June 04, 2008
It's been spinning around the internet for a few days, so you've likely seen it, but if you missed Christopher Reina's study on Kobe Bryant's shooting habits, and how they parlay into wins for the Lakers, it went something like this:
Kobe shoot over 20 times = Lakers bad.
Kobe shoot under 20 times = Lakers good.
It's a nice sentiment that works well with the popular ideal that Kobe is some ball-hogging freak by nature that has to somehow rein in his instincts to shoot every time down court. That he's so obsessed by putting up points and being the focal point that it's taken him years to understand that basketball is a team sport, and that he needs to, wait for it, "trust his teammates."
And it's all bollocks.
A study like this is so rife with caveats and qualifiers and chances for inaccuracy that it isn't worth its weight in however the hell you would weigh a webpage. I think you start with a Geiger Counter, convert into something tangible, and ... anyway, the "study" is pointless.
I'm not dismissing the work that went into it, though all Reina had to do was go here and CTRL-F for "20" a bunch of times (OK, it's not that simple). What I am dismissing is this sort of ham-hock, short-sighted "analysis" that plays right into the stereotypes and feeds off of what people want to hear, misguided though they may be.
Before we delve into the 20 shots per-game thing, can we just do away with the "trusts his teammates" bit one last time? If anyone reading can get into Bristol, fly a plane over Boston or El Lay with this website's URL streaming behind it, that would be phenomenal. People, writers, fans, broadcasters, OAPs, bus drivers, tenor saxophonists - STOP USING THAT PHRASE.
Save for one, angry season (2004-05, when he shot less than he does now but slept through some games), Kobe Bryant trusted his teammates a little too damn much.
In fact, "trusting his teammates" in the playoffs against San Antonio in 2003 and Detroit in 2004 may have cost the Lakers a ring; because had Kobe taken over the games with the same shoot-first but-within-the-offense fervor we saw in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the ball may not have been in Robert Horry's shot-missin' hands in 2003, or Shaquille O'Neal's out-of-shape mitts in 2004.
And though Kobe may have piled up the shot attempts in Phil Jackson's first two seasons as Laker coach, post-Shaq; Los Angeles wouldn't have had a chance of approaching anywhere near 40 wins in those two seasons had Kobe not tried to put up 35 every night. Those would have been 30-35 win teams had he shot 18 times a game. Instead, the two campaigns saw Los Angeles eke out 45 and 42 wins in what we safely know to be a competitive Western Conference.
Listen, for every shot that Kobe gave up, for every possession he allowed another player to use up, those Lakers would falter, all the more.
That means a player with a lower shooting percentage than Kobe shoots the ball. That means a player who turns the ball over way more than Kobe gets the ball put square in his hands. That means a player who has a worse free throw percentage than Kobe gets fouled. Those possessions just don't dissipate when Kobe decides to "trust his teammates," they get used up by players who are far more prone to miss shots, turn the ball over, or do less at the line.
But because the stereotype is, "Kobe wants all the shots, Kobe wanted Shaq gone so he could get all of Shaq's looks," we think that Kobe should be passing more, and "trusting his teammates." And it's absolute bollocks.
You know why Kobe wanted Shaq gone? Not for more shots. Kobe wanted Shaq gone because Shaq was an under-motivated and out-of-shape millstone who barely gave a lick or a promise to defense and - outside of the 1999-00 season - barely showed up until March. Meanwhile, Kobe's in the gym all summer, treating opening night against Portland like a Game 7.
Now, that "millstone" won rings. But the Lakers might still be winning rings with Kobe and the millstone had the millstone showed half of the commitment to off-season growth as Kobe does and did.
That's why Kobe didn't like Shaq. And any bit of jealousy in the Kobe-Shaq relationship came from Shaq, starting in his second year with Los Angeles, when he saw just as many Kobe jerseys in the stands while having to share an All-Star spotlight with a kid two years out of high school.
So stop it. That's not revisionist history. That's what we've come to learn as the truth. Kobe may not have been right to want the ball during the lockout year, when his relationship with Shaq caused the unemployment of two different head coaches, but he was right during the latter stages of that dynasty. Shaq wasn't holding up his end.
Nobody wants to believe that now. There were significant criticisms to be had of Kobe during his shot-happy time with Los Angeles post-Shaq. I thought he played awful defense at times, and was nowhere near worthy of the All-Defensive votes he seemed to steal every year. On top of that, I kept begging him to take his game to the post, where his footwork and understanding of the offense would essentially come close to doing what Pau Gasol has done over the last four months. No dice.
But to kill him for "not trusting his teammates," in a rotation with Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, Chris Mihm, a frazzled Lamar Odom, Brian Cook, and a whole host of current Laker youngsters who weren't ready for prime time? Stop it.
So that's why Reina's study gets the play it does. That's why it hits home with some readers. Because they're still operating with that 2004-mindset.
