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Friday, January 23, 2009
Updated: February 5, 7:20 AM ET
The Back and Forth: Kobe or LeBron?


Will June 2009 be the ultimate battle?

What is "The Back and Forth?"

"61" and "52" used to mean "Roger Maris" and "Ray Lewis," but after the last two shows by Kobe and Bron Bron at "The Mecca," it means this: who's better, LeBron or Kobe? We want to know, too. (The teams hook up again on February 8th on ABC.) The debate isn't new, but our voices are: Cavs blogger John Bena from Fear the Sword and the Kamenetzky brothers from The Los Angeles Times—and some work for ESPN—to hash out the issue of "Who's the best player in the NBA right now?" (Apologies to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard fans.) Gentlemen, fire when ready.

BRIAN KAMENETZKY (KOBE): Some concessions, right off the bat:

If the MVP vote were held today, LeBron would rightly tote home his very own Podoloff Trophy. LBJ has put up numbers this season that aren't just historic in a sound bite, Around the Horn sense, but a seriously-the-eggheads-have-looked-it-up-and-LeBron-is-making-history sort of way. Huzzahs are in order. James is an otherworldly basketball force to the point that if I was told tomorrow his DNA was found on Saturn, I'd believe it.

FEAR THE SWORD (LEBRON): OK, we agree on those two points, then: (1) LeBron would be the MVP if voting ended today and (2) he is from another planet—Akron, OH! I can say that. I went to U of Akron. I'm a Zip.

ANDREW KAMENETZKY (KOBE): Strange atmosphere, this Planet Akron. (Props to any Superman II fans who get the reference.)

BRIAN KAMENETZKY (KOBE): Still, if I had to choose one guy to win me one game—and isn't that the truly meaningful definition of great?—I'd go with The Mamba over The King. LBJ may be awfully tight in the rear view mirror (objects, after all, are closer than they appear) but Kobe Bryant still has that thing, that single-minded focus on winning, the championship experience, the swagger, and the talent to back it all up.

If you use the "championships" argument, how important is the Big Fella to Kobe's legacy?

FEAR THE SWORD (LEBRON): This is where I disagree. Kobe has proven time and again that he cannot single handedly lead a team anywhere, let alone to big wins. LeBron took a Cavs team that was much, much worse than any team Kobe Bryant played with to the NBA FINALS! He single-handedly beat a Pistons team that was essentially the same as the one the Lakers lost to in the Finals a few years prior with Shaq.

BRIAN KAMENETZKY (KOBE): Add in the near-nightly mastery of one final wrinkle—Bryant now finds as much (probably more) satisfaction in the elevation of those around him as he does in a 55 point night (Phil Jackson called a "refinement" of Kobe's concept of a challenge)—and Kobe is still choice to win that game that absolutely, positively has to be won.

I think we saw it Monday night, when while playing with a flipper for a right hand Kobe managed to influence the game, scoring when the Lakers needed it, dishing for 12 dimes, D-ing up LeBron, and leading his team to victory.

To me, that makes him the best player in the Association. Still.

FEAR THE SWORD (LEBRON): Is LeBron the pure shooter, or scorer, that Mamba is? Definitely not. That's the beauty of his game, however, and is what makes him better. On any given night LeBron can go out a dominate the game without taking a shot. To me, the value of a player a demonstrated not by what he does on the floor, but how the opponent plays against him. LeBron still garners double, triple, quadruple teams on a nightly basis and still gets his 30-7-7. Think about that for a moment—30-7-7, ON AVERAGE!

That is consistency, which is the true measure of greatness. LeBron may never score 81, but he can lead the Cavaliers to a title without having to.

