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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Assessing Kobe Bryant as a Lion in Winter

Kobe Bryant's 31 point, 12 assist, 11 rebound stat line in the L.A. Lakers' 129-122 overtime victory over the East-leading Toronto Raptors on Sunday night would be special for any player at any time--but those numbers have added meaning for Bryant; he not only notched his 20th career triple double but he became the oldest player in NBA history to drop 30-10-10 in a game and he became the first player in pro basketball history to accumulate at least 30,000 career points and at least 6000 career assists. Earlier this season, Bryant became just the fifth different player in the past 30 years who posted at least 39 points and at least nine rebounds in a game at the age of 36 or older (Michael Jordan accomplished this three times, Karl Malone did it twice and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal did it once each).

Bryant is on pace to become the oldest scoring champion in pro basketball history--and he is doing this while some of the most prolific scorers in the league are in their prime years, including LeBron James (27.5 ppg career scoring average, third in pro basketball history) and Carmelo Anthony (25.2 ppg career scoring average, 11th in pro basketball history). Bryant is also tenth in minutes per game (35.9 mpg) this season and he is averaging more steals per game than top notch defenders LeBron James and Luol Deng.

Bryant is attempting a career-high nine free throws a game and on a per minute basis his rebounds, assists and turnovers are all right around his career norms. He is still a very skilled player and he is remarkably effective considering his age, his mileage and his recent injury history. Despite all the positive things that Bryant is doing, the statistics that are attracting the most media attention are his career-low shooting percentages from the field (.392) and the free throw line (.783), plus his 23.1 field goal attempts per game. Bryant is being criticized for shooting so frequently and so poorly. Those are valid concerns but it is important to remember that he is less than 20 games into what--presumably and hopefully--will be his first full season since the 2012-13 campaign after suffering a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture. Bryant is a 36 year old, 19 veteran who has essentially been out of action for nearly two years after overcoming potentially career-ending injuries but instead of being praised for his work ethic and his all-around skill set, much of the commentary around Bryant focuses on the size of his contract and how he is supposedly destroying the franchise that he helped lead to five championships since 2000. There are plenty of franchises that would like to be "destroyed" the way that Bryant has "destroyed" the Lakers--and the Lakers did not exactly tear up the league during Bryant's absence last season.

Like most older player who have dealt with injuries, Bryant will struggle to match the field goal percentage that he posted during his prime years--but the same media members who are killing Bryant just a few games into his comeback put James Harden on the All-NBA First Team last season despite Harden's .405 field goal percentage and abysmal defense. If Harden is supposedly a top five player in the league while shooting poorly and playing defense like a turnstile then how can it be true that Bryant--aging, coming off of two major injuries and surrounded by a conspicuous lack of talent--is as bad as his very vocal critics suggest?

We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant that carried Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to consecutive postseason  appearances and nearly beat the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the 2006 playoffs. We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant who led the Lakers to back to back championships after the first time that he supposedly destroyed the Lakers by allegedly chasing away Shaquille O'Neal. Those Kobe Bryants had younger, healthier legs and could carry a team not just for a game but for a month, a playoff series, an entire season. However, this Kobe Bryant is capping off a great career by showing that even an older player whose wheels have been damaged can still use guile, skills and toughness to compete with the best players in the world's best basketball league. He is not shortchanging the Lakers, himself or the fans and he should be praised for the approach that he is taking and the determination that he is demonstrating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 AM


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At Tuesday, December 02, 2014 3:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what people are expecting of a player in his nineteenth year in the league who is also coming off of an injury that could have easily ended his career. As currently constructed, there is no combination of players/shot attempts on the Lakers roster that would make them a playoff team so it completely ridiculous to think that Bryant is somehow "destroying" the team. As bad as they are now, they would be even worse without him but that point is completely lost on a lot of people.

Also, you would think that his accumulation of over 6,000 assists would put to bed this idiotic notion that he never passes. As you have said, if Kobe played point guard he could easily lead the league in assists.

At Wednesday, December 03, 2014 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

He's definitely playing well for his age, but the arguments about his contract are valid at a strictly mathematical level; he's simply not worth that percentage of the cap on the court. In his defense, arguably nobody is (maybe Lebron or Durant), but still; the cap rules are what the cap rules are, and Kobe taking- deliberately and intentionally- a salary that just barely topped the then-highest known salary for the next two years (Amare's, I believe) is counter-productive; for all his talk about "only caring about winning" at this point in his career, when the chips were down- like many other great players before him, it's worth noting- Kobe went with the money.

That all said, posting a triple double- let alone one with so many points- at his age is a fantastic accomplishment. It's a shame Kobe's playing out his twilight years on such a mediocre ball club, but while he receives much more than his share of the blame for their lack of supporting talent, there's no arguing that his production reflects his contract.

