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Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Did Kobe Bryant Really Become a Team Player?

I just read an interesting article about Kobe Bryant; the tag line declares in part, "Kobe Bryant has grown into a consummate team player." The writer adds, "Not only does he score, but he also initiates the Lakers' attack and has developed into a fierce defensive stopper" and he quotes Larry Brown, who calls Bryant "a model" of what an NBA player should be. One of Bryant's teammates says of Bryant, "He doesn't make his game a personal game anymore. You don't see him doing the things on the floor that used to get him in trouble and get us in trouble." That teammate also asserts that Bryant made a greater effort to mingle with his teammates away from the court but Bryant disagrees with that: "If you ask me, I acted the same way my first few years, but for some reason the perception is different this year. If I'm doing something that makes them feel more comfortable around me, then I'm happy about that."

This is all stuff that you have heard before, right? You bet you have heard it before--nine years before to be exact! Those quotes did not come from an article about the Lakers' 2009 championship; they come from a Sports Illustrated article that Phil Taylor wrote in April 2000, a few months before Bryant won the first of his four NBA championships! That is why it is so funny--and yet so sad--that there has been so much written and said recently about Bryant allegedly just learning to "trust his teammates," becoming a better/more willing passer and interacting more closely with his teammates away from the court; all of that stuff about Bryant suddenly changing is nonsense.

Bryant came into the NBA as a raw 18 year old straight out of high school who had a lot to learn about the NBA game--but by his fourth season he had emerged as one of the league's top players, a dynamic scorer who also was a great playmaker and a lockdown defender. Whatever awkwardness may have existed between Bryant and some of his teammates--largely due to him being a high school kid while they were grown men--had mostly vanished by 2000. Unfortunately, many sportswriters are either too ignorant, too lazy or too biased to write the truth, so they regurgitate their favorite themes over and over. Taylor is a solid writer and he described Bryant's transformation nine years ago when it was actually a newsworthy story--but the hacks who are getting paid now by asserting that Bryant just changed are ripping off the publications that are paying them and the general public that wastes time reading their ignorant words.

Bryant has been a great, mature player for nearly a decade. What changed in L.A. the past two seasons is that the Lakers' front office gave him some more help; Bryant does not have as much help as some people like to say, mind you--the 2009 Lakers had a weaker roster than most of the championship teams from the past two decades--but Bryant no longer has to go into battle with starters who barely belong in the league (Smush Parker, Kwame Brown).

As I have mentioned before, assist totals have to be taken with a grain of salt and Bryant has astutely noted, "There is more to making your teammates better than just passing them the ball. You have to teach them a lot of the things that you know, the way that you prepare for the game. There are so many different levels to making guys better." However, whether you judge Bryant's playmaking purely by his assist totals or you take a broader, skill set based view, it is clear that he transformed himself as a playmaker quite some time ago, not just in the past two years as some people insist. Bryant's apg average made its first big jump in 2000: he played roughly the same amount of mpg that he had in the previous season, but he averaged 4.9 apg compared to 3.8 apg in 1999. Bryant ranked third on the Lakers in apg in 1999 but led the team in that category in 2000 and he has led the Lakers in apg every season since then except for 2004 (Gary Payton) and 2006 (Lamar Odom). Ironically, Bryant's apg averages the past two years--when the ignorant pundits claim that he learned to "trust his teammates"--are only the fourth and eighth highest of his 13 year career; Bryant averaged a career-high 6.0 apg in the 2004-05 season, a time when he was being blasted left and right for supposedly running Shaquille O'Neal out of town and not passing the ball to anyone.

