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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0

A little over a month ago, I wrote about a New York Times article that discussed how the Houston Rockets use basketball statistical analysis to make personnel decisions and game plans. As I indicated in my article, I respect the approach taken by Houston General Manager Daryl Morey because "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." That is why I was surprised that Morey later asserted that the New York Times article focused on defending Bryant and not LeBron James because--in Morey's opinion--James is the best player in the NBA and there allegedly is not an effective game plan to use against James; the first part of Morey's statement is debatable and the second part is clearly wrong. To take the latter point first, on Friday night Orlando demonstrated once again that if you wall off the paint and force James to shoot midrange jumpers he can be held to a subpar (7-20 in this case) shooting night--and that was not a coincidence or a one time thing: as I have noted repeatedly, elite defensive teams (Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, Celtics in 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals) consistently employ that game plan against James. James has improved his three point shooting and free throw shooting this year but his midrange game is still erratic at best; he is so good at getting to the hoop one tends not to notice this flaw until James meets greater defensive resistance.

As for Morey's contention that James is the best player in the NBA, I said last year that it was close between Bryant and James but that I gave the edge to Bryant. This year, it has again been close--contrary to what you may have heard--but since the All-Star break I thought that James had pulled slightly ahead. However, there is a reason that I don't believe in making definitive statements about close contests before those contests are over. It seemed like James and the Cavs had the league's best record all sewn up but now they have dropped two games in a row, enabling the Lakers to pull to within one game of the Cavs (and the Lakers own the tiebreak thanks to sweeping the season series).

Although I respect Morey's overall approach to statistics as described in the New York Times article, we need to completely put to rest the ideas that Shane Battier is some kind of Kobe Bryant stopper and that "advanced" statistics have given the Rockets an advantage versus Bryant. Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).

On Friday, Bryant scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting (including 4-6 from three point range) and he had a game-high seven assists in a 93-81 win over Houston. This season versus the Rockets, Bryant typically set up his teammates for the first three quarters and then went off in the fourth quarter--he averaged just over 11 ppg in the fourth quarter versus the Rockets, while shooting nearly .700 (that is not a misprint) from the field. In other words, he basically showed that even though Houston is an excellent defensive team that can alternate two great one on one defenders (Shane Battier and Ron Artest) on him, Bryant can score whenever and wherever he wants versus the Rockets. During the ESPN telecast of Friday's game, Mark Jackson repeatedly noted that a large percentage of the Lakers' offense was a direct result of Bryant's presence--not just the plays on which he earned assists, but also plays when he was double-teamed and thus created an open shot for a teammate just by virtue of his presence and the defensive attention that he demands. At one point early in the game, Bryant had only shot 1-3 from the field but the Rockets were still double teaming him because he is so dangerous and that is a major reason why Pau Gasol's field goal percentage has skyrocketed from around .500 to well over .560 since becoming Bryant's teammate. So much is said about various players making their teammates better but not nearly enough credit is given to Bryant for the huge impact he has had on Gasol's game.

The last time the Lakers played the Rockets, Bryant dropped 37 points on Houston, including 31 in the second half (on 11-17 field goal shooting) and 18 in the final 4:13. For some reason, Artest decided in the waning moments of that game to tell Bryant that he could lock him down, whereupon Bryant heartily laughed and retorted, "You're a standup comedian now." I don't know if Artest is really that great of a comedian but the notion that the Rockets have discovered how to stop Bryant is definitely a joke.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 AM



At Saturday, April 04, 2009 12:39:00 PM, Blogger ohkeedoke said...

Good stuff Dave.

Reality is refreshing. There's too many bobbleheads regurgitating "objective" stats (read: made up) that somehow prove a players superiority, as if actual accomplishments mean nothing.

