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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Assessing the "New" Lakers and the "New" Kobe Bryant

Most NBA commentary generates a lot more heat than light. The Lakers have a Dream Team roster. The Lakers will not even make the playoffs. Kobe Bryant shoots too much. Kobe Bryant has reinvented himself. Contrary to the impression you may receive from watching ESPN or reading the work of various "experts," the essential truths about a team and/or a player do not change from game to game, so it has been comical to listen to various media members offer such widely varying game to game assessments of the L.A. Lakers and Kobe Bryant. I stand by what I wrote before the season: the Lakers' roster as currently constructed with Kobe Bryant as the best player, Dwight Howard as a dominant center, Steve Nash as the team's first true point guard in many years and Pau Gasol as a very good (though declining) power forward is capable of beating any team in the NBA in a seven game series. Injuries, coaching changes and chemistry issues have greatly impacted the Lakers' effectiveness thus far but the essential truth about this team has not changed and if the Lakers pull themselves together they can still be a very dangerous team.

The "Kobe Bryant has reinvented himself" story is not new. In fact, it was old five years ago. The reality is that it took just three seasons for Bryant to evolve from a raw rookie who came into the NBA straight out of high school into an All-NBA Third Team performer and he has been no worse than a top five player for the better part of the past decade or so. Players who function in the Triangle Offense generally do not post gaudy assist numbers but Bryant was the leading playmaker for each of the Lakers' past five championship teams (2000-2002, 2009-2010)--and for every other Lakers' team since 2000 except for 2004 and 2006. During one playoff series, Hubie Brown concluded that Bryant's decision making is virtually flawless; people who assert that Bryant either (1) is nothing more than a selfish gunner and/or (2) was a selfish gunner until he "reinvented" himself do not understand how to properly evaluate a player's decision making. As Jeff Van Gundy recently noted, what Bryant does is read the defense and make the appropriate decision to shoot/pass based on how the defense is deployed.

The double figure assist totals that Bryant has posted in the past three games are a statistical anomaly for him but those numbers do not prove that he suddenly learned how to pass and/or that he suddenly became willing to pass. Bryant has always possessed the necessary skill set to lead the league in assists but his role on the team and the offensive sets that the Lakers have run during most of his career did not put Bryant in position to post gaudy assist numbers. Now the Lakers are running sets that more frequently result in Bryant making the final pass leading to a score instead of making the "hockey assist."

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Lakers are 52-22 (.703) since Bryant's rookie season when he tallies at least 10 assists--but ESPN Stats and Information neglected to mention that the Lakers are also 77-39 (.664) when Bryant scores at least 40 points. Why is the first statistic much more appealing to ESPN Stats and Information even though the second statistic includes a larger sample size? ESPN's main basketball blogger has been obsessed for many years with repeatedly and vociferously stating that Bryant shoots too much/performs poorly in arbitrarily defined clutch situations but I do not recall him ever writing even one post about the Lakers winning two thirds of their games when Bryant explodes for at least 40 points. It should be obvious that trying to explain a team's won-loss record purely by referring to a player's production in one statistical category is not particularly enlightening. As Jeff Van Gundy might say, why is the cutoff 10 assists instead of nine or 11? Did the Lakers win those games because Bryant had so many assists or did he have so many assists because his teammates were hitting shots in those games that they missed in other games when Bryant made similar passes? Without conducting an in depth analysis of who the Lakers played in those games and how the various players on both teams performed it is not possible to determine if the Lakers were successful because Bryant had 10 assists or if Bryant had 10 assists as a result of the Lakers being successful--and the same analytical standard should be applied to determining if the Lakers won at a high rate because Bryant scored 40 points. It is meaningless if not deceptive to just cite random statistics/winning percentages devoid of context.

The most significant story about the Lakers that has been largely overlooked is that the veteran Bryant is a much more mature and sensitive leader than the veteran Shaquille O'Neal was when he was a teammate of young Bryant. O'Neal viewed Bryant as a rival for accolades/endorsement dollars and that jealousy ultimately led to the Lakers trading O'Neal and winning two titles by pairing Bryant with one-time All-Star (prior to coming to L.A.) Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, who has never made the All-Star team; if O'Neal had been more mature then he and Bryant would probably have won at least two more titles together and would have had a chance to win three, four or even five more championships. Bryant does not view young Dwight Howard as some kind of rival; Bryant has made a conscious and very deliberate effort not only to prod Howard to greatness but also to make Howard feel more comfortable by spoonfeeding him the ball. This is not a new story--Bryant similarly mentored Andrew Bynum when Bynum played for the Lakers--but it is more relevant to tell that story than to focus on random point or assist totals. However, telling the story of Bryant as a leader requires actually understanding basketball and it also requires contradicting the widespread narrative of Bryant as a bad teammate, so it is easier for commentators to recycle the same old storylines instead of providing any real insight about Bryant and the Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 PM



At Wednesday, January 30, 2013 5:34:00 PM, Anonymous Michael Joseph said...

I’ve been eagerly awaiting your take on the “new” Kobe Bryant, and you did not disappoint. Before the season started, Kobe addressed those who questioned his ability to pass with the following quote: “Here’s the thing: Some people are just very, very dumb. I keep hearing it from some people that I just want to score and that other stuff. Nobody has won more championships than me in my entire generation. I’ve got five of them. You can’t be selfish and win one championship, let alone five. That argument should be in the coffin by now. I don’t like having the ball.”

At Wednesday, January 30, 2013 10:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael Joseph:

The only thing that could make that Bryant quote better is if he had named specific commentators who are "very, very dumb."

At Wednesday, January 30, 2013 11:18:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

As usual, right on point David.

I keep telling my friends that this is more a correlation than causation in terms of kobe's assists totals in the last three games with wins.

it really is baffling that the media can't understand that kobe's lethal nature as a scorer would lead to so many open teammates since their defender would come to help bryant's defender, etc.

i still believe that the lakers are better off with his high-volume scoring in the long run though.

At Wednesday, January 30, 2013 11:51:00 PM, Anonymous CR said...

Another great article, David. You and Kevin Ding are an oasis in a sea of dreck when it comes to analysis of the Lakers.

At Thursday, January 31, 2013 6:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that in the long run it makes more sense for the Lakers to position all of their best players in their most natural roles: Howard in the post and/or diving to the hoop after setting a screen, Gasol stationed in the high post when playing alongside Howard and stationed in the low post when Howard is out of the game, Bryant providing 25-30 ppg plus playmaking, defense and above average rebounding for a guard and Nash delivering assists plus timely shotmaking.

The Lakers needed something to get them jump started, though, and maybe Bryant's prolific playmaking will convince Howard and Gasol that if Bryant can adjust his game then they can adjust their games as well and stop pouting so much about minutes, shots, touches, etc.

At Thursday, January 31, 2013 6:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.


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