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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Finals Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant

Throughout this season I have repeatedly asserted that teams could not guard Kobe Bryant the way that the Spurs and Celtics guarded LeBron James in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs respectively because Bryant's outside shot is far superior to James'. James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game during the Spurs' sweep of the Cavs in the 2007 Finals; the high number of turnovers were a direct result of the Spurs being able to sag off of James, daring him to shoot outside shots and positioning themselves to intercept his passes. In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as his Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in this year's Western Conference Finals.

James averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game during Boston's seven game victory over the Cavs in this year's playoffs. Bryant has had a rougher time versus the Celtics than he did against the Spurs but after five games he is averaging 26.4 ppg, shooting .422 from the field (including .316 from three point range) and committing 3.8 turnovers per game. Obviously there is at least one more game left in the Finals but so far Bryant has matched James' scoring average versus Boston while bettering his shooting and turnover numbers by a significant margin. It is also worth noting that James greatly increased his averages with his outstanding game seven effort (45 points on 14-29 shooting--including 3-11 from three point range--and just two turnovers); in the first six games, James averaged 23.7 ppg on .325 field goal shooting (including .214 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game.

While Bryant's Finals numbers are down from the tremendous numbers that he put up in the first three rounds of the playoffs, they are within shouting distance of the regular season averages that earned him his first regular season MVP: 28.3 ppg, .459 field goal shooting, .361 three point shooting, 3.1 turnovers per game. The Celtics are a great defensive team that presents a formidable challenge to Bryant and the Lakers but--despite whatever spin is being rotated 24 hours a day, seven days a week from various media outlets--Bryant is not performing terribly in the Finals and the Celtics have not shut him down.

Scoring averages and field goal percentages tend to go down in the playoffs, even for the greatest players of all-time. Michael Jordan is a rare player who increased his scoring in the postseason but even he shot worse in playoff competition than he did in the regular season: Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg on .497 shooting in the regular season, 33.4 ppg on .487 shooting in the playoffs and 33.6 ppg on .481 shooting in the Finals; Jordan did not make the playoffs during his two year comeback with the Wizards and if you don't count those seasons he averaged 31.5 ppg on .505 shooting in regular season play. Larry Bird averaged 24.3 ppg on .496 shooting in the regular season, 23.8 ppg on .472 shooting in the playoffs and 23.1 ppg on .458 shooting in the Finals. Magic Johnson was remarkably consistent: 19.5 ppg on .520 shooting in the regular season, 19.5 ppg on .506 shooting in the playoffs and 19.4 ppg on .516 shooting in the Finals.

Here is a look at Bryant's game by game performance in the 2008 Finals:

Game one: 24 points, .346 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 98-88 loss.

Comment: Bryant tied Kevin Garnett for game-high scoring honors and tied Derek Fisher with a team-high six assists. The Lakers led 51-46 at halftime but scored just 37 points in the second half.

Game two: 30 points, .478 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 108-102 loss.

Comment: Bryant led both teams in scoring and once again led the Lakers in assists (eight). The Celtics built a 24 point second half lead but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win.

Game three: 36 points, .600 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 87-81 win.

Comment: Bryant led both teams in scoring and even though he only had one assist his dribble penetration and postups created open shots for his teammates.

Game four: 17 points, .316 field goal shooting, two turnovers in a 97-91 loss.

Comment: This is without question Bryant's worst playoff game this season and the only time in the 2008 playoffs that he failed to score at least 22 points. Still, he had a game-high 10 assists and he accounted for 16 of his team's 18 fourth quarter points (10 points, three assists). The Lakers built a 24 point lead but scored just 33 second half points.

Game five: 25 points, .381 field goal shooting, six turnovers in a 103-98 win.

Comment: Bryant's 15 first quarter points set the tone for the Lakers early in the game and his seven points and three steals sealed the deal in the fourth quarter.

Summary:

Bryant has done a very good job of drawing the defense and creating open shots for his teammates. He is the only Laker defender who has had any success against Paul Pierce and his two fourth quarter steals from Pierce in game five preserved that win for the Lakers. However, Bryant's most important defensive contribution has been as a roaming help defender nominally assigned to check Rajon Rondo at the start of games four and five; the disruption that Bryant caused to the Celtics' offense played a major role in the Lakers building huge first quarter leads in both of those games.

Bryant is sometimes accused of "forcing shots" but I have yet to see an objective explanation of what this means. Bryant is the Lakers' leading scorer and the only player on his team who can consistently create a shot for himself and for others; he is averaging 26.4 ppg on 21.8 field goal attempts per game in the Finals but his 5.8 apg average is 2.2 apg higher than anyone else on the team and that number does not reflect how many plays he created by making the pass that initiated a sequence that led to a score but did not qualify as an assist. It is certainly possible to put together a highlight reel from these games that will show Bryant making--and missing--some difficult, contested shots, but a difficult shot is not the same as a "forced" one. I would classify a "forced" shot as a low percentage shot that is taken with more than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The classification of a low percentage shot depends on the player; a midrange turnaround jumper is not a low percentage shot for Bryant but may be a low percentage shot for someone else. The significance of the time remaining on the shot clock is that most of the other Lakers cannot create a shot for themselves and they certainly cannot do so with time winding down; unless one of his teammates is wide open, when the shot clock is winding down the Lakers are probably better off with Bryant shooting the ball than with him passing it. A combination of excellent Celtics' defense and poor Lakers' offensive execution has resulted in Bryant having to take a lot of shots late in the shot clock but he has not taken many low percentage shots early in the shot clock.

The Celtics led this series 3-1 after four games and currently enjoy a 3-2 lead and home court advantage the rest of the way, so there is a perception that they have dominated the Lakers and shut down Bryant. The reality is that none of these games have been decided by more than 10 points--with four of them being decided by six points or less--and Bryant's numbers are only marginally worse than they were during the regular season. There is every reason to believe that Bryant will play well in game six and that the final score will be close. Bryant's performance against elite defensive teams--San Antonio and Boston--in the 2008 playoffs is significantly better than LeBron James' performance against those two teams in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM

14 comments

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14 Comments:

At Tuesday, June 17, 2008 2:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We argued back and forth about Kobe a few months back, several different times actually.

