NBA players who are widely categorized as selfish generally share at least one similar habit: They shoot too much. Kobe Bryant is a prime example of a player who’s consistently criticized for his gunslinging mentality. On the other hand, LeBron “King” James is lauded and praised for his selflessness and galvanizing leadership qualities. Some fans and analysts go as far as dubbing James Magic Johnson’s NBA counterpart — but to what extent are the heaps of praise bestowed upon the “King” valid?
Amid all the ballyhoo, James’s assist totals (he’s third among active players in assists) and supreme basketball talent has persuaded many fans into thinking that he’s one of the most selfless team-first players that the game has to offer. However, said fans are sadly mistaken.
James has long been touted for his willingness to sacrifice and make teammates better. Kobe is perceived as an arrogant shot-chucker who only cares about getting his own. Yet despite these two commonly held views, both James and Bryant do hog the basketball and control the game’s flow to an extreme degree. Perhaps this misconception persists because Bryant is brutally honest about his penchant for shooting, thus making it easier for fans to label him as a selfish ball hog.
Meanwhile, LeBron, who consistently has the ball in his hands even when he’s not shooting, is guilefully one of the biggest ball-stoppers in the league.
To What Degree is the Ball Hog Label on Kobe Valid?
Preconceived notions about Kobe and LeBron often cause people to misconstrue the actions and words of the two superstars. For example, earlier last season LeBron said, “If I’m on the team, you automatically have to be unselfish,” and many interpreted it as James’s attempt to instill his guys with more of a sense of teamwork through ball movement. But if Kobe said that, many would’ve interpreted it as a way to manipulate his teammates into giving him the ball more often and getting out of his way.
The criticisms of Bryant’s ball-hogging tendencies hadn’t fully emerged until 2006, when he shot the ball 27 times per game and notched a career-high 35.4 points per game. Despite the fact that the Lakers were starting Smush Parker and Kwame Brown that season, Bryant propelled Los Angeles to a 3-1 series lead over the historic Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
After Phoenix forced a Game 7, Bryant scored 23 points in the first half of the win-or-go-home contest and kept Los Angeles within striking distance. In the second half, Bryant inexplicably took just three shots as the Lakers were blown out of the water with a final score of 121-90.
That game should’ve squelched the notion that Bryant hurts his team by shooting too much. On the contrary, some Phoenix Suns reporters called Bryant’s quiet second half “the most selfish act in years.” It seemed Bryant was going to be deemed selfish no matter what he did, even though he’d won three straight championships with Shaquille O’Neal a few seasons prior.
The Lakers wouldn’t have prospered as much as they did during the Kobe-Shaq era if Bryant hadn’t learned to sublimate his isolated self-reliant tendencies for a triangular team approach. In fact, LeBron himself took note of Bryant’s ability to coalesce his transcendent skills with Shaq’s — who absolutely dominated and played the best basketball of his career alongside Bryant — and called Bryant to ask for advice on how to play with the big man when Shaq became his teammate in Cleveland. The Diesel had expressed his desire to remain a Laker, but the Lakers traded Shaq to Miami in 2004, skeptical of his injury history and hefty asking price. Yet many tend to paint a picture of Bryant selfishly forcing Shaq out of Los Angeles.
Still unconvinced that Bryant adjusted his game and innovated ways to help form one of the most dynamic duos the NBA had ever seen despite personality differences and off-the-court feuds he had with Shaq? Well, take a gander at this LA Times piece about O’Neal preferring prime Kobe over LeBron. When asked which player he preferred to play alongside, Shaq picked Kobe and cited Bryant’s “killer instinct” as his reasoning for doing so. Bryant is noted for his insatiable desire to win, and he couldn’t care less about the public’s opinion on his efficiency numbers.
Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland delineated the concept of the Kobe Assist — which is the idea that when Bryant has the ball, he has the ability to draw multiple defenders, which gives his team numerical advantages on the offensive glass when he shoots. In other words, more guys on Kobe’s team will be left unguarded and under the basket for offensive rebounds when Kobe shoots, which proves that Bryant’s misses are far more valuable than shots missed by average players who aren’t defender-magnets.
Moreover, to say that Bryant senselessly fires shots away in hopes that his teammates will save his misses is inaccurate, as his efficient 55 career true shooting percentage can attest to. Clearly Bryant doesn’t purposely try to miss shots, but he has been fortunate enough to play alongside elite, rebounding, big men in his prime: O’Neal, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
The last time Bryant led his team to a championship in 2010, Gasol grabbed a whopping five offensive rebounds per game in the Finals, which was a series-high by a landslide. Offensive rebounding is immensely valuable to a team because the ball will usually be directly under the basket for the offensive team to tip it back in. If the put-back isn’t there, the offensive team can reset the offense with a fresh shot clock.
Goldsberry says in his piece that these Kobe Assists “are not as accidental as they may seem.” Bryant is a natural scorer and his job as a shooting guard is to shoot. He values winning over stats, and he has no qualms about his reputation as an inefficient and selfish gunner, as long as he’s contributing to victories in actuality.
The Fallacy: LeBron James is Not a Ball Hog
While the stigma of being a greedy scorer will indelibly remain attached to Bryant, LeBron’s similar tendency to dominate the ball and undermine his teammates and coaches is brushed off because he’s generally viewed as a pass-first player.
