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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Kobe New and Improved or Just More Appreciated?

Golden State Coach Don Nelson recently said that Kobe Bryant "is not just the best player in the league but probably the best leader."

Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times reports that Nelson had some additional comments about Bryant:

He allows these guys to do their thing and be successful and encourages them. He makes them even better than they are by playing alongside of him. He truly makes everybody better when he's on the floor with them.

And you couldn't say that five years ago. But now you can say it. That's why he's such a complete player. When coaches look at players, we look at them a little bit differently. Do they make their surrounding teammates better? The answer with him is yes, yes, yes.


Coaches and scouts watch game film to break down player and team tendencies, so they know exactly who is creating scoring opportunities and defensive stops and who is dependent on someone else to create scoring opportunities and cover up defensive mistakes; statistics tell (some) of what happened in a basketball game but do not explain how it happened.

Bryant was understandably pleased when someone told him about Nelson's remarks: "That means a lot, because that's always been a big knock toward my game. To hear that coming from him, it means a lot. It means I'm doing the right thing." However, Bryant does not agree with the notion that five years ago he did not make teammates better:

I think my role changed so people looked for me to do that. When Shaq was here, people think that he got a lot of easy baskets because he was Shaq. I was feeding all of those. It's not something that's new to me. I think just the perception of me having a different role has brought to the forefront what I'm doing for everybody else. It's tough to say you made Shaq better. I just think on this team it gets a little more enhanced. It's because of the spotlight. 'This is Kobe's team.' So now everybody is looking at my leadership and what am I doing. The team we had before, I was still a leader...It was more on the lower level, more undercover. Now, you have the spotlight, so people look at that. This is not something that's new to me, to be honest. I think it's just the attention that people paid to it is a lot greater now than it was then.

Numbers don't tell the whole story and assists are a subjective statistic but it is worth noting that Bryant led the Lakers in assists per game (apg) in the regular season and the playoffs during each of their three championship seasons (2000, 2001, 2002). Ironically, even though Bryant is receiving more praise than ever for being a team leader and willing passer, he has had several seasons in which his apg averages exceeded the numbers he posted last season (5.4 apg) and this season (4.2 apg in 30 games); Bryant's career-high is the 6.0 apg he averaged in 2004-05. The reality is that Bryant has been a willing and able playmaker for quite some time; assist averages have a lot to do with scorekeeping and the placement of the players on the court (Bryant often creates shots by drawing double teams but does not get assists on those plays because he makes the first pass out of the trap, not the final pass before the shot). The only way to truly understand Bryant's role as a playmaker (or anyone else's role as a playmaker) is to watch the Lakers play and see how he creates open shots for himself and his teammates.

The ironic thing is that it is almost an annual rite of passage for someone to declare that we are witnessing a "new" Kobe Bryant who is now a willing passer; that may have been a legitimate story angle in 2000, when Bryant led the Lakers in assists for the first time, but it is old news now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:04 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 31, 2008 12:52:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

I always believed that when Lakers started winning again, we would see more praise for Bryant's "maturity" and "unselfishness".

Losing always seems to paint the characters involved with ugly personal characteristics.

Although I mostly agree with your take, I have one small wrinkle to add - while Kobe was always able to spot the open man, the passes weren't always in the "shooter's pocket" or the place they would like to catch the ball. As his career has progressed, I've noticed the passes being delivered with more accuracy, particularly cross court passes and passes over the defense. In the past, Fisher or Vujacic might have had to reach to grab the pass, or move their feet, but these days, the pass from Kobe seems to be spot on so that the three point shooter can literally catch and shoot with no wasted motion.

 
At Wednesday, December 31, 2008 4:23:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

It's a lot easier to be 'unselfish' when you play with Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher as opposed to Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
He may be more encouraging or patient with his teammates now (I'm not in the Lakers' locker room but that seems to be the consensus) but I think this supposed 'attitude adjustment' is way overblown. I have no doubt that he would still be a 'selfish ballhog' if the team around him hadn't improved.

I do think Kobe's shot selection and decision-making have improved but I felt the same way in 2006/7 (when I felt he played even better than he did last season). People just refused to think outside the media-imposed box because his team wasn't very good.

 
At Thursday, January 01, 2009 5:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Allen:

I don't specifically recall Kobe's passes being somewhat off target years ago but I agree with your observation that they are very on target now. When I get a chance to look at old films of Kobe I will try to remember to see if his passing was less on target back in the day.

 
At Thursday, January 01, 2009 6:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I think that Kobe is different in many ways from how he was in 1999 or 2000 but it would be pretty sad if he went eight or nine years without evolving or improving at all. The idea that he only recently learned how to play team ball or be a leader is ridiculous. When people talk about such things I really wish that they would consider such things as work ethic, playing while injured and performing at both ends of the court, areas in which he was always a much better leader than Shaq was. Kobe is a more vocal leader now but that is something that comes with age and seniority. When Kobe tried to be a vocal leader at a young age, a lot of the older players were not really interested in listening to a kid straight out of high school; there was a line in one of Coach Jackson's books to the effect that Kobe wanted to be a leader right from the start but he did not have anyone who was willing to follow him. Some of that is just human nature--older players are hesitant to follow younger players--and some of that was a result of the jealousy that Shaq openly displayed toward Kobe; Shaq basically made a lot of players choose between following him or following Kobe.

 
At Thursday, January 01, 2009 1:49:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

David - That's a valid point about veterans being hesitant to be "led" by someone younger than them. You can't lead someone who doesn't want to be led.

It's only going to be easier for Kobe to direct his teammates in the years to come, as they will be players who admire and respect him, and possibly grew up watching him play!

 
At Friday, January 02, 2009 7:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Allen:

I think that this is already the case now; Vujacic in particular really looks up to Kobe but in general this is a Lakers roster full of players who are not only willing but eager to accept Kobe's leadership.

 
At Saturday, January 03, 2009 1:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

kobe has let his teamates more involved and plays with better players thats the reason they winning not anything else kobe was a great player on chamionship teams i never heard noone say he was selfish then he got that because he was shooting alot post shaq and some of the ways he handled the shaq situation when shaq was there shaq was selfish too but you build around a big not a guard so the ball goes through shaq not kobe he accepted won 3 rings now on a team 26-5 i dont see the problem people just dont like kobe i guess, im not as big a fan as you are but i respect dude.

 
At Sunday, January 04, 2009 4:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Unfortunately, there were some misguided people who called Kobe selfish even during the championship years. He had little choice but to shoot a lot from 2005-07 and, in fact, Coach Jackson often told him to take on a bigger scoring load just to keep the team competitive.

 
At Sunday, January 04, 2009 5:38:00 AM, Anonymous robd said...

Kobe has always been a great passer of the ball. His unselfishness in his early years was mostly overlooked because he was perceived as an arrogant and cocky player, and also because he was such a great scorer. And also because there was the whole Kobe-hate thing going on.

Agree with you David, to say he only recently learned how to play team ball or be a leader is ridiculous.

 
At Sunday, January 04, 2009 10:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

kobe always been unselfish to me.

 
At Monday, January 05, 2009 12:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I agree but my point is that he has not always been portrayed that way.

 

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