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Monday, June 01, 2009

Are the Lakers Really Better Off When Kobe Bryant Shoots Less Frequently?

If you watch the ESPN/ABC NBA pregame shows with any regularity then you know that Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry have repeatedly cited statistics that they say prove that the Lakers are better off when Kobe Bryant shoots less frequently. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a brief item headlined The Lakers Fare Better When Bryant Shoots Less; that piece included a chart titled "Don't Shoot, Kobe" that listed Bryant's field goal attempts averages for the past six seasons during wins and losses. Somehow I doubt that "Don't shoot, Kobe," is a mantra that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson utters too often, particularly in the fourth quarters of close games.

It is not entirely clear if Wilbon, Barry and the WSJ mean to suggest that Bryant is being selfish when he shoots more than their arbitrarily determined optimal amount of field goal attempts for a game (20 is the number that Wilbon and Barry apparently prefer) or if they simply believe that his teammates should be more assertive and less deferential. In any case, even though it is obvious that the best teams involve many players on offense, it seems more than a little odd to suggest that the way for a team to be most successful is to limit the shot attempts taken by its best player and maximize the shot attempts taken by lesser players; likewise, it seems highly unlikely that the difference between winning and losing is primarily determined by whether a given player takes 19 shots or 21. After all, some field goal attempts are last second heaves as the shot clock winds down or as the game clock expires at the end of a quarter; also, a player's official field goal attempts may not reflect how many times he actually tried to shoot the ball if he drew a lot of fouls on shots that he missed: field goal attempts are a "noisy" statistic that does not tell the complete story about how much a player dominated the ball in a given game or what kind of impact he had offensively. For instance, the Lakers went 24-1 this season when Lamar Odom attempted between eight and 10 field goals in a game but they were only 12-8 when he attempted between five and seven field goals in a game and they posted a 12-4 record when he attempted between 11 and 13 field goals in a game. Does that mean that the Lakers should make sure that Odom always attempts between eight and 10 field goals, never permitting him to stray outside of that range? Or does it just mean that there are a lot of other factors that determine the result for the Lakers besides how frequently Odom shoots?

Kobe Bryant has led the Lakers in scoring and assists in each of the past three seasons and in six of the past seven seasons (Odom led the Lakers in assists in 2005-06); Bryant averaged between 24.0 and 35.4 ppg and 4.5 and 6.0 apg during those seven seasons. Bryant has the dual responsibility of carrying the lion's share of the scoring load while also creating quality shot opportunities for teammates who could not create good shots for themselves on their own. The number of shots that Bryant attempts in a given game is affected by how often the opponent double teams him, how many fouls Bryant draws and other factors.

Rather than focusing on how many field goals Bryant attempts to try to determine his optimal role for the Lakers, it makes more sense to look at the end result of his field goal attempts (and free throw attempts): Bryant has scored 40 or more points in 96 regular season games, third on the all-time career list behind Wilt Chamberlain (271) and Michael Jordan (173). The Lakers posted a 65-31 record in those games, a .677 winning percentage that is better than their overall winning percentage (.656) during Bryant's career. Bryant had 27 of those 40 point games in 2005-06, when he led the NBA in scoring with a 35.4 ppg average that ranks eighth on the single season scoring list; the Lakers went 45-37 overall that year (.549) but they went 18-9 (.667) in his 40 point games. Bryant "only" had four 40 point games in the 2008-09 season and the Lakers went 2-2 in those contests; obviously, that is a small sample size, but Bryant had 27 games this season in which he scored at least 30 points and the Lakers went 21-6 (.778) in those games, which is virtually identical with their overall winning percentage (.793) this season.

Bryant has scored at least 50 points in a game 23 times; he ranks third on that all-time career list as well, again trailing only Chamberlain (118) and Jordan (31). The Lakers went 16-7 in Bryant's 50 point games, which is an even better winning percentage (.696) than they posted in the games in which he scored 40-49 points. Bryant's only 50 point game this season happened when he set a Madison Square Garden record with 61 points in a 126-117 victory.

