Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why Tim Duncan is better than Kobe Bryant (UPDATED v3.0)

Since I’ve got some free time before I go into hermit-mode for the bar review come May, I figured I might as well do something productive. If you count agitating Kobephiles productive, that is. I’ve had this idea for about 3 years now; but as is everything with me, ideas take time to become reality. This was supposed to be my final entry in our ICT blog but I just didn’t have the time as the sem was winding down. (And thank God I didn’t, after I got screwed by the ICT profs—this video and this 4-page exam did not merit a 2.0 dammit! Anyway, it just wouldn’t have been worth it.)

So here’s my hypothesis: Tim Duncan is better than Kobe Bryant.

Now, I’m sure some people are already cursing me right now, accusing me that I don’t know anything about basketball. If you’re one of ‘em, then I really don’t give a rat’s arse what you think. If you’re at least open-minded, then read on. Around a month ago, Kobe was blabbering about how he didn’t have any rivals during his career. To a certain extent, I guess that’s true. If rivalry means going head-to-head with someone in the same position—like Wilt & Bill, Magic & Larry—then I concede that he didn’t. But when you talk about greatness per se, then Kobe was just being his usual arrogant self. Kobe isn’t the greatest post-Jordan superstar; Tim Duncan is.

So how do I go about measuring who is better? It’s quite a simple thought experiment, really: if you are a GM and your goal is to win as many NBA championships as possible, who would you pick, all things being equal?

Before proceeding to the merits of my case, I just have to make a couple of concessions. First, Kobe is a better scorer. In fact, Kobe might be one of the best offensive machines of all-time, perhaps next only to MJ and Wilt. But being a better scorer does not make one a better player. It just so happened that the greatest player of all-time is also the best scorer of all-time. If you insist talking about scoring alone, then you know nothing about basketball.

Second, Kobe has had a better career, longevity-wise. Kobe has played in 16 seasons, 13 at an elite level. Timmy has 15 seasons under his belt, with 13 elite. But Kobe is 2 years younger than Timmy, and given his (Kobe’s) motivation to go after Kareem’s career scoring record, he’ll probably continue to play at a high level for 2 more years. Timmy, on the other hand, is already at the tail end of his career and while still effective, no longer the dominant force he once was.[1] Despite the way I feel about Kobe, I gotta tip my hat off to his desire and hard work… even if I could hear him counting his career points every time he touches the ball.

So now let me break it down for you:

1. Kobe’s 5 rings is NOT worth more than Timmy’s 4
Some people will probably say, “Well, Kobe has 5 rings compared Timmy’s 4, so that’s ballgame right there.” Not quite. See, what we are measuring here is the number of championships a player can win as their team’s alpha dog. And who was the best player during the Lakers’ three-peat? Shaq Daddy. Sure, Kobe was already a superstar then. But those Lakers teams wouldn’t have won the championship without the Diesel. Not a chance. That’s a fact. Meanwhile, TD has been the best player in all 4 of the Spurs’ championship runs. Yes, including that one in 2007, when voters inexplicably handed the award to Tony Parker. Therefore, Timmy has won 4 titles as the team’s best player, while Kobe only has 2. Even if I’m generous and give half-Larry O’Brien trophies to Kobe during the times he played Robin to Shaq’s Batman, he will still trail Timmy 3 ½ to 4. Now, that's ballgame. But I'll indulge you some more.

2. Kobe had better teammates

Corollary to #1 is the fact that Kobe has had the luck of having an elite teammate during all the Lakers’ championship runs. History tells us that a team with 2 elite players has a better chance of winning the title. Jordan and Pippen. Shaq and Kobe. Magic and Kareem. Bird and McHale. Dr. J and Moses. I’ve already mentioned that Shaq, when he was wrecking havoc as the league’s most dominant center, basically gifted Kobe his first three rings. So how about in '09 and '10? Well, Kobe had Pau. Now, Laker fans don’t like Pau too much these days. But the truth is that during their last 2 championship runs, Pau was one of the top two centers in the league—and arguably the most offensively polished. He was All-NBA during those 2 championship seasons and is likely to go down as the second-best European player of all-time behind Dirk. While definitely not at Shaq’s level, he was nonetheless elite during those 2 years.