It always amazes me that some people actually think that Shaquille O'Neal singlehandedly carried the Lakers to three championships while Bryant was going through some kind of version of NBA puberty on and off the court; the reality is that Bryant's emergence as an elite player in his own right--and the hiring of Phil Jackson as coach--directly correlated with the Lakers' ascension to the top of the league. The subsequent "feud" between O'Neal and Bryant had nothing to do with Bryant being selfish or not knowing how to "trust his teammates"; as I wrote earlier this year, "O’Neal injured his big toe but declared that since he got hurt 'on company time' he was entitled to get surgery and heal 'on company time.' So he enjoyed himself during the summer of 2002, had the surgery late, missed 15 games and took his time getting back into shape. As a result, the Lakers did not have homecourt advantage in the playoffs and eventually fell to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. O'Neal’s conduct escalated his conflict with Bryant, who became the team's leading scorer; O'Neal declared that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint), to which Bryant pointedly retorted that O'Neal needed to get in shape so that he could run down the court, because Bryant had no intention of walking the ball up and waiting for him." By the time O'Neal returned to the lineup and struggled to get back into shape, Bryant had clearly become the number one option on the team, averaging 40.6 ppg on .472 field goal shooting in February 2003. While Bryant proved as early as the 2000 season that he could fill the playmaking role on a championship team, O'Neal immaturely chafed at Bryant's rising status during the 2003 season. O'Neal's poor work ethic and his subsequent petty jealousy of Bryant's record-setting scoring run led to the Lakers' downfall and weighed heavily on owner Jerry Buss' mind when O'Neal publicly screamed at Buss during the 2003 preseason, "Pay me!" As Lamar Odom is learning now, Buss keeps his own counsel about just how much money he is willing to pay players.

All of the recent talk about Bryant learning to "trust his teammates" completely misses the point; in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons, Bryant's teammates were not "trustworthy" and in most cases the Lakers were better off with Bryant shooting the ball instead of passing it: in fact, over the entire course of Bryant's career, the Lakers have a better winning percentage when Bryant scores more than 40 points (.677) than when he scores fewer than 40 points (.656)--and that was especially true in 2006, when the Lakers went 45-37 overall (.549) but 18-9 (.667) when Bryant scored at least 40 points. Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson publicly said at that time that the Lakers needed for Bryant to score a lot of points just for the team to remain competitive, so when Bryant won scoring titles in 2006 and 2007 he was doing exactly what Jackson wanted him to do.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:40 AM

16 comments

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16 Comments:

At Thursday, July 23, 2009 1:15:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Thanks for another great article. Been wondering where you've been the past couple of weeks. Thank god you're back. lol

I was recently in a heated debate with some dude on Fanhouse (hey, when 20secondtimeout isn't around, I've got to read something right?) who believed that Chauncey Billups was the main reason for Denver's rise to elite status. I know you've gone over this topic ad nauseam, but I was wondering if you were going to do a post on the usefulness of Allen Iverson to certain teams. I feel he would cause problems for the Clippers, and am glad Dunleavy has backed off his desire to add him, but I feel he could be a good addition to a few other teams including the Bobcats, Heat and maybe the Kings despite their drafting of Tyreke Evans. Your thoughts?

 
At Thursday, July 23, 2009 5:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

In addition to writing some articles about the Cavs, Ron Artest and Stephon Marbury, I've been regularly posting some of my older articles from other publications/websites and then adding those articles to the right hand sidebar on the main page: the pieces I did about James Silas, Billy Cunningham and other "old school" players blow away anything that you can find at ESPN, Slam or anywhere else and I will continue to regularly add to the impressive archive that I have already built at this site.

There is a reason that I never go to Fanhouse and other such sites.

Billups played well for the Nuggets but it is important to understand two things:

1) The Nuggets did not actually improve all that much (four additional regular season wins in a conference that was not as strong as it had been in 2008).

2) Their improvement had at least as much to do with Chris Andersen's defense, J.R. Smith's improvement and Nene/Kenyon Martin being healthy as it did with Billups.

Several of the Western Conference's top teams suffered key injuries to All-Star players last year (Ginobili, Boozer, Deron Williams, Josh Howard, Amare Stoudemire, etc.). After Billups allegedly "changed the culture" in Denver the Nuggets improved by a whopping four games from the "bad old Iverson days" before beating a shorthanded Hornets team and an overmatched Mavs team in the playoffs. While the Nuggets did take a couple games off of the Lakers in 2009 compared to being swept by the Lakers in 2008, check out Billups' numbers versus the Lakers: 18.2 ppg, .397 FG%, 6.0 apg.

In the 2008 playoffs, Iverson averaged 26.4 ppg and 7.1 apg (both team-highs) while shooting .458 from the field versus the Lakers. If Iverson had played with the same supporting cast that Billups did then maybe Iverson's Nuggets could have won a couple games from the Lakers.

