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Does Kobe or LeBron Give You a Better Chance vs. Boston?

Posted by Neil Paine on June 21, 2010

For those who missed the epic Kobe-LeBron thread over the weekend, here's a recap of a good back-and-forth between myself and a commenter named "Anon" (a far different Anon from the user who usually posts under that moniker, apparently)...

First off, I stated that if LeBron's teammates played as well vs. Boston as Kobe's did against the Celts, Cleveland would have advanced. In retrospect, I should have said "Cleveland would probably have advanced," since obviously there are no certainties, in life and least of all in sports, but the general point stands -- Cleveland's probability of beating Boston would have been higher had James' teammates given him a performance like Kobe's did against the same opponent. The justification for that statement is this:

"LeBron's SPM in the Cleveland-Boston series was +7.47. His team's efficiency differential was -5.8.

Kobe's SPM in the L.A.-Boston series was +7.45. His team's efficiency differential was +4.0.

Remember, 5 * the minute-weighted average of the SPMs of the individuals on a team must equal the team's efficiency differential.

This is what I mean when I say, 'if LeBron had gotten a Gasol-like performance from one of his teammates, Cleveland would have won.' Kobe and LeBron played at identical levels in their respective series vs. Boston. The only possible reason for their teams' disparate efficiency differentials must be the performances of their teammates."

I went on to show the cumulative stats for both teams during their respective series vs. Boston:

Player Team Opp mp mpg pts40 tsa40 3pa40 fta40 ast40 orb40 drb40 tov40 stl40 blk40 SPM
James CLE BOS 255 42.5 25.3 22.7 4.1 11.0 6.8 1.4 7.4 4.2 2.0 1.3 7.47
Williams CLE BOS 225 37.4 14.2 13.8 3.4 4.6 5.9 0.4 3.4 2.1 0.7 0.0 -2.63
Jamison CLE BOS 200 33.2 14.2 14.7 3.2 4.2 1.2 1.8 7.0 1.8 0.8 1.0 -3.30
Parker CLE BOS 199 33.1 10.1 7.4 4.2 1.2 1.4 0.2 2.8 1.4 1.4 0.4 -1.01
O'Neal CLE BOS 140 23.4 23.1 20.4 0.0 10.0 1.7 3.4 5.1 2.9 0.3 1.7 -1.98
West CLE BOS 131 21.9 10.4 10.6 1.8 4.0 3.4 0.9 2.1 4.3 1.2 0.6 -8.23
Varejao CLE BOS 129 21.5 11.5 9.8 0.3 5.3 1.2 3.4 7.5 1.9 1.9 1.2 1.42
Hickson CLE BOS 57 9.5 20.4 15.7 0.0 8.5 0.7 0.0 4.9 3.5 0.0 0.0 -8.51
Moon CLE BOS 43 7.1 10.3 8.8 3.8 2.8 2.8 0.9 4.7 0.0 1.9 0.0 1.38
Ilgauskas CLE BOS 34 11.5 8.1 9.8 0.0 1.2 1.2 1.2 2.3 1.2 0.0 5.8 -6.56
Gibson CLE BOS 19 6.2 10.7 12.6 8.6 4.3 2.1 0.0 2.1 2.1 0.0 0.0 -9.95
Powe CLE BOS 9 2.9 23.0 26.5 0.0 18.4 0.0 4.6 4.6 4.6 0.0 0.0 -9.33
Williams CLE BOS 1 1.2 0.0 32.4 32.4 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 -20.67
Player Team Opp mp mpg pts40 tsa40 3pa40 fta40 ast40 orb40 drb40 tov40 stl40 blk40 SPM
Gasol LAL BOS 293 41.9 17.7 15.9 0.3 8.3 3.5 4.8 6.3 1.8 0.7 2.5 5.70
Bryant LAL BOS 288 41.2 27.7 26.3 6.5 8.3 3.7 1.7 6.1 3.7 2.1 0.7 7.45
Artest LAL BOS 251 35.9 11.8 12.9 5.1 3.2 1.4 1.9 3.2 1.8 1.6 0.6 -0.48
Fisher LAL BOS 214 30.6 11.2 10.7 1.9 3.2 2.6 0.6 3.4 1.7 1.1 0.0 -2.31
Odom LAL BOS 192 27.4 11.0 10.8 2.1 2.3 1.9 2.1 7.5 2.1 0.8 0.8 -1.73
Bynum LAL BOS 175 24.9 11.9 11.6 0.0 4.6 0.0 3.7 4.6 1.4 0.2 2.1 -2.89
Farmar LAL BOS 88 12.6 9.6 13.1 4.5 0.9 2.7 0.5 3.2 3.6 3.6 0.0 -3.42
Brown LAL BOS 85 12.1 9.9 10.1 1.4 1.4 1.4 0.0 2.8 0.0 0.0 0.5 -6.28
Vujacic LAL BOS 52 7.4 16.2 14.3 7.7 4.6 3.8 2.3 3.1 0.8 1.5 0.0 3.85
Walton LAL BOS 31 7.8 2.6 3.8 0.0 0.0 3.8 0.0 2.6 2.6 0.0 2.6 -7.10
Powell LAL BOS 8 4.1 0.0 9.7 4.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 4.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 -14.29
Mbenga LAL BOS 3 2.7 0.0 14.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 14.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 -17.31