Compare this to who Duncan had. In 1999, he had a past-his-prime David Robinson. In 2003, he had a way-past-his-prime Admiral, with Tony and Manu still getting their feet wet. That ’03 title is of particular historical importance because: 1) since the turn of the millennium, there have been only 2 one-man teams to win the championship: Duncan’s ’03 team and Dirk’s Mavs last year; and 2) it was the most dominant Finals performance by a superstar since MJ left Chicago. Kobe can never touch that—which places him in a sort of conundrum: Kobe loves playing as if he was a one-man team, yet he cannot win the title as a one-man team.

It gets a little tricky in ’05 and ’07. Tony and Manu were already All-Star caliber during those years. While I love Manu (Tony? Not so much after the messing with me main man Brent Barry and breaking Eva Longoria’s heart), they were never really elite. They have 3 All-NBAs between them, which is equivalent to Pau’s career total. Notably, however, they didn’t make it during those 2 title runs. Neither Tony nor Manu were among the 5 best players in their respective positions from ’05 to ’07—or at any point of their careers for that matter. During that 3-year span, the top 5 point guards in the league were (in some order): Nash, Paul, Deron, Billups, and Kidd. In the shooting guard position it’s: Kobe, Wade, Arenas, McGrady, and Iverson. So while Kobe played with another superstar, Timmy played with 2 All-Stars. When it comes to winning championships, history says that Kobe had the advantage.

3. TD will win you more games

We’ve reached a point where we have to go to stats to prove my point. Rhetoric is good, but without stats to back them up, it won’t really count for much, wuddit? During the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs have never won fewer than 50 games during the regular season (except in the 1998 lockout season) and have never missed the NBA playoffs. Kobe’s Lakers? Well, they missed the playoffs in 2005, right after Kobe drove Shaq out of town, and were mediocre in 2006 and 2007. Since TD became a Spur, the franchise’s regular season winning percentage is 0.701 while Kobe’s Lakers posted a 0.659 mark.

Advanced metrics support the conclusion that TD is indeed a better winner. Timmy’s Wins Produced (a model for estimating individual player contribution to winning) during his elite seasons is way higher thank Kobe’s (255.9 to 158.6). To put things into perspective, MJ’s is 265.6.[2] In terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes, TD is a full tenth ahead of Kobe (0.315 vs. 0.215). In fact, Kobe’s WP48 of below 0.300 is not enough to accord him superstar status. What this all means is that you’ll win more games with TD as your star player. And lest we forget, basketball is all about winning.

4. Kobe is not more clutch than Timmy

Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all-time is that Kobe is his generation’s best closer. He is not. The thing is, he takes too many shots that people only remember the ones he make—forgetting the tons of misses in the process. For this purpose, let us use the clutch +/- (4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points ) as our gauge because it reflects how much their respective teams outscored the opponents with either superstar on the floor. This is a better measure than merely looking at points scored because it gives us the overall picture of the player’s effect on the team, both on the offensive and defensive end. Since 2003, the earliest year available, Timmy’s clutch +/- of +6.4 is slightly better than Kobe’s (+6.3). Looking at the adjusted +/- since 2007, Duncan leads Kobe (16.8 to 16.6)—this despite Duncan already reaching the tail end of his career. (Note that these “clutch” +/- stats are only available from 2003 onwards, thus failing to account for Timmy’s 2 MVP seasons.)

Even if we talk about clutch shots from 2000-01 through last season (thanks to, which I define as 30 seconds or less, one possession (down 3 or up 3) game, Duncan’s FG% is significantly higher (40.2%, 37-for-92) than Kobe’s (32%, 76-for-237). Yes, you read that right, two hundred thirty seven attempts!!! That's almost 20 attempts per season! You've gotta marvel at the courage, but you have to question his decision-making. He's playing hero ball, not basketball. Just so you know how outrageous his number of attempts were, other recognized clutch players average less than 15 attempts per season: Chris Paul (11.7), Melo (9.2), Wade (12.3), and, MJ (9.5, in 2 seasons in Washington; I just had to). Kobe averaged better than 40% only once during the 12-year span; Timmy did it 7 times (granted, of course, that his attempts were more modest). Comparing the years with the most makes, Timmy went 8-for-19 in '03-04, while Kobe hit 10-of-25 in '09-10. Which begs the question, would you really rather have Kobe taking the last shot? Based on the stats, the answer would be, and should be, no.

