November 16, 2017

Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Lakers, Warriors


Sometimes, things are what they are. Unless they aren’t. Every shot thrown at the rim isn’t the same. A Ray Allen rhythm pull-up in space isn’t equal to Ben Wallace taking a contested fade away from the free-throw line, even if both find the bottom of the net. No matter how deep into the NBA’s atomic structure an analytically adept front office maestro looking for any slight advantage would like to dive, it’s never “all about numbers.” And no matter how hard the crusty, round shouldered legends sneer at the rise of data-driven nature of the modern NBA, the “eye test” no longer is enough.

Funny thing, it was NEVER an either-or kind of thing. The following exchange is not a reenactment. Don’t try this level of nuance at home (just kidding. Please, try to use nuance and context like this daily when you’re talking basketball).

James Holas

Summertime, and the living is easy. We’re so starved for NBA action, approximately 265 articles and blog posts have went up about the schedule being released. We’re pathetic.

So I got YouTube YouTubing, watching mixes and highlight packages from around the league, covering last season (Russell Westbrook and Jaylen brown are my go-to, but you knew that).

And up pops “Kevin Durant’s 2017 Full Series highlights.”

I don’t mean to stop and stare, but damn. I’m transfixed. Sometimes you forget he’s 7-feet tall until you see him on the perimeter, towering over LeBron James as he lofts a pinpoint perfect lob to a cutting Draymond Green. It’s mystifying watching him snare a defensive board right under the rim, then five dribbles later, slam home two; or beating the shot clock buzzer with a three under pressure, rising up and flicking it as easily as you or I tossing a crumpled napkin into the waste bin. On one possession he’s stoning power forward Kevin Love in the post for his fifth block of the game, then the next, crossing Lebron out of his signature shoes and finishing over a flailing Love and Bron; the pop-out and quick three with Bron draped all over him like a cheap suit, then the slithery walk-up late game dagger in Game 3. There’s a dizzying array of spins, drives, blocks, and three-pointers.

In the five-game gentleman’s sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Durant’s Finals were sublime: 35 points, eight rebounds, and five assists per game on 50-40-90 shooting. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. LeBron in 2015 was a force of nature, morphing into a volume scorer out of necessity, but as his numbers ballooned, the efficiency cratered.

This was one of the best scorers in the history of the NBA, on the biggest stage, against the Golden State Warriors’ stiffest competition, taking his lofty game to another level. This was a 7-foot small forward defending the paint and terrorizing passing lanes.

With a decade in the NBA, four scoring titles, an MVP and, finally, a ring in hand (and by the looks of it, at least two or three more in the very near future), can we start asking where Kevin Durant ranks historically? Not full legacy-wise, his story is still being written…but as a player, exactly how great is he?

Jesse, I’m going to come out and ask you, flat out: is this version of Kevin Durant better than Kobe Bryant ever was?

Jesse Blanchard

Whew, that was a long and impressive introduction for Kevin Durant. I have to admit, when you put it that way, it seems like I only have one non-torn achilles ravaged leg to stand on. But you’d be amazed what some people can do on one leg.

So, what’s my response to your impressive introduction of Kevin Durant, formerly of House Thunder, First of his name, the Unbrushed, King of the Andals, Rider of Coat Tails, Reaper of Slim, Breaker of Bron and deserter of OKC?

This is Kobe Bryant.

*Awkward and expectant pause*

He’s the Black f-ing Mamba.

There’s a reason I can raise my arms like the Night King and, with but a whisper of his name, summon forth an endless horde of mindless Kobe stan zombies to break the wall between San Diego and Temecula. And, if we’re being frank, do you really want to start off unloading all your ammo up front while representing a player who blew a 3-1 lead the last time he led his own team?

James Holas

Ah, off the top ropes with the 3-1 jokes. Real mature, Jesse. I could bring up Bean Bryant blatantly giving up against Steve Nash’s Suns, his Los Angeles Lakers yakking away a 24-point lead to the hated Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals, or his passivity while those same Celtics curbstomped the Lakers 131-92 in Game 6, but I’m too not going to lower myself to your level.

Wait. Yes I am.

And, news flash: for all the talent surrounding Durant in the Bay, he’s STILL the best player on that team. Him missing 20 games skewed the numbers a bit, but he and Curry were neck and neck in scoring, even though Durant took two less shots a night.

Since the inception of the three-point line, there have been seven seasons of at least 25 points,  eight rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting at least 37 percent from downtown. Durant owns two of those (LeBron has one, Larry Legend the other four).

