King James and Kobe

Posted on February 15, 2009 by


Bill Simmons – the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine – examines the evidence that he is a Kobe-hater.  Simmons provides various definitions of a “Kobe-hater” and explains why none apply to him personally.  Although his list of definitions is quite good, I think he missed the one definition that summarizes the term.  To the legions who are unabashed Kobe-lovers, a “Kobe-hater” is anyone who does not acknowledge that Kobe is the greatest player in the game today, the greatest to have ever played the game, and the greatest who will ever play the game on this planet, in this universe, and in any undiscovered dimensions where basketball can be played.

Anyone who has ever violated this view of Kobe – as I have done in the past – quickly feels the wrath of the Kobe-lovers.  In fact, despite the protests of Simmons, I am sure the argument he makes in his column denying his status as a “Kobe-hater” has elicited such a response.

Simmons on Kobe, LeBron, and the Knicks

In the column Simmons examines the games played recently by Kobe and LeBron James against the Knicks. 

Here are some numbers from the two games:

Kobe Bryant: 61 points, 0 rebounds, 3 assists

LeBron James: 52 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists,

Simmons looked at these numbers and had the following reaction:

Kobe’s 61-point game represented the best and worst of basketball to me. His shotmaking was transcendent: a steady onslaught of jumpers, spin moves and fallaways made in his typically icy style, as efficient an outburst as you’ll ever see. On the other hand, his teammates stood around and watched him like movie extras. In 37 minutes, Kobe took 31 shots and another 20 free throws. He finished with three assists and no boards. He may as well have been playing by himself on one of those Pop-A-Shot machines.

….Really, it was the defining Kobe game. He elicited every reaction possible from lovers, haters and everyone in between. When LeBron arrived in New York two days later and notched his amazing 52/9/11, he didn’t break Kobe’s new record but definitely cheapened it. LeBron’s 52 came in the flow of the offense. When the Knicks doubled him, he found the open man. When they singled him, he scored. He dominated every facet of the game. It was a complete performance, basketball at its finest, everything we ever wanted from King James. And it happened 48 hours after Kobe’s big game … in the same building. Crazy.

I’ve been comparing those two games ever since. Never has basketball seemed more simple to me: I would rather watch a 52/9/11 than a 61/0/3. I would. It’s really that simple. It’s a matter of preference. So don’t call me a Kobe hater, call me a basketball lover.
And if Kobe ever put up a 52/9/11, yes, I would love him, too.

Here is my first reaction when I read this column: “Here is a column I agree with by Bill Simmons” (see Speeding Up Time for Bill Simmons and I Like Bill Simmons, Really I Do for two examples of disagreements). 

The basic message of The Wages of Wins – at least with respect to the evaluation of NBA players – is that there is more to player performance than scoring.  Following this lesson, one would expect that a well-rounded game that results in 52 points is worth more than 61 points without much else.

Comparing Kobe and LeBron

Of course, another lesson from The Wages of Wins is that expectations don’t always match the numbers.  To see this point, consider the simple Win Score model:

Win Score = PTS + REB + STL + ½*BLK + ½*AST – FGA – ½*FTA – TO – ½*PF

With this model in hand, let’s look at what Kobe and LeBron did against the Knicks.

Kobe’s Win Score = 61 + 0 + 0 + 0.5 + 1.5 – 31 – 10 – 2 – 0.5 = 19.5

LeBron’s Win Score = 52 + 9 + 0 + 1 + 5.5 – 33 – 9.5 – 3 – 0.5 = 21.5

Okay, it looks like Simmons was right.  LeBron did a bit more than Kobe.  But Kobe-lovers would note (at least they should note), that Kobe only played 37 minutes.  LeBron was on the court for 44 minutes.  When we consider Win Score per 48 minutes, Kobe appears to be the more effective player ( and that’s true before we consider position played).

Kobe’s Win Score per 48 minutes = [19.5 / 37] * 48 = 25.3

LeBron’s Win Score per 48 minutes = [21.5 / 44] * 48 = 23.5

So on a per-minute basis, Kobe’s less diverse game trumps the all-around effort of LeBron.  How is this possible?

