensive player. At the very least even Kobe fans must admit there’s ample room for discussion on the topic. You can talk all you want about anecdotal evidence about how Kobe shut down someone, sometime, somewhere, but day in, day out through the course of the season Lebron is playing better defense than Kobe Bryant. If we measure defense as not allowing your opponent to produce on offense then there’s no denying it. If there’s a better way to measure that then let me know, but I can’t conceive of one. Until someone comes up with a better definition though, I’ll stand by my claim—this year Lebron James is a better defensive player than Kobe Bryant.

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16 Comments »

  1. ok, ok u say that lebron has 17 game winners in the last 5 years? Get your facts straight. Lebron hit his first career- game winner against the wariiors this season. And How do we know this is accurate(even if they are guards are better scorers than forwards most of the time so that’s why your stats are on lebrons side)? Look, Im a lebron and kobe fan. theyre both amazing but kobe is better. hes got way more offensive weapons. all lebron has is drives in the paint. I won’t say one is better than the other in defense id give it a tie.

    Comment by Brandon — March 30, 2009 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

    • Brandon,

      My facts are straight, yours are not. http://82games.com/gamewinningshots.htm

      Also, first, Lebron has over 100 3 pointers, which, last I checked was well outside of the paint. Second, points in the paint still count.

      Comment by kelly — March 30, 2009 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  2. One major point that you are missing out when you list the potential problems of your own analysis is the affect of the rest of the team.

    The cavs are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA this year. Whilst some of this is obviously down to Lebron’s own defensive ability it is also due to the ability of his teammates.

    Having Ben Wallace helping you out is going to give you a big advantage when it comes to limiting your opposite number’s scoring.

    Comment by Joe — March 30, 2009 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

    • Joe,

      FYI, those forumulaic stats I mentioned are pace adjusted.

      Comment by kelly — March 30, 2009 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

  3. lebron hit his first buzzer beater for a win this year. he has had plenty of game winners with only a few seconds left on the clock that ultimately ended up winning the game. please get your facts straight.

    Comment by tom — March 30, 2009 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  4. @1,2, and 3

    just watch the games! you people cant admit that LBJ is better than Kobe… just cant. so better shut up and keep your comments for yourselves.

    @ brandon

    ‘all lebron has is drives in the paint’, are you watching his games? c’mon! yes, he always drives and always get a +1.

    you’re as dumb as the people who say that lebron’s chase-down blocks are so dumb coz they go out of bounds. and what so dumb about that? blocking a sure 2 point is dumb?! c’mon!

    Comment by Junn — March 30, 2009 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  5. Kelly i think you should post these facts those the r2mvp guys on nba.com. Everything you say make sense i know the kobe fans will be mad to hear the truth but they’ll have to deal with it . keep up the good work. you ‘re great

    Comment by LUC DOUZE — March 30, 2009 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  6. lebron is an overrated superstar,,if you can see how how he play the game,he plays like a dunker,,he finish it to the rim,,,while kobe can spin,,dunk,.,,take a 3,,lay up,,+1,,fade away,
    lebron does the same thing everyday.. mvp is not about the stats,,kobe plays last 4 years with a magnificent stats but other player won the mvp,,
    c’mon 81 points,,60+points these yeAR,have to think about it

    Comment by alan — March 30, 2009 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  7. alan,

    Are you serious. If you think that then you don’t watch Lebron, you only listen to Kobe fans talk about Lebron.

    Lebron’s 3 pt FG% on the season is .002 lower than Kobe’s. Are you telling me that the difference between great and deficient is .002? Lebron has mad over 100 3s on the season, so no I just flat out don’t accept your argument. Also, your like Steve, pretending that somehow it matters HOW the points are scored. I don’t care how pretty the points are going in, they count the same on the scoreboard.

    Also, as far as Kobe not having the stats, the Lakers don’t have the record either. The Cavs are a better team, more dependent on Lebron AND Lebron has the better stats. Geesh. It’s like you Lakers fans REFUSE to take your head out of the ground.

    Comment by kelly — March 30, 2009 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  8. News Flash, Kobe lower his stats for the productive contribution of his teammates…

    I give credit to Lebron for rising up, but saying Lebron is a better defender on Kobe is just crap!!!
    analysis is just same as a theory, it ain’t matter. How can you say Lebron is better than Kobe when you yourself don’t even have the chance to play on both of them…

    and look for the record, being the best player or even the best defensive player is not measure in a single season only!