Kobe was a relentless scorer who owns two scoring titles in his 20-year career. The one from 2006 was especially memorable as he poured in 35.4 points per game. Impressive as hell….but Durant already has snagged four scoring in his 10 year career.

KD turns 29 in September. Let’s look at some numbers from Kobe Bryant and Kevin  Durant, ages 24 to 28 (Durant’s current age). You choose:

pts/36 TS% ast/36 rbs/36 TOV% 3pt% PER DWS WS/48
Guy 1 27.9 64% 4.9 7.7 12.6 39.3% 28.5 18.1

.282

Guy 2 26.7 56% 4.8 5.2 11.9 34.9% 25.6 13.9

.199

Pretty sure you can guess who’s who, so I’m curious, what exactly would elevate Kobe Bean Bryant over Durant besides, “He’s Kobe Freakin’ Bryant?” Take the names away, take the emotion out of it, and it becomes pretty obvious, right?

Oh, and it’s one thing to cough up a 3-1 lead to a 73-win juggernaut being led by the first unanimous MVP ever, it’s another to cough one up to Steve Nash, Boris Diaw, and Tim Thomas, like Kobe did in the first round of 2006, when he, y’know, quit on the Lakers.

Jesse Blanchard

I don’t want to get caught up on this in this post, but I also don’t want to let your Kevin Durant vs. Stephen Curry statement slide as something to be accepted without pause. It’s going to have to be an issue for another time.

Hopefully, our readers can move past the jokes in our opening salvos and realize these are players to be respected. At the same time, I think, as Celtics and San Antonio Spurs fans, we should take some glee in not-so-subtle shots acknowledging the shortcomings each had in the playoffs. Both have their share of triumphs and tribulations.

Moving on to direct comparisons, I’m not going to win in an argument in a head-to-head battle of efficiency and advanced stats.

Kevin Durant’s are tied, in part, to the NBA he grew up in and, because of this, the basketball values imparted upon him.

Fortunately, as the man who trademarked Them™, you understand the need for a view beyond numbers.

Kobe Bryant didn’t value these things nearly as much as Durant. Much of the polarization of Bryant stems from a player who was probably among the three or four most talented and skilled of all time, applying his wares in hero ball ways which were obviously, even before a time where everything was quantified, less than optimal (and probably diminishing).

Because of this, it’s easy to view the latter parts of Bryant’s career, when his game slipped enough to stop justifying the approach, and create a negative caricature.

Now, you can and should absolutely criticize Kobe for this. It’s probably what keeps him outside the top 10 players ever. However, there is something to be said about a man who stubbornly went out of his way to do things his way in a manner most agreed was less than optimal, and still found so much success.

The production between the two is close enough where success at the highest levels matter. And, for what it’s worth, here are the highest four Playoff Win Shares from each:

2009 2001 2010 2008

Kobe Bryant

4.7 3.8 3.6

3.2

2012

2011 2017

2014

Kevin Durant 4.0 3.3 3.1

2.5

If you’re going to use Win Shares against me, I think it’s important to factor in the playoffs where, ostensibly, Kobe narrowed his focus to a certain degree on winning at all costs.

I think Durant’s Basketball-Reference page tells the story of a historically deadly efficient scorer finding the absolute best ways to do things. My argument would be Kobe’s story was of a more gifted player who stubbornly refused to always do the right thing and, in spite of this, found more overall success than Durant has up to this point in his career.

James Holas

Holy moly. “Stubbornly refused to always do the right thing and, in spite of this, found more overall success.” You’re surreptitiously using the Mamba Mentality as why. You’re really doing this.

Win shares is a cumulative statistic, right? It’s no coincidence that in your comparisons, Kobe played in more games in three of your four comparisons (the first, third and fourth), and played a net total of 12 more games in your examples.  

Let’s shift to playoff Win Shares per 48 minutes and take a look at how their top four years look from that perspective (the parentheses are games played in the respective playoff run):

2001 2009 2010

2008

Kobe

.260 (16) .238 (23) .190 (23)

.178 (21)

2017

2011 2013

2012

Durant

.280 (15) .231 (20) .217 (17) .210 (20)

Little different now, huh? In three of their four best years, it’s Durant pretty clearly operating at a higher level.

(Just so you know, I’m disgusted you made me dig into this sort of “Them™”-like analysis.)

So you can play up the Black Mamba mythos, and I get it. Part of what makes great players legendary is the narrative. One thing I think we’ll agree on, Kobe’s charisma and “cool” factor are light-years ahead of “The Servant.” (That’s ANOTHER thing in Bean’s favor: self-anointed nicknames are corny, but The Servant is WAY more wack than “Mamba”).