It’s thought that the Wages of Wins basketball measures are all about rebounds.  This comparison between Kobe and LeBron, though, suggests otherwise.  The one factor that has the largest impact on Win Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] – the more complex Wages of Wins measure – is shooting efficiency.  And when we look at shooting efficiency, Kobe was amazing against the Knicks.  His adjusted field goal percentage was 66.1%.  So although Kobe was below average with respect to rebounds, steals, and assists, Kobe’s amazing shooting efficiency resulted in an overall game that defied the expectations of Bill Simmons (and myself).

Now before the Kobe-lovers get too excited, I thought I would extend the comparison between Kobe and LeBron beyond one game.  And as Table One indicates, when we look past what these players recently did against the Knicks it becomes fairly clear that LeBron is the more productive player (sorry Kobe-lovers).

Table One: Comparing LeBron and Kobe

Both players are above average with respect to almost every statistic.  King James, though, does more.  In fact, LeBron has done more across the past four seasons than Kobe has done in his four best seasons.  And the difference is even bigger if we look at what each player has done in 2008-09.

Turning to Wins Produced we see the same story.  Across the past four seasons, LeBron has produced 79.8 wins and posted a 0.295 WP48.  As noted, LeBron is even better this season.  At the All-Star break his WP48 stands at 0.406. 

Again, Kobe is quite good.  But even his best seasons don’t come close to LeBron.  In Kobe’s four best seasons he produced 63.7 wins with a 0.250 WP48.  Again, these are excellent marks.  But Kobe has never surpassed the 0.300 mark and he certainly has never been close to what LeBron is doing this year.  And what Kobe did against the Knicks, or the 2009 All-Star game, doesn’t change this story.

Comments on Comments

As noted, when you suggest Kobe is not the greatest player in the game you tend to get a fairly negative reaction (see Kobe Myths for an example).  Such reactions caused me to think about the comments blogs such as these generate.

There are essentially four policies one can adopt with respect to comments.

1. Read and react to the comments.

2. Read the comments but don’t react.

3. Don’t read the comments.

4. Don’t allow comments.

In general, I don’t know of many economists who have adopted the first approach.  There is only so much time in the day (we do have jobs where we teach classes, conduct research, etc…) and responding to each and every comment is not possible. 

The second reaction — or third (we don’t know if people who don’t react bother to read) — does seem like the more popular approach.  At least, I don’t see Paul Krugman or the folks at Freakonomics responding to many comments. Of course, these blogs are hosted by the NY Times and apparently someone – other the authors – is in charge of managing comments.

For less supported blogs, managing comments falls on the author. And consequently, we now have a couple of examples where the fourth option has been taken. In October of 2007, Gregory Mankiw eliminated the comments feature on his blog.  And now JC Bradbury – at Sabernomics – has followed Mankiw’s example.

One problem with eliminating comments is we can’t see how the readers of these blogs feel about having their right to comment removed. Still, Bradbury is well-known enough that I was able to find some reaction on other sites.  And the conclusion reached by some is that Bradbury turning off the comments suggests that he is afraid of criticism. Such an argument, though, has problems.

Bradbury and Mankiw are both academics.  Consequently the argument that these two are afraid of criticism is difficult to believe.  Professors spend a fair amount of time critiquing the work of students.  This habit of critiquing students often carries over in our interactions with our colleagues.  In other words, criticism is a big part of academia.  So it’s unlikely someone who has found success in this environment (like Mankiw and Bradbury) would have trouble with criticism.   

For a more plausible explanation, let’s turn to basic economics.  As I noted in discussing Mankiw’s policy in 2007, simple cost-benefit analysis explains this behavior. Reading comments imposes a cost.  For this cost to be justified, the comments have to provide some benefit.  And apparently, both Mankiw and Bradbury have concluded the benefits fall short of the costs.  In sum, the removal of the comments feature on these two blogs says less about Mankiw and Bradbury and more about the perceived quality of the comments.

All that being said, let me close by commenting on the comments at The Wages of Wins Journal.  I have basically adopted policy #2.  The comment section is for the readers to offer thoughts on what I have said.  It generally doesn’t help much for me to add to this discussion.

Although I don’t often venture into the comment section, I do read the comments (at least all the comments that don’t just go on and on and on).  And I think the quality of these comments have generally been quite high (with a few exceptions).

Of course I just wrote a column that Kobe-lovers might not like.  So for this post we might anticipate a small decline in quality.  Even if this does happen, though, the benefits-cost ratio at this site should still be such that comments will continue to be encouraged. 

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.