    You talk praises to Lebron, what about Lebron having an injured knee, bruise eye, injured pinky etc can he be the best player and best defender in that same situation?
    ANSWER ME DUM AS

    Comment by jAn — March 30, 2009 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  9. you guys forget that Kobe has about a 10% better free throw ave. How can someone be called the king if they don’t have a championship yet. Cleveland has much more physical players than the lakers do which I think really helps Lebron. Kobe’s opponents score more because when he leaves Sasha Vujacic takes over. Kobe seems to be a more tactical player who doesn’t just drive to the lane while Lebron tends to throw up bricks.

    Comment by eric — March 30, 2009 @ 9:41 pm | Reply

  10. I liked your other post, but i dont see a point with this one.

    Measuring defense is like… quite impossible.

    First of all, defense is really a team effort, especially with nba teams nowadays playing sophisticated offense, and with rotations taking place almost every other play. I dont think anyone is constantly guarding one postion from the opposing teams ALL the time. Besides, hardly anyone other than superstars really shoots constantly without a screen or an open shot created through good offensive strategy.

    Of course, if you are talking abt 1-1 moments, where the opposing player tries to round you with a move or to create his own shot – but neither player has proven particularly susceptible to either of late (ignoring their first 2 yrs in the nba).

    If the point was to debunk the perception that KB is a better defensive player than LBJ, then, well, i dont think stats is the answer. It’s sort of like Ben wallace – how his defensive stats dont really stand out (at least in the last 2 yrs), but he’s still on the floor (when not injured…like now) though he contibutes less than 10 pts/10 rbds a game (which many PFs and Cs dish out regularly nowadays).

    I also think there’s a reason why coaches spend time planning matchups as well. I believe (not backed by stats) that KB would do better defensively with smaller quicker players… and LBJ with bigger, slower players.

    Where defense goes, it’s true that many pple see KB as more complete defensively, but as i explained, defense is really a team effort (unless you are a really sucky player who always leaves your man open, or constantly trips when being faked – which neither player is particularly susceptible to), so i think this post doesnt really achieve much (other than spark a debate).

    Comment by NBA2009 — March 30, 2009 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  11. no this post is clearly a bias post, its not of an argument or a debate or something.

    It’s just some kind of a Lebron fan trying to catch attention of everyone

    Comment by jAn — March 30, 2009 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

  12. jAn–

    Two things, first, I’m not sure how you can say that I can’t say anything unless I have played against them both and still take a position. Have you?

    Also, I’m not a “Lebron fan.” I’m a basketball fan. In reality I’m a fan of both players, but my team is the Bulls.

    NBA2009–
    Here’s my thing on the team defense thing. To a point I’d say you have a legit gripe, but only to a point. I think there’s some things that are true about that, and having a better team defense can benefit Lebron. When he makes a mistake he probably gets a little more help. Having said that take this into consideration. Lebron’s teammates have all been out for spells, Williams, West, Z, Varajou, and especially Wallace have all been hurt from time to time yet the Cavs have the #1 defense in the NBA. James is the only consistent factor through all of that. Add to that that when we are framing the question in terms of MVP, the team takes the attitude of its leader. The Lakers don’t have a reputation as playing hard on defense. Perhaps their lack of commitment is reflective of their “leader.” My view on Kobe is that he CAN play incredible D’ but he doesn’t always choose to. I think the Lakers as a whole have picked up on this. Pau is a decent defensive player, as is Odom, as is Bynum and as is Fisher. I believe that the only reason the Cavs are a better defensive team is effort, and that effort starts from leadership.

    Comment by kelly — March 31, 2009 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  13. Hi Kelly,

    I believe the argument in this article is well founded, and I would just suggest you take a look at a couple other defensive statistics: turnovers and personal fouls.

    It would be interesting to see the opponent’s TO totals against LeBron and Kobe, as well as PF analysis between the two.

    Thanks.

    Comment by stat — April 1, 2009 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

  14. I think the only legit reason someone could say Kobe is better than lebron would be the rings. But lebron’s never had a super star in his prime on his team. Shaq will go down as one of the greatest big men of all time. Lebron’s teamate’s are solid but they’re not super star calliber by any means. On that case, when you compare him to lebron only one of his rings count, but in the finals kobe’s team helped him a whole lot more than lebron. And by game winning shots, he doesn’t mean buzzer beaters, he means lebron scores, and his team goes back on D and gets a stop. I have grown to like Kobe but in my opinion, he’s not nearly a better all around player than lebron. Lebron James gets assists, dunks, layups and as proven by statistics lebron is right behind Kobe. So as of right now, lebron is better than Kobe. Maybe you could say Kobe is better all time but lebron is still crazy young! Lebron’s body of work will no doubt be better than kobe’s. We all know it’s only a matter of time before he gets his ring.

    Comment by Roger — January 27, 2010 @ 7:25 pm | Reply


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