At Saturday, April 04, 2009 3:33:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Looks like Phil & Kobe read the NYTimes piece and used it for a little motivation:


Artest didn’t say much to Bryant on Friday, but he also only guarded him for a few possessions. That assignment went to Battier, who unwittingly provided his own source of motivation for the Lakers. Last month, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis detailing how Rockets GM Daryl Morey has innovatively used statistics when making player assessments.

“The Lakers’ offense should obviously be better with Kobe in,” Morey said in the story. “But if Shane is on him, it isn’t.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson made sure Bryant read the story. “I told him about his penchant for taking on guys that contest him,” Jackson said, “and, at times, making it mano y mano and taking us out of our game.”

Bryant’s reaction to the story?

“I enjoyed it.”

The result was one of Bryant’s better floor games of the season. He toned down his aggressiveness to set up his teammates, scoring 20 points on just 11 shots.

“He was efficient,” Battier said. “That’s a killer.”

At Saturday, April 04, 2009 7:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave, could you give us a little insight on how Bowen consistently defends (ok, defended...)Bryant better than the Artest/Battier combo?

I mean I don't think Artest as flaws in his defensive game, as he can shut down Pierce consistently, but perhaps Kobe is simply a little too fast for him?

Pierce (last season and this one at least) defends Kobe better than Artest.

I don't think that SA and Boston's superior team defense are that big of a reason, because the Rockets have consistently been one of the top 3 defensive fg% and points allowed teams.

I still think that there are merits to Morey's approach. To put it this way, how else would you expect a player like Battier to defend Kobe, if not to force him into taking shots from where he is less efficient than other spots?


At Sunday, April 05, 2009 2:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is very interesting. As I mentioned in the post, Kobe has been very productive and efficient all season long against Battier and the Rockets. Morey's contention that it is easier to game plan for Kobe than it is to game plan for LeBron is baffling and contradicts the opinions of most NBA general managers, as noted in a couple of polls that I referenced in previous posts.

At Sunday, April 05, 2009 2:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I will be at the Cavs-Spurs game on Sunday and hope to have the opportunity to discuss this very issue with Bowen.

I do not disagree per se with the methods suggested by Morey and Battier; I disagree with the assertion that Kobe can regularly be shut down by such methods (as opposed to maybe having a bad shooting game once in a while when Battier was on him) and I definitely disagree with Morey's subsequent assertion that it is harder to formulate a defensive game plan to deal with LeBron than it is to form one to deal with Kobe. Kobe has no skill set weaknesses, which is something that the NYT article even mentioned: he is relatively weaker at some things than others but he is not objectively weak (i.e., subpar) in any area. LeBron is a subpar midrange jump shooter, so if a team contains him to that area and he misses shots this is not a case of him just missing but rather a predictable phenomenon based on his performance thus far during his career.

I think that Pierce's relative success versus Bryant last year had more to do with the support that he had behind him than anything else. Left on an island, Pierce is too slow to contain Bryant but when he has help Pierce can use his superior size to bang on Bryant, confident that even if Bryant gets past him Bryant will have to deal with rotating bigs KG or Perk.

At Sunday, April 05, 2009 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I actually thought this year's best defensive performance against Kobe (since this seems to be some sort of "prize") was Thabo Sefolosha's defense on Kobe in Oklahoma City. Keep in mind, the Lakers still won by 20, so it's all relative, but Sefolosha's one-on-one defense was excellent, reminiscent of a Tayshaun Prince. Sefolosha's defense was even more impressive considering that the defenders that give Kobe "trouble" usually have a large inside defensive presence behind them, a la Bowen with Duncan, Pierce with KG, and Prince with Ben Wallace a few years ago. The best one-on-one defender against Kobe would necessarily need long arms in addition to quickness to be able to recover from Kobe's various offensive attacks and counterattacks.

At Monday, April 06, 2009 4:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Sefolosha does have some "Prince-like" qualities in terms of length and lateral quickness. The midrange jumper is a big weapon for Kobe, so a player who is quick enough to stay in front of him and long enough to bother his shot has the best chance of making Kobe work.


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