Let’s get one thing straight: LeBron is not a pass-first player, which is fine. The 6’8”, 250-pound freight train can do many things well on the basketball court. Passing is one of them, but the comparisons to Magic Johnson are unmeritable. James’s passing ability is usually exaggerated because of his height and the fact that it’s rare to see any player his size facilitate the way that he does. Despite being the de facto point guard the majority of the time for his teams and having an insanely high usage rate, James’s assist percentage in four of the last five years has been lower than Russell Westbrook’s, who, like Kobe, is widely regarded as a ball hog.
James can single-handedly elevate a team from mediocrity to a competitive playoff contender, but how much better does he make his teammates than other greats who can also draw the attention of the defense?
When Kevin Love played in Minnesota, he was able to display his astute facilitating ability, deep shooting stroke, voraciousness on the boards and efficiency in posting up. Love was relegated to playing the role of a spot-up shooter when he was traded to Cleveland to join LeBron, and his numbers suffered. Given his reduced role and the fact that he was playing with LeBron, one would expect to see Love’s efficiency to spike, but that wasn’t the case.
Excluding the 2012-13 season in which he played a mere 18 games due to injury, Love never shot the ball as poorly as he did in his first season with LeBron (43 percent). Also, Love standing in the corner for threes obviated his elite offensive rebounding ability as his offensive rebounds per game were cut in half with the Cavs. James had a similar effect on his former teammate Chris Bosh, who was considered a disappointment by many when the Big Three formed in Miami. Bosh’s value as a player immediately burgeoned following James’s departure to Cleveland.
Love’s struggles with the Cavs is largely due to LeBron’s tendency to dominate the ball on every possession (although a back injury didn’t help either), which is actually what constitutes a ball hog. James is certainly a generational talent who finds himself year in and year out in the MVP discussion. He’s undoubtedly an adept facilitator who’s handed out 6.9 assists per game for his career, but contrary to popular belief, LeBron is just as much of a ball hog, if not more, than Kobe.
To think that LeBron returning home makes him the humbled prodigal son would be to ignore the fact that he actually reconciled with Cleveland with the motive of gaining more power than he had in Miami under Pat Riley’s jurisdiction. His appetite for holding the ball and calling the shots that he thinks are best even drove a well-documented wedge between him and his coach, David Blatt.
“I’m past the point where I have to ask [to make coaching decisions],” James said after taking over as the Cavs’ de facto point guard without deigning to discuss it with Blatt or anyone else. This was one of many instances in which LeBron clandestinely debased his coach, most of which are detailed in this Sports Illustrated article.
Throughout the NBA Finals, James was coaxed into making decisions that played right into the Golden State Warriors’ hands: taking low-percentage twos and kicking the ball out to mediocre shooters on the perimeter. Perhaps a more diversified offense — such as the Princeton offense that Blatt planned to install before the “King” overturned it earlier in the season — would’ve enabled LeBron’s supporting cast to make more of a difference in the series.
In addition, the Princeton emphasizes passing from the middle of the floor, which could’ve showcased Love’s astute passing prowess had his majesty not deemed the offense unworthy. Clearly, LeBron isn’t quite the team player he’s made out to be.
In fact, LeBron actually averages more shots per game in his career (19.8) than Kobe (19.6). Furthermore, their usage percentages are nearly identical, 31.8 percent for Kobe and 31.7 percent for LeBron, meaning they both monopolize their team’s possessions before finally deciding whether to shoot or pass.
Sure, LeBron’s assist numbers by themselves suggest that he’s a considerate distributor of the basketball. But looking at his numbers contextually, you’ll rarely see LeBron moving the ball on the perimeter in a way that allows his teammates to benefit from a strategic offensive scheme. An offense featuring LeBron will never be the free-flowing machine that the Spurs and Warriors teams have grown to be. Rather, LeBron drives to the hoop to collapse the defense and either kick it out to a shooter or a big man underneath the rim when he’s looking to collect an assist for himself.
James was notorious for being overly conservative with his shot selection in Miami. He’d occasionally pass up scoring opportunities and shots at the buzzer to preserve his gaudy field goal percentages. He’s even been caught wearing a “CHECK MY STATS” T-shirt that you might’ve seen floating around Twitter or on Google.
Yet, announcers still acclaim LeBron as the ultimate team player and compare him to Magic Johnson.
It’s evident that LeBron is more concerned about his stats and the public’s perception of him than playing basketball freely, unfettered by pride. Simply playing the game to win and doing whatever it takes to achieve victory, regardless of what public opinion may be or what the stat sheet may say, is perhaps what led Shaq to point to Bryant’s “killer instinct” when he chose playing with him over LeBron.
It’s time to face the fact that LeBron James is every bit the selfish ball hog that Bryant is perceived to be — if not more. Confirmation bias about LeBron’s selfless leadership as well as his extraordinary talent has and will continue to bedim the truth about LeBron’s greedy attitude and style of play. In reality, Bryant isn’t any more of a ball hog than LeBron is. They’re both egocentric players. The difference is that Bryant is straight-up about it, while James propagates the facade of a team-first approach by means of padding his stats.