However, as Anon pointed out, it's not necessarily quite that open-and-shut. On average, LeBron and Kobe did perform at essentially equal levels vs. the C's, but the game-by-game distributions of their performances were radically different. Here are Kobe's game-by-game SPM scores vs. Boston:

Date mp pts40 ts% 3pa40 fta40 ast40 orb40 drb40 tov40 stl40 blk40 SPM
6/3/2010 38.8 31.0 56.8 2.1 10.3 6.2 1.0 6.2 4.1 1.0 1.0 7.81
6/6/2010 34.3 24.5 49.2 8.2 3.5 7.0 0.0 5.8 5.8 4.7 0.0 2.40
6/8/2010 43.9 26.4 44.6 6.4 7.3 3.6 1.8 4.6 0.9 1.8 2.7 11.52
6/10/2010 43.1 30.7 64.7 10.2 7.4 1.9 0.0 5.6 6.5 1.9 0.0 3.49
6/13/2010 43.9 34.6 61.4 9.1 8.2 3.6 1.8 2.7 3.6 0.9 0.9 8.54
6/15/2010 39.6 26.3 58.9 4.0 7.1 3.0 3.0 8.1 2.0 4.0 0.0 16.49
6/17/2010 44.9 20.5 37.6 5.4 13.4 1.8 3.6 9.8 3.6 0.9 0.0 1.55

That's a standard deviation of 5.41... Meanwhile, here are LBJ's game-by-game SPMs vs. Boston:

Date mp pts40 ts% 3pa40 fta40 ast40 orb40 drb40 tov40 stl40 blk40 SPM
5/1/2010 43.2 32.4 60.7 5.6 10.2 6.5 1.9 4.6 1.9 2.8 1.9 17.41
5/3/2010 41.2 23.3 55.6 3.9 14.6 3.9 0.0 6.8 4.9 2.9 1.9 4.97
5/7/2010 39.3 38.7 73.2 3.1 9.2 7.1 2.0 6.1 1.0 1.0 2.0 22.20
5/9/2010 43.2 20.4 48.2 4.6 10.2 7.4 0.9 7.4 6.5 1.9 0.9 0.35
5/11/2010 41.7 14.4 38.9 3.8 11.5 6.7 1.0 4.8 2.9 1.0 0.0 -6.15
5/13/2010 46.2 23.4 51.4 3.5 10.4 8.7 2.6 13.9 7.8 2.6 0.9 6.49

That's a standard deviation of 10.58... This means that LeBron was more likely to have a monster game, but he was also more likely to have a poor game that damaged his team's chances. Linking this back to team performance, Dean Oliver found in Basketball on Paper that, among two teams with equally positive point differentials, the one that was more consistent was likely to win more ballgames. Now Kobe suddenly has a case for contributing more wins vs. Boston than LeBron, given equal teammates.

This is an interesting development. I'm not saying Kobe is always more consistent than LeBron, mind you, or that they're always equal performers. This is based on a very specific, very miniscule sample size, and we all know the dangers of drawing conclusions from this kind of short-term data. So please keep that in mind going forward.

Nonetheless, let's set up a simple Monte Carlo experiment to test this: say for a second that these numbers do represent the true ability levels of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and their teammates against the Boston Celtics in May and June of 2010. So Kobe and LeBron are two players with equal contributions to victory on average (+7.5), but Kobe's per-game distribution is much narrower -- let's give him a standard deviation of 5.5 SPM each game, and give LeBron a standard deviation of 10.5. And they both play 42 MPG.

