Desire pushes Kobe ahead of LeBron

Sam Smith at

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Kobe Bryant

"James is a star. Kobe is a superstar," writes Sam Smith. "And the reason is not because Kobe has four championships to none yet for James. Kobe did play with Shaq and LeBron played with Z. It’s because the game doesn’t burn in LeBron like it does in Kobe."

They are the kinds of questions that have confounded philosophers for centuries. The chicken or the egg? Atheism or the Supreme Being? Britney Spears or the paparazzi? Kobe or LeBron?

We didn’t have these debates when Michael Jordan was around. Perhaps he was just too good. Or no one else was that good. Magic had Bird and Wilt had Russell.

The question comes up now as the NBA prepares for the holidays with its Christmas special, generally the best matchup until the Finals as Kobe’s Lakers are the highlight against LeBron’s Cavs.

So the eternal question: Who’s better?

Kobe. And it’s not that close.

I say that with tremendous regard for James’ physical talent and basketball knowledge. There’s never been a basketball player like him. He’s the size of Karl Malone with the quickness of Isiah Thomas and the instincts of John Stockton.

Kobe doesn’t have near the physical dominance. His shot is better, but James’ all around game is superior.

James is a star. Kobe is a superstar.

And the reason is not because Kobe has four championships to none yet for James. Kobe did play with Shaq and LeBron played with Z. It’s because the game doesn’t burn in LeBron like it does in Kobe.

In fact, James seems to be a much healthier human being. He’s got close friends from childhood whom he never has abandoned. He carries himself with ease. You know you’d have a much better time being with James than you would with Kobe.

Because Kobe isn’t about much but the game. He lives to dominate you and the game. Everything he does screams that.

It’s ironic that Shaq is now with LeBron, and much the reason the Cavs aren’t going anywhere significant this season. The genesis of the great feud between Shaq and Kobe that broke up the tri-champion Lakers was that Kobe cared too much and Shaq cared barely at all.

Kobe just couldn’t accept Shaq’s priorities, which had basketball somewhere around 15th. The regular season was Shaq’s training camp. Kobe outworked everyone.

LeBron isn’t quite that irresponsible, but it was telling a few weeks ago when he was carrying on and dancing during that win over the Bulls. James goes through these elaborate pregame pantomimes now with teammates as Shaq has done as well. He ends it with that cloudburst of powder. It’s entertaining and great show business and the TV networks love that stuff.

You can just see Kobe rolling his eyes.

He comes to the games, as Jordan did, though Michael had a more friendly mask, to dominate you. Kobe almost is growling when the game begins.

It’s also why I question whether James will ever win a championship unless he joins Kobe in L.A. or perhaps Dwyane Wade in Miami. As great as his talent is, LeBron needs to be the No. 2 guy. He really doesn’t have the makeup of the leading man.

When Kobe was a rookie and not even starting that season he took the potential game winning shot in the final game of the conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. He shot an airball. Bryant then attempted three more three pointers in overtime and shot airballs each time as the Lakers lost.

But it was the philosophy set down that Jordan credits for so much of his success, that “I've failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”

Being a true superstar in sports means being willing to take on the responsibility for the game and your team no matter the consequences. Kobe’s been there and done that, carrying the Lakers to a Finals win in 2000 in overtime after Shaq fouled out, just recently over Miami and Milwaukee, in 2006 right over James with James getting a last chance and missing. It was a symbolic moment and James has yet to catch up.

Yes, James has taken and hit big shots, like his remarkable game winner against Orlando in last year’s conference finals, some classics against the Washington Wizards in their epic first round matchups a few years back and a huge game to effectively knock out the Pistons in 2007.

But as often as not James is known to make the pass at the end of the game to an open teammate. It’s the correct basketball play, but not what the true superstar does. The great stars really are too selfish. The star wants not necessarily the credit, though he enjoys that, but the responsibility. There was the 2007 Eastern Conference finals when James drove the middle to open the series against the Detroit Pistons for the winning score and passed to the open shooter in the corner. Smart play. Not what the superstar does. The star takes it on his shoulders and tells everyone by his actions, “If we lose, blame me.”

