As constant readers of the blog will know, I am a rather large fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers. This stems from being born in Cleveland, Ohio and meeting LeBron James during his senior year of high school. Nevertheless, I have always considered myself an NBA fan over a Cavs fan. Hence why tonight’s game against Kobe Bryant is so important, and more than anything, meaningful to me.
When I was a young child, and started watching the NBA, rooting for the Cavs was a fool’s errand. Unless your kid is a narcissist, Shawn Kemp and Lamond Murray don’t generate much excitement. Fortunately for me, Phil Jackson’s Lakers had exhilaration abounds. Consequently, from 1999-2004 (when Shaq left the Lakers) I was a Lakers fan. And while I slowly moved to becoming a Cavs fan, the Lakers – even over the past few miserable seasons – have always had a place in my heart.
Worth noting, my mom totally joined the bandwagon. I vividly remember her taking me to my first NBA game in 2001 when the Lakers beat the Cavs by roughly two possessions. I can’t say we were disappointed. I did wear a Cavs shirt, however, I had my Shaq jersey on over it.
Overall, when I first started watching basketball I was on “team-Shaq.” It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching Kobe play – I absolutely did – but that Shaq’s game was simpler, more physically dominant, and easier to understand. As I’ve aged and developed a more nuanced understanding of the sport, though, I’ve realized what makes Kobe so legendary. In many ways, Kobe’s game is like a fine wine compared to Shaq’s Dogfish 120. Before explaining why Kobe’s final game in Cleveland should be important to all Cavs’ fans, however, I want to statistically examine the biggest nuance in Kobe’s game.
Many critics of Kobe Bryant say he is a ball hog. And thus, when he is in a system with other superstars and Phil Jackson, he succeeds because the damage from his ball dominance is mitigated. This, fortunately, is absolute poppycock. Paul Pierce, one of Kobe’s longtime rivals, explains why Kobe’s seemingly excessive shot counts are so effective in an article for The Players’ Tribune. He argued that “What you have to understand about Kobe’s game is that by taking that many shots, he’s meticulously wearing down the defender until he breaks them. He’s made a career out of making guys lose confidence in their defense and then continuing to attack them. He’s won five rings doing that.”
So let’s examine this statistically. Out of the “Black Mamba’s” five championship seasons, he has averaged more than twenty-one field goal attempts per game twice: 2000-01 and 2009-10. So we will use those two seasons for analysis.
Figure 1 Stats via NBA.com
So, is Kobe’s “greatest weakness,” as Paul Pierce points out, a strength? Possibly. Without being able to completely isolate the litany of variables, there is bound to be statistical noise. What we do see, however, is Kobe’s strategy clearly wore his opponents down by the fourth quarter. And as the numbers suggest, Kobe was able to individually dominate come crunch time. Therefore, while Kobe’s tendency to shoot a lot could be seen as a weakness, it also comes across as a strength, and the overall picture is a shade of grey.
Overall, Kobe has won many honors over his NBA career. He’s been the Defensive Player of the Year, won five NBA championships, been a finals MVP, and much more. The fact is that Kobe is one of the greatest players – and most fun players – of my generation. In my view, he is the second best wing player I’ve actively watched, behind LeBron James. His influence is nearly unrivaled. And this gets at why the Mamba’s last game in Cleveland is so important.
To the reader this must be curious. Kobe never played LeBron more than twice per season since the latter entered the league. At most, the Black Mamba played in Cleveland once per year. But here is the point, between 2008-2010, many in NBA circles expected the Lakers and Cavs to meet in the finals. Kobe and LeBron were playing at an elite level, and were arguable the two best players on the two best teams during that time period. But thanks to the Celtics’ “big three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, as well as Dwight Howard and a litany of three-point specialists, this matchup never happened.
So, you must be asking yourself, “okay Cohen, so why is this game any more meaningful than Kobe’s last game in New Orleans?” The fact is, Kobe’s final game in Cleveland represents a rivalry that should have, but never did happen. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry could have been the greatest individual competition of their generations’. Over those three years, during the regular season, the Cavaliers generally handled the Lakers with ease. But anyone who has followed Kobe knows that, during an NBA finals, that would not have been the case.
Consequently, tonight’s game represents something different than Kobe’s final game in Boston or, on the corollary, New Orleans. Rather, it represents a historic rivalry that never did happen. And just like that night in 2001, I will be wearing a Cavs shirt with a Lakers jersey watching the game with my mother. But unlike 2001, instead of a Shaq jersey, I will be wearing my Kobe #8 jersey.