In the year of the Scheme Team, the collapse of the Cleveland Cavaliers this year has been well-documented. The Cavs just lost an NBA record 24th game in a row and now have the worst record in the NBA. This first to worst turnaround has caused a lot of folks to declare that Lebron was playing on one of the worst collections of talent assembed (or should be, in some Bleacher Report overstatement, the “all-time mvp”)
As a Laker fan, I recall Kobe having perhaps his best season with the 2005-6 Lakers. That year, the Lakers finished as the 7th seed in the West and lost to the Phoenix Suns in a heartbreaking, come-from-ahead 7 game series. Kobe ‘s team that year was absolutely horrendous, with the likes of NBA outcasts Smush Parker and Kwame Brown heading the starting lineup. So the question is: who did more with less? It’s not as far fetched a comparison as you may think. Let’s check the facts.
1. Lebron’s Cavs won 16 more games than Kobe’s Lakers.
This is the first undisputable fact in any Kobe vs. Lebron comparison. Lebron’s Cavs finished with the best record (61-21) in the NBA for the 2009-10 season and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Kobe’s Lakers scraped into the playoffs as a no. 7 seed (45-37).
2. Kobe was playing with a significantly worse roster.
The argument has been made that Kobe’s sidekick in 2005-2006 (Lamar Odom) was better than anyone that Lebron had. Even if that is true, the NEXT 8 matchups in their lineups favor Lebron.
|Laker player||Years in NBA||Cavs Player||Years in NBA||Edge|
|Lamar Odom||6||Mo Williams||6||Edge: Lakers|
|Chris Mihm||5||Shaquille O’Neal||17||Edge: Cavs|
|Luke Walton||2||Antawn Jamison||11||Edge: Cavs|
|Smush Parker||2||Delonte West||5||Edge: Cavs|
|Devean George||6||Anthony Parker||6||Edge: Cavs|
|Aaron McKie||11||Jamario Moon||2||Edge: Cavs|
|Kwame Brown||4||Zydrunas Ilgauskus||11||Edge: Cavs|
|Jim Jackson||14||JJ Hickson||1||Edge: Cavs|
|Brian Cook||2||Anderson Varejao||5||Edge: Cavs|
The chart above shows a significant talent gap between Kobe’s Lakers and Lebron’s Cavs. After Odom and Mo Williams, I tried to match up similar players/positions as closely as possible. The analysis above also doesn’t accurately describe the size of the edge within each individual matchup. Shaq, Jamison, Varejao, and West were all much better than their Laker counterparts. Amazingly, six of the players on the Lakers entire roster were completely out of the league by 2008: Smush Parker, Chris Mihm, Devin Green, Jim Jackson, Stanislav Medvedenko, and Laron Profit all had moved on. Four others: Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, Brian Cook, and Von Wafer were quickly relegated to the end of their respective team benches, and now sit in NBA obscurity. This collection of misfits accounts for 60% of the player roster for the Lakers in 2005-2006. And for those keeping score at home, I generously omitted the likes of other NBA greats like Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf, and Devean George.
3. The 2005-6 Western Conference was stronger than the 2009-10 Eastern Conference.
As with most of the last decade, the Western Conference in 2005-06 was well balanced and strong top to bottom. That year, 44 wins were required to enter in as an no. 8 seed, and only 1 team had less than 33 wins (the 21-win Jailblazers). Last year’s Eastern Conference was defined by a couple of very good teams (the Cavs, Celtics, and Magic), and a bunch of terrible squads. Six teams failed to win 33 games, with the New Jersey Nets posting one of the worst seasons in recent memory (12-70). On average, the 2005-06 Western Conference won 42.8 games per team, vs. 39.6 games for the 2009-10 Eastern Conference, an 8% win-loss discrepancy.
4.The Lakers overachieved in the playoffs that year. The Cavs underachieved.
If not for a lucky bounce to Tim Thomas in the waning moments of Game 6, the Lakers would have proceeded to Round 2 against the Clippers, with a very real shot at the Finals (remember, this was a team that matched up very well with the Mavericks). Even in losing, the Lakers pushed a Suns juggernaut well beyond what most experts believed possible. While it’s a given that last year’s Cavs were not as good as their regular season record may have indicated, their emotionless performance led to many still unanswered questions.
Kobe: 35.4ppg, 5.3rpg, 4.4apg, 1.8spg, 0.4bpg
Lebron: 29.7ppg, 7.3rpg, 8.6apg, 1.6spg, 1.0bpg
In comparing Kobe vs. Lebron stats, Kobe averaged more points and steals, whereas Lebron came out on top in rebounds, assists, and blocks. It might be argued that Lebron was more efficient as his FG% was significantly higher than Bryant’s (50% vs. 45%), though his FT% and 3PT% were lower, and he had a higher turnover rate (3.4 vs. 3.1 per game). Whatever the case, it’s close. Both of these players had historically great seasons.
So who did more with less? Lebron, by a hair.
If we normalize Kobe’s win total for relative strength of conference, this suggests he would have won 8% more games, or 49 games in Lebron’s weaker Eastern Conference. Furthermore, we estimate the significant talent gap between the teams may have cost Kobe roughly 5-10 wins. If we take the average here (7.5), it would be reasonable to expect that with a similar supporting cast, Kobe would have won ~56-57 games. Not the 61 games that Lebron won, but not as far off as some of the media hype would leave you to believe. Taking into account the performance of their respective teams in the playoffs, the gap narrows even further.
Who do you think had the better year?