Of course, we also need to establish the production of their teammates. Remember that the team's efficiency differential will always equal

(5 * (m1s1 + m2s2)) / (m1 + m2)

where m1 is the player's minutes, s1 is the player's SPM, m2 is his teammates' total minutes, and s2 is those teammates' minute-weighted SPM.

During their Boston series, Kobe's teammates averaged a -0.56 score with a per-game standard deviation of 2.6; LeBron's teammates averaged a -2.87 score with a standard deviation of 3.8. Combined, the two superstars' teammates averaged -1.63 with a 3.3 standard deviation.

So for the purposes of this simulation, let's say that the star can be on either Cleveland, where he'll get -3 support with a stdev of 4; L.A., where he'll get -0.5 support with a 2.5 stdev; or "Clevangeles", where he'll get -1.5 support with a 3.5 stdev. In each situation, which player contributes a higher cumulative winning percentage, the Kobe-esque one or the LeBron-esque one?

10,000 simulated games later, here's your answer:

Team Wins/10,000 G
Player Cleveland Los Angeles "Clevangeles"
Kobe Bryant 3698 6511 5085
LeBron James 3839 6259 5054

As you can see, the players were actually well-suited to their real-life situations -- a player with James' all-or-nothing variance would win more on a team like Cleveland than he would if he had Kobe's steadier approach. Likewise, Bryant's consistency would buy the Lakers more wins than LBJ's boom-and-bust tendencies. And on the bizarre amalgam of the Cavs and Lakers, Kobe has a very slim edge in total wins.

Another major thing we can derive from this sim? More often than not, neither Kobe nor LeBron would have been enough to put Cleveland over the top vs. Boston, given the way the rest of the team played. Also, the Lakers win the NBA championship more often than not no matter whether James or Bryant is leading the way. Proving again that, whoever you are, you always need help from your friends.

56 Responses to “Does Kobe or LeBron Give You a Better Chance vs. Boston?”

  1. potted-plant Says:

    Final 24 seconds, one-possesion game,
    2002-03 to end 2009 (early years for Lebron, peak years for Kobe)

    Lebron James
    23 of 47

    Kobe Bryant
    21 of 69

    nice rant though

  2. cook Says:

    51. So what? So what? Who choked when the most crucial moment came to him? 'The King' choked twice, once against the Magic, the other against celtics.

    You guys complained that Lebron's teammates was the root cause of Cav's downfall. But who comes to Kobe's defense when his team was flooded with a bunch of D-league standard first-team players like Kwame Brown and Smush Parker? God knows who and where they are playing for now. And you have Cavs, the team that holds the best record in the regular season, and you still complaint of Bron not having a good enough cast?

    True enough, you may say that his teammates failed to step up when the moment came. But i consider that the Cav's have a more shallow bond to begin with. Kobe and most of his teammates went through the effort of going so far into the finals in 2008, yet having to undergo a humiliation defeat by the Celtics. It was one to never forget. With that determination to overcome the celtics in mind, fuelled by the soft image that was created by the media for the Lakers, who were vehemently criticised for their lack of toughness in the face of this great adversity, in particular Pau Gasol, how would the Lakers give up on the game when the moment mattered the most? Lakers would definitely want to prove themselves and everybody wrong. I don't expect the Cavs to make such an all out push base on what they have gone through in comparison to the Lakers. during crucial moments, it is not the skills nor the ability that differentiates the two teams, but the courage to surmount a final push for victory, the fearlessness, the bravery, thats the reason Lakers won against the Celtics in Game 7. And whats the reason for Cavs to lose out for 2 seasons in the playoffs? Leadership, to motivate everybody, to ensure everyone stays on the same page, to ensure nobody bleeps it up, to ensure everyone stays focused, to ensure everybody knew how much it matters. Leadership is the hallmark of a great player, something in which I saw in Kobe, but not Bron.

    Neil. You seemed to be dealing with the team's production and player's production as separate entities when they seem to suggest causality over here. Assuming a team is under the lead of the superstar, we should also consider the superstar's ability to influence his teammates to play better. Instead, you are saying that should bron be surrounded by Kobe's teammates, he would stand a chance against the Celtics, based on the evidence from the "LeBron's team's efficiency differential was -5.8.
    Kobe's team's efficiency differential was +4.0." stats. thus I would like to offer another perspective. That the reason Kobe's teammates are playing better is due to the influence of Kobe's game, be it things that are on the stats sheet or the things that cannot be measured by the stat-sheet alone. Your calculation of the efficiencies is a hasty generalisation becus you failed to consider the respective superstars' impact on the productive efficiencies of their counterparts'. According to Celtics' coach, Rivers, he mentioned that most people fail to realise how much Kobe has impact the game by setting up plays for his teammates especially when he's double/triple-teamed. Some people say base on the stat sheet, the number of assists, steals, blocks, rebounds, Bron impacts the game more. True, but only an individual basis. But if we were to consider game decisions, the setting up of plays, i believe Kobe would be a more complete player than Bron. Becos Kobe knows what to do to win, Bron doesn't.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    The problem with the theory of Kobe doing so much more to help his teammates when he's on the court (things that supposedly could never be captured in the box score) than James is that it's demonstrably not true.