FWIW, I'm not arguing that had Kobe taken less money that the Lakers could have attracted a marquee free agent… but they likely could have surrounded him with better players than he's got; guys like Kyle Lowry, Luol Deng, Eric Bledsoe, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, and Lance Stephenson (and likely some other 2nd and 3rd tier FAs I'm forgetting) were all available last season- especially Stephenson, Ariza, and Bledsoe-, and it's reasonable to believe that a Lakers team with sufficient room could have attracted some or all of them. Assuming Kobe's production is sustainable, playing him alongside Gortat, Bledsoe/Lowry, and Deng/Ariza/Stephenson would at least put them in the hunt for the playoffs, even in the West.

TL;DR: Kobe's obviously great, but any time he talks about how "all I care about is winning," it should be taken with a grain of salt.

At Wednesday, December 03, 2014 2:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's sad how the media/most fans treat Kobe still. This shooting is down, but I think it'll pick up, and has in the past 3 games. Lakers 4-0 against East, might be playoff team in east. He's obviously going to be more tired at age 36 playing 36mpg. His defense has actually overall been very good still as well. And playing 36 min. as a wing isn't the same as 36 min. for a big. Guards do a lot more overall and just amount of running than bigs do.

Kobe's contract isn't that extreme. It's not even the highest contract in the league, and not much more than the next few guys below him. I doubt many people thought it was a bad idea to pay Jordan over 30mil/year for a few years, and team salaries were much lower back then. The lakers actually had enough cap room for a max contract and another near max contract. Kobe's contract didn't hinder them from getting anyone. If Kobe wasn't there, you think Bosh or Melo would go there then

Kobe actually got ripped off. He didn't bargain anything. The lakers handed him a contract, and he signed it. This notion of players taking less is some new age garbage. What player is going to turn down 24mil/year and say, 'give me 12 mil/year instead?' Kudos to Duncan/Dirk for taking less, but this doesn't mean Kobe should've. And Kobe's asked to do a lot more than either one of them, actually does a lot more, and is worth a lot more than either one of them, so it's not the same either.

You could the all i care about winning phrase about anyone. Does anyone play for free, if you're going to go that route? Kobe obviously works his butt off, and is the game's biggest competitor. He doesn't take the easy way out like so many others, including James. I like to see his recent comments. It has to be frustrating being 5-13, but he feels his team and management put in the effort. He's at least somewhat satisfied about that. That wasn't the case back in from 05-07, which was why he requested a trade then, and it took 3 years of that stuff to do it.

At Friday, December 05, 2014 9:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Bryant is vastly underrated as a passer.

It is sad that so many people are taking potshots at him now instead of just savoring the final moments of his career.

At Friday, December 05, 2014 9:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One could argue existentially that all NBA players are overpaid. However, in the context of how the NBA salary cap works, Bryant is not overpaid in the sense that what he has done to raise the Lakers' franchise value in the past two decades is more than worth the contract that he signed. It is important to remember that the Lakers offered him this deal; he did not hold out for it or put pressure on them. The Lakers reward their great players as part of their legacy of being a top notch organization for the past several decades. That sets a precedent for other great players to know that if they make their mark on the franchise then the franchise will take care of them.

Everything that Bryant has done on and off the court to prepare himself to be great demonstrates that winning is the most important thing to him as a basketball player. He has played hurt on many occasions and he has returned more quickly from various injuries than anyone could expect. There is no reason to do those things with a guaranteed contract unless winning is important and unless you are trying to give your employer maximum value for the contract.

At Friday, December 05, 2014 9:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your points are right on target.

People who want to complain about bad NBA contracts should single out Gilbert Arenas and any number of other players who are vastly overpaid and who have never accomplished anything of lasting significance.

At Friday, December 05, 2014 4:57:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


I agree that it's fine from a "thank you" or "ticket sales' standpoint, but regardless of whose idea it was it's bad for cap-related reasons; Kobe's value on-court doesn't resonate with his salary. That was my only point; economically it's fine (though of course the Lakers will make money no matter what they do), and I suppose it's a nice gesture as a "thank you" contract... but there's a reason Bryant's peers- Duncan, Nowitzki, Pierce- are playing on teams that are contending and he isn't. Those players are taking contracts that are commensurate with - or below- their on-court production.

If all his claims about "All I want is another ring" were true, he could easily have negotiated a Duncan/Nowitzki style offer were he so inclined, regardless of what was offered. Dirk's perhaps the best example here, as he's meant about as much to the Mavs as Kobe has to the Lakers, and Cuban flat out said before his free agency he'd pay Dirk whatever he wanted. Dirk chose to take a massively below market contract in order to continue competing, even though- unless we assume Mark Cuban was lying to his player and the media, which would be a pretty dumb thing to do- a max deal was on the table.

It's great that Kobe's making that sort of money at his age; it just runs counter to a lot of the comments he's made over the last few years about what he considers important. That was my main point.

