Critical Breakdown: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant at 28 years old


** UPDATE: If you like this kind of thing go check out BLACK MAMBA MYTH **


The NBA playoffs are in full swing, the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers were easily swept in the first round, LeBron James just won his 4th MVP award, and the comparisons between LeBron and Kobe are as heated as ever.

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There are a couple of reasons I decided to delve into this comparison.

On the sport side, I watch a lot of NBA and read/hear a lot of related commentary. The debate around who is the “best” player in the league – actively and historically – is always a jumble of stats, how many rings and MVPs someone has, how clutch they are, how driven they are, how much heart they play with, blah, blah. Mostly a lot of subjective, memory-driven statements presented as something objective or straight up facts. While I don’t think statistical totals and averages are the definitive determinant of how well someone plays a sport (how, when and why stat categories even come into being is interesting to consider. maybe we are counting the wrong actions?), they do allow for a visual means of comparing data. In this case I wanted to compare Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

On the design side, I wanted to explore infographics. This is more dataviz, I suppose, but you have to start somewhere. I made a similar comparative poster a few months back, but this one is more focused in content and scope. The first time, I included too much, perhaps? This time the focus is on yearly numbers according to age. While I explored a few alternatives to a line chart, I wanted to get this out pretty quickly and the simplicity of the line chart helped with that. I do want to keep playing with the data though and look for alternative display methods that will help viewers quickly get an understanding of what they are looking at.

Basketball Notes

A few weeks ago I saw this compilation of totals floating around comparing Michael Jordan, Bryant, and James. It shows regular season and playoff totals through the age of 28 for each player. I thought that instead of simply showing totals to that point, showing the season by season changes would give better context for each player. Besides totals, I also include per season averages and career averages through the age of 28. I removed Jordan simply to make it a one-on-one comparison among active players and a bit easier to read. I did not include playoffs since they are currently under way and James is still adding to his totals.

So what I have is a statistical comparison by age showing season totals and averages as well as cumulative totals and career averages. Temporally, this is pretty interesting since James and Bryant were not drafted in the same year or at the same age. Bryant debuted at the age of 18 in 1996 while James debuted at the age of 19 in 2003. These stats represent the first 11 seasons of Bryant’s career (1996-2006) and the first 10 seasons of James’ career (2003-2012) while comparing what they did at a given age (which is never taking place during the same calendar year). Seeing the season by season dips and climbs as each player adjusted to the league and figured out what they were doing is cool on an individual level but also provides a quick means of comparison.

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As far as cumulative totals go (through the age of 28), James has played more minutes in less games and accumulated more points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks than Bryant. James also has the higher career averages in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Much gets made of the fact that during their respective first two seasons Bryant played less than James and that this accounts for James’ greater all around production. This is kinda sorta true at first glance – if I play 100 minutes and you play 50 minutes I have more time to do more things. However, if you look at the season-by-season totals and averages, James still outperforms Bryant the majority of the time. Even those times where Bryant played more minutes he does not necessarily outperform James across categories.

For example, at the age of 27 Bryant went off for his highest scoring season ever averaging 35.4 points over 80 regular season games. He clocked in at 3,277 minutes played that year. At the same age, James averaged 27.1 points over 62 games, playing 2,326 minutes during a lockout shortened season. If we follow the “if Player A plays more minutes than Player B, then Player A will automatically have more points, rebounds, assists, etc” argument, then Bryant should outperform James across the board at the age of 27 because he played over 850 more minutes that year. Looking at the real numbers, however, this didn’t happen.

Bryant does have, as mentioned, more total points and a higher per game scoring average. He also has more total steals than James, but that’s where it ends.

Even though he played 850 minutes less basketball than Bryant, James recorded more rebounds, assists, and blocks and had higher per game averages for rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. A similar outcome is noticeable during the time they are each 28 years old. Bryant plays more minutes and scores more points, but James does more of everything else.

 

Design Notes

Since I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at basketball stats I thought I would take a crack at designing something that displays some of this data. Mainly I wanted to show player totals and averages without being a big mess of numbers, while trying to provide some context. I also hear lots of people saying all kinds of things about who is better than someone else so I approached this from the perspective of a fan who not only throws out statements, but also has facts to back them up. Finding data floating around the internet with zero sourcing is a pet peeve of mine so I make sure to include where I’m sourcing the numbers from.

Information graphics are a branch of design that have increasingly grown in popularity. Sometimes they are great, sometimes they are not. As I mentioned, I had made a big poster comparing Jordan, Bryant, and James already, but I wanted to take another shot at working with basketball stats while focusing a bit more on certain sections of that data.

In reviewing the data and thinking about what people seem to frequently cite in their “best player” arguments, I decided to include the five major statistical categories and display them as a line chart. A line chart sounds so boring! I sketched out quite a few alternative visualizations (that will likely be revisited later on with similar projects) but they became quite large given how many seasons I was trying to include. I could either make a huge document or break up the categories into individual documents, which wouldn’t have been terrible, but I wanted to have everything on a single manageable page. This way the viewer can glance at the doc and recognize there is a comparison happening and then delve more into the specifics. The line chart worked for that.

The trick of infographics is providing the viewer insight beyond raw data. The challenge for me is providing clarity for a large amount of data while providing insight. Perhaps the data I’m working with is still too substantial in size? Should I focus on one season for both players? Perhaps making multiple documents for different statistical categories is the way to go? I do like the time based axis in that it allows the viewer to see changes from season to season, but figuring out how to show this in a clear way for two distinct players on the same graphic is what I’ve wrestled with the most. I’m thinking about this on a very small scale, two or three players at once. Comparing stats in the ways I’m thinking about visualizing them would be very hard to scale for more than that.

Aesthetically, I stayed with the hardwood flooring theme I established on the first poster I designed. In future projects of this sort (because I could compare Kobe and LeBron’s numbers forever) I may go for a more dynamic take on the overall look. I like the grid and clarity that the hardwood helps to underscore, but it seems a bit bland to me. I’m not sure. This is part of the trick of infographics too. Using images in a way that lend themselves to the data you are describing.

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Comparisons like this are always interesting fuel for any sort of  GOAT discussions that NBA fans like to get into – especially the casual fan who really doesn’t watch much basketball, but also for the professional sports journalist or super-blogger. Ring count becomes the standard of greatness for lots of people – until someone remembers that Bryant and Derek Fisher each have five. Then other things are brought in – especially how many points someone scores. Points becomes a sort of generic measure of greatness. The more points you score, the better basketball player you are. This makes no sense without looking at everything else that the player contributes.

If I’m picking sides in this argument, I’m taking James.