Here's why it doesn't work, even forgetting that we're talking about Kobe Bryant:
If offered without context, without scouting, without real-life examples (you know, the opposite of what I did right here), then they mean next-to-nothing. And that's what Reina did. Telling you that Kobe's teams are nigh-on-unstoppable at 19 shots for Kobe, but once he hits 20 ...
Even the final conclusion gets to me:
"The Lakers were 38% more likely to win during the regular season when Kobe was not a high-volume shooter and their offense was more balanced ..."
I love that. 20 shots is "a high-volume shooter," but 19 shots means the Laker "offense was more balanced." Analysis!
There are dozens of ways to point out why this sort of information can be skewed and screwed-over, but I'll just jot down a few:
*What if the Lakers are down seven, with 45 seconds to go?
Then Kobe will be asked to quickly come down court with the ball, and fire up a three-pointer, unless he is double-teamed. With Vlad Radmanovic, the Machine, Farmar, et al on the court with him, that's not likely. Phil Jackson wants the ball in Kobe's hands at that moment, and for him to fire the quick shot.
Make or miss, the Lakers are fouling as soon as the other team gets the ball. And, whether they make or miss those free throws, Kobe is asked to do the same thing the next time the Lakers get the rock. Extend the game, while trying to trade two points for three. And we're looking at, perhaps, four or five field goal attempts tagged onto the final tally, even if the Lakers lose by one point.
Does that mean he was ball-hogging? Shooting too much? Channeling Antoine Walker?
No, that means he was following coach's orders, and those orders may have left him with 22 field goal attempts and the loss. Right in line with Reina's findings.
*What if the other teammates don't show up?
I'm not saying, "what if they're cold?" or "what if they just don't have it?" Those sorts of phrases are pretty nebulous and often not worth our time.
Within the Laker offense, you have to work off the ball to free yourself for a good or open shot. Cuts must be made. Screens must be set. Position must be established. You have to work the entire possession. There's none of the standing around and waiting for the pick and roll to finish, as it is for most other NBA offenses.
And if the Laker youngsters aren't making those cuts, if the offense dies, then where does the ball usually end up with three seconds left in the shot clock? In Bryant's hands.
Is Kobe a ball-hogger because Radmanovic is flirting with Penny Marshall when he should be setting a screen? Is Kobe not "trusting his teammates" if Odom and Turiaf get mixed up as to who is supposed to be on the strong side and who is supposed to cut around the pinch-post to meet the pass?
These bail-out shots often constitute three or four shot attempts per game. Throw that on top of the 18-20 shots (at least, probably) that Phil Jackson (out loud, now) WANTS KOBE TO SHOOT, and you're shooting over 20 times with three or four possessions that likely ended up in a clanged perimeter shot that led to an easy fast-break score on the other end. Of course a loss might result. Of course the Lakers are behind the eight ball.
Is that Kobe's fault? Is that because he's "volume shooting?"
There are so many other ways to pick this apart, but I was supposed to have this up at 9 EDT, and I'm just going to have to stop.
But I'll let you throw in some other ideas in the comments section. Here's a few to work off of: two-for-one situations at the end of a half, or quarter - those could lead up to six shots over a course of a game, six shots Jackson wants Kobe to take. Half-court heaves at the buzzer? Offensive rebound tip-ins, sometimes two or three in a five-second span, all missing and all counting as shot attempts? Injuries to certain 7-footers that force Kobe into shouldering a tougher offensive load in a losing cause against a deeper team?
The fact that Denver didn't guard Pau Gasol in the first round, and that Kobe had ice on his knees by the fourth quarter, limiting his shot attempts?
The fact that Utah fouls way too much, limiting Kobe's shot attempts, but still getting him 30 points and the win?
I've been trying to tell people this all year, and nobody wants to believe me under the guise of the MVP bluster, and what more prominent TV-types want to keep telling them. But you have to understand this:
Kobe is doing nothing this season that he wasn't doing two years ago, save for playing a little better defense. As always, he's desperate to win, he's trusting the Laker offense (whether that means 35 shots or 12 for Bryant), and he's listening to his coach. Whether that nets him 42 wins or a ring, he's the same Kobe. He's always been this brilliant.
The killer now is that the man finally has teammates. He had a nearly-dominant low-post force in the first half of the season, with Kwame Brown injured and not ruining things. He has an all-around low or high post monster in Pau Gasol to run the offense through. He has a host of young guards around him that teams can't leave, like they did in 2006 and 2007. He has Derek Fisher instead of Smush Parker. It's a team game, and all these things lead to wins.
Just once, I'd like to see people credit Kobe for what he really does. For the hard work. For the inherent trust in Tex Winter's offense (a relationship fostered in 1998). For the obsession with winning. For the love of the game that I love so dearly, that some of his contemporaries seem to regard as an on-again/off-again relationship.
Once people start to give him the dap he deserves for things beyond what we have to make up ("finally trusting his teammates"), they'll find him more respectable and more worthy of adulation that ever before. It's a shame that the media, and the fans that follow, might not ever get to that place.