Posted by Neil Paine on June 9, 2010
If you listened to any of the hype in the days leading up to Game 1 of the Finals, you know that this Lakers-Celtics series was going to be seen as a referendum on two things: how much Kobe Bryant (and the Lakers as a team) have improved since 2008, and which player is better in the Kobe-LeBron debate. Conveniently for the casual fan, the common opponent in all three cases (Lakers-Celts 2008, Celts-Cavs 2010, & Lakers-Celts 2010) is the Boston Celtics, a team that -- superficially, at least -- has changed very little in the past few years, making for an easy and seemingly valid measuring stick.
I won't debate the validity of this assumption any more than to point out that more has changed for the Celtics since 2008 than meets the eye. But say for the purposes of argument that the basic premise is valid, that you can straight-up compare Kobe '08, Kobe '10, and LeBron '10 on the basis of their performance against a common playoff foe... Who looks better after 3 games?
First, let's look at the teams and their Four Factors:
Using the Celtics as a barometer, the Lakers have improved significantly in the first 3 games of the 2010 Finals, vs. the first 3 games of their 2008 series. Boston has actually held the Lakers to a lower eFG% and a higher turnover % than in 2008, but L.A. has been flat-out abusing the C's inside, as evidenced by their huge rebounding & offensive free throw rates. Much of the Lakers' newfound inside advantage can be attributed to the presence of Andrew Bynum, whose 2008 injury may have been (in retrospect) the key to the Celtics' win. The primary Laker frontcourt in 2008 consisted of these players (stats through 3 games):
This year's version has been significantly more productive:
As for Bryant, he's been far better defensively (although he was responsible for checking Rajon Rondo when Rondo had a triple-double in Game 2), but less effective on offense:
Finally, how about the 2010 Kobe-LeBron comparison after 3 games vs. Boston?
Through 3 games, James thoroughly outplayed Bryant in practically every phase of the game. Although to be fair to Kobe, Game 3 was LeBron's magnum opus, a 38-point (on .636 shooting), 8-rebound, 7-assist masterpiece that proved to be his last truly great effort of the year -- James followed up that performance with 2 mediocre games (by his standards) and a legitimately terrible effort in Game 5. At the time, I noted that the Celtics' defense has shown an ability to adapt and take away the opponent's best player, which they did to James in those games, and to Kobe as well in 2008. But if Bryant can avoid the same fate -- and if his teammates continue to dominate -- Kobe will have an opportunity to gain plenty of ground on LeBron as the series goes on. Stay tuned, because this battle will likely come down to the final game of the season.