Who Rules the Top Defenses?
If you’re familiar with any of the advanced stats we use on this site, it should be pretty clear that LeBron James is having the best statistical season of any NBA player right now. I mean, frankly, there really isn’t a box score-based metric out there that doesn’t rank James as the #1 player in the league this season. Plus, many people (myself included) have suggested that LeBron is having the NBA’s best statistical campaign at least since the league started tracking turnovers in 1978. Simply put, if you put your faith in the numbers, LeBron’s gotta be the league’s top dog this year.
Not everyone believes this, of course, despite the numerical evidence. For instance, some people think Dwyane Wade is the best player in the league — which you could at least try to make a case for, I suppose, given that he’s basically been carrying Miami on his back to the 5th seed in the East. But a lot of people still believe Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s best player, too, even though the numbers don’t really validate this claim at first glance.
The idea is that Kobe (.463 eFG% on jumpers) is a better shooter than LeBron (.423) or Wade (.448), and can also get to the basket as well as they can when he wants to, but within the framework of the triangle he’s not going to do as many bull-rushes to the rim as LBJ and Flash, so his efficiency is lower. Going along with this line of thinking is the idea that Kobe is better against the “good defenses” than Wade or James, because good defenses can ostensibly pack it in and take away the drive, forcing the perimeter facilitator to shoot. In other words, guys like D-Wade and LeBron have been padding their stats against weak defenses, but when it comes to crunch time, Kobe is still the man you want with the ball.
Well, let’s test that hypothesis. We can compare each player’s stats only against the top defensive competition — let’s say, above-average defensive teams, the Top 10, and the Top 5. Then we’ll see if James & Wade are really just feasting on the weak, and if Kobe truly is more capable against strong defenses.
Above-Average Teams: Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, L.A. Lakers, Charlotte, New Orleans, Utah, Denver, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Milwaukee, Dallas
Top 10 Teams: Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, L.A. Lakers, Charlotte, New Orleans, Utah, Denver
Top-5 Teams: Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston
|LeBron James||All NBA||71||38.1||121.2||34.1||0.566||1.94||58||27||11||4|
|Dwyane Wade||All NBA||70||38.5||114.4||36.4||0.546||2.04||57||28||11||4|
|Kobe Bryant||All NBA||70||36.3||115.4||31.6||0.536||1.63||49||36||10||4|
|LeBron James||Top 10||19||37.2||110.1||37.1||0.521||1.93||56||29||9||5|
|Dwyane Wade||Top 10||23||39.2||110.7||38.0||0.527||1.94||53||31||11||5|
|Kobe Bryant||Top 10||22||39.0||114.5||33.5||0.535||1.62||47||37||11||4|
|LeBron James||Top 5||8||36.9||107.0||38.8||0.499||1.73||48||36||10||6|
|Dwyane Wade||Top 5||13||39.4||108.7||38.5||0.516||2.09||57||30||10||4|
|Kobe Bryant||Top 5||12||39.6||109.3||33.1||0.512||1.67||52||35||9||5|
|LeBron James||All NBA||71||38.1||26.9||53.5||33.3||77.0||58.7||40.7%||32.5%||38.1||12.4||4.95||47.3||23.6||4.6|
|Dwyane Wade||All NBA||70||38.5||27.8||52.3||30.2||76.4||56.9||41.3%||34.0%||40.8||13.2||4.12||43.6||15.8||3.5|
|Kobe Bryant||All NBA||70||36.3||27.3||49.8||34.0||86.5||56.1||54.3%||33.5%||23.9||11.7||1.75||32.4||18.8||3.6|
|LeBron James||Top 10||19||37.2||25.6||51.1||29.1||74.1||54.2||40.5%||35.4%||38.6||15.2||2.07||34.6||19.7||6.2|
|Dwyane Wade||Top 10||23||39.2||28.1||51.2||30.7||76.7||55.6||42.4%||36.1%||38.1||12.8||2.70||38.1||16.3||4.2|
|Kobe Bryant||Top 10||22||39.0||27.6||47.8||41.0||83.8||55.5||48.3%||34.8%||25.7||10.6||1.94||32.2||15.0||4.2|
|LeBron James||Top 5||8||36.9||27.5||47.6||35.9||77.0||53.9||38.0%||39.1%||34.3||14.0||-0.34||33.5||21.4||4.1|
|Dwyane Wade||Top 5||13||39.4||27.6||50.4||28.3||77.9||54.0||43.3%||36.4%||43.3||11.7||5.01||32.8||16.7||3.8|
|Kobe Bryant||Top 5||12||39.6||24.9||47.4||41.9||78.8||53.6||44.9%||33.9%||26.1||12.8||1.82||23.8||15.5||3.6|
Keeping in mind that we’re dealing with some small sample sizes, it’s true that as the competition gets stiffer, LeBron’s efficiency takes far more of a hit than either Wade or Bryant (he also seems compelled to take more and more shots against tougher defenses, whereas the other 2 basically take the same role no matter the opponent); his ORtg against the entire league is 121, and vs. top-5 Ds it’s 107. Plus his FTA/FGA dips dramatically and his shooting %s go down, supporting our idea that top-flight defenses clog his driving lanes and force him to become more of a jump-shooter, a role he’s not as effective in.
But what of our earlier hypothesis about Bryant? His offensive efficiency drops from 115 vs. everybody to 109 against top defensive units (though he’s taking on nowhere near as big a role in the offense as either James or Wade), and our theory about jumpers holds up: Kobe’s FTA/FGA also slides against tough defenses, but because he’s a better shooter his efficiency doesn’t drop as much as James’. So it does appear that Kobe’s efficiency is more immune to the effects of strong defensive clubs than LeBron — although when you take into account his huge offensive workload, LBJ is still a more effective offensive player than Kobe, even with his drop-off vs. Top-5 Ds.
But it seems like the real winner here is D-Wade, who somehow combines both Kobe’s efficiency and LeBron’s usage when going up against Top-5 defenses. Against elite Ds, Wade shoots more efficiently, scores more frequently, turns the ball over less, and passes better than either James or Bryant. If we’re using performance against the top defensive teams as a measuring stick for true offensive greatness, here’s more ammunition for those who argue that Dwyane Wade — and not Kobe Bryant — should be the main guy vying with LeBron for “best player” honors this season.