One could easily argue that the Lakers are better off when Bryant scores more than 40 points, so it is strange that Wilbon, Barry and the WSJ pay so much attention to Bryant's field goal attempts to the exclusion of considering the results on those attempts. During the playoffs the past couple years, Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy have pointed out on several occasions that Bryant does an excellent job of reading the defense and making the correct decision about whether to shoot, drive or pass. It is foolish to think that there is an ideal number of field goal attempts for Bryant that applies in all situations; if a team primarily single covers Bryant then he should probably attempt 25-30 shots but if a team traps him aggressively then the right play is to give the ball up. During this year's playoffs, Bryant has once again proven that he will make the right decisions and punish defenses no matter how they try to deal with him: the Lakers have gone 6-3 when Bryant had at least five assists but they also have gone 4-2 when Bryant had three or fewer assists.

It is worth noting that the Lakers are 3-0 in this year's playoffs when Bryant scored at least 40 points but just 1-2 in the three games when he scored fewer than 20 points--but those numbers do not fit the storyline that Wilbon and Barry apparently are determined to tell, so you can rest assured that you will never hear them talk about how well the Lakers do when Bryant tops the 40 point barrier.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:37 AM



At Monday, June 01, 2009 7:10:00 AM, Anonymous Stephen said...

I've been waiting for a post on this subject.

You mention the Lakers are 1-2 when Kobe scores under 20 points. The one win was Game 7 versus Houston. After the game Jon Berry went on and on about how the Lakers are better with less shooting from Kobe while completely ignoring the fact that the Lakers actually played defense in that game.

Interestingly enough, Van Gundy mentioned during the game that Bryant wasn't scoring/shooting because the Lakers were making defensive stops and getting easy opportunities in transition.

I'm continually baffled at how Berry/Wilbon continue this. Especially in light of LeBron's recent 0-3 conference finals record when scoring over 40 (compared to Kobe going 2-0).

One last note...I've felt Kobe, more than any other superstar, is willing to take bad shots against the game or shot clock. I've seen players (including LeBron) choose to not shoot at all at times to avoid ruining their shooting percentages.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 1:44:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

When the rest of the Lakers play well, Kobe typically shoots fewer shots.

Kobe shooting fewer shots does not lead to the rest of the Lakers playing well.

This distinction seems to be very hard to grasp for some.

Correlation does not equal causation.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 2:17:00 PM, Blogger Craig W. said...

A complete analysis of Kobe's reasons and effectiveness for shooting different totals of shots during games in 2007-08 is available at... http://www.littlewhitestatistics.com/?cat=7

This is worth reading for anyone who is interested in this question and should be required reading for the dunces at ESPN.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 3:54:00 PM, Anonymous Jack B said...

what do you think of this article written by Zach Lowe of CelticHub? I put more emphasis on it because it was written by a Celtic fan and we all know they hate lakers but read this:
Look: I’m not comfortable saying that. I’ve hated the Lakers since I can remember being alive. But if you missed that game against Denver Friday night, you missed an incredible display of team basketball–a type of game even the Lakers (or the Cavs, or the Magic or the Celtics when healthy) are only capable of pulling off a few times per season. They scored 119 points on about 88 possessions against a top-10 NBA defense on the road. That’s about 140 points per 100 possessions. They shot 57 percent–only the third team all season to hit that mark against Denver–made all 24 of their free throws, hit better than half of their three-pointers and turned the ball over just three times in the last 30 minutes of the game.

All insane numbers. But what’s more amazing to me is that if you re-watched that game, I’ll bet you wouldn’t find more than a half-dozen high degree of difficult shots among the 75 field goals the Lakers attempted against. Frankly, I’m surprised the Lakers “only” recorded 28 assists on their 43 field goals. Almost every look was, in NBA terms, easy. The cuts were precise, the passes were timely and on target, and the shooters were open. It was gorgeous basketball. And it is hard for me to truly hate a team that can take basketball to that level. Perhaps I should hate the Lakers because they have this ability but can only put it all together occasionally.

The beauty of the offense, for me, starts not with Kobe Bryant, but with Pau Gasol. Bash the Gasol-Gasol trade all you want, and it deserves criticism, but the bright spot for me has been the opportunity to watch Pau Gasol more often. I like basketball and all, but I have a job and a life, so I am not going to watch many Memphis-Houston games in January.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 7:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't know what Barry's problem is, because he played the game and should know better--and his dad Rick was a great player who was a "high volume" shooter!

Wilbon is a very good general assignment sports columnist but he is way out of his depth as an NBA "expert" and this is a big problem with ESPN/ABC's NBA coverage--they use guys like Wilbon, Stuart Scott and Stephen A. Smith (who has been released) who may be good at other things but do not have any special insight or understanding about the NBA. These guys frequently get the most basic information wrong, which is inexcusable considering the resources at their disposal, and they have a naive understanding at best regarding NBA strategy and tactics.

