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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kobe "Leopard" Bryant Drops 37 Points on Houston in 102-96 Lakers Win

Some people seem to believe/hope that 2008 NBA MVP Kobe Bryant is a lion in winter but during the Lakers' 102-96 win in Houston on Wednesday night Bryant reaffirmed what he declared during last year's playoffs: "Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out." Bryant had six first half points on 3-6 field goal shooting but Ron Artest figuratively shook the tree in the second half by verbally and physically jousting with Bryant and Bryant responded with 31 second half points on 11-17 field goal shooting. Bryant's efficient scoring explosion carried the Lakers to an important road victory despite the absences of suspended forward Lamar Odom and injured center Andrew Bynum; Bryant also had a game-high six assists, five rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots. Isn't it interesting that when commentators compare the "supporting casts" on various teams everyone seems to forget that Bryant has led the Lakers to the best record in the NBA despite Bynum missing the second half of the season? Whenever I need a good laugh, I just think about that Wages of Wins article from last year about how Andrew Bynum is a more valuable player for the Lakers than Kobe Bryant.

Only two other Lakers scored in double figures (Pau Gasol had 20 points and Josh Powell added 17 points) and their bench players shot 5-15 from the field but Bryant's second half fireworks were enough to hold at bay a balanced Houston team that shot .513 from the field and placed six players in double figures, including two reserves. Von Wafer led the Rockets with 20 points, while Yao Ming had 16 points on 7-9 field goal shooting.

It is particularly interesting that Bryant went off against Houston, because recently the Rockets received a lot of publicity about how they are using basketball statistical analysis to try to devise the best ways to contain Bryant. My recent interview with Cleveland Coach Mike Brown elicited what may be the quote of the year about basketball statistical analysis, particularly since it came from the mouth of someone who many members of the media often mock for being bland. When I asked Coach Brown about the New York Times article that described how much Houston General Manager Daryl Morey relies on basketball statistical analysis, Brown replied, "Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?"

Brown's words carry weight because he not only led the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals but he was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs when they won the 2003 NBA Championship. Brown, who bases his coaching philosophy on what he learned from Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich, told me, "I was with Pop for three years and he’s not a stat guy. In a 10 year span, he’s won four NBA championships. I know that every game, he doesn’t go up to Bruce (Bowen) and say, ‘Kobe shoots 22% from the right corner and 35% from the left corner’ or whatever. It’s a thing that, yes, if you use it the right way it can be helpful, but if you try to use stats too much I don’t know if it’s going to bring you a championship, at least from what I’ve experienced. We didn’t need those types of detailed stats to win a championship in San Antonio."

Mike Brown never gets enough credit from the media about how good of a coach he is. The media constantly dog him about Cleveland's supposedly poor offense but he has turned the Cavs into a defensive juggernaut who are posting a league-best 9.3 scoring differential this season--the same as Magic Johnson's 1987 Lakers and better than Magic's other four championship teams. Brown employs an excellent defensive game plan and all of his players buy into it.

Even though Popovich and Brown do not believe in relying on basketball statistical analysis, I do think that there is some value to what Morey is trying to do. As I noted in my response to the NYT article, "Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him--and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games--perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court."

However, it is important to understand that basketball statistical analysis does not provide some magical Holy Grail that instantly confers success on any team that uses it.

Although a plurality of NBA GMs still consider Kobe Bryant to be a better player than LeBron James, Morey recently said that James is the best player in the NBA, adding, "There's a reason the (NYT) article is about Kobe, not LeBron." Morey laughed as he said that but here are some serious numbers for Morey and his statistics crew to ponder: Bryant averaged 31.0 ppg on .514 field goal shooting (including .444 from three point range) as his Lakers swept the Rockets 3-0 this season; James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting (including .250 from three point range) as his Cavs split their two games versus the Rockets.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM



At Thursday, March 12, 2009 11:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the leopard thing is the wrong angle.

It was when Kobe decided to use the pick and roll with Gasol, in the last possesions, when the Lakers won. With the game tied Kobe and Pau used the pick and roll five consecutive times and they score in all of them. I think that was the dagger instead of Kobe just being mad.

Also, it's worth mentioning that the Laker's bigs and Ariza had 4 straight offensive rebounds in the third quarter, all of which turned into points.

