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Is the era of 'Kobe or LeBron' over?

12/24/2010

James and Bryant Getty Images

A year ago, the 'LeBron versus Kobe' debate raged. Have we moved on?

Ever since LeBron James' second season in the league and Kobe Bryant's first season playing without Shaq, the two players have drawn comparisons to one another. As both players matured, "Kobe or LeBron?" became the sport's most popular barroom debate, even though their radically different supporting casts and intraconference competition made it hard to really know which player was playing better basketball. When the Cavaliers became a 60-plus-win team and a Kobe-LeBron Finals seemed inevitable, the debate became impossible to escape.

In many ways, Kobe and LeBron helped define each other. Kobe was able to develop his game at his own pace while playing for one of the most successful franchises in NBA history, while LeBron was the Cavaliers' best player from the moment he played his first game for them. LeBron goes to the basket with the speed and strength of a charging bull, while Kobe uses the footwork of an experienced matador to get his shots off. LeBron has always been an able and willing passer, and his devotion to finding the open man 18 feet away from the basket instead of simply damning the torpedoes and going to the rim has actually hurt the Heat's offense at times.

Kobe believes, with good reason, that he can score from any spot on the floor, at any time, against any coverage. At times, he has hurt the Lakers offense by stopping the ball. LeBron outweighs Kobe by well over 50 pounds, but he's extremely uncomfortable with his back to the basket; Kobe has the most intricate package of post moves in basketball. Kobe can't dominate every facet of a game on a regular basis the way that LeBron did during the last two regular seasons, but LeBron hasn't shown that he has Kobe's knack for making the big play at exactly the right moment, especially in the playoffs. LeBron has the MVP awards; Kobe has the rings.

For the last two seasons, the Kobe/LeBron debate had a special significance because the two players were doing their best work on the two best teams in the league. Kobe's Lakers team was built around him. LeBron's team was built for him, to the point where this season's Cavs have the worst point differential in the NBA after losing LeBron.

After the Gasol trade, the Lakers became an incredibly talented team whose supporting cast developed a symbiotic relationship with Kobe's abilities. Kobe curbed his ball-stopping tendencies while remaining a deadly scorer capable of taking the game over at any time. LeBron's teammates were role players who were very good at making open shots, moving without the ball and playing team defense. But the supporting cast was completely dependent on LeBron's ability to create shots for them and cover ground on defense.

For a little while, the Kobe and LeBron debate wasn't just about Kobe and LeBron -- it was about two NBA superpowers crafted in the image of their stars. For two seasons, the NBA's most fun debate was also its most relevant one.

That time has passed.

This is not a call to respect LeBron's and Kobe's fundamental differences and come to terms with the fact that, while they are both great players, it's possible one may not be objectively better than the other. Those calls have been made, and ignored, because arguing about players is fun. However, while there is little doubt that Kobe and LeBron will be compared until the end of time, the fate of two championship contenders is no longer tied to their individual play the way it once was.

To put things simply, the "Who is the NBA's best player?" debate no longer carries the weight it did when the Cavaliers and Lakers were rolling through their respective conferences. The Lakers have relied on Kobe less and less each season since they acquired Gasol in February 2008. Gasol was arguably playing at a higher level than Bryant for the first month of the season, and the Lakers are 21-8 despite the fact that Kobe has scored 35 or more points only once this season (and the Lakers lost that game). Considering that Bryant once averaged 35.4 points per game, that's a pretty radical shift.

LeBron, of course, decided to leave the team built for the sole purpose of maximizing his production. For seven years, the Cavaliers' success was directly correlated to how well LeBron played, but that's not the case in Miami. The Heat don't need LeBron to be firing on all cylinders to win. In fact, they were leading the Mavericks after LeBron went scoreless for an entire half. There will be times when it will be in the Heat's best interest for LeBron to step out of the way and let Wade take over, or let Bosh operate out of the high post and attack the rim.

Ever since the days of Bill Russell, the best teams in the league have understood that getting the most out of your best player isn't the same thing as getting the most out of your team, and that's just as true today as it was then. Fans might think less of Rajon Rondo because he doesn't have a jumper, but the Celtics don't mind that Rondo would rather drive to the basket or set up an open teammate than trying to prove he can make a jumper. The Spurs don't care whether Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker is running the offense, and they certainly don't mind that they're having their best season in years without feeding Tim Duncan in the post much. The Thunder don't mind that Russell Westbrook's emergence as a superstar has hurt Kevin Durant's chances at grabbing the unofficial "best player in the NBA" title from Kobe or LeBron.

LeBron and Kobe haven't been supplanted by a new wave of superstars. Rather, the debate about which one of them is better has been made less relevant by a new crop of super-teams. The Heat are about vicious defensive pressure, fast-break points, deadly 3-point shooting, and dribble-drives in the half court -- not how many midrange jumpers LeBron can make or whether or not he can learn a quick spin move from the midpost. The Lakers are about running the triangle to perfection, beating teams with beautiful interior play, and using Kobe to put teams away -- not trying to give Kobe a chance to score 60 on any given night. The Spurs have the best offense in the league precisely because they rely on ball movement and looking for the best available shot at all times instead of just trusting their best player to make something happen. The Celtics are 23-4 for the same reasons.

LeBron has won two MVP awards. He's had some of the best statistical seasons since Jordan. He's won a crucial playoff game by scoring its final 25 points. He's taken a ragtag squad to the NBA Finals. He's won a conference finals game with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. He's done just about everything there is to do -- except, of course, win a championship. To get that elusive ring, he left the team tailor-made to suit his skills and joined a team like Kobe's -- one that doesn't need its superstar to take over every game in order to win, and one that's going to need him to make some sacrifices in order to perform at maximum efficiency.

LeBron, Kobe, their teammates and coaches, and the other teams that want the 2011 NBA championship trophy all recognize that there are more important things going on in the league than LeBron versus Kobe. We'll see if the fans in the barroom follow suit.