I agree with you that Kobe is more willing to take late shots than many other players, but I would not term them "bad" shots; these are "low percentage" shots but Bryant is willing to take them because sometimes they go in and this increases his team's chance to win: he is more concerned about winning than he is about appeasing "stat gurus." I call those shots "hand grenades": the ball ends up in his hands with the shot or game clock about to "explode" if he does not release the ball quickly. Bryant had to shoot even more of those shots a few years ago, which is one reason that his field goal percentage has gone up in recent years.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 7:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Precisely. Phil Jackson often says that if the other Lakers do not do their part then Kobe "fills the vacuum." Perhaps the quintessential example of that is Kobe scoring 81 points to rally the Lakers from a huge deficit versus Toronto; they were dead in the water and no other Laker was doing anything until Kobe just completely took over. Wilbon and Barry would have you believe that the Lakers would have been better off if Kobe had been a "facilitator" that game--and this is not just about one exceptional game: that game is just an extreme example of what Kobe often has to do in order for the Lakers to win.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 8:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Craig W.:

That is a great article and I agree with you that Wilbon, Barry and the others should be required to read it before uttering even one more word on this subject.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 8:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B:

That quote didn't tell me anything that I couldn't figure out myself just by watching the game. The Lakers played at a very high level, led by Bryant's decision making and his ability to make the Nuggets pay no matter how they covered him.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 9:42:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

To me this brings to mind 2 issues:

1. The lack of knowledge and understanding of so-called NBA 'analysts' (which you have already addressed many times)

2. The spewing of numbers without any idea of how to apply them in a proper context

OK, say for example the Lakers have a great winning percentage when Kobe shoots less than 20 times a game. Now what? If he has 20 shots with 3 minutes to go, should he stop shooting? Have you even considered all the variables involved? How do you know the causal relationship doesn't go the other way (Lakers struggling = more shots from Kobe)? You've given me numbers with no indication of how it can help me understand what's going on or help the coaches/players make adjustments on the court. Pointless, shallow 'analysis'. I never watch ESPN's half-time show anyway, but it's good to know Barry and Wilbon are living down to my expectations.

That link Craig W posted pretty much obliterates that simplistic line of reasoning (which I've seen people peddling for the last 5 years now). However, even if you passed this info on to ESPN's 'experts' you can be sure they would stick to their preplanned storyline like they always do.

At Monday, June 01, 2009 11:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


when kobe shoots less the lakers could be better and worse sometimes he has too shooot becuase his teamate arent makeing shots at times in other years he perhaps shot too much but this season he has played perfect basketball as far as knowing when too shoot and not shoot.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 8:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If they want to be critical about Kobe's selection, they should chart his attempts after his guy has scored on him. They could also chart shots he takes with an open teammate waiting, but said teammate missed his last X shots. How many of his shots were taken early in the shotclock that were not in transition or semi-transition situations? Lazy analysis...

I suppose whoever wrote that article couldn't tell whether Kobe's shots were within the offense, or if he decided to assert himself. Neither of which is actually bad, but you need a healthy balance of both. They probably see good shots as those that went in, and bad as those that didn't... It's not entirely wrong, but it is not an indicator of future success.


At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 1:11:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Finally, some sanity. I cringe every time that Wilbon and Barry inevitably bring up how much Kobe supposedly hurts his team when he shoots a certain number of shots. At the same time, many other analysts are undoubtedly chastising Kobe for failing to "take over" at times. Kobe is usually in a lose-lose situation with critics.

Almost as much as their lack of understanding, I am annoyed by the loud, obnoxious, know-it-all, in your face style of many TV analysts today. They seem to like screaming and making outrageous statements to draw attention to themselves. Wilbon and Barry are guilty of this. I miss the days when sports analysts could be more low-key and let the game (rather than personalities) be the focus.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 4:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The thing with Wilbon is that some people may believe that I am "bashing" him but all I am saying is that he is not an NBA expert. I think that he is a very good general sports columnist, much like I think that Kornheiser is a great columnist; I just find it unfortunate that ESPN has cast Wilbon as an NBA "expert." At least they came to their senses and took Kornheiser out of the MNF booth.


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