As I said in a comment in another thread, Iverson's value was damaged last year for two reasons: the Pistons did not use him properly--which resulted in Iverson's ppg numbers declining--and Iverson publicly balked at coming off of the bench. I fully understand why Iverson did not want to play behind an unproven (and overrated, at least by the Pistons) Rodney Stuckey but when Iverson flat out says that he'd rather retire then come off of the bench that obviously will make some teams leery about signing him. The depressed economic situation also means that teams are not willing to spend the amount of money that Iverson may want.

 
At Thursday, July 23, 2009 6:05:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

I did read your other pieces. Not saying they weren't good, because they were. But for a while there, you were posting almost everyday. I guess once the season ends, stuff slows a bit. Thanks for ALWAYS responding. I try to tell anyone who will listen to visit this site. Always great commentary.

 
At Friday, July 24, 2009 8:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

kobe became a team player when he started to win in 2000 alot of people dont like kobe bryant the person mike lupica mitch albom bob ryan john saunders bill simmons
charles barkley skip bayless even after the 4th ring had a backsla compliment for him.

barkley said he overcelebrated after the fourth ring showing that it meant something without shaq. i dont really think kobe did after the ring.

simmons said kobe was selfish game 2 and 3 of finals saying wade had a better finals than kobe was so the notion he is the closest to jordan is wrong even though for career it is obvious kobe is closest to jordan wade is not close as kobe obvious and he gave a four game sample like the finals kobe got a 13 year career to compare to jordan.

the sports reporters basically said kobe was still selfish it just worked out for him basicaaly he still looks at his teamates like these are my guys or like he's a king and there his servants they never critcized shaq when he said if he was the big dog he w9uldnt play d or him dissing every former coach he played with they believe kobe is arrogant antisocial and have a above it all personality fairly or unfairly

so basically theyll never give kobe his due and tell the truth about kobe and many of them are not basketball people anyway there not educated on basketball at all. they think jordan never missed a shot made scottie pippen a nba player bird made mchale magic made worthy. shaq was the only reason lakers won 3 rings kobe was a sidekick they think personality is big thing or mean something like if they like a guy personally theyll make him a better player than he is lebron better than kobe because his teamates like him or he pass the bal more he has a better personality than kobe.

so thats why david

 
At Saturday, July 25, 2009 10:55:00 PM, Anonymous Jack B. said...

David,
Are you following Lakers Free Agent News? I can't help but think that the Lakers Front office has gotten the idea that they can with the champion with Artest sans Ariza or Odom. I'm surprised Kobe hasn't come out and say it, I know all hell will break lose if Lakers don't make it to the finals should lakers not sign Odom.
Why are the Lakers Lowballing Odom so much? it cant be the tax since they made about 4 million dollars per playoffs home games(11 home games = 44 million). Odom's problem is not money but years, why can't they just guarantee him that 4 years and be done with it.

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 1:34:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

I wouldn't normally link a highlight video, but this one was so well done I felt that you should see it, it shows all the skills Kobe possesses: athletic ability, passing, dribbling, shooting, footwork, etc. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FpzQiERt8I

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 3:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B:

Buss is not as wealthy as many of the other NBA owners. He has made it clear on many occasions that he does not want to pay the luxury tax and that he--and he alone--will determine what he considers the fair market value of a player to be. That is why it was so absurd for people to say that Kobe ran Shaq out of town. Kobe has said publicly that he wants the Lakers to sign Odom but Buss has not budged. Buss told Odom that he would make him a fair offer and he did; when Odom took too long to accept it and then flirted with the Heat, Buss took the offer off of the table and said that if the Lakers make another offer to Odom then it will be for less. Odom's value to the Lakers is mainly his ability to rebound; his other skill set attributes are largely overrated. If Bynum stays healthy--a big if--he can more than replace Odom's rebounding. If not, the Lakers would have to sign someone who can get 8-9 rpg, preferably someone who can also make a 15 foot jump shot in the Triangle Offense.

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 4:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

There was a lot of talk last year about LeBron's "chasedown" blocked shots--something that Dr. J was doing 30 years ago (and more frequently, as Doc blocked 100 or more shots in 12 of the 15 years of his career during which that stat was officially tracked)--but little mention was made of how many times Kobe blocked shots lefthanded, something that I think he has been doing more frequently since the fingers on his right hand have been dislocated.

Also, Kobe's footwork--on the wing and in the post, offensively and defensively--is perfect.