ANDREW KAMENETZKY (KOBE): I would never try to discount LeBron's ability to take over without scoring. Those 7 boards/7 dimes/2 steals/1 block make it perfectly clear (although anybody that's simply watched LBJ play doesn't need to look up the numbers). I imagine you'd feel the same about a guard that chips in six rebounds and five assists to his 27 points per contest. Which, by the way, just happens to be the numbers Kobe is putting up. Thus, I heavily disagree with any inference that Kobe can't take over a game unless he's scoring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of what makes Kobe so deadly is his ability to pass out of double/triple teams (LBJ is hardly the only guy drawing more than one defender on a regular basis) and find Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, etc. He reads the action as well or better than many point guards. I've talked with many players about their contemporaries, and rarely does a player's intelligence get praised more than Kobe. His understanding of the game is ahead of LeBron's—the upside to the tread on the tires—and that counts for a lot.

FEAR THE SWORD (LEBRON): You know, it's a little tough battling brothers here. But, I'm gonna take a Midwest approach and overcome!

Perhaps if this were a debate about the game Monday night, many of your points would be valid. I don't know if a fully healthy Cavs team beats the Lakers on Monday, not so much because of Kobe but because the Lakers finally played a game the way they need to play it. They are going to be bigger than most teams night in and night out. Their front-court size is their advantage, with Gasol being so talented up close and away from the basket.

The most dominant force in the world, quite possibly.

ANDREW KAMENETZKY (KOBE): No doubt, the MLK Day absence of Big Z and Delonte West affected Cleveland in a negative way. Would it have been a different game if they were available? Sure. But "different" doesn't necessarily equal "Laker loss." And even if it did, why does that automatically make LeBron "better," particularly in a game where, in my opinion, he got outplayed by Bryant? Not by a large margin, but outplayed nonetheless. More than two players shape the final result and the only thing head-to-head results truly reflect is the better team, not the better player.

Is Kobe perfect? No. He still forces some questionable shots at times and definitely plays too much "free safety" D for my liking. But LeBron ain't perfect, either. No player has been perfect since the prime of Slava Medvedenko and we're not likely to see an equal for quite some time.

FEAR THE SWORD (LEBRON): The two players do different things and are different players on the court. What I have seen this season is a change in the way Kobe plays to more of a style that LeBron has shown his entire career. Early on, Kobe had to take a back seat to Shaq and hated it.

LeBron came into the Association as a 'pass-first, get-my-teammates-involved' player right off the bat. Despite having awful talent around him, LeBron made those guys better. At this point last year LeBron was still getting criticized for deferring the final shots of games to teammates. That is LeBron's game, and to win, and I mean WIN BIG, your superstar has to be selfless.

If anything, the fact that it took Kobe this long to realize the formula for winning is to trust your teammates, to show confidence in them so they will have confidence in themselves, is an indication that LeBron actually has the higher basketball IQ.

I'll take the King.

BRIAN KAMENETZKY (KOBE): I don't debate the idea that Kobe has grown into the type of leadership role he currently has with the Lakers, nor that—to his credit—LeBron came into the league with a different mindset. (Fun hypothetical: How would things have played out if Kobe entered the league out of high school when LeBron did, joining a team and a franchise clearly his inferior—apologies to Ricky Davis—on every level? Or if LBJ joined the Lakers back in 96-97, then played on a team with another superstar on the floor?) But that's a better argument that LBJ was better at age 22 or so than Kobe was. Doesn't much matter now, though.

Kobe's bullet-proof confidence, even more than physical ability, is what makes him so scary to the opposition, and helps distinguish two guys with ludicrous levels of hoops sense and skill.

We asked this cat, "Kobe or LeBron?" and look how excited he got.

Don't get me wrong: LeBron has this quality, too, just not quite as refined. I don't want anything in this back-and-forth to be about tearing down the other guy. LeBron is on the path. Soon enough, hell be the best in the league. Just not quite yet.

One guy, one game? Give me Kobe.

FEAR THE SWORD (LEBRON): We can all agree on 'dis: an NBA Finals matchup between the two greatest players in the world, two players that helped lead their country back to world prominence, would be great for the NBA and for the sports world in general. Until then, everyone should enjoy watching Kobe and LeBron play, and realize how special it is to watch the two of the greatest players to play the game, regardless of who is #1 and who is #2.