Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Who Is Really Better?

There are two players playing today that, if they retired at this moment, would be in the top 10 greatest players of all time. No, one of them is not LeBron James. There are too many great players who have led their teams to (multiple) championships for LeBron to be a top 10 guy at this very moment. The two guys are Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Reasonable basketball fans need to make room in their top 10 lists to accommodate these two. If that means bumping Jerry West or Hakeem Olajuwon or Julius Erving or Shaquille O'Neal, then so be it. The only guys who need to go in front of both of them are Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird, and Kareem. They're in the Robertson/Chamberlain class. So the question is: who is better? Duncan or Kobe? Here is my attempt at objective analysis, given that Tim Duncan is one of my all-time favorite players, and Kobe is my all-time least favorite player. I'll try.
Defining greatness in basketball is really difficult. There are elements of measuring greatness that must be included in any evaluation of basketball players (though the amounts these elements are weighted are certainly debatable):

1. Statistics. How many points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, steals and turnovers did this player have? What was his field goal percentage? What was his Player Efficiency Rating (PER)? What was the player's True Shooting Percentage? The list of salient statistics goes on.

2. Winning. How many championships did the player win? On how many championship teams was this player the team's best player?

3. Context. How good was the league when this player played? How good were the teams on which he played and won/lost? How did this player match up to other players in his era? How many MVPs did he win? All-NBA First Team? Other accolades? And, most difficultly, how much influence did this player have on his winning teams' successes? What was his true role?

4. Talent. Overall, just how good was this player? What were his skills and how refined were they?

One needs to consider all of these before making a judgment about a player. If one were to just look at raw talent alone, Wilt Chamberlain would probably be the greatest player ever. If one were to just look at championships, George Mikan would be a better player than Dirk Nowitzki. You get the point.

So the question of Kobe vs. Duncan must take all of these factors into account. There has not been significant ink spilled over this question, as there is with Bird and Magic. Those two players are incredibly close in terms of historical greatness, and they played in the same era. Duncan and Kobe are such different players, they never faced each other in the Finals, and there have been plenty of other "best players in the league" during their careers that this has not become a Magic vs. Bird debate. But I think it is an interesting debate, and it is worthwhile to have.

Let's first consider Tim Duncan. Tim Duncan, in terms of statistics, is monstrous. Over the first fifteen years of his career, he has scored 20.3 points per game, grabbed 11.3 rebounds per game, dished 3.1 assists, and had 2.2 blocks per game along with 2.6 turnovers. He has shot 50.7% from the field and 68.8% from the free throw line.

Tim Duncan has been the best player on 4 championship teams. These teams have all been very solid, but I don't think anyone would call them "stacked." Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been his two most important role players, though David Robinson was no slouch for the first championship. The team has been coached by all-time great Gregg Popvich for Duncan's entire tenure. He was the Finals MVP 3 of those 4 times.

Duncan and Kobe play in the same era and in the same conference, so their competition has been the same. Duncan has made 13 All-Star teams; won 2 league MVPs; made All-NBA First Team 9 times, Second Team three times, Third Team once; All-NBA Defensive First Team eight times, Second Team 5 times; NBA Rookie of the Year in 1998. JESUS!

Tim Duncan is the best Power Forward of all time. Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett are the next two, and Duncan has a comfortable edge on them. Offensively, only Kareem can really truly say that he was better than Duncan in the post, maybe Wilt. He was always an excellent shooter, passer, rebounder, and team defender. He is an all-time great defensive player.

Now let's consider Kobe. Kobe's stats are downright prolific. Over 16 seasons, Kobe has scored 25.4 points per game, grabbed 5.4 rebounds and dished out 4.6 assists, along with a cool steal and a half. He's also turned the ball over 3 times per game for his career. He's shot 45.3% from the field, 33.7% from three, and 83.8% from the free throw line.

Kobe Bryant was the best player in 2 championship teams, and the second best player on 3 more. Granted, when he was the second best player on those championship teams, he was just about the best second-best player on championship teams in recent memory. Not since the Dr. J-Moses Malone championship in Philly in 1983 had the second best player (Dr. J) been so good on a World Champ. He has won 2 Finals MVPs.

Kobe is a 14-time All-Star; 2-time scoring champion; has been selected to the All-NBA First Team 10 times, Second Team twice, and Third Team twice; All-NBA Defensive First Team nine teams, Second Team thrice; and he won one NBA MVP award. Yikes.

Kobe Bryant is one of the best scorers in NBA history. As of right now, he is fifth on the NBA all-time scoring list. He, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robertson are the only guards (and the only non-post players) in the top 10. He's averaged 30 or more points per game three times, including 35.4 points per game in the 2005-06 season when his team was balls terrible. Kobe Bryant is also one of the true faces of the NBA, probably the most famous active player in the world. Certainly, there is a very strong contingent of people who think that he is the best player in the NBA and has been for a long time.

Generally speaking, both of these players perform about the same or slightly better in the playoffs than they do in the regular season.

