A while back a reader to Truehoop made some interesting points about OJ Mayo matching up with Kobe Bryant. He said that in terms of style and character, it reminded him of a young Kobe going up against Jordan. In terms of play though, Kobe liked his jumper more than Jordan and Mayo likes his jumper more than Kobe.

Implicit in this is the idea that someone who attacks the rim is a more valuable player than someone who prefers his  jumpshot. A lot of people have commented on how Kobe is a more diversified scorer than MJ, in part due to his better 3 point shooting, but almost no one suggests that Kobe is a greater offensive player. Another obvious example would be the criticism that Vince Carter received when he started settling for his jumper.

An interesting parallel to this is the arguments that started to arise when Roger Federer started emulating Pete Sampras’ achievements. In arguments over who was the greater player, a lot of Sampras fans made the argument that although Federer had a more varied game, Sampras’ dominant serve, solid volleys and killer forehand overpowered Federer’s excellent serve, dominant forehand, skillful backhand and touch returning.

Now of course, there isn’t really a debate over who is the greater player. Sampras himself has declared that Federer’s the greatest player of all time. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, and instead have Federer replacing Sampras’ place in the triumvirate with Laver and Borg, but the point remains that Federer v Sampras is almost as conclusive as Jordan v Kobe.

Sometimes we get too caught up in genres and deciding if a particular style is more effective than another, rather than assessing the overall quality of the player. Bringing this back to basketball, another good example is the debate between whether Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett is the greatest power forward of all time. Except there isn’t really a debate because Duncan has 4 titles, while Garnett kept losing in the 1st round of the playoffs before finally getting his ring in Boston.

From this a lot of people, including myself, have argued that the reason for Duncan’s dominance is because his superior low post scoring and post defence outweigh Garnett’s face up offence and all-world defence. But maybe if Garnett had played with David Robinson, Ginobli and Parker, Garnett would retire with the greater legacy, or at least there would have been a more rigorous debate.

Another way of illustrating this point is by throwing the 3rd great power forward of Duncan and Garnett’s generation – Dirk Nowitzki, into the mix. People have discounted his play somewhat and placed him beneath the other two because he is a jump-shooter. But what if Dirk was a slightly better shooter, or slightly more athletic. He almost won one ring, and its not unreasonable to think that he could have been in contention for more, if he was slightly better and played in more conducive circumstances.

Overall, I think the lesson to draw from this is that its easy to make categorisations when looking at both a player’s potential and his legacy. However, most times, the answers are always a lot more nuanced than they seem.