Kobe Bryant's Impact on the Lakers Goes Far Beyond What Statistics Can MeasureQuantifying something is very valuable, if it is truly possible to accurately do so--but there is no value in quantifying something if adequate measuring tools do not exist. I frequently use basketball statistics as a tool to illustrate a point about the performance of a player or a team but I make sure to indicate the limitations of what basketball statistics can quantify; for instance, while I do sometimes mention assist totals and averages I have also documented that assists are very subjective. I would never evaluate a player's playmaking ability based solely on his assist totals but if I watch a game in which a player has several legitimate assists then I will certainly mention this in a subsequent game recap.
It is much easier to accurately quantify individual player effectiveness in baseball than it is in basketball because baseball consists of a series of discrete actions that can be measured separately while basketball involves multiple players acting simultaneously and having various effects on other players. "Advanced basketball statistics" can provide some useful information about the relative effectiveness of various five man combinations but basketball "stat gurus" struggle to accurately determine the value of individual players; scientific measurements are supposed to involve a margin of error but have you ever heard a basketball "stat guru" mention a margin of error after supplying a "player rating" that is supposedly accurate to one or even two decimal points?
A "stat guru" can tell you that Kobe Bryant is more valuable than Shannon Brown but no one needs to do a scientific study to figure that out--and it seems like many "stat gurus" struggle with the concept that Kobe Bryant is more valuable than Pau Gasol, which is really funny considering how Gasol somehow morphed from a one-time All-Star into--by some accounts--the most versatile big man in the NBA simply by joining forces with Bryant a little more than two seasons ago. If you actually look at Gasol's numbers then you will note that, statistically speaking, he is essentially the same player that he was in Memphis except for two changes: his field goal percentage and offensive rebounding have improved. The reason for those improvements is obvious if you watch Lakers' games with understanding: Gasol's path to the hoop for easy baskets and offensive rebounds is made easier because opposing defenses have to focus on trying to contain Bryant.
As a result of playing alongside Bryant and being coached by Phil Jackson, Gasol has worked to add some physical strength and mental toughness in order to better hold his position on the post defensively, though it is hard to quantify Gasol's improvement in that regard (his shot blocking has not increased as a Laker, though he did average a career-high in defensive rebounds in 2009-10 after performing around his career norm in that department during his first season and a half as a Laker).
I can chart plays and write descriptive game recaps that deeply analyze how basketball players and teams really function but no matter how proficiently I do those things I will never convince a diehard "stat guru" that in order to accurately make an individual player rating one must somehow give credit to a player who draws a double team and thus blesses his teammate with a wide open shot or an opportunity to get an uncontested putback. I am not sure if this is because "stat gurus" are morons or because they have a strong economic incentive to insist that they alone know how to properly evaluate basketball players (though one could argue that both things may be correct in the sense that it is moronic to place a higher value on making money than searching for truth).
Kwame Brown is 28 years old and, in theory, should be in the prime of his basketball career, but the only time that he was a regular starter for a playoff team was in 2005-06 and 2006-07 with the L.A. Lakers. He had the best field goal percentage of his career in 2007 and the best offensive rebounding average of his career in 2006 (he also had his third best field goal percentage in 2006 and his third best offensive rebounding average in 2007).
I cannot "prove" that Bryant is a major reason why Brown and Gasol performed so much better in terms of field goal percentage and offensive rebounding but by watching many games involving those players one can certainly see recurring patterns of defenders swarming Bryant while Gasol and Brown head to the hoop (with Gasol obviously being a much more talented finisher and overall player than Brown). I do not pretend to know how to specifically quantify how much value Bryant adds to the statistics of post players who get to team up with him but I think that it should be obvious that a formula that pretends that all field goals and rebounds were obtained equally easily is flawed; there is a difference between Hakeem Olajuwon catching the ball on the block, being trapped because he is the focal point of his team's offense but still managing to score and Pau Gasol setting a screen for Kobe Bryant, rolling to the hoop and catching a pass for an uncontested dunk. Individual player ratings do not capture such nuances and do not factor in skill set considerations--i.e., a screen/roll set involving Gasol and another player would not be as effective if that other player does not possess Bryant's quickness, ballhandling skills, passing ability and shooting range: those things make Bryant almost impossible to guard in screen/roll sets, while most other players have a weakness that can be exploited in at least one of those areas (for instance, they can be forced to the left or dared to make a jump shot).
It would be great if someone could actually come up with a way to derive a number than accurately takes all of these factors into account but don't expect that to happen any time soon; after all, at this point the NBA is struggling just to properly keep track of the basic box score statistics that are the raw numbers that go into the formulas invented by "stat gurus." How can a "player rating" be definitive when it includes assist, turnover, steal and blocked shot numbers that are highly subjective? Even rebounds can be fishy at times when there are taps/tips. Rick Barry has long insisted that the only pure statistic is free throw percentage, because every other number can either be manipulated or is deceptive in some way (field goal percentage is presumably accurate yet it is deceptive because by itself it tells you nothing about a player's skill set in terms of shooting range and/or creating his own shot).
Then, there are other aspects of player value that are completely unquantifiable and yet very important. Bryant's leadership of the Lakers and of the 2008 Olympic team is unquestioned by any intelligent person who watched those squads compete but how does one "rate" leadership? I know that any self-respecting "stat guru" will respond that anything that cannot be quantified is meaningless and that leadership is a subjective factor that either does not exist or else is captured in some way by the boxscore numbers--but that is another example of thinking that is moronic and/or influenced by economic motives, because if a "stat guru" concedes that leadership is important while also admitting that he cannot measure it then his days of selling books are over.
LeBron James had every right to decide to sign with the Miami Heat but he deserves a lot of criticism for three things: (1) quitting during the Boston series, (2) refusing to try to recruit players to come to Cleveland and (3) turning his free agency situation into a narcissistic spectacle. The second point, in particular, makes for an interesting contrast with Bryant; for the past several years, James paid lip service to how important it was to him to win a championship as a Cavalier yet he consistently refused to help the Cavs recruit free agents to come to the team. Bryant has won two Finals MVPs while leading the Lakers to back to back championships but he is hardly resting on his laurels: this summer he has very actively helped the Lakers woo potential free agents, including players with whom he has had prior on court confrontations (Raja Bell, Matt Barnes). Bryant actually respects anyone who dares to stand up to him (including Ron Artest, who joined the Lakers last summer and played an important role in their most recent title run), which is very reminiscent of Michael Jordan's attitude: in his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith noted that Jordan would ride his teammates very hard in practice because he wanted to weed out anyone who was weak minded; Jordan figured that if you could not stand up to him on the practice court then you would disappear during crucial moments in a game. Similarly, Bryant seems to feel that players who confront him in games have the right attitude to be championship-level performers for the Lakers.
Artest played great defense throughout the playoffs and he had a great all-around performance in game seven of the NBA Finals but why was he even a Laker in the first place? Why did Artest display more focus during this season than at any prior time during his career? Artest has made it clear in several interviews that he took less money than he could have potentially made specifically because he wanted to be Bryant's teammate and Artest has also said that he is willing to follow Bryant's lead because he respects Bryant but that at previous times in his career he was not willing to follow his team's presumed leaders because he did not truly respect them.
There is no way to quantify leadership, heart, work ethic, determination--but that does not mean those things don't exist.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM