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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seven Games of Life Without Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant will apparently return to action on Friday as the L.A. Lakers face the San Antonio Spurs in a game that has significant seeding implications for both teams: the Spurs are trying to hold on to the top spot in the West, while the Lakers are clinging to a half game lead over the L.A. Clippers for the Pacific Division title/third seed. The Lakers went 5-2 during Bryant's seven game absence, while the Clippers gained ground by going 6-1 in that stretch. The winner of the Pacific Division title will not only likely avoid a tough first round pairing with the Memphis Grizzlies but would also likely avoid having to face the West's top seed in the second round (assuming that the first round goes according to form).

The Lakers' first game sans Bryant was an unmitigated disaster: their worst loss of the season, a blowout defeat at the hands of a Phoenix team that may not even make the playoffs. The Lakers then narrowly beat the worst team in the West (New Orleans), shockingly beat a rested Spurs team in San Antonio and posted two close wins against fringe playoff teams (Denver, Dallas) at home before getting blown out in a rematch versus the Spurs. Then the Lakers padded their individual and collective stats with an easy win over a Golden State team that is trotting out a rookie/D-League lineup that plays hard but will ensure that the Warriors lose enough games to retain possession of the Lottery-protected draft pick that they acquired in a trade. Other than the two games versus the Spurs, the Lakers faced a very favorable schedule during Bryant's absence and they did slightly better than I would have expected; I think that a Bryant-less Lakers team would, over the course of an entire season, be a Lottery team in the West--a team that would have a slightly above .500 record that would not quite be good enough to qualify for the playoffs--but in a short Bryant-less burst I would have expected them to beat Phoenix, New Orleans and Golden State, to split the Dallas and Denver games and to lose both times to San Antonio: a 4-3 mark against that opposition sounds about right, but the Lakers slightly exceeded that by going 5-2. The win against San Antonio was as impressive as it was unexpected but the Lakers also had their two worst losses of the season (based on point differential), so the difference between what I expected and what actually happened ultimately turned out to be the overtime win against Dallas.

The big surprise during the seven game stretch was Metta World Peace's revival at both ends of the court; after being out of shape for most of the season, after shooting very poorly and not defending quite as well he had in the past, Peace gave the Lakers a boost with timely shots and tenacious defense. Apparently, a back injury had limited Peace's mobility and his ability to train but now that this injury has healed Peace has worked hard to get in shape and raise his level of play. Peace has always been an erratic shooter, so it is not likely that he will continue to shoot .506 from the field overall or .387 from three point range, but if he keeps playing with high energy then this will obviously greatly help the Lakers. Matt Barnes also made valuable contributions during Bryant's absence, a surprising development after Barnes sleepwalked through most of the season. Recently acquired point guard Ramon Sessions is still getting used to playing for his new team and his performances have been up and down regardless of Bryant's presence but Sessions made significant contributions in the wins over New Orleans and Dallas, victories that may ultimately preserve the Lakers' third seed status.

Of course, while Bryant was out most of the media attention focused on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol; according to the "stat gurus" and to many media members, Bryant supposedly hurts the Lakers collectively and those two players individually because he shoots too much instead of feeding the ball to them: this presupposes that the high field goal percentages posted by Bynum and Gasol are independent of any contributions that Bryant makes (not just by passing the ball but also by drawing double teams) and also presupposes that, with or without Bryant, those big men could maintain their shooting percentages even if their field goal attempts dramatically increased. This seven game stretch provided an interesting test of those contentions: Bynum and Gasol, as expected, shot more frequently and scored more points than they did when Bryant was in the lineup but both players experienced significant declines in their field goal percentages:

Andrew Bynum's performance in 51 games with Bryant this season: 18.3 ppg, 12.5 FGA/g, .583 FG%

Andrew Bynum's performance in seven games without Bryant this season: 23.1 ppg, 19.6 FGA, .467 FG%

Pau Gasol's performance in 56 games with Bryant this season: 17.0 ppg, 13.6 FGA/g, .510 FG%

Pau Gasol's performance in seven games without Bryant this season: 21.1 ppg, 18.3 FGA/g, .469 FG%