Many have long speculated around the NBA that James is reluctant to attack the basket late in games because he is not a good free throw shooter down the stretch and doesn’t want to go to the foul line. It’s perhaps overstated some as there really is no one else on that team. But no one ever thinks that about Bryant.

You want a good time: Hang out with LeBron. You want to win a big game: Go with Kobe.

But decide for yourself. We get another rare look Friday, which is the best Christmas present for the NBA fan.

Painful decision could be coming for 76ers

-- So how’s it going to work when the 76ers release Allen Iverson next week or the week after? How bad was that decision? It did get the 76ers a bump in attendance for a few games. And perhaps saved some newspapers for a few days with added circulation. But now Lou Williams looks ready to return, and where he should be playing at shooting guard. Rookie Jrue Holiday has come on fast and is beginning to look like a good point guard pick. He’s got to play. And Iverson hasn’t been playing, sidelined with arthritis along with an old shoulder issue. It’s been a great career, longer than many of us expected the way Iverson fearlessly, perhaps recklessly, threw his body around. It was his most redeeming trait. But no team can operate not knowing when a regular will play or not. And Iverson isn’t exactly forthcoming. Though Tracy McGrady doesn’t fit the Rockets’ style of play now, his delay returning was as much due to his in and out lineup status which so disrupted the team last season. And we know Iverson, no matter what he says, will not accept a supporting role behind kids. Worse, the kids admire him and he’ll set up that walking-on-egg-shells environment, like he did in Memphis. The 76ers basically did not win a game with Iverson, going 1-4 with a blowout of a dead Warriors team on the end of a road trip. It was worth the shot. I would have done it if I were them. Give the fans something. They wanted to wish Iverson goodbye and thank him for what he meant to the franchise and how he competed for them. But it’s over. That’s clear. For the franchise to prosper, they have to move on. Iverson can still play, but only if he accepts a Gary Payton-in-Miami type of role off the bench in limited minutes for a top team. Otherwise, he’s tried everything else. The team has until early January to guarantee Iverson’s deal. They’ll have to make that painful decision fairly soon and everyone around the 76ers now knows it. … Elton Brand will always be one of my favorites. He hates being a reserve with the 76ers, though he’s competing and now finishing some games. He and coach Eddie Jordan likely never will be on the same page. Perhaps Brand’s agent, David Falk, sometime suggests a trade. Though for now you had to love Brand’s comment to the Philadelphia Inquirer about not starting," No disrespect, but Mikki Moore, he gets to start and I don't." At least he didn’t mention Brad Miller. … Nate Robinson? He’s demanding a trade? Based on that outstanding career so far? I’ve had a few e-mailers suggest the Bulls get him for maybe Jannero Pargo, and given Pargo doesn’t play, why not? Nate is that instant offense kind of scorer. Of course, Pargo was supposed to be. But it’s more difficult when you are not in the game. Nate isn’t, either, and the moment he was benched the Knicks began to play much better. Coincidence? Robinson’s a desperation move for any team given his inability to defend, his selfish antics and knucklehead behavior. He’s one of those “Life is too short players.” You know, to deal with him.

As Bosh’s world turns

-- I think Robinson got the hint when the Knicks signed Jonathan Bender and put him in the rotation ahead of Robinson even though Bender had to play with crutches. Bender was amazingly good for a guy who retired almost four years ago because he could barely walk with knee issues. You know free agents have to be lining up to join that personnel. … The Raptors continue to be all over the place and at times some of the worst defense seen in years. And it was interesting to hear Chris Bosh after a loss in Orlando last week suggest to AOL that maybe it’s coaching. Said Bosh: “We make adjustments with teams before we play the game. That sends the wrong message to ourselves. We practice all the time so we should trust our system. We need to go out there and play hard. If they beat us for one quarter doing the things we normally do, then okay. Now we can change it up.” Coach Jay Triano, by the way, took Bosh out of that game citing Bosh being tired. That led to this analysis of Bosh from Toronto Star columnist Dave Feschuk: “The all-star, as much as he is putting up great numbers on a bad team, is 25 years old, couldn't lead a Cub pack, plays defence (they spell defense with a “c”) like it's optional, drags around a massive knee brace and, come summertime, will be asking for a six-year maximum-dollar contract worth more than $130 million. I say trade him to the team that thinks that's a good bet.” I’m guessing they don’t build a statue for Bosh in Toronto. Bosh also seemed a step closer to Miami when he added after that Magic game about free agency, "Anytime you have another All-Star, it makes things easier. That would be fun. I don't know if it would work with Dwight (Howard). We're both in the post, and we might be in each other's way. We both demand the ball. He (Dwyane Wade) is a guard. That would be different.'' I haven’t yet heard which players on the Toronto roster Bosh believes are All-Star caliber.