    If that were the case, it would be reflected in his adjusted plus-minus rating, which isolates his impact on the team's point margin when he's on the floor, controlling for his teammates and the level of competition. Kobe's +/- in the 2010 playoffs was +6.12, which is impressive until you consider that LeBron James' was +17.61. The problem for LeBron is that only one of his teammates had a positive +/- in the playoffs -- Anderson Varejao. And this isn't just in the Celtics series, this includes the Chicago series as well. Also, let me restate that this metric uses no boxscore stats, it simply records the player's impact on team performance when he's on the floor, indirectly capturing all of those "little things" that Kobe supposedly does to make his teammates better.

    Unfortunately, this means the idea that Bryant does so much beyond the boxscore to make up for James' enormous stat-sheet advantage is simply false. There's really no way to provide evidence that Bryant is better than James without either resorting to subjective nonsense or assigning his teammates' accomplishments to him (i.e., the championship argument).

  4. potted-plant Says:

    52. "so what?"
    I was just responding to the asinine post above that went on and on about how clutch Kobe is compared to Lebron even though statistically Kobe is one of the worst clutch players (maybe THE worst) in the NBA between 2003 and 2009 (25% shooting, 5/1 TO/assists in game deciding situations).
    He was very good in the clutch this season but even his great 2010 clutch season does not bring him up to a mediocre level over the last 7 seasons.
    The "Kobe is clutch" argument is like saying "Yes, Clinton was a better president than Bush in every observable statistic, but Bush is just so much more articulate". Or "yes, Ferrari makes nice cars overall, but my lawnmower is just so much faster and that's what it's all about". Is there an expression for the opposite of "making sense"?

    And if you call Lebron's 38-8-8 49% average over six games against Orlando "choking" then I would like to know how many single games Kobe had in his entire career when he did not choke according to that standard.

    As for Kobe being better at making his teammates better:

    LeBron James
    548 Games Played
    339 Games Won
    LeBron James' Win Percentage = .618
    Cavs win percentage without LeBron James = .384 (26 Games)
    Difference = .234
    --> huge difference

    Kobe Bryant
    1021 Games Played
    676 Games Won
    Kobe Bryant's Regular Season Win Percentage = .662
    Lakers Win Percentage Without Kobe Bryant = .604 (95 games)
    Difference = .058
    --> barely a difference when Shannon Brown or whoever plays instead of Kobe

  5. Loe Says:

    Man all these complex stats! Any way, Kobe played no better than LeBron did against Boston and his team Won. I'm convinced Stern got on the Bat phone and gave some specific instructions to the refs at the begginning of the 4th quarter so they can keep the Kobe might be better than Jordan angle going. It's real simple folks, kobe in 2 of his victories played some horrible basketball and they still won! Also we need to take into account the defensive strategy versus both players and the fact that there was obviously something wrong with LeBron. (don't think it was the elbow, the delonte thing makes the most sense) Kobe was largely single covered by Ray allen the whole series, While LeBron was guarded by Paul pierce the far superior defender. Even with all this in Kobe's favor LeBron had the same output if not a little better. How bout we look at the Orlando series they both played against the Magic. Kobe won, but LeBron played one of the all time great playoff series ever. If he choked you got to say Jerry west choked the year he won the finals MVP with close to the same numbers(prob better) but still lost. LeBron's the better player, Kobe has the better team. Plus what gets me is how simplistic people are. Playoff basketball is all about matchups. Boston could hold down cleveland and throw double teams at LeBron at the same time while having 2 matchup problems on the other end of the court at all times. The same couldn't be said with LA. Kobe didn't prove anything in these finals, Gasol proved he wasn't soft(dumbest thing i've heard in years) and Artest proved he could be counted on. Actually artest was the key to the series because he was able to practically shut down a guy that LA didn't have an answer for in 2008.

  6. nimble Says:

    Let hate rage on!Let haters fuel the fire!