Lost in many basketball fans' obsession in game-winning heroics are defensive plays that seal wins or give teams chances to win. Game-saving blocks and game-saving steals--or just plainly "game-savers," if you will. Using the same criteria as above (30 seconds or less, +/-3 points), Timmy has the advantage. Since 2000-01 through last season, Tim's got 8 game-savers (all blocks), while Kobe has 7 (4 steals and 3 blocks). However, the close margin is more apparent than real. The "clutch" definition I have been using is deceptive when applied to defensive stats, because making blocks or steals is not as simple as taking shots (just think about it, I don't think I know of anyone who has averaged 5 blocks or 5 steals per game for an entire season). Ergo, the sample might be too narrow. If we expand it a bit--to less than 3 minutes of a 5-point ballgame--the difference is much more glaring. TD has 69 (52 blocks and 17 steals); Kobe has 50 (31 steals and 19 blocks). Again, you have to look at basketball games as a total package. Any basketball fan worth his salt knows that in close games, denying the opponent a chance to score is as important as making shots.

Another key stat is turnovers in game-winning situations. Since a turnover basically deprives the team a chance of winning or gives the opponent an opportunity to steal the win, you could put along side game-winners and game-savers as an important clutch indicator. Reverting to my original definition of clutch, Kobe has 18 clutch turnovers since 2000 through last season. Duncan has 11. In other words, Kobe is more likely to cost his team the game than Timmy. Wouldn't want that from your "closer," no?

5. Tim Duncan is more efficient
Perhaps the holy grail of advanced metrics is Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Comparing the greatest power forward of all-time with the second best shooting guard of all-time, the former once again outperforms the latter.

Duncan’s career PER of 24.7 includes 5 seasons of PER above 25.0. Kobe, on the other hand, holds a career of 23.5 with only 3 seasons above 25.0. Comparing their stats to the gold standard, MJ:

Career PER: 27.9
12 seasons over 25.0
4 above 30.0.

I love this stat because it destroys the preconceived correlation between scoring and greatness. As I've said earlier, it just so happened that MJ scored a lot of points. What people should really be looking at is the PER. Expectedly, MJ is number 1. Duncan’s career PER ranks 9th all-time, ten spots above Kobe.

6. Timmy is a better defender

Timmy is the only player to be named to both the All-NBA and All-Defense teams in each of his first 13 seasons. Kobe has been named All-Defense 11 times but the difference is actually wider than it appears on paper. Timmy had the capacity to alter the opposing team’s offense because of his intimidating presence in the paint. He was an elite on- and off-ball defender and was the defensive anchor of all of the Spurs’ title runs. From 2004-2007, Timmy led the league in defensive rating. During his first 10 years in the league, he was never below 4th in that category. And as they say, defense wins championships. While Kobe is an excellent one-on-one defender, you can’t really say his impact on the defensive end is at par with TD.

7. Timmy is “more valuable”

Another stat that matters: MVPs – Timmy 2, Kobe 1. It cannot be denied that the NBA MVP is the most important individual accolade in the league—perhaps even in all four major American leagues (i.e., NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB). Considering that they were near-contemporaries (TD peaked 3 years ahead of Kobe), the fact that Timmy won one more MVP trophy than Kobe is quite telling. Actually, it says more about Kobe than anything else. If he was so great, then why didn’t he win more? If he is truly unrivalled as he claims, then why only one MVP? Surely, voter fatigue was not a factor as it was with MJ. Couldn’t have been due to popularity either; after all, Kobe has sold way more jerseys than Timmy. What this means is that, despite Kobe’s view of himself, sportswriters never really regarded him as the best of his generation. In fact, even if we consider second-place finishes in the MVP race, the difference would be wider. Timmy finished 2nd in ’01 and ’04, while Kobe finished 2nd in ’09. That would be 4 top-2 finishes in the MVP ballots for TD and only 2 for Kobe.

Unsurprisingly, several publications/blogs (Sports Illustrated, Ball Don’t Lie’s Kelly Dwyer, ESPN’s John Hollinger, The Huffington Post’s Tom Ziller, among others) named Duncan as the player of the decade.

8. Timmy is a better teammate

Locker room dynamics is particularly important in professional sports. In the NBA, a team plays 82 games over the course of 5 months—which is why you need your players to get along on and off the court. A dysfunctional team never wins a championship. This is another reason why, as a GM, you’d rather have Timmy on your team.