Race for ROY

-- Really tough week for a spunky Bucks team that lost to Kobe Bryant’s buzzer beater and Saturday in the rookie of the year showdown as Tyreke Evans got in for a reverse layup with under a second left for the winner losing Jennings and beating Andrew Bogut at the basket after a Brandon Jennings pass to Ersan Ilaysova after Jennings had collected a loose ball gave the Bucks a lead with five seconds. On the previous Bucks possession Jennings’ offensive rebound led to two free throws for him. The Bucks are now 1-8 in games decided by three or fewer as they lack the true closer, like the Bulls do. The stats were similar with Evans scoring a bit more (24 points and three assists with six turnovers) while Jennings was better across the board with 15 points, nine assists and one turnover. The Clippers Blake Griffin looks like he’ll be back too late to get into the race and with Evans coming east now and in Chicago Monday, he’s going to start picking up more votes. I’d say the early edge remains with Jennings. … With Sacramento in Chicago Monday it’s Andres Nocioni’s first return and now with the uneven play of John Salmons and Brad Miller, that deal isn’t looking so one sided. Though the Bulls never would have gone so far last season without the deal. You wouldn’t redo it. But the Kings have cleverly put together an impressive young core with Evans, Jason Thompson and one of the big steals of the draft, Israeli Omri Casspi, who is a tough, versatile forward. If you redid the draft, Casspi could be a top 10 pick. … Gerald Henderson is playing so little in Charlotte, there’s talk of sending him to the D-League.

Addiction problem in DC

-- Wonder who Wizards coach Flip Saunders was talking about when he told Washington reporters last week some of his players were shooting “addicts” and never before had he seen so many bad a shots by a team. “I have never had to yell at a player for taking bad shots in a game until this year. You try to give them their freedom so they find their confidence. But then when you have to keep talking to them about what's a good shot and what's a bad shot, you get to the point where you say, 'To hell with the confidence. You have to understand.' " Yes, Gilbert Arenas, who is taking the most shots on the team and among the top seven players is the poorest shooter after a nice six of 21 against the Suns Saturday. There seem no imminent moves regarding the Wizards. Perhaps because of Arenas’ killer contract which averages $21 million per year the three seasons after this. It’s one of the major reasons there’ll be a lockout in 2011 unless players accept shorter contract lengths. It’s those long deals which can cripple a team if the player’s output doesn’t match. Some of the other worst? Baron Davis, Elton Brand, Hedo Turkoglu, Samuel Dalembert, Erick Dampier, Rashard Lewis and Emeka Okafor. ... The Spurs still can’t quite figure it out and despite being 14-10 are 2-9 against teams with winning records and just .500 against the West. ... This is what I call a veteran move, as related by the Dallas Morning News. Jason Kidd was upset with a referees’ call. So he went to get some powder on his hands on the sideline, ostensibly to dry his hands, and gave the referee who made the call, Scott Wall, a sturdy pat on the behind, leaving a nice white handprint on the referee’s behind.