Bynum has shot .500 or better in 43 out of 58 games this season--but four of his 15 sub-.500 performances came in the seven games that Bryant missed; Gasol has shot .500 or better in 35 of 63 games this season--but five of his 28 sub-.500 performances came in the seven games that Bryant missed. It is indisputable that both Bynum and Gasol shot much worse without Bryant than they did with Bryant. A seven game sample size--while not definitive by any means--represents a little more than 10% of this compacted season's schedule. I believe that this field goal percentage decline was predictable--indeed, I have been predicting it for years in terms of what would happen when Bryant retires or if he missed extended playing time due to injury--and is largely attributable to the defensive attention that Bryant draws: Bryant is regularly double-teamed, which means that Bynum and Gasol usually have the luxury of only facing one defender and they often are merely facing a defender who is rotating to them as the defense tries to recover after a trapped Bryant passes the ball. Bynum is not an explosive athlete and when he faces defensive resistance he often either turns the ball over or misses his shots, even from point blank range; Gasol is a very skillful player but he is not very aggressive in the post, so he can be pushed off of his spot and/or relegated to shooting faceup jumpers.

It must be noted that Bynum's field goal percentage without Bryant is much worse than the above numbers suggest if we take out his 12-14 performance last night versus Golden State's "twin towers" Mikki Moore and Mickell Gladness; Bynum should certainly dominate those guys with or without Bryant being on the court but Bynum's .423 field goal shooting in the other six games without Bryant is a stunning number, even worse than what I would have predicted: Bynum shot no better on point blank shots sans Bryant than Bryant has shot over the course of the season on contested attempts as a 33 year old, banged up, 16 year veteran perimeter player! The media killed Bryant for supposedly shooting too much when Bryant's field goal percentage dipped below his career norm of circa .450 but after Bynum shot .375 in the Lakers' narrow escape against Dallas one addled writer for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader declared that Bynum had proven himself to be the best center in the league! Field goal percentage is not the sole way that players should be evaluated but it makes no sense to blast a perimeter player for shooting less than .450 but laud a big man for shooting less than .400 on point blank shots.

There are two issues here:

1) A skill set evaluation of the Lakers' overall roster strongly suggests that this team is just not as good as Oklahoma City and San Antonio and that, over the course of a long season, would struggle to earn a playoff berth in the West sans Bryant; the Lakers squeaked to a 5-2 mark against a weak schedule without Bryant but, much like the Philadelphia 76ers feasted on a weak schedule early in the season and are now leaking oil, the Lakers would fall off if they had to endure an extended period without Bryant: the Lakers' big guys cannot consistently create high percentage shots for themselves and World Peace would not shoot .500 or better over the course of dozens of games.

2) Instead of objectively evaluating players and teams, "stat gurus" make bold declarations that are not supported by observed facts and they refuse to amend their declarations even as contradictory evidence emerges; also, media members--some of whom are "stat guru" sycophants, while others reach idiotic conclusions of their own free will--apply nonsensical and often contradictory standards when they evaluate players. Bryant's field goal percentage and shot selection are regularly criticized without any semblance of understanding of the context in which Bryant takes those shots, while other players are evaluated by much more lenient standards: Derrick Rose won the 2011 MVP over LeBron James largely because Rose supposedly carried a weak supporting cast to the best record in the East and Rose's frequent subpar, high volume shooting performances were excused because he allegedly had no help--but this year the Bulls still have the best record in the East even though Rose has missed nearly half of the season and the young, athletic Rose shot worse than Bryant in 2011 and has only shot slightly better than Bryant this season. Why is Bryant evaluated mainly by FG% and FGAs while a different, more lenient standard is applied to Rose? I think that both Bryant and Rose are great players--as I made clear in my 2011 NBA awards article--but I evaluate Bryant and Rose (and all NBA players) based on their skill sets, not based on media-driven story lines ("Rose carries talentless Bulls team") or the bleatings of "stat gurus" ("Bynum and Gasol are great, efficient big men, while Bryant is an inefficient gunner"). "Stat gurus" and media members regularly issue incorrect evaluations of players and teams because they are more concerned with preconceived story lines than they are with objectively and intelligently analyzing what actually happens during games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 PM

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