Maybe one day Durant will incite the type of awe and panic that Kobe did, but for now, the reality of Kobe’s clutch numbers doesn’t really matter when the players trying to stop him BELIEVED in the “clutch Kobe” fable.

And while I’m still shaking my head at you intellectually invoking “killer gene,” I’ll begrudgingly agree Kobe’s near pathologically short memory for misses and willingness to go 6-for-24 has to be a factor (not a large enough factor to overcome the mountain of evidence in my favor, but a factor nonetheless).

Durant is still scripting his story, and judging by his scintillating Finals, the best may be yet to come. Would you be surprised if KD was rocking to three or four rings by 2021?  Bryant has already entered the Pantheon, of course, and this isn’t meant to be disrespectful to his legacy. But I think the age of 24/7 access to our NBA heroes might having us taking them for granted now more than ever. We’re numb to the sight of a 7-footer, not just tweeting about, but executing the ol’ “hesi pull up jimbo”.

Kobe had the mentality, intelligence and work ethic to analyze the game of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan down to the atomic level and infuse it into his DNA, remixing the Black Cat into the Legend of Black Mamba. But the Slim Reaper, he’s something we’ve never seen, and we just witnessed him unleash his arsenal in the finals, burning down every Cleveland defender in his path.

The scariest thing is Durant will be even more comfortable and confident in his second year with the Warriors. Kevin Durant is only 28; Kobe had six more years of elite play after this same point. LeBron is five years and counting past his 28th birthday and shows no major signs of slowing.

I get how jarring it may be that a “once in a generation” player of Bryant’s caliber just retired and is ALREADY being overtaken, but that’s a testament to the level of excellence in the current NBA. By the year 2055, the Top 50 of all time will look significantly different and the current crop of NBA stars will be well represented.

All of this is my fancy way of saying time marches on and the young gun becomes the old head. We can’t stop progress, and we can’t stop Durant, on the court or on the ladder of history.

Jesse Blanchard

Right now, every member of Them™ is smugly smiling at your last rebuttal. I mean, from the moment I included Playoff Win Shares, in their minds they were screaming, “IT’S A CUMULATIVE STAT, WHAT IS THIS GUY EVEN DOING?” For Them™..wait, I’m sorry… for Y’all™ (haha), this is probably the “gotcha” moment where my argument unravels.

But you see, I saw the Win Shares per 48 minutes statistics for both players. They’re literally sitting right next to the stats I used; impossible to miss. I know they don’t bode well for Bryant. So, realizing the most obvious counter would be at your disposal the moment you checked Basketball-Reference, I must be up to something, right?

Here’s my payoff for paragraphs of planning: those extra playoff games you pointed out that account for Bryant’s edge in Playoff Win Shares in each season, THOSE are the stats that matter.

Why do we project statistics out to per 48 or per 36 minutes, or find averages per X amount of possessions over the course of a regular season? One simple answer is to put everyone on even ground and evaluate from there. There are players like Manu Ginobili, who are every bit as good as the All-Stars with higher counting stats, but whose coaches use them in roles not conducive to getting those numbers. Then, there are really good players who are on really shitty teams, and you need to dig deep and project and quantify to find the value they might add in a more stable situation.

But the playoffs? When critiquing the most elite of players–guys whose production are close enough to be splitting hairs–cumulative matters. Counting stats matter. But, more importantly, those extra playoff games (and wins) matter.

This is why players and coaches don’t like when a writer like Shane Young, who does commendably hard work, says something like, “The Boston Celtics are one of the worst No. 1 seeds in NBA history.”

He projected the Celtics to be a shaky No. 1 seed before the playoffs based on Net Rating, which is fair, but then made the mistake of doubling down on calling them that AFTER they reached the Eastern Conference Finals.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These tools are important, valuable additions to our understanding of the game. Only an idiot would dismiss them outright. But at some point, point differentials, win shares and per minutes or possessions projections don’t matter. What a team or player actually accomplishes matters. A guy who can go 40 minutes at a high level in a playoff game is more valuable than one who can only put in 32 minutes, all else being relatively equal.

A guy who was central to his team playing more playoff games matters. And especially so for Kobe Bryant vs. Kevin Durant.

Before leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Warriors, Kevin Durant wasn’t some tortured Titan like Kevin Garnett, forever dragging a boulder weighted by inept teammates up a hill every year like Sisyphus, only to be swiftly knocked back down.