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 7:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you honestly think that Bynum will "more than replace Odom's rebounding"? Who are you and what have you done to David Friedman??

Odom's length on defense, his ability to finish from the weak side, his ability to outrun most 4s is not overrated. He was willing to come off the bench for the good of the team. He is well liked by his teammates. If you want to talk about overrated see Andrew Bynum and his ultra-efficient game with Odom-surpassing rebounding prowess to go with his ability to shut down the paint while avoiding foul trouble.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that if Odom walks, the Lakers are not allowed to spend all of the money they would have been able to offer Odom because they are over the cap. Buss got Ron Artest for cheap, so the extra money he saved from signing an Artest-level player could be used for Odom. It's not like he's asking for a raise!!

On Kobe:
You don't block shots with your left hand because your right is injured, you do it because it is the correct way to block shots.
The opponent's shot line will most likely be a little to the right of his body, which aligns perfectly with your extended left hand. You are less vulnerable to up-and-unders and drive-bys.

Z

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 10:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I said "If Bynum stays healthy--a big if--he can more than replace Odom's rebounding." Otherwise, the Lakers would need to sign a player to fill that role. The ability to come off of the bench and dive to the hoop from the weakside when Kobe Bryant is being double-teamed is not an irreplaceable skill. I respect Odom's toughness/willingness to play hurt but he is not a great player and certainly not as great as many people make him out to be; for most of his career he has been an underachiever relative to his skill set and that is not something that is likely to change. The Lakers offered him a very fair contract and if Odom is smart he will accept the deal rather than go to the Heat and lose in the first round of the playoffs.

While you are correct that in some instances which hand you block shots with is determined by the angle that you are taking, if you look at Kobe's blocks in that video clip there are several instances when he could have used either hand. How many right handed players--let alone shooting guards--have you seen block that many shots with their left hands? Off the top of my head, Jermaine O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning are the only right handed players I can think of who blocked shots left handed with any degree of regularity (Bill Russell was of course left handed).

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 4:02:00 PM, Anonymous warsaw said...

He's overrated in some aspects (he can only play the four, his help defense is senseless sometimes, he's slow defending the 3 point lane) but he is a also very good passer and rebounder that can score and that has no problems with injuries or being a sub.
He has played efficiently with the bench players too.

Overall he's somehow flawed and inconsistent, but I don't think there is a better player available in the market.

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 4:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

There may not be a better player available right now but the real question for the Lakers is whether they should overpay to keep Odom or replace him with a player who is willing to accept his market value. Odom has something at stake as well; he may prefer the money that Miami is offering but he has a much better chance to win more championships by staying in L.A. If/when the Heat are ready to contend, Odom will be on his way out of the league.

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 8:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Bynum is healthy and if he can stay out of foul trouble and if he gives maximum effort every game. There are too many big ifs for you to dismiss an integral part of the Laker team that reached the finals twice in a row, in favor of someone who has accomplished next to nothing.

Z

 
At Sunday, July 26, 2009 9:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

The Lakers already overpaid Odom last season (based on the terms of his previous contract) and Odom knew going in to the negotiations that he would have to take a pay cut going forward. The Lakers have been fair and upfront with him and offered him a very reasonable contract (nearly $10 million/year for someone who does not even start). If Odom would prefer to finish his career as an anonymous player on a Heat team that loses in the first round of the playoffs that is his choice and I am sure that the Lakers can replace his rebounding with Bynum and/or a serviceable big who can rebound, defend and hit open shots/cut to the hoop when Kobe is double-teamed. Odom is hardly an irreplaceable player.

 
At Monday, July 27, 2009 6:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

odom wants 50 mil to come off the bench crazy he is not going to start but who will the lakers replace him with is the question if he walks. he is underachiever and inconsistent at times but when he on he is very good bynum got to stay healthy for a season before he can replace odom to lose ariza and odom and get just artest makes the lakers worse than last year.

 
At Monday, July 27, 2009 10:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

joe

marcel

barkley not a kobe hater he has consistently called kobe best in league for a while he knew like everybody the ring without shq meant something kobe just cant admit it.

bill simmons is a good writer he is a boston sports fan as he said kobe had the same post season this year as last year he wasdominant in game 1 and 5 and not the rest.

 

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