Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0A little over a month ago, I wrote about a New York Times article that discussed how the Houston Rockets use basketball statistical analysis to make personnel decisions and game plans. As I indicated in my article, I respect the approach taken by Houston General Manager Daryl Morey because "Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him--and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games--perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court." That is why I was surprised that Morey later asserted that the New York Times article focused on defending Bryant and not LeBron James because--in Morey's opinion--James is the best player in the NBA and there allegedly is not an effective game plan to use against James; the first part of Morey's statement is debatable and the second part is clearly wrong. To take the latter point first, on Friday night Orlando demonstrated once again that if you wall off the paint and force James to shoot midrange jumpers he can be held to a subpar (7-20 in this case) shooting night--and that was not a coincidence or a one time thing: as I have noted repeatedly, elite defensive teams (Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, Celtics in 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals) consistently employ that game plan against James. James has improved his three point shooting and free throw shooting this year but his midrange game is still erratic at best; he is so good at getting to the hoop one tends not to notice this flaw until James meets greater defensive resistance.
As for Morey's contention that James is the best player in the NBA, I said last year that it was close between Bryant and James but that I gave the edge to Bryant. This year, it has again been close--contrary to what you may have heard--but since the All-Star break I thought that James had pulled slightly ahead. However, there is a reason that I don't believe in making definitive statements about close contests before those contests are over. It seemed like James and the Cavs had the league's best record all sewn up but now they have dropped two games in a row, enabling the Lakers to pull to within one game of the Cavs (and the Lakers own the tiebreak thanks to sweeping the season series).
Although I respect Morey's overall approach to statistics as described in the New York Times article, we need to completely put to rest the ideas that Shane Battier is some kind of Kobe Bryant stopper and that "advanced" statistics have given the Rockets an advantage versus Bryant. Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).
On Friday, Bryant scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting (including 4-6 from three point range) and he had a game-high seven assists in a 93-81 win over Houston. This season versus the Rockets, Bryant typically set up his teammates for the first three quarters and then went off in the fourth quarter--he averaged just over 11 ppg in the fourth quarter versus the Rockets, while shooting nearly .700 (that is not a misprint) from the field. In other words, he basically showed that even though Houston is an excellent defensive team that can alternate two great one on one defenders (Shane Battier and Ron Artest) on him, Bryant can score whenever and wherever he wants versus the Rockets. During the ESPN telecast of Friday's game, Mark Jackson repeatedly noted that a large percentage of the Lakers' offense was a direct result of Bryant's presence--not just the plays on which he earned assists, but also plays when he was double-teamed and thus created an open shot for a teammate just by virtue of his presence and the defensive attention that he demands. At one point early in the game, Bryant had only shot 1-3 from the field but the Rockets were still double teaming him because he is so dangerous and that is a major reason why Pau Gasol's field goal percentage has skyrocketed from around .500 to well over .560 since becoming Bryant's teammate. So much is said about various players making their teammates better but not nearly enough credit is given to Bryant for the huge impact he has had on Gasol's game.
The last time the Lakers played the Rockets, Bryant dropped 37 points on Houston, including 31 in the second half (on 11-17 field goal shooting) and 18 in the final 4:13. For some reason, Artest decided in the waning moments of that game to tell Bryant that he could lock him down, whereupon Bryant heartily laughed and retorted, "You're a standup comedian now." I don't know if Artest is really that great of a comedian but the notion that the Rockets have discovered how to stop Bryant is definitely a joke.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 AM