Durant and Bryant are and were extremely privileged players, coming into their own on quality teams with All-NBA teammates. They were and are both the second best players of their generation, and both had to deal with Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. Hell, they both won their first championship as the second biggest offensive threat on their teams.

The difference is, given comparable resources, Bryant has won more. And I know Durant’s story is far from over, which is frightening, but again, we’re not projecting.

I don’t subscribe to the clutch gene theory. For my money or my life, if I’m going hero ball, I’d rather give the ball to Dirk Nowitzki on a final possession. I’d even prefer an ATO play drawn up by Brad Stevens to letting Bryant force a bad final shot. But I’d also prefer those things over Durant doing the same.

And I don’t buy into the Mamba mythos. I don’t think it’s cool. Truth be told, it comes across as being a bit of an asshole and detrimental. If I were a GM, maybe I’d take Durant solely for the culture and my own bit of sanity. But, that’s not what we’re debating here.

Both of these guys are simultaneously overhyped and underrated as defensive players. Both have shown the ability to be elite, shutdown defensive players, but neither are on the same level as a Duncan, Michael Jordan or even Hakeem Olajuwon in the ability to anchor both an offense and defense throughout a season, or even a series.

When Kobe Bryant had Shaquille O’Neal, he could drift in and out of being the focus of the offense, reserving the energy to get into a player’s jersey and make life hell for one player, or swarming passing lanes while still recovering to his own man.

With the Warriors, Kevin Durant has the luxury of doing the same, delegating offensive responsibilities to turn up his swarming, rim protecting defense.

Neither have shown that rare ability to expend energy on both for extended periods of time without suffering diminishing returns.

Offensively, having watched my favorite team suffer on the wrong end of both players’ brilliance, Bryant scared me more. Kevin Durant can get a shot up anywhere with deadly efficiency, but as a better ball handler with more explosive athletic ability, Bryant was a bigger threat to get anywhere on the court, drawing more attention.

Kobe is, probably, the greatest difficult shot maker in the history of the NBA. Hell, he’s probably the most skilled offensive player in NBA history. We’re talking about a man who, in one summer, would steal your signature move and, as next spring turned into early summer, use it to steal your soul.

As for being 7-feet tall with guard skills, that’s definitely an advantage. But go find me a defensive player whose height mattered to Kobe enough for this advantage to matter for Durant.

And, if Bryant has one final edge, there’s nothing more difficult than being hyper competent AND batshit crazy. There are probably few things more dangerous than a person who’s both. And Kobe Bryant, my friend, was that dangerous brand of batshit crazy.

Yes, Bryant often eschewed working for better shots in favor of letting his imagination run wild on inventive difficult ones. And, yes, that diminishes his efficiency and stats to a certain degree, which keeps him behind other players who utilized their slightly fewer gifts better. But if you’re going to use those things to argue a player over him, that player better have done more with his superior efficiency. Durant hasn’t…yet.  

Kobe and Shaq were supposed to rule the Western Conference for years to come, and did. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to rule the Western Conference with the same iron fist and…well…Durant is with the Warriors now.

Now, I realize my volume writing has carried on with more attempts than Kobe on a greedy day, and narrating my own nefariously complicated traps make me sound like a shitty anime villain, but that’s just the Mamba Mentality, my friend.

Kevin Durant may have achieved success at success. But has he achieved success at success at success?

You’re welcome.

James Holas

Are you high?

Seriously? “Greatest difficult shot maker” is what we’re doing here?

Are…is this really Charles Barkley that I’m arguing with?

Like, if your argument is “He jus’ WON MOAR, ERNEH”, I guess I’ll have to acquiesce to that. Kobe DID win more.

He did it with another top 10ish player and arguably the most dominant big man ever.

He did it against woefully overmatched New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers, and Philadelphia 76ers teams.

He did it with Phil Jackson at the helm instead of Scott Brooks or first year NBA coach Billy Donovan.  

He did it in an time of no Prime LeBron James and two other Hall of Famers in his path.

He did it without the Warriors’ Death machine to contend with.

None of this is to diminish what Kobe did. I promise. But if we’re going to nuance, let’s go full nuance and recognize this ISN’T an algebraic equation where you plug in numbers and voila, read the ledger. Every championship run is its own entity. Every era has its own intricacies. Just as Karl Malone and Charles Barkley had the dastardly luck to be born under the star of Michael Jordan, Durant (and a lot of of other future NBA legends) best years unfortunately coincided with Lebron and his two Hall of Fame-bound friends joining forces in South Beach, then got ambushed by the meteoric rise of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green raining fire in the Bay Area.

