Kobe Bryant's Shot Selection Endlessly Fascinates Self-Proclaimed ExpertsOn January 1, Kobe Bryant had his worst shooting game (.214 field goal percentage) in nearly two years. Considering all of the obvious extenuating factors--Bryant is a 33 year old, 16 year veteran playing in his third game in four nights while trying to figure out how to deal with a torn ligament in his right (shooting) wrist--the natural response to Bryant's performance would be to note that it is an aberration and to assume that, unless the wrist injury worsens, Bryant will continue to perform at a high level (he has made the All-NBA First Team and finished in the top five in MVP voting in each of the past six seasons, the longest such active dual streak). Instead, we witnessed a media response that brought to mind what I wrote in an article titled Kobe Bryant's Missed Shots and the Torrent of "Psycho-Basketball Analysis" That They Unleashed:
"Kobe Bryant's shot selection is subject to a play by play microscopic evaluation that I have never seen applied to any other player of his status; literally every time he shoots--or doesn't shoot--someone questions his judgment and motivations, alternately suggesting that he is either forcing the issue or else playing too passively in order to allegedly make some kind of point. All great scorers are expected to shoot the ball 20-plus times a game and shots that would rightly be termed 'forced' if someone else took them are not forces if they are shots that the great player has a reasonable chance of making or if the shot clock is winding down and there are no other good options left."
In his first game after the much discussed January 1 debacle, Bryant scored 37 points on 14-29 field goal shooting (.483) while also contributing eight rebounds and six assists as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets 108-99--yes, the same Houston Rockets who purportedly use "advanced basketball statistics" to create a competitive advantage defensively against Bryant, a laughable claim that has been debunked on many occasions, most spectacularly in the 2009 regular season when the Lakers swept the Rockets 4-0 as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .533 from the field.
It generally is considered a logical basketball strategy for the best player on the team to take the most shots but many media members apparently struggle either to grasp this concept or to figure out who in fact is the best player on the Lakers. Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry have some kind of mental fetish that compels them to repeatedly insist that the Lakers are better off when Bryant shoots less frequently, a contention that I refuted thusly:
"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."
I wrote that passage in 2009; the updated numbers--as of January 4, 2012--show that the Lakers are 73-34 (.682) in the regular season when Bryant scores at least 40 points, which is equivalent to 56 wins in an 82 game season.
Instead of listening to Wilbon provide unsolicited advice to a player who has won five championships, educated basketball fans are still waiting for him to ask LeBron James about James' phantom elbow injury during the 2010 playoffs (that topic never came up during ESPN's one hour "Decision" debacle, an oversight that Scott Raab rightly pilloried). It is also worth remembering that, as I emphasized in a December 2009 article, "Bryant does not miss games due to non-serious--or even some serious--injuries" but in the 2007-08 season "LeBron James missed five games because of a left index finger sprain (I am not questioning James' toughness at all, but merely pointing out that Bryant's toughness/pain threshold/will to win are off the charts even in comparison to other tough minded, elite athletes)." Bryant has mentioned that he plays through injuries even though this may hurt his personal statistics because he believes that he can always help his team win games; only James knows if he sat out because of his pain threshold or because he thought that he could not help the team or because he thought that playing with that finger sprain would have impacted his personal statistics. The difference between the way that Bryant handles injuries and the way that James handles injuries provides yet another perspective on the "great debate" regarding who is the better all-around player; while there is no question that James' youth and athleticism have enabled him to surpass Bryant in terms of regular season productivity since late in the 2009 season, Bryant's determination to fight through injuries and his ability to dissect elite defenses in the postseason have enabled Bryant to make three straight Finals appearances and win two championships since James entered the league (in addition to the three championships Bryant won in four Finals appearances between 2000 and 2004), while James has won just two out of 10 games in his two trips to the NBA Finals.
It should be obvious that Bryant's statistics have been negatively impacted because he played with--at various times and in various combinations--a broken index finger on his shooting hand, an avulsion fracture in his right pinkie finger, a gimpy right knee and a chronically injured left ankle. However, Bryant's overall productivity and his championship pedigree should give him a little leeway to have one awful shooting night every two years while playing his third game in four nights with an injury that would likely send most players in the league to the bench for weeks.
Bryant simply will not receive such leeway from the media; instead, we will hear that the smart thing for the Lakers to do is build their entire offense around an injury-prone big man (Andrew Bynum) who still is not in good enough shape to run up and down the court without losing his breath and who--in the victory against Houston--authored the first 20-20 game of his professional career (Dwight Howard, who entered the NBA one year before Bynum, has posted 33 such games, while DeJuan Blair and Chris Wilcox each have posted two such games). Before the Lakers phase out Bryant and restructure their entire offense around Bynum wouldn't it make some sense to see (1) if Bynum can actually get into (and stay in) shape, (2) if Bynum can avoid getting hurt (in the past four seasons he has played in just 204 out of a possible 328 games) and (3) if Bynum can consistently perform like an All-Star caliber player? Bynum has shown flashes of scoring and rebounding prowess but those flashes have always been followed by him either getting injured or simply not maintaining a high level of performance. The interesting thing about the Houston game is that at times Bynum's body language indicated that he wanted to receive the ball more often than he did yet he did not run hard down the court nor did he consistently fight to establish deep post position (last season, ESPN/ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly blasted Bynum and Pau Gasol for "trotting" instead of "running"); Bynum often wandered around the top of the key in the half court offense and one time when he got an offensive rebound instead of going up strong he passed the ball out to Troy Murphy, who was so surprised at Bynum's passivity that the ball actually bounced off of Murphy's face before Murphy caught it. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol seems intent (or content) to reinvent himself as a midrange jump shooter--he has been allergic to the paint on offense dating back to last season, something that became glaringly apparent during his disastrous 2011 playoff disappearing act. The funny thing is that the one Laker who most consistently and aggressively fights to establish low post position is the team's 33 year old shooting guard, the guy who so many "experts" think should be shooting less and deferring more.
Lakers' Coach Mike Brown has responded very sensibly to the media-created controversy regarding Bryant's shot attempts (which of course means that the media will soon be revisiting the tired nonsense about Brown not being a good coach): "He's got five championship rings. Bynum and Gasol have maybe one or two. So I'm going to go with the man who has five...He's been there and done that so I'm going to give him some freedom. Am I concerned about it at this point? No. Two months from now, if he's shooting 34% from the field, OK, I'm going to have a lot of concerns."
posted by David Friedman @ 7:52 AM