Teams lining up for T-Mac

-- Suddenly, the most desired player in the NBA is Tracy McGrady, who is back, sort of. McGrady is averaging 1.8 points on 30 percent shooting in four games playing a total of 30 minutes. And Miami’s Pat Riley made the point talking about his own team’s plan, calling salary cap space for next summer, “the most precious real estate in the NBA." McGrady has a $22 million expiring deal and the Rockets believe they can turn that into a potential young star for a team seeking to get below the salary cap for next summer or in financial trouble, which encompasses much of the NBA. The Warriors’ disenchanted Anthony Randolph has been mentioned lately, though you’d need to match that $22 million. The Rockets basically are saying if you don’t have a young player who projects as a potential All-Star, don’t bother calling. That could change come trading deadline, but the Rockets now seem in this for the long haul with McGrady. … Better not sleep on the Grizzlies anymore. They defend a bit and if you can score like they can you can win some games that way. In the last three weeks, they’ve beaten the Mavs and Cavs, got nipped by the Celtics and beat Denver Sunday behind 32 and 24 from Zach Randolph. Though Zach is the new Moses Malone the way he misses so many shots and then puts in his own misses and stacks up rebounds. It was an old Dennis Rodman trick to pad his stats. “They’re dangerous. I see them with four potential All-Stars,” said Paul Pierce. I wouldn’t go that far, but they have talent. The question after the horrid Pau Gasol trade is whether the cash strapped franchise will give up someone to remain profitable or at least break even. A lot of teams are eying Rudy Gay, a restricted free agent who’s already rejected a Memphis offer.

Jackson’s disciple in Minnesota

-- First the triangle and now this. If Phil Jackson has a disciple, it’s Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis. Rambis, who is a member of the Motion Picture Academy as a former actor (he played the Knicks coach in the 1996 movie “Eddie” opposite Whoopie Goldberg. You get a vote for that? I thought you’d be thrown out for that.) Anyway, Rambis pulled a surprise and skipped practice to take the team to watch a critically acclaimed independent film "The Hurt Locker" about a U.S. Army bomb-disposal unit in Iraq. The message was teamwork, though Al Jefferson didn’t completely get it. Said Jefferson to the Minneapolis Tribune: "It was terrible. It was a war movie, but there wasn't enough killing in it. The pizza and the food were good, but the movie... It got our minds off basketball, but I would never watch it again." It actually reminds me of the time during Iraq war I in 1991 when Jackson polled the Bulls players on whether the first George Bush should invade Baghdad. The players called for a guns blazing attack, which eventually occurred a decade or so later. Yes, players like action. Someone else’s, anyway. … Sleep studies are big around the NBA this season with Denver joining the Celtics, Knicks, Spurs and Trailblazers with basically doing away with morning shootarounds on game days. The Bulls now generally practice later, closer to noon on off days, about two hours later than they’ve done in the past. I think what it basically does is provide work for guys who call themselves sleep specialists and quality control experts. I’m not sure what the Lakers do. But having Kobe and Pau seems to make more difference.

Miami’s message to LeBron

-- I was wondering if Pat Riley last week was sending a message to LeBron James, whom some believe is the free agency target for the Miami Heat. Riley, speaking with select South Florida reporters, said about his star what you’d never hear in Cleveland about its star. Of Dwyane Wade, Riley said: "He's not there right now. His efficiency is down somewhat this year, and we're addressing it with him. If Dwyane is down 10 or 15 percent from what he was last year, then, as he said in the press the other day, and I think he does this, everybody has to look in the mirror about how to make this year better. I manage the team and there isn't anybody that loves Dwyane more than me and there isn't anybody that will be more honest with him than me, either, if it ever gets to that point. And I think he respects that. There isn't anybody in this organization, believe me, walking around on eggshells because of Dwyane.” I talked to several general managers about the comments and the consensus was huzzahs for Riley for not allowing the franchise to be held hostage to a players’ whims. Any player. But I saw perhaps a more clever agenda. I think Riley was sending a message to James that, “The way to win is to hold everyone accountable. Even you. And doing so will make you and everyone else better. The Cavs’ franchise is timid, afraid to ever say you made a mistake and are not perfect in every way. They are scared to make moves for fear of alienating you and you don’t win that way. If you want to win, and we’ve done it before and know how, come to Miami next summer.” Not bad. Not bad at all. Hey, it was Riles, after all, who beat the Bulls to copyrighting “threepeat” and got paid when the Bulls did. And, by the way, Wade is at a career low in shooting and just barely over 25 percent on threes.

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