Bynum is not the Laker's MVP but I do believe they missed him against Denver and the Suns. It depends on matchups. Gasol is much more effective as a power forward and has some trouble guarding -or boxing out- strong centers like Shaq, Pryzzbilla (18 rebounds the other day) or Hilario. That's where Bynum could help. Gasol has been forced into playing center his whole life, but he has the body and the movility of a PF, much like Nowitzki.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 12:36:00 PM, Blogger SamiA said...

It's a fun process to watch Kobe get annoyed, then flat out blow somebody out of the water because of his skill. Players need to put ego's and the art of trash talking aside when playing a elite player.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 6:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that there are a number of angles. I chose to focus on two of them, the "leopard" angle and the basketball statistical analysis angle.

The screen/roll play with Gasol is a weapon that Kobe and Gasol have used with devastating effectiveness ever since Gasol joined the team. The play is effective because Kobe has to be trapped (the defense cannot just let him shoot open jumpers) and because Gasol has good hands and a good shot.

Bynum is a solid player but at this stage of his career he is just one step above role player. He could certainly help the Lakers if he were healthy but they've maintained the best record in the league even without him, something that they certainly would not have done if Kobe had been out for the same period of time.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 6:41:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


So why is it that stat geeks like John Hollinger, Kelly Dwyer and David Thorpe still say that Lebron is a better player than Kobe? I know for a fact that Hollinger watches a lot of basketball games. He's the one who came up with some PER "formula" to rate players. These are the same guys who a couple years back were saying that Kevin Garnett was a better player than Tim Duncan. how laughable is that now?
Even Rim Kamla who is as big a lebron supporter as there is said that Kobe was the MVP because Lebron has performed poorly against all the top teams.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 7:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Hollinger strictly goes by what his PER formula tells him. He created that formula, assigned different weights to various statistical categories and all that he does is compose verbal explanations for whatever the formula says. So, if according to PER LeBron is the best player then he will write a column stating that LeBron is the best player. Although I often disagree with what Hollinger's formula says, his articles often contain some interesting points and he seems to be more willing than many stat gurus to step away from his formula at times and consider other perspectives.

Thorpe is sometimes right on target with his observations but sometimes he comes up with some stuff straight out of left field (to mix sports analogies), like his insistence that J.J. Redick can be a regular starter for a playoff caliber team. It is not clear to me on what basis he makes his evaluations but I don't think that Thorpe is accurately categorized as a "stats guy"; he is an IMG trainer who works with athletes, so I think he has more of a scout's eye-type view, although I don't think that his eye is quite as good as many of the guys who are actually scouts. I once suggested in print that there is a bit of a conflict of interest involved with him training athletes as a full-time job and also writing articles for ESPN in which he is supposed to objectively compare players. How can he be completely objective about past clients, present clients, potential future clients or possible clients who spurned his services? Naturally, he insists that this is not an issue.

Dwyer directed a lot of unwarranted personal hostility toward me a while back and I find his writing style to be pretentious, often veering away from basketball to make obscure references to other subjects, so I have long since stopped paying attention to or thinking about anything that he writes.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 9:18:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Hollinger's fixation on PER is disappointing. He seems to think that saying 'Player X has a higher PER than Player Y' is enough to settle any argument. I know it's his system and he believes in it strongly, but the only limitation I've ever seen him mention is the inability to measure defense. I think he could make a lot of the same arguments without acting like PER is the Holy Grail of player assessment, but I still find most of his stuff interesting.

Artest's performance was a disaster on three fronts: he got Kobe mad (suicidal strategy); he was more interested in 'bodying up' on Kobe than encouraging him to take contested jumpers; and he kept forcing the issue at the other end to get back at Kobe. If I were Adelman I would try to keep Battier on Kobe as much as possible in future matchups. Obviously nobody can stop Kobe one-on-one but I think Battier gives Kobe more trouble than most because of how disciplined he is.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 9:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article.

Let's not forget that the last time the Cavs came to Houston (I live in Houston), LeBron had one of the most miserable nights of his career; the only game in which he failed to record an assist. To add insult to injury, his team got blown out.

That same Rockets D has no answer for Kobe in the fourth quarter. When it's time to win the game, he steps up and you can tell the end is near. I witnessed it from the stands when the Lakers visited in January, and on TV last night.

Also, it's worth noting, that the streakbusting Lakers, who already ended two lengthy Boston win streaks and stained the Cavs' previously unblemished home record, just ended Houston's home win streak at 12 games.

A final note, the Lakers haven't yet "swept" Houston -- they still play one more time April 3 in LA -- but I have no doubt they will.


