Posted: Monday December 25, 2006 11:41AM; Updated: Monday December 25, 2006 3:02PM
Who would you rather have?
Each week, SI.com's Jack McCallum analyzes two players of similar talents and/or on-court tendencies. (Contracts and salary-cap considerations are non-factors.)
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How things change. The Miami Heat-Los Angeles Lakers Christmas Day game, now apparently an NBA tradition, was put in specifically to highlight the rivalry between former teammates Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. And now Shaq, injured and aging, takes a backseat to the gunslinging showdown of the Lakers' Bryant and Miami's Dwyane Wade.
Statistically, the two stars are close. In Shaq's absence, Wade has had to carry more of the scoring load and is doing so, averaging 28.1 points entering Monday's game. Bryant is shooting less this season in his pledge to be a better teammate but is still averaging 27.8. Bryant is a slightly better percentage shooter (.478 to Wade's .476), a clearly better free-throw shooter (.843 to Wade's .804) and a much, much better three-point shooter (.368 to Wade's .273). Wade, though, is averaging eight assists per game to Bryant's 5.2. (At crunch time don't look for either of them to give it up ... and they shouldn't.) They both rebound well for guards, with Bryant at 5.2 and Flash at 4.6.
The best thing Wade has on his résumé is his Jordanesque performance in last year's Finals; he dragged the Heat to that championship. Bryant has three rings, but, in each of them, he played a secondary role to O'Neal, then the most dominant force in the league.
But I hesitated only a second to make my choice on this one. It's BRYANT. He's a better fundamental player, a much better defender and even a better passer when he wants to be.
Three assistant coaches I polled said the same thing, one calling Bryant "the most talented player in this league since Jordan by a wide, wide margin." Another noted: "I guess I'd want to know who else is on the team because Kobe has cornered the market on arrogance and Wade is a better teammate. But fundamentally Kobe is simply a much better player."
Landon of Portland: "I would take Kirilenko. He can guard point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers. His length is unbelievable. Artest can stay in front of guys, but if they were to get past him, he'd have to foul. Kirilenko, on the other hand, often allows guys to get by him -- and subsequently blocks them from behind. At the end of a game, it's more likely to have a whistle blow on a clean steal over a clean block."
Juan de la Cruz of Bacolod City, Philippines: "I'd take Artest. He's a better on-ball defender than AK-47. Although Kirelenko is longer, he's better off as a help defender. If both guys were on my team, I'd let Artest guard the player with the ball and AK-47 wait down low for a block if Artest loses his man (and that's very unlikely)."
Tom of New Jersey: "With Kirilenko's size and incredible wingspan, you'd be hard-pressed not to take him if such a situation were to take place. A defender's goal should be to create the most difficult shot possible without committing a foul. Kirilenko's size and athletic ability give him the best chance at doing so."
Tim of Redding, Calif.: "I'd take Kirilenko all day long. He's a ball-hawk, has amazing length, unreal timing and great instincts. He makes shooters think while shooting, which is a huge detriment to them. Artest might stay in front of ball handlers better ... but Kirilenko is close enough, plus he also has the ability to come from behind anyone who gets by him and either block the shot or alter it significantly."
Anthony of Scottsdale, Ariz.:"I like Artest guarding more positions and I totally agree that he is much more equipped at staying in front of the opponent all the way from the perimeter to the basket (although Kirilenko would be better once the defender got to the basket)."
Zach Sumsion of Salt Lake City: "I realize I'm a bit of a homer, but my argument for AK-47 still holds water. We're talking about an absolute blocking machine versus an equally deadly stealing machine. Since blocks by definition are always contesting a shot (whereas most steals are actually intercepting passes), I'm calling on the Russian when I need a buzzer-beater contested."
Aaron Pinchback of Hyattsville, Md: "I'd have to take Artest as well, but only by a hair. The difference between them as I see it is that AK-47 is more likely to allow the guy to take the shot and trust himself to block it. Considering the numbers, not an altogether bad strategy. With Artest's active hands and knack for positioning, however, chances are his man may never be able to even get off a shot."
Bryce of Las Vegas: "Kirilenko does more to alter shots and disrupt the general flow of the game."
Ken of Brownsville, Texas: "I'll take Artest, based primarily on the fact that when guarding a superstar, it is way more important to be able to keep in front of him, rather than stopping him at the rim. May I add that while Kirilenko gets about 2.5 blocks per contest, they mainly come from the weakside help he provides. Rarely does he get a block guarding a guy straight up."
Jon of Kaysville, Utah: "In the situation you give, I'd take Artest. Nobody can shut down a single guy on a single possession like him. Kirilenko, though, is who I'd rather have on my team. Like you say, Kirilenko's a great man-man defender, but what sets him apart is that he is the best help defender that I have ever seen. Most of his blocks occur when he comes out of nowhere to swat away a shot by a player who was being guarded by somebody else. When the other four players are playing solid, but unspectacular defense, Kirilenko's presence alone makes entire teams self-destruct."
Dave of Minnesota: "It would have to be Artest. Not for the skill, but for the intimidation. Kirilenko is good, but there's not necessarily fear going against him. Take the ball to the hole against Artest and you get the feeling he might pop you just as soon as steal the ball. You can't measure the physical fear factor enough in situations like that."
Goby Day of Weimar, Germany: "Let's not forget the fact that Ron-Ron is more likely to be playing in the game, period. AK-47 just sneezes and tweaks his ankle."
Dmitry of Pittsburgh: "The fact that Kirilenko is a shot-blocker and Artest is a quick-handed thief demonstrate their differences as defenders and makes this answer a situational dependent. If the ball-handler is a point guard such as Gilbert Arenas, I would prefer to have a known shut-down defender like Artest on him. If the ball-handler is a LeBron or Kobe, having the length and concentration to hit any shot they can actually attempt, I'd rather have Kirilenko there to attempt to block it."
Ken Malkowski of Detroit: "All I know is, with the game on the line, it can't be Artest. Having seen enough of this guy on the Pacers in the playoffs against my Pistons, you never really know when he will make an atrocious mental error."