Are the Lakers Really Better Off When Kobe Bryant Shoots Less Frequently?If you watch the ESPN/ABC NBA pregame shows with any regularity then you know that Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry have repeatedly cited statistics that they say prove that the Lakers are better off when Kobe Bryant shoots less frequently. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a brief item headlined The Lakers Fare Better When Bryant Shoots Less; that piece included a chart titled "Don't Shoot, Kobe" that listed Bryant's field goal attempts averages for the past six seasons during wins and losses. Somehow I doubt that "Don't shoot, Kobe," is a mantra that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson utters too often, particularly in the fourth quarters of close games.
It is not entirely clear if Wilbon, Barry and the WSJ mean to suggest that Bryant is being selfish when he shoots more than their arbitrarily determined optimal amount of field goal attempts for a game (20 is the number that Wilbon and Barry apparently prefer) or if they simply believe that his teammates should be more assertive and less deferential. In any case, even though it is obvious that the best teams involve many players on offense, it seems more than a little odd to suggest that the way for a team to be most successful is to limit the shot attempts taken by its best player and maximize the shot attempts taken by lesser players; likewise, it seems highly unlikely that the difference between winning and losing is primarily determined by whether a given player takes 19 shots or 21. After all, some field goal attempts are last second heaves as the shot clock winds down or as the game clock expires at the end of a quarter; also, a player's official field goal attempts may not reflect how many times he actually tried to shoot the ball if he drew a lot of fouls on shots that he missed: field goal attempts are a "noisy" statistic that does not tell the complete story about how much a player dominated the ball in a given game or what kind of impact he had offensively. For instance, the Lakers went 24-1 this season when Lamar Odom attempted between eight and 10 field goals in a game but they were only 12-8 when he attempted between five and seven field goals in a game and they posted a 12-4 record when he attempted between 11 and 13 field goals in a game. Does that mean that the Lakers should make sure that Odom always attempts between eight and 10 field goals, never permitting him to stray outside of that range? Or does it just mean that there are a lot of other factors that determine the result for the Lakers besides how frequently Odom shoots?
Kobe Bryant has led the Lakers in scoring and assists in each of the past three seasons and in six of the past seven seasons (Odom led the Lakers in assists in 2005-06); Bryant averaged between 24.0 and 35.4 ppg and 4.5 and 6.0 apg during those seven seasons. Bryant has the dual responsibility of carrying the lion's share of the scoring load while also creating quality shot opportunities for teammates who could not create good shots for themselves on their own. The number of shots that Bryant attempts in a given game is affected by how often the opponent double teams him, how many fouls Bryant draws and other factors.
Rather than focusing on how many field goals Bryant attempts to try to determine his optimal role for the Lakers, it makes more sense to look at the end result of his field goal attempts (and free throw attempts): Bryant has scored 40 or more points in 96 regular season games, third on the all-time career list behind Wilt Chamberlain (271) and Michael Jordan (173). The Lakers posted a 65-31 record in those games, a .677 winning percentage that is better than their overall winning percentage (.656) during Bryant's career. Bryant had 27 of those 40 point games in 2005-06, when he led the NBA in scoring with a 35.4 ppg average that ranks eighth on the single season scoring list; the Lakers went 45-37 overall that year (.549) but they went 18-9 (.667) in his 40 point games. Bryant "only" had four 40 point games in the 2008-09 season and the Lakers went 2-2 in those contests; obviously, that is a small sample size, but Bryant had 27 games this season in which he scored at least 30 points and the Lakers went 21-6 (.778) in those games, which is virtually identical with their overall winning percentage (.793) this season.
Bryant has scored at least 50 points in a game 23 times; he ranks third on that all-time career list as well, again trailing only Chamberlain (118) and Jordan (31). The Lakers went 16-7 in Bryant's 50 point games, which is an even better winning percentage (.696) than they posted in the games in which he scored 40-49 points. Bryant's only 50 point game this season happened when he set a Madison Square Garden record with 61 points in a 126-117 victory.
One could easily argue that the Lakers are better off when Bryant scores more than 40 points, so it is strange that Wilbon, Barry and the WSJ pay so much attention to Bryant's field goal attempts to the exclusion of considering the results on those attempts. During the playoffs the past couple years, Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy have pointed out on several occasions that Bryant does an excellent job of reading the defense and making the correct decision about whether to shoot, drive or pass. It is foolish to think that there is an ideal number of field goal attempts for Bryant that applies in all situations; if a team primarily single covers Bryant then he should probably attempt 25-30 shots but if a team traps him aggressively then the right play is to give the ball up. During this year's playoffs, Bryant has once again proven that he will make the right decisions and punish defenses no matter how they try to deal with him: the Lakers have gone 6-3 when Bryant had at least five assists but they also have gone 4-2 when Bryant had three or fewer assists.
It is worth noting that the Lakers are 3-0 in this year's playoffs when Bryant scored at least 40 points but just 1-2 in the three games when he scored fewer than 20 points--but those numbers do not fit the storyline that Wilbon and Barry apparently are determined to tell, so you can rest assured that you will never hear them talk about how well the Lakers do when Bryant tops the 40 point barrier.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:37 AM