Kobe was outstanding through the first three rounds of the playoffs. He raised his level of play slightly from his regular season numbers I think, which given the improvement in the competition is noteworthy. A player's numbers do generally decline in the playoffs as you said and his didn't.

But he hasn't played nearly as well in this series. His true shooting percentage for the series is 51.4%, significantly below his season average. His rebounding has been mediocre, he is averaging 1.6 rebounds per 36 less than his season average. His assists numbers are slightly down. And he has committed a lot of turnovers. He has averaged .8 more steals per 36 on the positive side of the ledger, but overall, he is offering what would be, in the regular season, only slightly above average production for an NBA shooting guard.

I think going in, the Celtics were a slightly better team, despite what the oddsmakers said. I picked Boston in 6. For the Lakers to win, Kobe had to be the dominant perimeter player in the series. He hasn't been that. He has been outplayed by Pierce, and in my book, Ray Allen, who has posted a 65% ts% and has outrebounded Kobe, has also been better.

Kobe also laid an absolute egg in game 4, going 6-19. They could not afford to lose a game in LA and he let it happen. If he is going to get credited for everything good that happens, he deserves the lion's share of the blame for that defeat, imho.

Sum total, Kobe has not played that well, and his decline is the reason the Lakers are going back to Boston needing to win two. Gasol started slowly, but overall he has played much better than Kobe. Odom is shooting over 50% from the field and averaging a double double. They are not the reason

it's going to be an interesting final two games. Perhaps Kobe can pull it out. But if he doesn't it should be well nigh impossible for people to continue thinking of him as the best player in the game.

Owen

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2008 6:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The first and most important thing to understand about this series is that the entire Boston defense is set up to stop Kobe, not Gasol or Odom. Gasol is the Laker's second option and his field goal percentage has gone up since he joined the team precisely because of how many easy baskets Kobe helps him to get. Odom is the Lakers' third option and his own coach called him "confused" at one point during this series and has often not even played him in the fourth quarter for that reason. To even suggest that Odom is playing better than Kobe is, quite frankly, ludicrous. If you watched the games then you would understand that Odom's field goal percentage is largely a function of easy shots that are created by the extra defensive attention that Kobe (and to a lesser extent Gasol) draws. Odom's decision making process when he is the primary ball handler is, well, confused. His best plays happen when he attacks from the weak side (i.e., does not have the ball) and receives passes from Kobe or from whoever Kobe passed to after Kobe was double-teamed. As I said in a different thread, I'd love to see Dave Berri become an NBA GM and build a team that loses about 60 games a year with the kind of thinking you are employing here; anyone who thinks that Gasol and Odom are better than Kobe is going to build a very interesting team.

In Kobe's worst game of the series he still had 17 points and 10 assists, including 10 points and three assists in the fourth quarter. Kobe spent the entire first half facilitating a magnificent, balanced Lakers offensive attack. In the second half, Gasol and Odom completely disappeared. Yes, Kobe did not shoot well, but his decison making and defense were excellent. He simply did not have enough help.

Those who think that Pierce has outplayed Kobe overall should remember that Pierce laid a 6 point, 2-14 egg in game three in which he literally contributed nothing.

Kobe's numbers are slightly below his regular season numbers, which is not abnormal even for great players in the playoffs, particularly against great defensive teams. As I noted, LeBron's numbers dropped by a much greater amount versus both the Spurs (last year) and Celtics.

If the Lakers lose then it will be impossible to think of them as the best team this season but that has little to do with Kobe's status as the best player in the game.

The fascinating thing about this is the people who are closest to the game and most knowledgeable about it--GMs, coaches, scouts, players, ex-players--understand Kobe's value. It is the "numbers gurus," uninformed writers and biased fans who are apparently incapable or unwilling to objectively analyze what they are watching.

By the way, how did the WoW idea that Manu Ginobili is at least as good, if not better, than Kobe work out in the Western Conference Finals?

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2008 12:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We get it, you love Kobe. Geez. Remember that Ginobili was hobbled in the Conf Finals with a severe ankle sprain (which is why I object to comparing Kobe's stats w/LeBron's from last year's finals)? Ginobili shouldn't have even been on the floor, his mobility was so limited. You talk about Odom looking confused, how about Kobe? Game 3 aside, he's been outplayed by consistently mediocre. I'll agree it's an unfair to compare his numbers with Pierce or Allen, since the Lakers D has been exposed, but Kobe has been incredibly indecisive, making a number of terrible passes to well covered teammates with the shot clock winding down.

I'll grant you the Lakers other players did not step up, but Kobe was unable to force Boston to focus on him enough to get them free for good opportunities. You argue that Odom has been worse than his numbers, I'd say Kobe has been, too.

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2008 8:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I remember that Manu was healthy enough to be the X factor in game seven versus the Hornets, as I predicted that he would be in that series. No one talked about his ankle at that time. I have a lot of respect for Manu--but he is not an MVP level player and he is not as good as Kobe.

Bowen guarded LeBron and Kobe most of the time, so Manu's status had little if anything to do with LeBron and Kobe's offensive production.

You have it backwards; Kobe has been receiving passes from confused teammates as the shot clock winds down, which has contributed to the decline in his field goal percentage.

If you really believe that the Celtics were not focusing on Kobe enough to get other Lakers free I don't know what to say other than try to watch more closely in the future. When Kobe drove to the hoop he was picked up by anywhere between 3 and 5 defenders. If the other four Lakers cannot get open and make shots in that circumstance that is truly pathetic.

Kobe's numbers pretty much reflect what he did; he led the team in scoring, assists and steals but his field goal percentage suffered due to Boston's defense and his teammates' inability to hit open shots (which led to Kobe having to take difficult shots with the shot clock winding down).

