Comparing the Nash Effect with the Bryant EffectESPN recently ran a graphic depicting how various players achieved career-highs in a particular statistical category while playing alongside Steve Nash in Phoenix. Steve Nash is a great point guard and there is no doubt that his teammates have benefited from his playmaking and from the way that his shooting skills space the floor. I very much dislike the cliche about Making Your Teammates Better; what great players actually do is create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well. Nash certainly creates such openings and opportunities but it is also important to remember that he has hardly been surrounded by a bunch of scrubs during most of his Phoenix career; three of the players listed in ESPN's graphic made the All-Star team before and/or after playing with Nash (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson).
We are often told that Nash and Chris Paul are among the best in the NBA at this nebulous skill of "making teammates better" but while it is undeniable that Nash and Paul are great players it is also true that their impact on their teammates is a bit exaggerated at times while the impact of other great players who are not point guards is diminished. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal anchored 10 of the 14 post-Michael Jordan NBA championship teams while Nash and Paul have combined to produce exactly zero championships yet we rarely hear discussions about how much Bryant, Duncan and O'Neal "make their teammates better."
Obviously, listing a player's name followed by one accomplishment is hardly a very scientific way to prove that Nash, Paul or anyone else "made that player better"; that is why I have done so many lengthy, in depth articles explaining the impact that various great players have on their teams but, just as a fun exercise, I thought it would be interesting to make a list about Bryant that is similar in structure and content to the list that ESPN made about Nash:
- Pau Gasol earned one All-Star appearance in seven seasons with Memphis (and never won a single playoff game or made the All-NBA team), but he made both the All-Star and All-NBA teams in each of his first three seasons playing alongside Bryant. Gasol also set single season career highs in field goal percentage and rebounding.
- Lamar Odom established career highs in field goal percentage (2011) and rebounding (2008) as a Laker and he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011--but this season in Dallas he is averaging career lows across the board and was actually briefly assigned to the D League before the Mavs reconsidered. I always have said that Odom is a good player who has been vastly overrated by some commentators but even I never imagined that after leaving the Lakers he would barely be a functional NBA player. For many years we have heard that Odom would start for most teams in the NBA and that he should have made the All-Star team multiple times but now the reality--the truth that I have consistently stated--is becoming starkly apparent: Odom benefited tremendously from being the third option on the Lakers with Bryant receiving most of the defense's attention and Odom was only the Lakers' third option because the team was not particularly deep in the first place. The Mavericks dumped several players from their championship team in order to save cap space for next summer and Odom still cannot work his way into the team's rotation, let alone the starting lineup. Of course, if Odom were still a Laker he would be one of their main options because the Lakers have lacked depth for years, not just this season when the rest of the world suddenly woke up and figured out that the Lakers have a subpar bench (and subpar starters at both small forward and point guard).
- Shannon Brown barely got off the bench during his first three NBA seasons but he set career highs in field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage as a Laker. This season in Phoenix (where he is now Nash's teammate) Brown's minutes are comparable to his minutes in L.A. but his shooting percentages from all three ranges (FG%, 3FG%, FT%) have all dropped precipitously.
- Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic set his single season career highs in FG% and 3FG% as a Laker but his productivity declined in New Jersey and he is no longer in the NBA (he plays for a team in Turkey).
- Smush Parker started 162 of 164 games during the 2006 and 2007 seasons for the Lakers, establishing career highs across the board as the Lakers made two playoff appearances. Parker signed with Miami in the summer of 2007 and has since appeared in just 28 NBA games, starting two of them; for the past several years he has bounced around the D League and lower level foreign leagues.
- Kwame Brown started 91 games in two and a half seasons with the Lakers. He set his single season career high in FG% in 2007. The Lakers traded Brown in the Pau Gasol deal and since 2008 Brown has been an undistinguished performer for three teams and he has participated in just three playoff games after playing in 12 playoff games during his two full seasons as a Laker.
- Vladimir Radmanovic set his career high in field goal percentage in 2008 as a Laker and he started 115 games during two and a half seasons with the team. He has started just 32 games since the Lakers traded him during the 2008-09 season and most of his key numbers have declined.
Is it more surprising that the Suns had good teams (yet failed to even reach the NBA Finals once) while stocked with talent at multiple positions or that the Lakers made back to back playoff appearances in the stacked Western Conference with Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Vladimir Radmanovic starting a significant number of games? No member of that trio has been an important contributor to a playoff team since departing L.A. Everyone realizes that the Lakers' bench is terrible this season but--based on how former Laker reserves have performed since leaving the team--it seems as though whatever success the Lakers' bench players experienced in prior seasons had less to do with their individual talent and more to do with the talent around them (namely Bryant); Odom, Brown and the others had some of their finest moments when they played alongside Bryant and benefited from the extra defensive attention he attracted.
Other than Caron Butler--a young, improving player who had one injury riddled season with the Lakers (during which he still managed to post career highs at the time in scoring, FG% and rebounding) before becoming an All-Star in Washington--and possibly Jordan Farmar (who struggled in his first post-L.A. campaign but has played very solidly in 30 games as a New Jersey reserve this season) it is difficult to think of anyone who has played significantly better without Bryant than he did with Bryant; interestingly, that is not true of LeBron James, who can list a host of All-Star teammates who performed better without him as a teammate than they did with him--including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Antawn Jamison. Zydrunas Ilgauskas made the All-Star team once in five injury-riddled seasons prior to James' arrival in Cleveland and then made it once in eight seasons playing alongside James in Cleveland and Miami. Ilgauskas was 28 and healthier than he had ever been before when James became a Cav, unlike Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace--we can give James a pass for not helping those aging former All-Stars to produce career-high numbers. Mo Williams earned his only All-Star appearance thus far as James' teammate but that 2009 season was not actually the best season of Williams' career; he was more productive prior to playing with James and he has been very productive this season as a Clipper (must be the "Paul Effect").
For many years--until he started winning championships--the knock against Michael Jordan was that, unlike Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, he did not "make his teammates better," a charge that Jordan angrily dismissed by declaring that you cannot make chicken salad out of chicken (you know what). I don't know if Bryant can make chicken salad out of chicken (you know what) but for two seasons he led his team to the playoffs with scrubs starting at the sport's two historically most important positions (point guard and center) and with a bench manned by guys who have not exactly covered themselves in glory since leaving L.A. so maybe Bryant can indeed turn manure into something that is edible. It will be interesting to see if James and Wade--long the darlings of the "stat guru" set--can manage to win a championship when paired with a perennial All-Star big man (Chris Bosh). James is not being asked to make chicken salad out of chicken (you know what); he is just being asked not to mess up the chicken in the fourth quarter when the outcome of the game is in doubt!
posted by David Friedman @ 4:11 AM