At Saturday, December 06, 2014 10:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Pierce is a shadow of the player he used to be, so he does not really fit into this discussion. I think that Duncan is still a franchise player, though some would argue that Parker is the team's most valuable player now--and neither of them won the Finals MVP last year. Nowitzki is still very good but his role has been reduced as well.

The last that we saw Bryant before the injuries, he was playing at an MVP level. His floor game is still the same as it used to be and the only thing that has dropped off--albeit dramatically thus far--is his shooting percentage. Perhaps the Lakers are banking on Bryant still being an All-NBA caliber player in his last two seasons and they are compensating him accordingly. Perhaps they are also letting other players know how well they will treat great players who are Lakers for life.

In any case, it is far from obvious that Bryant's contract is the reason that the Lakers are bad or that they would be demonstrably better off if they had offered him less money. As I understand it, the Lakers still had enough cap room to offer a max contract to Melo, Bosh or someone else. So, the Lakers are bad not because of their cap management (at least regarding Bryant) but for a host of other reasons.

It is not fair or justifiable to say that Bryant accepting the Lakers' contract offer contradicts his long-stated focus on winning championships.

At Sunday, December 07, 2014 11:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like Nick is reading too much into the media's narrative of Kobe, especially clueless Abbott. The Lakers had plenty of funds/opportunities to put attractive role players around Kobe and failed to do so. They tried, and had Nash, Howard, and Pau. Nash hit the wall quickly. Howard has his own problems and LA isn't for him. Pau wants to play for a contender, can't blame him. But, in the process, the Lakers lost a lot of pieces and draft picks. Kobe made much more from 12-14 than now. Lakers still have plenty of room to add several great players. Hayward/Parsons making 15-16 mil/year for the next few years each are much worse contracts than Kobe's, yet almost everyone feels like their respective teams made good decisions.

Pierce, Dirk, Duncan are in much different situations than Kobe. Yes, Pierce is a shell plus went title ring hunting. Mavs continue to surround Dirk who a good cast. He's only been an AS 1x out of last 3 years, much less is asked of him, plus he can't rebound anymore. Duncan's been steady decline for 5-6 years now and is only a borderline AS at best. He could've gotten a lot more money, and his core cast would still be around.

Kobe was playing at an MVP level in 2013 at age 34, playing at an elite level much longer than Dirk/Duncan. And even with major injuries in recent years, at age 36, he is still playing extremely well. Other than his shooting pct., his entire game is still there. It's a 2-year contract, low commitment contract. Why are people making such a huge deal about this? Seems like jealousy and other reason to denigrate Kobe. Lakers wouldn't be any better if Kobe was making 8-10mil.

At Monday, December 08, 2014 5:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have only watched a few of the Lakers game this season, but from what I have seen I still can't quite understand why his shooting percentage has gone down so much (I expected it to be around 42-43%, not 39%). Sure, he has taken some ill-advised shots, and sure, he does not get to the rim as often as he used to, and these factors contribute (the latter more than the former as the former has always been true). But there have been so many times in which he actually manages to create a great shot that he used to convert with ease in the past and then inexplicably misses. That would suggest some balance issue probably having to do with the injury, in which case there likely isn't much he can do about it...

At Monday, December 08, 2014 8:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that the mainstream media narrative pertaining to Bryant's contract makes no sense. The Lakers swung for the fences with Howard and Nash but they struck out with both players. The Lakers had enough cap room this past offseason to sign a max player but they were not able to attract one. Bryant's contract is not the reason that the Lakers are struggling now.

At Monday, December 08, 2014 8:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that just a slight loss of athleticism and/or stamina relating to the injuries and the long layoff can lead to one or two "extra" missed shots a game and that can easily drag Bryant's shooting percentage downward. Barring further injury, I expect Bryant's FG% to inch up to the 42-43 range by the end of the season--but it is possible that as long as the Lakers need for him to shoot that many shots he may not be able to lift his FG% to its previous levels.

At Tuesday, December 09, 2014 11:22:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Insightful as always, David. Though you don't post as much as before, it is a refreshing light to read your work.

It is an absolute travesty the mainstream NBA coverage (particularly ESPN) is bashing Kobe at the closing of his illustrious career.

I grew up in the generation (2000s) idolizing Bryant, Garnett, Dirk, Duncan, McGrady, etc., and it will be truly a sad day when they are all retire. Going off tangent, but it's incredible how much those five and their peers have accomplished.

Pundits have said after Jordan retired that there will never be a next Michael Jordan. Along the same lines, there will never be a next Kobe Bryant.

At Friday, December 19, 2014 11:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you. Fatherhood and Law School take up most of my time now but I still very much enjoy posting here and I do so as much as possible. I am glad that I have dedicated readers who appreciate my work.

At Friday, December 19, 2014 9:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Kobe a great player Im not the biggest fan but im glad he still chucking along and i respect his career. I wouldnt of paid him that money tho.

Ive debated u for years david. I didnt kno u was in law school or had a family. And i have notice u dont post as much. We agree on some and not so much on others but i respect ur craft either way


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