 
At Wednesday, June 18, 2008 6:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - Kobe (Not Tonight) Bryant did not come close to matching his season averages. He wasn't close. His ts% was significantly below. I think he dipped below 50% for the series in the final game. He was roughly 7-8% below the 57.6% he offered this year. And his rebounding was poor, nearly two rebounds less per 36. Those are very significant dropoffs. I wouldn't say I am surprised that it happened. The Celtics had one of the great defenses of all time. But it simply is not the case that his numbers "are slightly below his regular season numbers." (I just noticed that you responded before the final game. Still, his numbers were well below going into the final game, as I noted in my first post.)

I would disagree about what Kobe's worst game was, at least statistically. He posted a -3 WS in game 1, which the Lakers might have won if he had played to his average. And he posted a WS of -2.5 in the final game. He actually had a positive WS in the game you judged his worse, although it's fair to call it his worst game considering the opportunity the team he leads let slip away.

I think you severely underrate Pau Gasol, who was the Laker who played the best in the series. The guy is certainly fit to be a primary offensive option. He has a higher career ts% than Kobe does. On 75% of Kobe's volume or so, but Gasol is no slouch. He is also an outstanding passer, which offsets a slightly high turnover rate. Gasol's weakness is not on offense. Its as a rebounder and as a defender, as this series made clear. But he was good enough to lead the Griz to a 50 win season and a 49 win sreason, which is better than what Kobe has done without Shaq.

Since joining the Lakers Pau has been outstanding, posting a ridiculous 64% ts%. I attribute that not to Kobe but to small sample size and the emotional rejuvenation that comes from escaping a horrible situation. His ts% for the Finals was 57.2% I calculate, right at his career average, though far from the 63.9% he posted with the Lakers this year as Kobe was from his season average. His rebounding volume was actually quite close to his season average also, slightly above it I think, while his turnovers were below average despite the five he recorded in the final game. And the scoring volume, 15 points per game, was off by four points, but not terrible. Overall, he clearly posted the best stats of any Laker. And he was matched up against the DPOY.

The grim truth is that without Gasol or Bynum, the Lakers are a 500% team, basically what they have been since Shaq left. You win just about as many games with Gasol and an average shooting guard as you do with Kobe and an average center, given that big man are a more valuable commodity in the NBA.

Other points...

Pierce had a better series than Kobe, despite a few bad games. But on stats alone, I would have given the MVP to Ray Allen. He was the difference for Boston. Without him in the first two series of the playoff, they struggled. With him on, they dominated. His TS% for the series was over 70%, and he outrebounded Kobe. Pure and simple, Kobe was outplayed by his opposite number in this final.

My feeling watchng Kobe in the series was that he forced his game, he got away from what made him and the Lakers so good earllier in the playoffs. He wanted to dominate the stage, he wanted to cement his greatness, to earn the comparison to Jordan with a scintillating Finals performance. That's what the 26 shots in the first game said to me. I think its very fair to blame Kobe. His reputation has to take a hit from this, doesn't it? It would be equally fair to blame Phil Jackson, and also the bench. Sasha Vujacic especially, bit player that he is. But honestly, this guy is supposed to be the best in the world, and he didn't have one game where he was the best performer on the court. In fact, he didn't have one performance where he was the best player on his own team. He was outplayed by Gasol in game 2, and by Vujacic in game 3.

Re Manu - He didn't play very well against the Lakers. To me it looked like he was injured. You can tell me he wasn't, but given how superb he has been in so many playoffs (and the Olympics). Given how amazing he was as a clutch shooter this year (he blew Kobe out of the water in that respect,) I think its very plausible he was hurt.

Another thing I would say is that I think people are exaggerating how much better the Cetlics were than the Lakers. Barring a historic collapse, this should have been a seven game series. The last game was a terrible blowout, but not really representative at all of the relative strengths of the contestants.

Finally, re this:

"The fascinating thing about this is the people who are closest to the game and most knowledgeable about it--GMs, coaches, scouts, players, ex-players--understand Kobe's value. It is the "numbers gurus," uninformed writers and biased fans who are apparently incapable or unwilling to objectively analyze what they are watching."

Seems like a general indictment of numbers guys. As a Knicks fan, I would have been delighted if Dave Berri had been running the Knicks for the past five years. We never would have ended up with Curry or Randolph and David Lee and Renaldo Balkman would be getting the minutes they deserve.

I would note that the Celtics have made a big effort to incorporate "guruthink." Mike Zarren has certainly got a lot of press. Any team that employs Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins in their starting lineup clearly understands something about numbers that most people don't.

Frankly, looking at the league, looking at the dramatic extent to which raw scoring determines compensation, its very clear most NBA management aren't very good at their job. And what about the experts who picked LA btw? 9-10 on ESPN? With the numbers I got it right, as did David Berri. Numbers are here to stay.

The fact that a lot of people think that Kobe is the best means absolutely nothing to me. My background in finance has taught me that you make the most money when there is the greatest disparity between conventional wisdom and actual fact, when emotion gets in the way of rational analysis. Kobe is the epitome of it in the NBA.

And really, i have to wonder at this point who isn't being objective. My stance is pretty reasonable I think. Kobe is one of the best players in the NBA. He is in the top 10-15. But he isn't the best and he isn't actually that close. There has been no year he was the best in the league, which is not surprising given that for six years of his career he wasn't the best player on his own team. Right now, there are three players under the age of 25 who were better than Kobe this year, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Lebron James. Given the ages of all those players I think the gap will only widen. Kevin Garnett is also a much better player than Kobe, and always has been. Tim Duncan has also been better, Manu is better per minute though perhaps not overall. Wade was much better pre-injury.Mcgrady, pre injury (i.e. in Orlando) was far better for a few years than Bryant has ever been. Grant Hill was much better before his injury. It's a long list really, as long as you believe, as i obviously do, that raw scoring is very overrated in the NBA.

Obviously, I don't object to saying Kobe is a great player. He was the most productive shooting guard in the NBA this year. But he isn't the best player in the world, and he isn't an all-time great. Most glamorous, most publicized, most famous, most excitng, etc. But not the best. Without Shaq, who knows what we think of him.