“Better player” isn’t about better resume. There’s a very real argument (not from me, though) that Lebron James is a “better” basketball player than Michael Jordan, despite a three to six rings deficit. Scottie Pippen has a fistful of rings plus one more; that’s a ton of winning. Hakeem has two. What’s that mean?

Let’s say you warp the 2009 Lakers to the present and shove them into the Oracle, where the 2016 Warriors and 20,000 raging Dubs fans await. How do Kobe, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum fare in a series?

Send the swan song KD-Russ Thunder back to 2002, and have them face off against Jason Kidd’s Nets. You telling me Russ and Durant aren’t eviscerating Keith Van Horn and Kerry kittles in the Finals?

So much of winning rings depends on not just talent and perspiration, but timing, luck, era, fit and the stars aligning. So, nah.

It’s remarkable to watch this unfold. It’s dawning on me what’s happening; a cold chill just roiled down my spine.

The 3-1 joke.

The high brow “Mamba Mentality” reference.

“The greatest difficult shot maker in the history of the NBA.”

Dear lord. Twitter has become sentient, and I’m being trolled by a Them™ account bred with #KobeHive to form a new, more arrogant form of Kobe fandom. The world is going to burn.

Jesse Blanchard

Well, I am in Denver at the moment, so…

I’m not suggesting the Durant-Westbrook Thunder wouldn’t wax Austin Croshere or Kerry Kittles. I’m telling you they wouldn’t get by Kobe Bryant. Also, near prime Tim Duncan probably eviscerates them too, getting enough help from a David Robinson who could still kind of get up and down the court to get by.

However, I’m willing to take the L here if the counter is Pau Gasol was better than Russell Westbrook, or if that’s too much, the Gasol-Lamar Odom tandem were better than Westbrook-Ibaka.

That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to take to remember how good those guys were.

James Holas.

NO, Jess; we can argue “Prime Pau or Prime Russ” some other time, but that’s completely missing the point. The counter is: the 2009 Celtics missing their starting center and the 2010 Magic weren’t on the level of the 2012 Heat, 2014 Spurs, or the 2016, 73-win Golden State Warriors.

Jesse Blanchard

That’s fair. The Boston Celtics remain undefeated with their starting five intact, as Doc Rivers would proudly tell you. But 2012 Duncan wasn’t 1999-2005 Duncan either. And those Sacramento Kings weren’t easy to deal with.

James Holas

*Cough*Refs*cough*

Jesse Blanchard

Oh, you mean the same refs that T’d up 55-year old Stephen Jackson when he was giving Durant the business in 2012, ruining the Spurs’ momentum in Game 6?

Can I summon my army of mindless zombie Kobe stans yet?

(That felt disgusting to type).

James Holas

Dude, if you were hanging your hopes in that spot, on that stage, on THAT version of Stephen Jackson, you’ve got bigger issues than the refs. But I digress.

Basketball is about more than numbers in a box score, and Win Shares, and VORP, and efficiency stats. That’s been my drum to beat. And I definitely agree, in the “intangibles” field of the checklist, Kobe has the “grit” and “swagger” boxes checked, the “fear factor” section belongs to Bean. But you’ve got to admit that, swap Durant for Kobe, that Shaq partnership may have continued on for a decade, Bryant’s demeanor may have done almost as much damage as it did good.

Jesse Blanchard

Yes, KD and Shaq probably last a bit longer. Not necessarily because Durant is a better player, but because he wouldn’t call Shaq a fat ass who needs to get in shape in the same way he never told Westbrook to pass the ball. That’s just Mamba leadership.

(Kidding).

This was fun. As a Spurs’ guy, I look forward to taking a long, hot shower to wash this volume writing off of me and getting back to the other side where I can yell at Lakers’ fans about how Kobe was overrated relative to Duncan and LeBron (just not Durant). Also, to go full horrible sports radio hot takes guy, we all know Durant’s only Finals appearances came on the strength of some jerk taking out a Spurs’ small forward in non-basketball ways.

James Holas

“Take a long, hot shower.” Yeah ok, you’re not about to go fry your motherboard in a bathtub. You can’t fool me, sentient robot. I’m installing the best malware $16.99 can buy and calling one of Jesse’s neighbors to go check on him. No way in hell is this Jesse “Go Spurs Go” Blanchard telling me Kobe taking bad shots is actually GOOD. I’m onto you, SkyNet.


 

BBALLBREAKDOWN Staff

Occasionally, we write together.

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