Is The Kobe-Duncan Debate Close?
By. J.M. Poulard
Earlier last week, while interacting with various NBA fans on ESPN’s Daily Dime Live chat, a fan accused Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell (total name dropping, I know) of being a complete homer for stating that if he were starting a franchise he would pick Tim Duncan over Kobe Bryant. The Tim Duncan pick did not surprise me one bit given the fact that it is widely recognized that NBA basketball is a big man’s game. Indeed, the road to NBA titles has always gone through star big men. Nonetheless, it seems as though several people feel as though Kobe Bryant would in fact be the smart pick when deciding between both stars. Given my penchant for engaging basketball debates, it would only make sense for us to analyze both players and see ultimately who to go with.
Kobe Bryant joined the NBA in 1996 directly out of high school and struggled early in his career to get acclimated to the pro game. However, by his fourth season in the association he became the perfect player to play alongside a dominant Shaquille O’Neal; and it resulted in Bryant winning his first of many championships with the Lakers.
Tim Duncan on the other hand entered the league in 1997 after spending four years at the university of Wake Forest. The Big Fundamental was a force to be reckoned with from day one as he averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds for a Spurs team that won 56 games, which led to him capturing Rookie of the Year honors. By his second NBA season, Duncan gave us a taste of things to come in the future as he captured his first championship. But which player brings more to the table?
Using the player efficiency rankings (PER), Tim Duncan should be selected ahead of Bryant. Have a look:
Granted, Kobe Bryant isn’t that far off from Duncan, hence one could make the case that both players are close enough to call it a wash right? Well not exactly. At age 34, Tim Duncan is currently in the midst of his worst statistical season; which is to be expected, since his years have caught up with him thus resulting in a decline. Kobe Bryant on the other hand has not yet started to show any slippage (other than athletically) in his game. Logic would dictate that the Black Mamba’s PER numbers would take a slight dip in the next few seasons.
Nonetheless, Kobe Bryant’s aesthetically pleasing game seems to overshadow the fact that Duncan has been incredibly consistent and great throughout his career. It’s far easier to remember the Lakers star dropping 81 points on the Raptors or him outscoring the Mavericks through three quarters than it is to recall TD going for good old fashioned double double. But just for argument’s sake, let’s have a look at both the Mamba’s and the Big Fundamental’s best statistical seasons:
Duncan’s five best seasons all strangely resemble one another. The scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and field goal shooting have all been relatively the same; the one stat that affected his player efficiency ranking more than anything because of its fluctuation was his turnovers. And now the former Lower Merion star:
Bryant’s five best seasons are somewhat similar in production but the variation in points, rebounds and assists caused his player efficiency ranking to fluctuate. According to PER, Kobe Bryant had the single best statistical season of the players involved (2005-06 season), however Duncan’s five best seasons collectively outclass Bryant’s five. Also, Kobe Bryant’s first three seasons in the league saw him register PER numbers under 20 whereas Duncan’s lowest is 21.6, which corresponds to this current season.
As good as the player efficiency rankings are at putting into the context the individual production of players, it fails to measure how a player’s statistical output translates towards team success. Hence, looking at their teams production when these players are on the court and when they are off it could give a better indication of what their contributions to their respective teams result in. So have a look below at Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan’s plus-minus data (this stat measures whether a the team outscores or is outscored by their opponents depending on whether the player involved is on the court or off it), courtesy of 82games.com. Sadly they only started tracking the data in 2002 (the numbers in bold reflect the players best statistical seasons as shown previously):
|Season||On Court||Off Court||Net|
The Black Mamba’s net plus-minus numbers tell us that his presence on the court makes quite a difference (admit it, you were expecting that). When we look at the dark ages of the Kobe era (also known among the Lakers faithful as the Smush era; in case you weren’t sure, it’s seasons 2004-05 to 2006-07), it’s fairly obvious that the team was completely lost without Kobe Bryant on the court as evidenced by the off court plus-minus numbers.
One thing jumped out at me when looking at the numbers though: Kobe Bryant’s on court plus-minus figures were at their highest when Pau Gasol came to town (2007-08 season). Granted, we do not have the data from the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Lakers, which would have been intriguing to review. Let’s have a look at Mr. Groundhog Day.
|Season||On Court||Off Court||Net|
Duncan’s net plus-minus numbers are inferior to Kobe Bryant’s because the drop off when he goes to the bench isn’t as staggering as when the Lakers star ends up there. What pops up however is that up to 2007-08 season, Duncan’s presence on the court pretty much guaranteed a double digit lead on opponents. Jesse Blanchard did a good job of explaining this during the faithful Daily Dime chat when he stated: “Kobe Bryant has been known to shut down his opponent whereas Tim Duncan was known to shut down entire offenses by himself”. Indeed, Duncan’s productivity as well as his efficiency have made the Spurs team a championship contender throughout his tenure in San Antonio while the same cannot be said about Bryant.
Granted, so far we have only covered the regular season, whereas Kobe Bryant has been known to step his game up in the playoffs. Hence perhaps we should check out their playoff production right? Let’s glance at Bryant’s career playoff numbers:
Kobe’s 2009 postseason is his best statistical one. On his way to defeating the Magic in the Finals that year, Bryant carried the scoring load as usual but reduced his turnovers in comparison to other postseason runs when he assumed a lot of the scoring burden. Also, he did a decent job of shooting the ball, registering a 45.7% field goal, mark which is his fifth best playoff shooting performance. Granted, the numbers fail to capture the amount of scintillating plays that Kobe made on his way to destroying opponents that tried to stand in his way. Seriously, we all have at least one Kobe playoff moment that we just cannot seem to forget. And now on to Duncan:
There really isn’t any diplomatic way to this: Tim Duncan’s playoff performances essentially run circles over Kobe Bryant’s. Indeed, the Big Fundamental has five postseason performances that surpass Kobe Bryant’s best playoff run (2001-02, 2005-06, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2008-09) and also several other notable playoff performances. It’s not by accident that fans and people in the media shower Duncan with praise and peg him as the best power forward of all time; he has had an exceptional career.
Kobe Bryant is an incredibly hard working and talented player that still has some great years left; however if asked to build a team today based off the careers of these two stars, common sense dictates that Tim Duncan is the player to build around. He has been a great player in the NBA from day one and has been able to more than carry his weight during his career. For some fans, the Black Mamba’s crowd pleasing plays and insane ability to make tough shots will probably always dwarf the steady consistency of the Spurs star; however, not many players can echo the lyrics of Jay-Z’s What More Can I Say (never been any &#$% this good for this long) better than Tim Duncan. He has literally been a top 10 player in the league for most of his career and has led his teams to no less than 50 wins (lockout season excluded) each and every year. Not only has Tim Duncan been better than Kobe Bryant during his entire career, one can only wonder: were we wrong in selecting Kobe Bryant as the player of the decade? It would sure seem as such.