The good news for you is that Bynum is coming back. And if he comes back even 90% they will be the best team in the NBA. Odom can play small forward just fine. The idea that Kobe, Odom, Gasol, and Bynum won't be able to play together is incorrect I think. Bynum's rebounding in any event is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Owen

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2008 3:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

This is almost a Tower of Babel situation because we are literally speaking a different language. I look at the game from the perspective of a GM, coach or scout and I analyze the matchups on the court in terms of what each team is trying to do. I know that Berri believes that watching games hurts one's understanding of a sport.

Did you even watch any of the Finals? Based on your comments, I find it very hard to believe that you actually watched any of the games. All of your reasoning revolves around using numbers devoid of any real-world context and any understanding of basketball strategy.

I don't want to get involved in arguing semantics regarding Kobe's shooting percentages/true shooting percentages. Kobe shot .459 from the field in the regular season and over .500 from the field in the first three playoff series. I expected/predicted that he could shoot around .450 from the field versus Boston and I thought that this--in combination with other factors--would be good enough for the Lakers to beat the Celtics. Kobe did not shoot as well as I expected, the Lakers performed far below my expectations in other areas and thus they lost.

I don't evaluate players based on "win score"; I am not impressed with the methodology used to create this number. I watch the games and write detailed reports about what happened. Based on what I saw, Kobe's 17-10 game was the worst at the time that I posted my comment; I would say that game six was in that same ball park but I would not judge Kobe as harshly regarding that one because Gasol and Odom were total no-shows.

It is a complete joke to say that Gasol was the best Laker in this series. I doubt that any serious basketball observer--GM, coach, scout--would say that. From a technical point of view, Gasol was horrible: he did not establish good post position on offense, he allowed his man to catch the ball deep in the paint on defense, he was weak with the ball (allowing other players to knock it out of his hands repeatedly), he did not set his screens well, his passing was tentative, his decision making was poor. Gasol shot a good field goal percentage because the screen/roll plays that he executed properly with Bryant led to easy baskets--and Bryant should get the lion's share of the credit for those plays because the defense trapped him, not Gasol, because Bryant is the much greater threat.

I think that we can agree that Boston is a great defensive team. So ask yourself this question: Why did the Celtics double-team Bryant whenever Gasol set a good screen for him? The answer is that Bryant is the best player in the league and the Celtics were willing to take their chances with whoever Kobe passed the ball to in that situation. The Celtics may also have figured out that Gasol and Odom were not particularly interested in going into the paint consistently and taking contact.

True shooting percentage is a useless way to compare Kobe and Gasol's value. Kobe is a complete player who can create shots for himself and others. Gasol is a skilled big man but he is not even close to being on the same level that Kobe is. The '04 and '06 Grizzlies teams that won 50 and 49 games were much more talented than the Lakers teams that Kobe led to 45 and 42 wins in 2006 and 2007 (Kobe missed 16 games in 2005, which is the major reason that team did not make the playoffs). Kobe carried the Lakers to a seventh game in 2006 with Smush Parker as his pg and Kwame Brown as his center. Those guys are young players yet they hardly even played last season, let alone start for a playoff team. Kobe was not merely "without Shaq"; he was without legit NBA players.

I love how 99% of your argument is based on numbers (albeit faulty, misleading numbers) but when it comes to explaining why Pau's shooting has zoomed since joining the Lakers you cite "emotional rejuvenation." Do you have a formula for that? I'll tell you what rejuvenated Pau: instead of dealing with the defensive attention that the best player on a team receives, he is wide open because the other team is trying to stop Kobe. Pau's field goal percentage dropped in the Finals because he started shooting flip shots, soft fadeaways and other non-productive attempts.

Gasol won 50 games playing with an above average shooting guard (Mike Miller); Kobe won 45 games playing with a well below average center and a well below average point guard and a below average small forward and a weak bench. Your math here does not compute.

A good case could be made for Allen as Finals MVP but you seem to have difficulty understanding the difference between being a primary option and a second or third option. Pierce drives Boston's offensive attack with his scoring and playmaking, while Allen is primarily a shooter.

Kobe was not outplayed by his "opposite number" in the Finals because he was in fact rarely matched up with Allen. Kobe spent the second half of the series guarding Rondo while in fact serving as a roamer and he also guarded Pierce sometimes--and better than anyone else on the Lakers did. Allen did the bulk of his scoring and rebounding while being guarded by Vujacic and Fisher. Of course, stat guys who did not watch the games and media people who did not pay attention will simply look at the numbers and say stuff like, "Ray Allen outplayed Kobe Bryant."

Is there a formula that incorporates your armchair psychoanalysis of what Kobe was thinking during the series? Does that impact his ts or ws? Or is it in fact just BS?

What Kobe does is read the defense. When he is doubled he passes to the open man. When he is single covered he attacks. What complicates matters is that his teammates are often tentative and in the wrong spots but you wouldn't know that because you don't watch the games. So sometimes Kobe gets the ball with little time left on the shot clock; if he passes the ball the Lakers might not even get a shot off, so he has to create something. That is a lot harder to do against Boston than against other teams. Sometimes Kobe will take an open shot early in the shot clock, particularly if the Lakers have gone through a stretch in which they have not gotten off any good shots. When Kobe does that some people call it a "force."

Kobe's shot selection is overanalyzed more than any player in the league. All great players sometimes "force" shots but that is part of their role; they are not walking slide rules who can instantly calculate that passing the ball to player x is a 5% better play than shooting a shot that they have made thousands of times. A player who forces a lot of shots--like Gilbert Arenas--hurts his team but Kobe's shot selection is not even close to being that bad.

When you are talking about who the best player was you are failing to consider impact. Vujacic hit all those threes because Kobe drew the defense--no Kobe, no Vujacic threes. Ditto for most of the shots that Gasol made. Kobe was the most important player on the court for the Lakers in every single game; that is why a great defensive team focused its entire game plan on him.

Manu played very well in game seven versus the Hornets, as I predicted he would, and he did not do well against the Lakers, as I also predicted. The reason is that he enjoyed a matchup advantage against the Hornets but did not have one versus the Lakers. I know that Kobe has a pinkie finger with a busted ligament (on his shooting hand) that is being held together by tape and will have to be surgically repaired (I saw the digit in question up close at All-Star Weekend); I don't know what injury Manu has or how much it affected him.