To me, the criteria for "greatness" puts these two players extremely close. Both guys are good enough to lead teams to championships, and both have done so multiple times. Both have made significant contributions to their teams in many different facets of the game. The raw statistics give us no clear winner, so let's dive in to the "value" statistics to see if those give us any clearer picture.

The most popular value statistic going in basketball right now is Player Efficiency Rating, or PER. This stat attempts to go beyond raw statistics and measure the value, or the efficiency, of a player. This is a neat stat, but it is not perfect. The all-time leader in PER is Michael Jordan, which makes sense, but Charles Barkley is before Kareem. Kareem is certainly a better player than Charles Barkley. But let's see how Duncan and Kobe stack up.

Duncan is at a career 24.7 PER, good for 9th all-time (average is 15). He's between Bob Pettit and Neil Johnston, two old-timers as far as the NBA is concerned. He's really between Chris Paul and Charles Barkley for players in the real basketball era. Kobe is at 23.44 for his career, or 19th all time. He sits between Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett on that list. In the somewhat nebulous world of PER, Duncan has a relatively significant edge. But that's certainly not even close to enough to crown Duncan.

Two good measures for scoring efficiency are True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage. These stats are similar, but essentially, TS% takes free throws into account and EFG% doesn't. They also weight different field goal types slightly differently. Neither player is particularly great in either of these measures. Kobe leads Duncan slightly in TS% (Kobe is 127th all time to Duncan's 148th). Duncan leads Kobe in EFG% by a fairly significant margin historically (Duncan is 139th all time and Kobe is not in the top 250). #1 in both of these categories is Artis Gilmore, a guy who was really good at making shots within 5 feet of the basket and never took other shots.

Another "value" stat that I'll use in evaluating these players is Win Shares. This is a really complicated set of calculations that essentially assigns credit to players for doing good things on offense and defense and deducts credit for players doing bad things on offense and defense. It's a truly wonky statistic, but if one adds up the Win Shares that a team's players earned in a season, one essentially always comes within 5 wins of what that team actually secured during that season. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Win Shares are distributed correctly among the given team's players, but it is a good sign.

Tim Duncan has 175.92 Win Shares in his career, while Kobe Bryant has 162.43. Duncan is 11th all-time and Kobe is 18th. In Win Shares per 48 Minutes, Duncan is 11th all-time and Kobe is 29th. Duncan is ahead of Kobe very significantly in defensive Win Shares, which is certainly the more difficult one to calculate. However, Duncan is certainly ahead of Kobe in Win Shares, as he is in most "value" statistics.

Just to run through some other value statistics very quickly: Tim Duncan gets more of his team's rebounds, and Kobe gets more of his team's assists. Tim Duncan makes turnovers when he gets the ball slightly more often than Kobe. Kobe handles the ball significantly more for his team (he has led the league in usage percentage three times, including the last 2 years) and plays more minutes.

A major difference between these two guys is that Kobe is always the guy on his teams. That's not to say that the quality of his teammates has been worse than Duncan's; on their championship teams, I would actually call Kobe's teams the overall more talented ones. But that just means that the offense always runs through Kobe, and he's always the most important player. Duncan is certainly the rock for the Spurs, and has been their most important player for his entire career. But Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have had very serious and complicated roles on Duncan's teams, and they have often been the most important players in important situations.

So what do we make of all that? Kobe's raw stats are perhaps more gawdy, but Duncan does what he does more efficiently. Kobe is the unquestioned leader and top dog on great teams, but Duncan seems to have more value in many respects. Duncan is the best player ever at his position, but Kobe is second only to Michael Jordan.

My final evaluation is that, if they both stopped playing basketball AT THIS MOMENT, they would be closer in greatness than any other 2 players in the pantheon of great players. They're closer than Bird and Magic, and I don't think I'll ever truly convince myself that Magic was definitively better than Bird. Kobe is likely to end up as the greater player because his production isn't slowing almost at all, while Duncan's is. It wouldn't be shocking if this were Timmy's last year, and Kobe looks to have at least 2 or 3 more very productive years ahead of him, along with another few years of twilight. But right now, at this moment, I'm giving the nod to Timmy.

Both players are extremely valuable offensively, and Kobe is almost certainly the better offensive player. But the combination of Tim Duncan being one of the greatest and most important defensive players of all time (Kobe is a very solid defensive player, great at some points in his career) with his track record for winning and his excellent offensive production edges out Kobe slightly in my mind. Being the best player on one more championship helps to tip the scales for Timmy. And though this certainly works both ways for Kobe, his ball hogging nature can hurt as much as it helps at times. I certainly wouldn't mind Kobe Bryant taking 23 shots per game for my team, but it occasionally comes back to bite the Lakers when he's off but still jacks up 30 shots. Tim Duncan can have a bad game but you can still count on him to clog up the lane/baffle the other team's big guy on defense.

I almost chose Kobe just so that I couldn't be accused of not being objective. But I think I was quite objective in this process. Accounting for Kobe ending up as the "greater" player, as of May 30th, 2012, Tim Duncan has the slightest of edges over Kobe Bryant in terms of greatness. I better post this before I change my mind.


  1. No no no no it's TD it's TD. Fuck! Why did I choose to write this? I thought it would be easier.