- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the two pre-eminent players of the NBA, the best of the rest a step down from them and the No. 3 player undetermined.

Tim Duncan? Dwyane Wade? Chris Paul? Dwight Howard?

You could debate the merits of each and not come to a definitive conclusion.

Bryant and James lead the MVP race this season. Actually, the MVP discussion stops with those two.

They took aim at each other Monday, Bryant and James, in one of their two meetings in the regular season this year. Bryant won the matchup with 20 points, 12 assists and six rebounds as the Lakers defeated the Cavaliers 105-88.

Neither was especially sharp on offense, with Bryant shooting 9-for-22 and James 9-for-25, which highlights the difference in the two teams. Bryant has All-Star quality pieces around him, while James is as close to a one-man gang as there is with a championship-contending team.

The evolution of James coincides with the ascent of the Cavaliers. James may have led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals two seasons ago, but there was an accidental element to it in a conference steeped more in parity than excellence.

That conference has given way to the dominance of the Cavaliers, Magic and Celtics, with each team winning at an impressive rate. James leading the Cavaliers to the rarefied air of the NBA in virtually solo fashion is the most compelling story line of the season. That gives him the edge over Bryant, who tried to be the soloist and found it wanting.

James is what Bryant wanted to be - the alpha male on a championship-quality team. Bryant is in his 13th season in the NBA, James in his sixth - a difference in experience and polish that favors Bryant.

Bryant may not be as efficient and physically imposing as James, but with the outcome of a game hanging in the balance, he earns the nod over James because of the accuracy and range on his jump shot.

If James has a weakness - and weakness being relative - it is the streaky nature of his outside shot. Opponents encourage James to take the outside shot not because he is inadequate from there but because it is preferable to his journeys to the basket, which often result in a three-point play.

No one finishes at the basket like James, whose combination of body control and strength is unparalleled by someone who handles the ball so adroitly. James is pushing the game forward just as Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan once did, only he is not doing so merely as a creative sky walker.

James can elevate to the rim with the best, but it is his strength that adds a unique dimension. James is what Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld or Karl Malone might have been if those strongmen had handled the ball on the perimeter. He can soar to the basket like Bryant but absorb contact like Malone.

As much fun as the James-Bryant debate is, it will become a moot point soon enough. Bryant is 30 years old, still in the prime of his career but possibly down to one or two more high-quality seasons before the inevitable statistical descent begins.

James, at 24, could become virtually indefensible in the seasons ahead if he continues to sharpen his shooting skills. He is shooting a career-high 49.7 percent from the field and 77.7 percent from the free throw line, a progression no doubt causing plenty of sleepless nights among opposing coaches.

Basketball’s obsession with in-flight creativity allowed James to be overlooked as the heir to Baylor, Dr. J and Jordan. Bryant was seen as the successor to that group at one time, but he only mimicked Jordan.

James is an original, without peer, a small forward who possesses both finesse and brawn.

It is his NBA now.

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