I agree with you about the value of Lee and Balkman and that Curry and Randolph were poor acquisitions and a mismatched tandem--you don't have to use numbers to figure those things out, though. I figured that out just by watching those guys play.

Who would the Celtics start at pg if not Rondo? They don't even have another true pg on the roster. Perkins is a big body who fits in well with their defensive philosophy and who accepts the idea of doing the dirty work without scoring a lot of points. Championship teams have had players like that for many years and they did not need a mathematical formula to find them (Kurt Rambis, Marc Iavaroni are two examples from the 80s).

I know that Berri says that scoring determines compensation but that is because he does not really understand how the market works. The players are not all available at the same time like shares on a stock exchange; if a certain player becomes a free agent and is the only guy who fits your team's current need you may have to either "overpay" to get him or else accept having a hole in your roster. The NBA also has various rules about the length of contracts, the minimum size of contracts, etc. and these factors play a role in determining how much compensation a player gets. At one time, Toni Kukoc made more money that MJ or Pip and that was not because the Bulls believed that he was a better player; that had to do with when each guy signed his deal.

The team that Kobe took to the Finals would have struggled to make the playoffs in the West without him. To suggest that he is like some overvalued stock is preposterous and it is the height of arrogance for people who don't even watch the games to presume that they understand the sport so well.

Kobe has been the best all-around player in the NBA the past three seasons (2006, 2007, 2008). I never claimed anything beyond that. Howard is not even close to being as valuable as Kobe. LeBron is the second best player in the NBA. CP3 was the third best player this year; we'll see if he maintains that status (Kobe and LeBron have been great year in and year out, which is not easy to do).

What we think of Kobe without Shaq is that he carried an otherwise pedestrian team to the NBA Finals, beating the defending champions along the way. I don't care how much other people overrate his supporting cast; that is the truth. He has a solid pg, a solid pf, a good center and a below average small forward. The bench was exposed in the Finals. The Nuggets team that the Lakers beat in the first round has more talent from players 2-12 than the Lakers do.

In another thread, a reader pointed out that Jerry West--a man who has actually built championship teams--said the exact same thing about Odom playing sf that I did. I'm sure that you and Berri believe that you understand NBA basketball better than West does but I thought that was worth mentioning anyway.

 
At Friday, June 20, 2008 1:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched pretty much every minute of the Finals.

The difference between shooting percentage and TS% isn't semantic. They are two different statistics and one does a much better job of describing how efficiently a player scores. Manu and Kobe both shot 46% from the field this year. However, Manu had a ts% of 61.2%, while Kobe was at 57.6%.

And I think you must be thinking of Game 6. Manu was 6-19 in game 7. Fwiw, it looks like Manu might miss the Olympics because of his ankle injury. Apparently the ligament remains as swollen as it was three weeks ago, five times its normal size.

I thank you for your response to my very lengthy post. I don't really know how to respond in turn. As you say, we see things so differently.

I can't talk Knicks. It's too painful. And honestly, there is no way forward there. We have 3-4 hard years ahead of us.

Let me ask you about the Nuggets. Are Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson elite players who deserved to be starters on the Western Conference All-Star team? Would you have given Carmelo a max deal? Would you re-sign Allen Iverson for 15 million, or whatever it is going to take? Do you let Marcus Camby walk? If you could trade Carmelo for Billups and Prince, which seems to a very popular rumour, would you do it?

How woud you explain how a team with two All star starters, and the DPOY can struggle to do better than the eight seed? How does a team with so much offensive power end up with a better defense than offense?

What would you do with the Nuggets?

Owen

 
At Friday, June 20, 2008 4:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

If you "watched pretty much every minute of the Finals" and read my recaps of each game I don't understand how you could possibly believe that Gasol is a more valuable player than Bryant. Without Bryant on the floor, Gasol would have been the Lakers' first option and he would have gotten the same swarming coverage that Bryant did, in which case the Lakers would have been swept, like every other Gasol-led playoff team has been.

I understand very well the difference between ts and fg%; I'm just not interested in going back and forth about Kobe's shooting. If he and the Lakers had attained a fg% of roughly .450 then they would have had a very good chance to win the series. I thought that this was attainable but they did not do it and that is a major reason why they lost.

No, I'm thinking of Manu's game seven performance. Although he only shot 6-19 from the field, he scored a game-high 26 points and his three point shooting--particularly in a key run right before halftime--was a major factor in their win.

Where did you read/hear that Manu's ankle ligament is "five times its normal size"? I find it hard to believe that he could put a shoe on in such a condition, let alone play basketball. That sounds like a serious exaggeration.

I think that I know where you are going here with the Nuggets, because the supposed crown jewel in Berri's predictive abilities is that he said that Denver would not win a title with the Iverson-Melo duo. Please don't lump me in with Stephen A. Smith and others who thought that Denver would win the West. This is what I wrote about Denver in my season preview, when I picked Denver to finish seventh in the West:

Reasons for hope: The dynamic scoring duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson will be together from the start of the season. Marcus Camby is one of the best defenders and rebounders in the league. Reasons to mope: Defense has not been a strong suit for this team in recent seasons and there is no reason to expect that to change now. Denver will either have to shift Iverson to point guard or else have a very small starting backcourt. Bottom line: Carmelo Anthony is well on his way toward stringing together a Kevin Garnett-like run of first round playoff losses.

I wrote about Denver at greater length for Lindy's Pro Basketball magazine and elaborated on those points.

So it does not take Berri's formulas to understand that Melo+AI does not equal championship.

As for your specific questions, my starting guards for the West All-Star team would have been Kobe and CP3. I have no problem with Iverson being on the team--I'm sure you disagree--but he would not start. I would have chosen Dirk over Melo as a starter at forward. I discussed these issues in a January 25 post.

