Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lebron's Got Great Teammates

I can’t get away from it because it has inundated our basketball news and the blogosphere and will continue to do so for the next two seasons. So, what the hell, I’ll just roll with this Lebron wanting out business.

Because he is not quick to stomp out the rumors, and in fact adds fuel to the media’s fire about wanting to leave, today, Westcoast Slant would like to dispel the myth that Lebron James does not play with good players.

Article after article, blog after blog talks about how Lebron’s team is nowhere near the talent-level of Kobe’s team and due to his out-of-this-world stats and inherent ability to “make his teammates better,” Lebron James is hands down the best player in the L.

We’ll skip his defensive shortcomings…huge blocks, like I’m sure you’ve seen on SportsCenter or something ( are great fun to look at, but let’s not get confused with those kinds of blocks being signs of great defense. Sean Williams of the Nets was second in the league last year in blocks per 48 minutes and had some monster blocks due to his athleticism and length. This season, however, he can’t dislodge his butt from the end of the bench because of fouls and horrible defensive fundamentals.

Blocks are an overrated stat. It’s really an image thing and that goes back to the “image” of the Lakers being better than the Cavs.

Taking a charge is definitely not as pretty or exciting to watch as sending the opposition’s shot into the 8th row, but it’s always better than a blocked shot because it punishes the offender with a personal foul and a turnover. Blocks have their place (mostly the intimidation/embarrassment factor) and shot blockers definitely can act as deterrents (Mutumbo, Hakeem, etc.) that act as huge game changers…but blocks, in general, are not as valuable as taking charges. That’s why Anderson Varejao, though not flashy, is every bit as good a defender as Andrew Bynum. Just in a different way. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Now, I’m not saying the Lakers don’t have more upside talent (they are younger), but as far as production goes, this battle is closer than some might imagine.

Let’s dissect the two teams. Because Kobe and Lebron play different positions, it’s hard to exactly match up, player-for-player, position-by-position. However, there are certain skill sets that individuals bring to a team: shooting, defense, ball-movement, energy, etc. That’s how I’ve paired the players off.

Pau Gasol vs. Zydrunas Ilgauskus
Andrew Bynum vs. Anderson Verajao
Derek Fisher vs. Mo Williams
Vladimir Radmanovic vs. Wally Szczerbiak
Jordan Farmar vs. Delonte West
Sasha Vujacic vs. Daniel Gibson
Lamar Odom vs. Ben Wallace
Trevor Ariza vs. J.J. Hickson

Pau vs. Big Z
Basically, Big Z is the hairless, OG Pau (by like two years). He has a great 15-17 foot jump shot. He’s a face up, finesse-style 7-footer who can also play with his back to the basket. Great freethrow shooter for a big. An excellent offensive rebounder, but weaker on the D glass than you’d want from the tallest dude on the court. He gets a good number of blocks just because he’s so long. And he keeps his PER in the 18 to 22 range with a high water mark this season of 24.9. Pau’s a better passer and more athletic but he’s also lankier and doesn’t take up nearly the same amount of space. And he’s not quite perfected the offensive rebound like Big Z. Pau’s better, but it’s close. And, Lebron’s had Big Z for all six years. Kobe hasn’t even played a full season with Spaniard—it just seems like they’ve been balling together since they were kids.

AB vs. AV
Real talk. Anderson Varejao’s ceiling is the floor to Andrew Bynum’s two-story house, but in the here and now, they are both equally effective. Varejao is annually in the top 10 for offensive fouls drawn and is a beast on defense in ways that Bynum has not even begun to learn. He’s fantastic at showing on screens, making him great against the pick-and-roll, is the energizer bunny in the hustle department and controls the glass. Bynum’s got length and the intimidation factor going for him, but he’s 21, has never played a full season, and still seems to be a little bit too concerned with his scoring touches. Bynum’s got better box score numbers, but this is a tie.

Fish and Mo
Statistically, this one isn’t even close. Intangible-wise, it’s a wash. While last season, I would have argued that Fisher’s influence was worth at least 8 wins (6 in fact), this year, with everyone buying into Kobe’s leadership, that Fish intangible loses some of its luster. He’s putting up nearly identical numbers as last year, but shooting 2-point shots a whole lot worse. Mo’s playing worse than last year too (more on that tomorrow), but his presence is much like what Fish brought to the Lakers last year and his numbers are far and away superior.

Farmar and West
Again, this isn’t about upside. Farmar, at 22, would seem to have the brighter future. In the here and now, Delonte is playing out of his mind. He’s shooting an insane 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc for a whopping 64 percent TS% (true shooting). J-Far brings energy and floor leadership off the bench, but he’s shooting poorly. This one’s really close despite the stat disparity. Farmar’s importance as the second unit’s go-to scorer and floor general can’t be measured, and if they were getting equal minutes I’d sway to Farmar, but Delonte’s been HUGE this year. Edge has got to go to him.

Vlad Rad and Wally World
This comparison is pretty straightforward. The numbers are nearly identical across the board, so, we’ll have to go with more advanced stats. Wally’s PER 14.68 trumps Vladi’s 12.25. Wally’s 1.1 WS also trumps Vladi’s 0.6. Wally’s 105 and 124 offensive and defensive ratings are better than Vladi’s 97 and 100.

Machine and Boobie
They do the same thing, except one is a feisty defender while the other is a decent passer. Both signed to pretty decent money extensions this off-season. While both have struggled to live up to the money, no question the Machine has been better, though if Boobie could play against OKC, Golden State, and the Knicks every night, than he’d money.

LO and Big Ben
Both of these guys don’t necessarily fill up the box score to be effective. Their games are both predicated on things that box scores don’t show. Wallace is an aging defensive ace, who has regained some of his lost form from a year ago. He’s swatting nearly 2 shots a game (again, a bit overrated) but is rebounding much better than he has in two years. Odom has seen his minutes reduced and has taken on a sixth man role, but he’s been quietly putting together a stellar season. He gets the nod because he makes the Lakers second unit starter-quality, especially considering the starters OKC, Memphis, and Washington are throwing out there.

Riza and Hix
Trevor Ariza by a mile right now. But if Hickson can continue to improve on his game and bring energy off the bench, he could fill a very similar role that Ariza has on the Lakers. Right now, Trevor’s the Lakers MVP in my humble opinion.

The rest of the Lakers bench is better, but of the dudes that actually get PT, the talent disparity and the level of production is nearly equal. Tomorrow we’ll continue with this conversation and focus on how Kobe and Lebron do or do not “make their teams better.”

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