Saturday, January 7, 2012

Kobe Bryant: You're Doing It Wrong

There really isn't anything I can say about Kobe Bryant that hasn't already been said thirty or forty thousand times already. He's a player that's been in the league for 16 seasons, all of them in the league's 2nd-largest market, and he's achieved an inordinate amount of success - both individually and as a member of championship-level teams.

I'm really not in a position to criticize Kobe Bryant. He's capable of doing things on a basketball court that I never could, and clearly has a level of talent and skill that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that his success isn't some wild coincidence.

That being said, so far this season, I have to say, Kobe, you're doing it wrong.

Through nine games this season, Kobe is averaging 23.3 field goal attempts per 36 minutes. That's the second-highest rate of his entire career, only surpassed by his 23.9 shots per 36 that he posted in 2006, the year he had carte blanche to shoot until his arms fell off. He's also posting a career high in USG% (Usage Rate - the percentage of possessions where Kobe is the statistical player of consequence - in layman's terms, the percentage of Lakers possessions that Kobe either shoots, gets fouled, or commits a turnover). This normally wouldn't be a problem, if not for a few factors that are very different about this season compared to previous seasons.

First, there's his wrist injury. He has a torn lunotriquetral ligament in his right wrist. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds bad. And it's not just an injury that can be shaken off. It's clearly affecting him somewhat - he's shooting a career-low 20% from three (just 8-for-40), and his True Shooting % of 52.1% is also a career low. Perhaps the best example came in Thursday's loss against Portland, when he opened the game shooting 8-for-11, but landed awkwardly on his wrist in the third quarter, and finished the game on a 5-for-13 stretch.

He's also shooting from less efficient spots on the floor. His three-point attempts are up, but his percentage is way down, and he's taking 7.3 shots from 16-23 feet (the least efficient range of any shot), which is his highest rate since 2007. By any measurement, he is having his least efficient year scoring-wise of his entire career.

In the midst of all this, both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are enjoying their most efficient scoring years ever. Gasol is sporting a 61% TS% (2nd-highest of his career) and a 57.3% eFG% (career high). Despite that, he's averaging a career LOW in field goal attempts and free throw attempts. Next to him, Bynum is also at or near career highs in scoring efficiency, and before a 3-for-9 performance against Golden State on Friday, they were even higher. For those scoring at home, Bynum and Gasol combine for 26.2 shots per game at a clip above 57%, while Kobe shoots nearly that much at a clip 14% lower.

The problem is that Kobe is play way too much in isolation and post-up situations. Last season, Kobe shot 44.2% in isolation situations, with a PPP (points per possession) of .99. Posting up, he shot 49.3%, also with a PPP of .99. This year, those numbers have dropped to 32.4% on isolations (0.76 PPP) and 42.4% on post-ups (0.95 PPP). On top of that, he's isolating even more than he was last year (up from 31.5% of possessions to 33.9% of possessions). He's doing more of things that he is less efficient at, and it's inhibiting the Lakers' offense.

He's also struggling in pick-and-roll situations.

In 2009-2010, Bryant was the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll situation on 12.4% of his possessions (334 total). In those 334 possessions, he turned the ball over 19.8% of the time. Last season, he increased his screen-roll play up to 14.6% of his possessions (340 for the season), but his turnover rate fell to 15.3%. This season, however, his pick-and-roll play makes up 14.7% of his possessions, but he's turning the ball 26.2% of those possessions. If you compare those numbers with other pick-and-roll heavy wing players, like LeBron (10.6% of possessions, 10.5% turnover rate), or Wade (14.3% of possessions, 5.3% turnover rate), or Carmelo (16.4% of possessions, 9.7% turnover rate), his turnover rate is way too high.

His problem here is that he is ignoring the roll man too much. Only three of his 56 assists this season went to the roll man off of a screen. On too many plays, once he gets into the teeth of the defense, he either forces a bad shot or forces a bad pass to one of the spot-up shooters. Of his 11 turnovers in these situations, by my count, he has missed an open roll man (or, more often, an open Pau Gasol as he pops out) on seven of them. There have also been a number of times where Gasol or Bynum or McRoberts will come to set a screen for him, but he'll simply put up a (usually poor) shot before they even get there.

He's playing too aggressively for someone that wasn't particularly efficient to begin with and has subsequently injured his wrist. Subsequently, the Lakers' offense has taken serious steps back this season. They're currently 13th in the league in offensive efficiency, the lowest it has been in Kobe's entire career. In fact, since 1999 (Kobe's first year as a starter), the Lakers have only finished outside the top 8 once, in 2010.

To fix this problem, Kobe needs to scale back his instincts as a scorer. In 2008 and 2009, when the Lakers' offense was at its best, Kobe sported USG% of 31.4% and 32.2% (this year - 39.0%). Now he's taking more shots (while making less of them) and committing more turnovers despite playing fewer minutes. It's possible that this is merely some fluky statistics that are cropping up because of a new coach, some roster turnover, and no training camp, but there is still cause for concern. Bynum and Gasol are scoring too efficiently for them only to be seeing 12-14 shots each.

Kobe needs to isolate and post up less, because when he does those things, he's operating on the spots on the floor that Bynum and Gasol need, and Bynum and Gasol are much more efficient in those spots than Kobe is. Kobe needs to focus on creating pick-and-roll scenarios, and once he's in those situations, he needs to find the big men, especially Gasol, more frequently.

I'll leave you with the inaugural Power Poll of 2012:

The Isiah Thomas Division:

30. Washington Wizards
29. New Jersey Nets
28. Charlotte Bobcats
27. Detroit Pistons

The Mike Dunleavy Division

26. Milwaukee Bucks
25. Sacramento Kings
24. Utah Jazz
23. New Orleans Hornets
22. Cleveland Cavaliers

Colonel Craptastic

21. Golden State Warriors
20. Phoenix Suns
19. Toronto Raptors
18. Minnesota Timberwolves
17. Houston Rockets

Wait A Minute, It Wasn't Supposed To Go Like This

16. Boston Celtics
15. New York Knicks
14. Dallas Mavericks
13. Memphis Grizzlies
12. Indiana Pacers
11. Los Angeles Lakers

The Good Bad Team

10. Atlanta Hawks

The Bad Good Team

9. Los Angeles Clippers

Yeah, I Guess So

8. San Antonio Spurs
7. Orlando Magic 

The Exceedingly Goofy, Inexplicably Really Good Teams

6. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Portland Trail Blazers
4. Denver Nuggets

The Contenders

3. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Chicago Bulls

The Favorite

1. Miami Heat

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