The economic issues are not as cut and dried as Berri likes to make them. The question is not just whether or not Melo is worth a max deal objectively--i.e., is he as good or better as the other max players--but also what other options the Nuggets have. I don't know what alternative options Denver has in terms of free agent signings/trades instead of signing Melo. If they don't keep Melo and he ultimately walks for nothing, they may be worse off than they would be if they "overpay" him somewhat. If your question is purely whether I personally consider Melo to be an elite player who is objectively worth $15 million a year, my answer is that I do not consider him to be such a player. I have said similar things about him here more than once.

The same considerations apply to re-signing Iverson. I think that he is closer to being worth $15 million a year than Melo is but he is also older, so it would depend on the length of the contract.

I think that Melo and Iverson are a poorly matched duo and that the team has no coherent offensive or defensive philosophy. I prefer Iverson to Melo as a player but Melo is much younger. One of them should be dealt and that is a bit of a conundrum considering what I said in the previous sentence. I'd be very surprised if Dumars gave up Billups and Prince for Melo, because Melo does not fit in with Detroit's defensive philosophy. I'm not sure how a Billups-Iverson backcourt would work but it has to be better than Iverson-Anthony Carter, so I would do that deal; if you made it Rip and Prince instead of Billups and Prince I'd do it in a heartbeat because then I would be set at pg, sg and sf.

I think that my above comments and what I have written about Denver throughout the season explains why the Nuggets were an eighth seed, which is right around where I predicted they would be.

I would certainly try to retain Marcus Camby because of his defense and rebounding. He is also an underrated passer and he has a nice outside shot. The only problems are that he is a bit brittle and he has no post up game offensively.

You didn't ask but I think that Kenyon Martin is overrated and overpaid.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2008 12:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not arguing that Gasol is a better player than Kobe overall. I said he is no slouch offensively, and that his production in the Finals was pretty decent, while Kobe's was statistically poor. I was just browsing APBR and there was a post up saying that Kobe had the second worst performance ever by an MVP in a Final, after Magic's performance in 89 when he was injured. I think it's fair enough to say that Kobe had a gargantuan task in breaking down the Celtics defense and that he didn't get as much help from his teammates as he might have expected, but if you are saying that I don't think you can simultaneously deny that his numbers were decidedly sub-par. They were. There really isn't any question about it.

Gasol would have gotten swept by the Celtics without Kobe. And Kobe never would have sniffed the Finals without Gasol. You need at least three great players to really contend for a title.

Re Manu - You can read the article, it's on his Yahoo page. "An MRI taken during the playoffs revealed a ligament in Ginobili’s left heel swollen to four to five times its normal size. Another MRI taken Monday revealed the swelling had not subsided, even though Ginobili had been off the ankle for nearly 21 days."

I am glad you are with the good guys on Denver. ;-) Not much to discuss there. And I agree with you on Kenyon Martin, although he was better before his injury I think.

I hear where you are coming from on economic issues. And I suppose it is tough sometimes. Look at the Orlando Magic. They gave Rashard Lewis a max deal. He is an excellent player, a better player than Carmelo, but he is not a max player, especially since they use him a fair bit as a PF where he isn't effective They aren't ever going to win a title with a big four of Turkoglu, Nelson, Rashard, and Howard. As a result, Howard might easily end up a Garnett like figure, truly great, but saddled with poor teammates.

Should they have given him that deal? I don't know. Perhaps they were compelled, because they had cap space, because he was the best available player, and what are they going to tell the fans if they don't spend the money. It's a predicament. Acquiring Lewis helps the team win games, which fills seats in the arena but at the same time it virtually guarantees they won't be NBA champions. I don't know what I would have done if I were the Orlando gm, but I am pretty sure I would have balked at giving him 15 per.

What would you have done if you were the Orlando GM?

Owen:

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2008 5:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I certainly agree that Gasol is "no slouch offensively." I would say that Gasol is probably around the 25th to 30th best player in the NBA, which is why he is a one-time All-Star and not a multiple-time All-Star. Playing with Kobe certainly helped his field goal percentage and if the Lakers amass a similar winning percentage with Gasol next year Gasol will have a decent shot to make the All-Star team for the second time.

I don't judge a player's value purely by his production. Mark West has the third highest field goal percentage of all-time. Does that make him better than Kobe, Pierce, KG, etc.? Of course not. Field goal percentage can sometimes just be a reflection of the type of shots that a player shoots. Clearly, Gasol is a much more valuable player than West was, but with the Lakers a lot of Gasol's shots are dunks and layups that result directly or indirectly from defensive attention that Kobe attracts.

I didn't read the APBR post--I haven't gone there in a while because the level of discourse had moved south precipitously--but just because one guy said something does not mean that it has any validity. For one thing, the sample size of MVPs in the NBA Finals is small and such a comparison is hardly fair because some of the MVPs may have faced much weaker opposition--or had much stronger teams--than Kobe.

I know that all you are willing to look at are the numbers, even though you watched the games, and that is why I said that this is almost a Tower of Babel situation: we are speaking different languages. Gasol's field goal percentage is to a large degree attributable to Bryant and that is something that I consider when evaluating what kind of series that Bryant had. I don't think that Bryant had a great series but I also don't think that he had as terrible of a series as you are suggesting.

After I posted my comment I did see a news story about Manu's ankle. I still find that hard to believe. I'm not saying that I don't believe it but that is really something. I wonder what the condition of his ankle was during game seven versus NO and when it got to the point that it is now. I really do enjoy watching him play and hope that he makes a full recovery as soon as possible.

K Mart benefited a lot from playing with Kidd and I've always said that he should have tithed at least 10% of his big contract to Kidd.

