Kobe's January Performance is One for the AgesKobe Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in 13 games in January, the highest scoring calendar month by an NBA player since Wilt Chamberlain averaged 45.8 ppg in March 1963. The Lakers went 9-4 in those games after losing their first two games of the month during Kobe's suspension for elbowing Mike Miller. Bryant also averaged 40-plus ppg (40.6) in February 2003, when he had nine straight 40-plus point games, the fourth longest such streak in NBA history; Chamberlain had two 14 game streaks of 40-plus point games and one 10 game streak. Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to average 40-plus ppg in two different calendar months; Chamberlain did it 11 times. Elgin Baylor had one such calendar month--and no other NBA player has ever done this even once: not Iverson, not Jordan, not Gervin, not Kareem, not Barry, not Oscar, not West.
Bryant's January average is the third best January scoring average in NBA history, trailing only Wilt's 50.0 ppg in 1962 and Wilt's 46.3 ppg in 1963. Notice the pattern here? Kobe is repeatedly doing things that have not been done since the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, something I first wrote about in my January 11 post titled "Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before":
Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before
For the season Kobe is posting numbers that are eerily similar to Michael Jordan's highest scoring campaign, 1986-87, when MJ scored 37.1 ppg, the best single season average by anyone other than Wilt (Wilt did better than that four times). Jordan averaged 5.2 rpg and 4.6 apg that year, while Kobe is currently averaging a virtually identical 5.5 rpg and 4.3 apg to go along with his 35.9 ppg. Kobe is averaging 40.6 mpg while Jordan played 40.0 mpg. The biggest differences are in field goal attempts, field goal percentage and three point shooting. Kobe is attempting almost three more shots per game than Jordan did, is averaging more than five three point shots attempted per game (Jordan shot less than one three pointer per game) and is shooting around .450 from the field while Jordan shot .482. On the surface those numbers make MJ seem to be a much more efficient scorer, but that is only if you ignore the impact of the three point shots. Kobe is not only shooting a lot more of them than Jordan did but he is also connecting at a much better rate, .346 to .182. When you consider the extra point that each of those makes are worth, add in both players' excellent free throw shooting and recalculate the shooting percentage on that basis you discover that Jordan's "true shooting percentage" in '87 is only slightly better than Kobe's this year. Yeah, but the Lakers are not winning that much, right? The Lakers are 24-20 now (.545 winning percentage), while the '87 Bulls finished 40-42 (.488). So Kobe is scoring almost as much as Jordan did in his highest scoring season with nearly the same true shooting percentage, virtually the same rebounding and assists numbers and his team is doing better than Jordan's did. The "heretical" MJ-Kobe comparisons are looking less and less outlandish--and I have always agreed with those who, until this point, felt that such comparisons were not valid.
The highlight of Kobe's month was of course his 81 point game versus the Toronto Raptors. If you haven't seen it, download it from NBA.com or find someone who videotaped/TIVO'd it; you will be amazed. In the first half the Lakers were dead in the water; Laker broadcaster Stu Lantz described them as "flatter than a pancake." Kobe had 26 points by halftime, but the Lakers trailed 63-49 and it looked like Kobe would finish with 50-55 points but that the Lakers would suffer a humiliating home loss. Then the second half began--and it got worse, with Toronto extending their lead to 18. After that point it seemed like a gong went off that only Kobe heard and he started raining three pointers from all directions. As Hubie Brown is fond of saying, distance is not a factor for Bryant or Tracy McGrady.
Toronto is not a good defensive team but don't for a second believe that Kobe encountered no resistance. He hit contested shots, twisting shots and shots from way behind the three point line. What are you supposed to do when one of the game's great finishers pulls up from 25 feet? Bludgeon him with a baseball bat? What defense exists for that situation? If you get too close he will go around you and get a dunk. MJ had a similar streak of three pointers against a pretty good Portland team in the NBA Finals in '92. Short of double teaming Kobe full court to deny him the opportunity to catch the ball I'm not sure what could have been done about the third quarter three pointers that brought the Lakers back in the game and set the stage for Kobe to surpass all non-Wilt single game scoring marks. Kobe also used a variety of fakes to draw fouls and then he converted the free throws. He made it look so easy that the crowd seemed surprised when he actually missed a shot. While Kobe only had two assists, he did drive to the basket and kick the ball to open shooters on several occasions only to see his teammates miss the shots. More than once Kobe made the initial pass for the triangle offense and the Lakers ran an offensive set, only to deliver the ball to Kobe with the shot clock winding down. Yes, Kobe sometimes did just dribble up the court and shoot--and he converted a better percentage of those "forced" shots than his teammates did of their open shots. The Lakers went from trailing by 18 to winning the game 122-104. If you watch the game you will notice that 10 points or less of Bryant's total could be considered "non-essential." I mean, when do you call off the dogs? Last season Tracy McGrady scored 13 points in less than 35 seconds to beat the Spurs, a pretty good defensive team, so I don't agree with anyone who would suggest that Kobe should have stopped shooting with three or four minutes left in the game--and by the time that Kobe got his total to the mid-70s he certainly had earned a chance to try to reach 80. Didn't everyone blast him when he sat out the fourth quarter of his 62 point game earlier this year against the Mavericks?
I've never seen anything quite like this in an NBA game. Consider three games that are frequently replayed on NBA TV and ESPN Classic. Jordan's 63 point game against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs was remarkable, but it took him two overtimes to score 18 less than Bryant did in regulation, he did seem to tire at the end and the Bulls lost the game (to an admittedly great team that won the NBA title that year). Bernard King's 60 point game came against the New Jersey Nets in a Christmas Day loss in 1984; King also seemed to slow at the end of that game. Larry Bird's 60 point game came in a 1985 blowout against the Atlanta Hawks and anyone who thinks that Kobe or the Lakers employed poor sportsmanship by continuing to score on the Raptors should check out the tape of Bird's game--the Celtics were fouling the Hawks despite being way ahead in the closing seconds, just to get the ball back so that Bird could reach 60 points. These performances are among the most notable high scoring games in the past 20 years and none of them approach what Kobe did: Kobe scored more points and his points were more directly needed to win the game.
That being said, everything that Kobe did in January only reminds us how dominant Wilt was. Kobe's month was great--but Wilt had 11 such 40-plus ppg months. Kobe's 81 was tremendous--but he would have needed another good quarter to get the 19 points to equal Wilt's landmark game. I don't buy the idea that the faster pace of Wilt's era makes his total less impressive. To play in a faster paced game requires even more conditioning and stamina because you have to run up and down the court more often. Wilt had 25 rebounds in his 100 point game, so it's not like he was just basket hanging on the offensive end. Young Wilt was a fleet footed former track star who could outrace guards up and down the court. People are more apt to think of the bigger, older, slower Wilt because more video footage of that later Wilt exists. That is the Wilt who had suffered a serious knee injury and who voluntarily lowered his scoring so that his teams could win championships (I say voluntarily because a few times a year he would respond to articles saying that he couldn't score by putting up 50 or 60 before going back to scoring in the teens).
One final note about Kobe this year: Has anyone else noticed that when he is hitting from outside virtually every one of his shots seems to be a swish, with little or no contact with the rim? I don't think that I've ever seen someone whose long range shot seems to be so perfectly dialed in when he is on. He is giving new meaning to "nothing but net."
posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 PM