Kobe or Lebron?

Kobe Bryant has led the Los Angeles Lakers back to the NBA finals. As a result, Bryant is once again the toast of the league. An article in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, for example, contends that no current NBA player can compare to Bryant and implies that the proper comparison is to Michael Jordan. As for Lebron James, the article quotes one NBA scout as follows: “The difference between Kobe and LeBron James is the difference between a Maserati and a Volvo.”

However, a look at this year’s regular season statistics suggests otherwise. I am not aware of statistics that meaningfully measure defensive performance (for what it’s worth the two players’ steals per game are identical and LeBron has more than twice as many blocked shots). But when it comes to statistics that measure offense and rebounding, LeBron clearly does not take a backseat to Kobe; if anything it may be the other way around.

Here are the numbers (minutes per game are nearly the same):

Points per game — LeBron 30.0; Kobe 28.3
Rebounds per game — LeBron 7.9; Kobe 6.3
Assists per game — LeBron 7.2; Kobe 5.4
Assist to turnover ratio — LeBron 2.11; Kobe 1.72
Two point shooting percentage — LeBron .531; Kobe .490
Three point shooting percentage — LeBron .315; Kobe .361
Blended shooting efficiency — LeBron .518; Kobe .503
Free throw shooting percentage — LeBron .713; Kobe .840
Made free throws per game — LeBron 7.3; Kobe 7.6

Thus, the only areas where Kobe has a significant advantage are three point shooting percentage and free throw percentage. But LeBron’s superior two point shooting percentage more than offsets Kobe’s edge from beyond the three point line. This is shown by the blended shooting efficiency number, which takes into account the extra value of the three point shot (in other words going 3 for 5 on two point shots becomes the equivalent of going 2 for 5 on three pointers because in both cases 5 shots produce six points). And Kobe’s edge in accuracy from the free throw line is offset to a significant degree by the fact that LeBron gets to line 1.3 times per game more often than Kobe (10.3 attempts compared to 9.0 attempts).

To be sure, Kobe has led his team to the NBA finals. But LeBron did this last year. And this year, his team was a few bounces away from defeating the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. The Celtics have the best record in the NBA and will face the Lakers in the finals.

At age 23, LeBron has demonstrated that he can take a mediocre supporting cast deep into the playoffs. Kobe, when surrounded by a mediocre cast (about which he complained incessantly) during the three seasons before this one, missed the playoffs once and was eliminated in the first round twice, albeit in a tougher conference. Kobe may be better than LeBron, but I couldn’t find objective evidence that shows this to be the case.

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