Your Orlando question is really tough. I appreciate very much that you show a greater understanding of the nuances of this situation than Berri, who simply assumes that every NBA GM is an overspending moron. I think that most intelligent people understand that Lewis is not objectively worth $15 mil but, as you correctly observed, the question is what alternative uses for that money did Orlando have. If the Magic do nothing, sit on that money and don't make the playoffs then the GM may be fired before he gets a chance to spend the money a different way. Let me put it like this: if I were in his shoes I would have tried very hard to find a different way to spend that money but if Lewis was the only All-Star level player available I may have had to grit my teeth, make the deal and try to add other parts along the way. That, in fact, is what I think Orlando is doing. Berri is trying to construct an ideal, utopian NBA economic model that does not take into account real world concerns. I don't doubt that some GMs have made bonehead deals--all the way back to the enormous contract that Jon Koncak got back in the day--but the NBA will never be an orderly marketplace where players 1-300 are paid exactly what they are objectively worth; the Players Association is in a constant tug of war with the owners to ensure that this never happens :)

Does Berri's salary model even take into account that thanks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement some players make a guaranteed minimum amount based purely on their years of service? The very nature of this collective bargaining all but ensures that salaries are always going to go up (barring a total collapse in revenue).

 
At Monday, June 23, 2008 12:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gasol played what, 26 games for the Lakers this year? That's a very small sample size. He did post a 64% ts%, which is 5% higher than what he did last year. If you want to give credit to Kobe for that increase, go ahead. But it could also just be what Gasol is capable of with reasonable teammates. Who knows? He is an excellent plaeyr. Honestly, though I wouldn't expect Gasol to post 64% for an entire season next year. Players don't generally make that kind of leap halfway through their career.

Also, I don't really understand your notion of causality. It seems Gasol only plays well because of Kobe. But then Kobe doesn't play well because Gasol and Odom aren't playing well. Surely if Kobe played well, Gasol should have also. I guess what I mean is that Gasol is in a no-win situation. If he plays well, even if Kobe plays badly, it's because he is on the floor with Kobe. If he plays badly, it's his own fault.


Incidentally, Sasha Vujacic and Vlad were at 60% and 58% this year, jumping 6% each over last year's performance. Was that Kobe? Why wasn't he helping them then last year? Did he change his style to make their improvement possible? A lot of people seem to think him capable of that kind of thing. I don't really buy it.

Re Mark West, I think I vaguely remember him, lumbering white guy. Seems like a fairly solid player, who did in fact post some very solid ts%. He is only 25th on the All-time list. However, he didn't score a lot of points, which definitely hurts your production. It's about volume AND efficiency of course.

Re Berri - Look, he follows the numbers. He makes a lot of predictions, including predicting the Celtics would win the title this year at the beginning of the year, predicting Shaq wouldn't help Phoenix, predicting that Kidd wouldn't push Dallas over the top. He isn't always right, but his track record is pretty outstanding.


His major criticism of the NBA is the fact that compensation is determined too much by one statistic, raw scoring. It's hard to argue that after reading his book. But after that, I think he gives GM a fair shake, and recognizes the difficulties they face. He documents that it's very difficult to tell which young players will turn into stars. And the major upshot of his work is that there are only so many ultra productive players in the NBA. If you don't have one of them, you aren't going to have a good team. They are hard to find, since generally teams won't part with them. And that's just the start. If you have don't have two great players to go along with him, you are unlikely to win a championship. (see Kevin Garnett). And even if you have three great players, like Marion, Stoudemire and Nash, that might not be enough. You need a good supporting cast too. And even if you put it together and have the best team, you can still lose in a seven game series, which is inherently unpredictable. It's a tough task all in all, and he certainly recognizes that.

But still, every year, tons of things pop up, which show the NBA doesn't quite have its head screwed on straight. Durant for ROY?

Anyway, I will leave it there....

Owen

 
At Monday, June 23, 2008 7:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I just go by what I see in terms of a player's skill set. Gasol is a skilled big man but the increase in his shooting percentage can be largely attributed to Kobe, directly or indirectly. When I say "directly" I am referring to occasions when they ran a screen/roll, two defenders trapped Kobe and Bryant fed Gasol for a dunk. Also, there were times when Kobe drove to the hoop, drew Gasol's defender and fed Gasol. When I say "indirectly" I am referring to plays when Kobe drew the defense, passed to someone else and the resulting rotations led to Gasol being open--we saw that a few times in the Finals after screen/roll plays when Kobe passed to Odom and Odom passed to Gasol for a dunk.

Gasol is certainly capable of playing well without Kobe. However, the increase in Gasol's FG% had a lot to do with playing with Kobe. What happened in the Finals is that Gasol did not take advantage of certain situations the same way that he did in the regular season and in earlier rounds of the playoffs. Gasol did not set his screens as effectively and did not roll to the hoop with the same consistent aggression. Those things don't show up in the boxscore, so they don't exist for Berri--but that does not make them less real. Of course, the Celtics deserve credit for the defense that they played but Gasol executed very poorly in many cases. For instance, it is Gasol's responsibility to set the screen in such a fashion that the defense has to either switch or else trap Kobe. Otherwise, what is the point? Gasol did this on some occasions and whenever he did Kobe virtually always made the right read in terms of driving, shooting the jumper or passing to Gasol, Odom or a weak side shooter. However, when Gasol did not set good screens no advantage was gained and Kobe ended up with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down. So, yes, it is accurate to say that Kobe helped Gasol's field goal percentage and Gasol hurt Kobe's field goal percentage--Kobe could have gotten the same or even better shots by just playing one on one and using his individual skill set in terms of fakes, footwork, etc. However, Kobe was trying to incorporate Gasol and the others into the offense because he understood that he could not beat the Celtics by himself.

Sasha improved as a player this year and he attributed some of that to working out with Kobe and training with Kobe. Again, there are no boxscore numbers to back that up. Vlad was not healthy in previous years, so just being healthy and getting more minutes helped him.

West perhaps could be described as "lumbering" but he definitely was not white. Not that I expect everyone to know details about every journeyman player of the past 20 years but if I went to an economics seminar and did not know basic terminology I would not be taken seriously. I refuse to believe that watching games and knowing something about the players is a hindrance to understanding the game.

It is one thing to make some correct predictions but it is another thing to back those predictions up with correct reasoning. Also, how do you know that Shaq did not help Phx? Maybe the Suns would have done even worse without him. They beat the Spurs twice in the regular season after he arrived, which was a big deal considering Phx' poor record against the Spurs. Phx led virtually all of game one, committed several gaffes that had nothing to do with Shaq at the end of that game and then they were apparently too weak psychologically to recover from that setback. Steve Nash's inability to guard anyone certainly did not help. I thought that Kidd might help Dallas but I didn't predict them to go "over the top," assuming that you mean win a championship. I can't recall any NBA analyst--even the ones who don't know what they are talking about--picking Dallas to win a championship after the Kidd deal.