At Thursday, March 12, 2009 11:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Hollinger's niche is that he created PER. That is why ESPN hired him in the first place.

I think that Battier does a better job defensively on Kobe than just about anyone else but Morey's statement that LeBron is much better than Kobe is laughable (maybe that is the real reason he laughed after he said it).

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 11:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In the interest of clarity, technically the Lakers have clinched the season series and swept the Rockets so far, with one meeting remaining.

At Thursday, March 12, 2009 11:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, another Kobe panegyric. You truly are the Homer of the genre.

the Lakers have the best record in the NBA, but the fact that they are only the third best team in the NBA by efficiency differential suggests they actually do miss Bynum.

As for Mike Brown, I wonder what he thinks of offensive and defensive efficiency. And I find it incredibly ironic he said what you quoted him saying, since the Cavs employ the guys who claim to have pioneered the use of adjusted +/-. I am sure Dan Rosenbaum will love reading that his technique is not the kind of thing that will win you championships.


At Friday, March 13, 2009 1:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Last I checked, home court advantage in the playoffs is going to be awarded based on won-loss record, not "efficiency differential." The Lakers had the best record with Bynum and now that he's gone they still have the best record. Kobe has increased his scoring by more than five ppg with Bynum out, starting with the 61 point explosion at MSG. This is a good illustration of why the MVP should not be chosen based solely on stats; Kobe can basically average as many points as he wants, but he is tailoring his scoring to fit his team's needs and he is doing that so well that his Lakers have the best record even though they are not as strong defensively as the Celtics or Cavs.

If you read my interview then you know that Brown made it quite clear what he thinks of stats: very little--and that is a trait that he learned by working for a man who has led his team to four NBA championships. As Brown told me, if he notices something about the team and wants to hammer that point home to his players then he will use some stats as ammunition when he talks to them but in general he coaches by "feel," by what he sees on the court. He is a vastly underrated coach, as I've been saying for quite some time.

I know that Rosenbaum works for the Cavs in some capacity but neither he nor they have ever publicly said what he does. Based on what Coach Brown told me, Rosenbaum apparently has no input whatsoever into game planning. Perhaps Rosenbaum advises Ferry in some capacity regarding possible acquisitions. I respect Rosenbaum's work greatly because he understands the limitations of basketball statistical analysis. I'm sure that he would be the first to admit that you can't win a championship by relying solely on numbers. I remember reading a while back when he candidly admitted that the Cavs had acquired a player against his recommendation and the player had done much better than his numbers predicted. I cannot remember offhand who the player was, but it might have been Delonte West. Anyway, Rosenbaum's humility and willingness to admit mistakes is a welcome contrast to what I see at WoW and with many other stat gurus.

At Friday, March 13, 2009 12:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Kobe can basically average as many points as he wants, but he is tailoring his scoring to fit his team's needs "

Yes, but apparently he can't score more efficiently than Lebron or Dwyane Wade. Or does that not fit his team's needs?

Honestly, I love the pedestal you are putting Mike Brown on. And your continued use of what a rhetoric teacher would call the appeal to authority never gets old.



At Friday, March 13, 2009 4:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


"Efficiency" can be defined in various ways. You choose to believe that it can only be defined by using specific stats (like TS%). Kobe's efficiency in a team game is defined not only by his shooting percentage but the impact that he has on the opposing defense and on his own teammates. Kobe is helming the best offense in the league and that is a direct result of his contributions. If you watched the Spurs game last night, then you saw a parade of Lakers big men (Gasol, Mbenga, Odom) get open shots (jumpers and even layups) because the Spurs had to "load" their defense to try to contain Kobe.

Kobe was averaging about 26 ppg when Bynum was healthy. Since then, he has averaged about 31 ppg with roughly the same shooting percentages--and I have no doubt that he could average 35 ppg (as he did in a full season not too long ago) if that were necessary. He has led the Lakers into Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio, Houston, etc. and in each case ended long winning streaks (or long home winning streaks) by those teams.

As for Mike Brown, I am not putting him on a "pedestal." Just look at his track record: he has turned the Cavs into a top defensive team that consistently plays even better in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. Brown has already taken the Cavs to the NBA Finals once, which is more than a lot of coaches who are given more love in the mainstream media.

I've been explaining for three years that Brown is underrated. I guess you weren't paying attention. Go back and look at my posts during Cleveland's 2006, 2007 and 2008 playoff runs.


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