Try Googling for something damning that Timmy said about his teammates or vice-versa and you’ll find none. The only thing you’ll likely find is his feud with Joey Crawford. In fact, past and present teammates have nothing but praises for TD. He was happy for TP when the latter was named the ’07 Finals MVP—just imagine the look on Kobe’s face had Pau won the 2010 Finals MVP. He once called Stephen Jackson the “ultimate teammate”; but really, it is Timmy who is the ultimate teammate—on and off the court. As Popovich notes, Duncan is “that easy to play with, and his skills are so fundamentally sound that other people can fit in.”

Can’t say the same thing about Kobe, though. His clashes with Shaq were well-chronicled. Most notable was when Kobe threw Shaq under the bus after the Colorado incident. Yes, that Colorado incident. (Hey, I’m not even attacking Kobe for that rape-that-wasn’t.) Even the great Phil Jackson labelled Kobe as “uncoachable” in his book. Kobe publicly dissed Bynum and the Lakers organization when things weren’t going well in ’07. And he bitches his teammates when they don’t get him the ball.

This quote from Brian Shaw, Kobe’s teammate from 1999-2003, after the Colorado incident is particularly enlightening: “Shaq had all these parties and you (Kobe) never showed up for any of them. We invited you to dinner on the road and you didn’t come. Shaq invited you to his wedding and you weren’t there. Then you got married and didn’t invite any of us. And now you are in the middle of this problem, this sensitive situation, and now you want all of us to step up for you. We don’t even know you.” No wonder he didn’t get the Lakers coaching gig.

9. What Ifs

Hypothetically, TD could have won at least 6 titles. In 2004, the Spurs would have repeated as champions had the game clock properly run in Derek Fisher’s 0.4 second shot that shouldn’t have counted. When you look at the replay, don’t look at whether he got it off on time because he did. But the clock didn’t immediately run the moment he caught the ball, which gave him around 0.2 more to release it. Pay attention to how he caught the ball in mid-air before landing on both his feet. The clock should’ve started to run by then. Instead, it ran only when he had both his feet set.

In 2006, Manu committed a stupid foul on Dirk in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the West Semis (the de facto Finals) with the Spurs up by 3. It was a foul, no doubt. But what if the refs let them play? I mean, it was playoff basketball after all. Surely, the Spurs would not have choked in the Finals against the Heat. The Spurs were much closer to the cusp of a rare 5-peat than people think. You can also throw in a couple of injury “what ifs.” What if Manu was 100% in ‘08 against the Lakers? What if Tony wasn’t injured in ’10 against the Suns?

Meanwhile, the “what if” game would cost Kobe at least 2 titles. In 2002, what if Lakers-Kings series wasn’t rigged? Oh, David Stern says it wasn’t. Wait, it wasn’t?! Well, at least what if the refs properly called a flagrant-1 on Kobe for his elbow on Bibby in the dying seconds of Game 6? Peja would’ve knocked down both technical free throws and the Kings would have clinched the series. Then in 2010, what if Perkins wasn’t injured in Games 6 and 7? The Celts were badly outrebounded in both of those games (52-39 in G6, 53-40 in G7), both losses. In their 3 wins, Boston won the battle of the boards. Certainly, Perkins’ presence would have altered any one of those games.

What this exercise is meant to illustrate is that with Tim Duncan, a franchise is guaranteed at least 4 titles. Four titles without controversy. With some luck, you could ride him for 6 or 7. If you pair Shaq and Kobe, you’re guaranteed at least 2... before the situation self-combusts. But with Kobe alone, you’re really guaranteed only 1.

In an alternate universe, these what ifs probably happened, and the me in that universe would not even bother writing this stuff. Cos in that universe, Timmy’s got 6 titles while Kobe’s got 3, and the entire argument would be plainly stupid.

10. Timmy performs better during the playoffs

In the end, it all comes down to this. You want to win titles? You need a superstar that rises up to the occasion.[3] Plain and simple. Here are Kobe and Timmy’s postseason stats:

TD: 22.7ppg 12.4rpg 3.4apg 50.2%FG PER: 25.4
Kobe: 25.4ppg 5.1rpg 4.8apg 44.8%FG PER: 22.3

It’s much closer than you thought, right? Considering that Kobe is supposed to be a much better scorer, Timmy is surprisingly within 3 points per game of Kobe. What I’d really like to point out is the PERs. Timmy’s postseason PER is higher than his regular season rating, while Kobe’s postseason PER is lower. This means that Timmy raises his game in the postseason, while Kobe slightly regresses. And just to drive home the point, TD has four career playoff triple-doubles. Kobe? Zilch.