NBA player compensation is not determined by raw scoring. It is determined by the collective bargaining agreement's provisions in terms of the salary cap, the rookie salary scale, the veteran's minimum, "Bird rights" and a host of other things. The owners and players bargain back and forth to determine how the revenues will be distributed. Some players are underpaid early in their careers and "make up for it" at the end, such as Michael Jordan. If you look at the salaries purely on a year to year basis then obviously they are not determined primarily on merit, whether based on scoring or anything else.

I would think that if Berri is truly interested in rectifying salary injustices he could more profitably look at CEO and executive compensation and see how closely tied that is to corporate productivity. I suspect that those numbers are far more out of whack than the NBA numbers and involve a much greater amount of money.

 
At Monday, June 23, 2008 4:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you could make a great case that Kobe has helped Lamar Odom. His ts% has been dramatically higher as a Laker. And his shot attempts are down. Taking two less shots per game has made him more efficient, one would think, and Kobe makes that possible.

With Gasol, I will just wait to see if he posts a 64% next year, and then we can talk. I still think that by placing the majority of the blame on him, you are sort of undermining the argument that Kobe is far more important. But I see the argument. Something along the lines of, Gasol has a very simple job, Kobe has a very difficult job, but Kobe can't do his job if Gasol doesn't do his. But it is semantics at this point. Clearly, neither of them played to the best of their abilities. And the Celtics were great defensively.

I confused Mark West with Mark Eaton. The eighties are not my strong suit

The reason i know that the Suns got worse with Shaq is that their efficiency differential declined substantially after he arrived.

Re salary - I think we are getting into semantics again. Determined would be the wrong word. If you look at NBA salaries, the strongest correlation, by far, is with raw scoring. The CBA does determine the framework within which salaries get paid. But Gm's determine who and how much they pay. And they like scorers, despite the fact that many scorers won't win you games. They seem to discount hugely the battle for possession in basketball. Turnovers, rebounds, steals, and shooting efficiency don't matter very much, which is curious.

BTW, Berri isn't interested in correcting any injustice. He is just a neutral, academic observer. He could care less how NBA gm's spend their owner's money, unless the Pistons are involved. But he does think its interesting that there is no link between scoring ability ex efficiency and wins, yet a huge correlation between scoring and salary, which is plainly observable in the data. That's the kind of thing academics find interesting. One would think GM's would find that interesting.

For instance, I don't think Berri cares either way what the Washington Wizards pay Gilbert Arenas. But I think he will probably find it interesting if they give him a max contract. They managed to play extremely well without him this year up until an injury plague hit the team. They were posting the best efficiency differential in the last 28 years. Exit Arenas, enter Antonio Daniels, and not much changes, which is actually more or less what the data would predict, since Daniels is very underrated.

Would signing Arenas to a max deal be a mistake? In the WOW book, he is a good player, but not a great player. His ability to score leads people to believe he is better than he is actually is. Bottom line, it seems very unlikely that a team paying Arenas max money ever wins an NBA championship. It's equally clear though that they won't be able to find a player of his caliber on the open market this year. So they are in a familiar situation. Accede to his demands, or refuse, and win fewer games than you probably would if you signed him while saving money.

No one is saying it's easy. But certainly I think, statistical analysis allows you to see things much more plainly.

Owen

 
At Tuesday, June 24, 2008 6:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Odom is an interesting case. As I'm sure you have gathered, I'm not a huge fan of his game. He has value as a defensive rebounder and someone who can flash to the hoop for weakside baskets/rebounds but overall I think that he is overrated by media and fans alike.

I agree that playing alongside Kobe has been beneficial for Odom but I think that what happened after Gasol arrived is very interesting and reaffirms what I have said about Odom for years, namely that he is no Scottie Pippen and is in fact best suited to be the third option. Gasol is a player who the defense must be aware of and that means that a lesser defender now checks Odom and that Odom will rarely if ever be double teamed when Kobe and Gasol are on the court. Thus Odom is now free to roam around on the weakside offensively and to concentrate defensively on his rebounding, which is his greatest single skill. Putting Gasol on the team placed Odom in his proper role and that really helped Odom (and the Lakers) a lot.

Granted, things went south in the Finals and collapsed in game six but a team that can beat the Spurs and Jazz in the playoffs has really accomplished something.

You correctly summarized the "semantics" of my position regarding Kobe and Gasol. If Gasol continues to set screens and play the way that he did in the regular season and first three rounds of the playoffs then I would expect his shooting percentage to remain above its Memphis levels. After all, the Lakers only have to play Boston twice in the regular season :)

The stumbling block for the Suns has been the Spurs, so I thought that bringing in Shaq to shore up the paint was worth a shot. After the deal, many so-called experts said that the Suns would not even make the playoffs but I correctly said that the Suns would easily qualify for postseason play. Did Berri say that the Suns would miss the playoffs?

As I'm sure you know, correlation does not equal causation (I'm sure that Pradamaster will get a kick out of me mentioning that). In my opinion, Berri's analysis of NBA salary trends is overly simplistic. I think that he is misinterpreting/misunderstanding what GMs value. Of course, some GMs are better at what they do than others are, just like some CEOs are better than others but, as I indicated earlier, the Bulls were not paying Kukoc more than Jordan because they thought that Kukoc was a better player. At one time, Pip was something like the ninth highest paid player on the team.

I agree with you completely about Arenas being overrated and not being objectively worth a max deal. I have said repeatedly that any team on which Arenas is the primary offensive threat will never get past the second round of the playoffs. I also agree that Daniels is underrated.

I don't doubt that statistical analysis has a lot of value but I disagree with some of Berri's methodologies, even though at times he comes to the same or similar conclusions that I do (i.e., regarding Arenas, Daniels and Melo).

 

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