Thursday, July 5, 2012

Player A vs. Player B--The Power of Context in Determining an NBA Player's Narrative

Player A: 25.4 Ppg, 45.3 fg%, 33.7% 3pt, 83.8% ft., 5.3 reb., 4.7 ast., 3.0 TO
TS% 55.4%, Usage 31.8, PER 23.4

Player B: 24.7 Ppg, 45.6 fg%, 32.2% 3pt, 80.5% ft., 6.3 reb., 3.1 ast., 3.0 TO
TS% 54.4%, Usage 31.2, PER 20.4

Above are two nearly identical stat lines. Player A is slightly better in PER and assists whereas Player B grabs one more rebound a game. The overall nod goes to Player A, but only slightly. However, one of these players is seen as a ballhog; a hero ball-playing scorer who will never lead his team to a championship. The other is a top ten player of all time. Why is this the case? It's simple. Basketball players' success depends on their surroundings. This is a simple concept, but it too often gets overlooked. Teams win championships, individual players don't. Every all-time great -- Jordan, Bird, Magic, Wilt, Kareem, Hakeem, Shaq, Duncan, and LeBron -- has needed another Hall of Famer to win a ring.

It's a convenient and weak argument to make a case based on a player's DNA rather than his team, his coach, and his system. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to 67 wins in 2006-2007 and won the MVP. He had an amazing season despite the fact that his team got upset in the playoffs. Dirk Nowitzki was not better in 2010 than he was in 2007. The circumstances changed. He had Shawn Marion, a perfect player to defend LeBron; Tyson Chandler, a center quick enough to wreak havoc against the slower Heat bigs; and Jason Terry, a streaky player who got hot enough to carry the team when Dirk was having an off night. Dirk had a great team around him and he won a ring because of it. Dirk's attitude or desire wasn't the reason he won. It was his supporting cast, luck, and the right matchup. Going back to the players above, it is clear that statistically they are nearly the same player, and that context has unfairly determined the narrative of their careers.

Player A is Kobe Bryant and Player B is Carmelo Anthony. Kobe Bryant has been a better player than Carmelo Anthony in his career, but he has also been gifted with great teammates and a great coach for the majority of his sixteen seasons. If a twenty-one year old Melo had played for the first Lakers' championship teams, his narrative would be that he's a cold blooded shooter capable of scoring from anywhere. He'd still be a bit inefficient, but those things become irrelevant when you are scoring 25+ a game for a championship team.

Every player requires tremendous help to win a championship, and so far in his career, Melo hasn't had it. The best player he ever played with was either Allen Iverson or Chauncey Billups. In his career Melo has played twice with a player who posted a PER above 20. For context, Shaq went over 30 PER during the Lakers' championship runs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum each went above 20 PER during the Lakers' 2010 championship. Kobe Bryant has always had the requisite help to win championships which has been a huge part of five rings.

Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, had the pu pu platter of Birdman, JR Smith, and Kenyon Martin in Denver. The argument that Carmelo's playing style doesn't make his teammates better is just untrue. Kobe Bryant's success and the success of his teammates proves that a high usage rate can still improve your teammates. In addition to having similar stats, Kobe and Melo have similar playing styles. Both use isolation plays designed to space out the defense and give them a one-on-one matchup. Kobe Bryant can't be described as clutch and unafraid to take difficult shots while Carmelo gets killed for playing "selfish hero ball." Kobe Bryant has the same usage rate as Carmelo, scores the same and as efficiently, and his teams have been incredibly successful. Defenses swarm towards Melo and Kobe, opening up the rest of the court for his teammates who cannot create their own shot. Does Melo shoot tough contested shots too often? Yes. But so does Kobe. Ultimately, the difference in the narratives of the two players is their success. Kobe deserves to be recognized as the better player in part because of his success, but you cannot overlook the help he's gotten throughout his career.

Carmelo Anthony's lack of success in the playoffs isn't because of his playing style or his attitude as many have suggested. Anthony has only made it out of the first round once because of weak supporting casts. The same thing happened with LeBron, Jordan, and Shaq before they won titles. Anthony is a top eight player in the league (my list in no particular order: Durant, LBJ, Wade, Howard, Paul, Kobe, Westbrook) and is good enough to be the top player on a championship team. Stats don't tell the whole story in the NBA, but the nearly identical career lines of Melo and Kobe show the incredible importance of context. Kobe can't be a clutch, fearless player if Melo is a ball hogging hero baller. Once you wade through the First Take narratives and look at each player through their stats and their context, it is clear that Kobe's success playing the same type of game as Melo proves that, with the right supporting cast, the Knicks can make a title run with Melo.


  1. I agree, but I have just one problem with this post. I think you've over-playing the narrative for each player. Kobe very much has a ballhog narrative associated with him, while Carmelo's presence on the Knicks has made the Knicks relevant title contenders in the eyes of many. Though the general outline of the narratives are true, they're a bit more complicated than Kobe = great and Melo = selfish.

  2. plus, however much he hacks kobe plays better defense. and melo plays a different position and should get more rebounds