Friday, March 13, 2009

Skill Versus Talent

Charles Barkley on last night’s TNT telecast when discussing this year’s MVP said that if you substituted Lebron for Kobe on the Lakers, that the Lakers would win 70 games because the Lakers have far superior talent.

Chuck speaks from his heart, which can be funny at times, bold at others. In this instance, it’s just ill-informed. Kobe and Lebron have different games. Kobe’s really changed his game this year with Gasol, Odom and Bynum clogging the middle. He’s become primarily a jumpshooter which accounts for nearly 80 percent of his shots.

The Lakers really only have three players who can hit from beyond the arc outside of Kobe, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher. That’s why the subtraction of Vladimir Radmanovic has hurt their offense whether people want to admit it or not. Luke Walton is horrible from outside of five feet, as I’ll show in a second, and Ariza is a streak shooter at the absolute very best. sheds some stats on the matter showing the percentage of jump shots taken by each player and their subsequent effective field goal percentage from that area.

Fisher: 86 percent jump shots, 55.6 percent EFG
Odom: 41 percent jump shots, 37.8 percent EFG
Gasol: 42 percent jump shots, 47.6 percent EFG
Bynum: 35 percent jump shots, 41.5 percent EFG
Ariza: 57 percent jump shots, 42.5 percent EFG
Walton: 69 percent jump shots, 37.4 percent EFG
Vujacic: 90 percent jump shots, 48.6 percent EFG
Farmar: 65 percent jump shots, 44 percent EFG
Powell: 60 percent jump shots, 41 percent EFG

Only three of the Lakers regular rotation players shoot better than 45 percent as jump shooters: Fisher, Vujacic and Gasol. Everyone else, especially Odom and Walton (starters), shoot a pretty bad percentage as jump shooters. Walton is especially horrible considering that 70 percent of his shots are jumpers. Vlad Rad was at a blistering 57 percent EFG. The Lakers dip in offensive efficiency of late and their lack of bench production can directly be tied to Luke moving into the starting spot and Vlad Rad moving to Charlotte.

At the very least twice a game, Kobe will drive and kick out to a wide open Walton who will clank the three or the 15-17 footer. That’s two dimes a game, without exaggeration. In fact, if you look at the games or even the quarters the Lakers do well, it’s when Walton is a factor on offensive and hits those shots.

Bottom line, especially with Bynum, the Lakers score the majority of their points in the paint. As the team’s best perimeter player, Kobe’s job is to hit jump shots. And considering he’s the number one option who takes the most difficult shots, his 46 percent EFG is pretty amazing.

On the flipside, Lebron’s 42 percent EFG from jump shooting is rather pedestrian. His bread and butter is taking it to the hole where he takes nearly 40 percent of his shots and is shooting 70 percent. That’s better than most centers, and is equally amazing.

His team is designed to shoot jumpers. Here are their stats.

Williams: 87 percent jump shots, 54.5 percent EFG
West: 79 percent jump shots, 53 percent EFG
Szczerbiak: 88 percent jump shots, 52 percent EFG
Ilgauskus: 65 percent jump shots, 46 percent EFG
Gibson: 89 percent jump shots, 48 percent EFG
Pavlovic: 70 percent jump shots, 56 percent EFG
Varejao: 41 percent jump shots, 34.6 percent EFG
Hickson: 40 percent jump shots, 31 percent EFG
Wallace: 25 percent jump shots, 18 percent EFG

Outside of the power forward spot, this team is a deadly jump shooting team with four players well over 50 percent EFG and one who is close at 48 percent. And while Ilgauskus is not quite as effective as Pau Gasol (46 to 48), he takes nearly 20 percent more jumpers than Pau and for the most part is just as deadly.

My point in all of this is that replacing Kobe with Lebron would most likely make the Lakers worse. Even if Lebron is a better talent than Kobe (not saying he is) or can do more for a team (he does), his presence on the Lakers would probably do more harm than good.

First and foremost, with Bynum and Gasol clogging the lanes, he’d have a much harder time driving to the hoop and getting his bread and butter shots. His outside shooting runs hot and cold, whereas Kobe is far more consistent, and would lead to a lot more 5-25 games like the one he threw up against the Lakers who forced him to take midrange shots and threes and effectively kept him away from the basket.

He’d also make Odom completely irrelevant. Odom’s best weapons are his abilities to drive, finish and pass, and Lebron’s a stronger, better and vastly more consistent version of the long, ball handling savy wing player.

Without Odom, the statement that the Lakers have more talent than the Cavs is completely untrue.

Also, instead of kicking it out to West, Williams, Gibson, Szczerbiak or Pavlovic, Lebron would be dishing to Walton, Ariza, Vujacic, Farmar and Fisher.

In fact, the opposite of what Barkley said might be more true.

On the flipside, if Kobe were on the Cavs, he’d be forced to take it to the hole, where he’s shooting inside shots at a 66 percent clip. Not Lebron-esque, but not shabby to say the least. It should go without saying, but just to make it crystal clear, it’s far easier to make closer shots than to make farther shots…

Kobe is also a much better freethrow shooter than James, so while he might not finish as many drives, he’d make up for it with his proficiency behind the line. He’d also get more assists kicking it out to actual shooters that can actually shoot.

Of course, because Bron Bron and Kobe play different positions, he’d also eliminate one of the perimeter players, either Szczerbiak or Pavlovic, but that just means the team would be better on defense.

As for Barkley’s comment, this isn’t fantasy basketball. If you added Lebron and subtracted Kobe from a Lakers fantasy basketball squad, then sure, you’d be the hands down favorite to win your league. In real basketball, floor spacing, coaching, style of play and maximizing the talents on your squad are vital for success.

Kobe’s ability to create space for his bigs, while remaining highly efficient for someone who is asked to shoot 80 percent of his shots from the perimeter, is why GMs, coaches and players around the league still believe him to be the best player in the league. Lebron is the best at what he can do, but he can’t do everything.

So while Kobe is not quite as good at being Lebron, he’s vastly better than Lebron is at being Kobe.

Finally, the Lakers are said to have a lot of talent although this reputation is based on the performances of four kids under 25 who had breakout seasons last year. So far, Bynum has failed to stay healthy and only started to play like he did last year for less than ten games. Farmar and Vujacic have grossly regressed. Only Ariza has started living up to his potential.

Of course, the prime example of talent not yet realized is Mr. Lamar Odom. Mr. Unfulfilled Potential. And even Lebron James can’t make Lamar consistent.

On the other side, the Cavs have a very specialized, skillful team. So while the talent might not be better, the skill level most certainly is. Wallace and Varejao are defensive bigs who grab boards and are good on the screen and roll. Both have very limited offensive talent, but their presence makes the Cavs a great defensive team.

As pointed out above, the Cavs also have a bevy of shooters. Shooting is a skill that takes years of practice. So while Wally world isn’t more talented than Odom, he’s definitely more skillful. The Lakers have a bunch of talented athletes, Ariza, Farmar, and Bynum, but no one can say that they are skillful. And, the one skillful rotation player outside of Fish and Gasol is Walton. And Walton is skillful at everything but shooting.

So, sure, maybe Kobe has more talent on the Lakers, but the Cavs have more skill.

Which is better?

The standings say they’re about even…

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