Let’s narrow it down to Finals performance:

TD: 22.7ppg 14.4rpg 3.4apg 47.2%FG Finals MVP: 3
Kobe: 24.7ppg 5.5rpg 4.9 apg 40.7%FG Finals MVP: 2

While TD maintains the same offensive output, his rebounds per game average increases by 2. On the other hand, Kobe averages fewer points per game with marginal increases in the rebounding and assist departments. Although each suffer a dip in shooting percentage, Kobe’s 40.7% clip is downright woeful for a superstar. Unsurprisingly, Kobe only has 2 Finals MVPs in his 7 Finals appearances.

In Hollinger’s 50 greatest Finals performances (series), all of Timmy’s NBA Finals appearances make it to the list. His 2003 decimation of the Nets is ranked as the 3rd best all-time. His other entries are: #11 (’99), #41 (’07), and #45 (’05). Kobe only had 2 in the list: #15 (‘09) and #24 (’10). In terms of the best single-game Finals performances, Kobe only has 2 games in the top 50: Game 1 of the 2009 Finals (#13) and Game 5 of that same series (#49). On the other hand, TD has four: Game 1 ’03 (#6), Game 1 ’99 (#32), Game 5 ’03 (#35), and Game 1 ’07 (#45).

When we talk about winning percentage, Timmy is 4-0 in his Finals appearance with a 0.727 winning percentage in all of his Finals games. Kobe is 5-2 in the Finals, with a 0.605 winning percentage in all Finals games played.

Yet even if we disregard the numbers, we will still reach the same conclusion. Kobe’s most memorable playoff moment is his alley-oop to Shaq in 2000 against Portland (my favorite team at the time)—quite ironic, considering how Kobe hates passing and how he would drive Shaq out of LA several years later. Perhaps his most memorable Finals moment was when he scored 23 straight points against Boston in Game 5 of 2010—which was ultimately meaningless because they went on to lose the game. His other memorable moment: the 6-for-24 stink bomb in Game 7(!) of the series against the Celts.

Meanwhile, the great Tim Duncan owns one of the all-time legendary NBA Finals performance: his “two blocks shy of a quadruple-double” game in the clincher against the Nets (’03). His 24-point second half in the opener against the Nets (#6 in Hollinger’s list) is constantly replayed in the NBA’s Greatest Games.

11. The Tensai's Rating

Finally, allow me to use the system I’ve devised to measure who is the better player.
Here are the criteria:

- NBA MVP awards won (5 points each)
- NBA Finals MVP awards (5 points each)
- NBA championships won (3 points each)
- All-Star Games selected to play in (1 point each)
- All-NBA first-team selections (2 points each)
- All-NBA second-team selections (1.5 points each)
- All-NBA third team selections (1 point each)
- All-defensive first-team (1.5 points each)
- All-defensive second-team (1 point each)
- All-Star MVP awards (1 point each)
- Rookie of the Year (1 point each)
- Individual statistical titles (2 points each) — restricted to a) basic stats (per game averages): points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage; and b) advanced stats: offensive rating, defensive rating and PER.
- Career playoff averages (2 points each) — for each category the player leads over the other (see above for restrictions)

The weighted results—

TD: 106.5
Kobe: 96.5
Winner: Tim Duncan

The inevitable conclusion is that Timmy is the better player. Yes, Kobe scores more points. Yes, Kobe could be spectacular to watch. Yes, Kobe sells more shoes and jerseys. Yes, Timmy is boring. But it doesn’t matter. Basketball is a team sport. Basketball is about winning. And if you’re a GM, the logical choice would be to pick Tim Duncan. Even more so if your life depended on it.


[1] But he is not washed up, dammit. After the Spurs got drubbed by LA a couple of days ago, I heard this stupid DJ claiming that TD is way over the hill. He is not. He isn’t Ewing playing for the Raptors or Hakeem with the Sonics or the 2003 David Robinson. The Spurs’ next game? Timmy drops 28 in a win against the surging Grizzlies.
[2] This is why the MJ-Kobe argument is utterly comical and foolish.
[3] Did someone say LeBron? (awkward silence)


**See also: