Early Indications: Kobe Bryant Dominates in the Post

So this is what Kobe Bryant in decline looks like?

For the first time in three years, this summer, Kobe had the summer off. That's not to say that he took the summer off, mind you — Kobe being Kobe, I can guarantee you that he put in just as much hard work as ever. But unlike the last two summers, which he devoted to USA basketball, first preparing for and then winning a gold medal, this summer was all Kobe's, to do with whatever he wished.

For Kobe, that meant only one thing:  Working on his game. As J.E. Skeets of Yahoo! Sports' Ball Don't Lie blog pointed out, it's one of the things that makes Kobe so special. While young players like Andrew Bynum are casting off Hall of Fame mentors as though they've learned all they can, Kobe Bryant, the best player in the game and a 14-year veteran, is still learning, still seeking out mentors.

As Phil Jackson recently pointed out (via The Press-Enterprise), "Kobe always has a goal. He doesn't go through summer playing golf or fishing. He's got something in his mind he's going to work on with his game during the offseason." This offseason, that something was his already-stellar post game. To that end, as you have all heard a dozen times by now, he called up the most skilled post player ever to play the game, Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon.

A mere six games into the season, the effects of Kobe's offseason work on his game are stunningly obvious.

Please understand the significance of this move by Bryant. Going into the offseason, he was already one of the most skilled post players in the NBA, pound-for-pound. His footwork is unparalleled, and while he is no center, he has certainly been capable for many years now of taking even defenders bigger than him into the post, backing them down, and scoring on them. So for Bryant to make his post game the primary focus of his offseason efforts says a lot.

The resulting whispers, in reaction to the news that Kobe Bryant was studying under Hakeem Olajuwon, were full of what-ifs. Kobe Bryant is 31, and still a dominant all around player — what if he developed the kind of post dominance Michael Jordan had, at the same late stage in his career? How good could Kobe be? How much longer could he remain at the top of his game? How many years could that add to his prime? And most of all:  How many more championships can he lead the Lakers to?

And the scary part in all of this? He only spent two hours with The Dream, and he did so only a week before training camp. While he was undoubtedly working all summer, many of these new moves are ones that Bryant has barely had time to really practice.

And yet, the early results indicate nothing less than complete, smashing success.

Consider this:  ESPN's John Hollinger predicted a decline for Kobe, joining a number of experts in pointing to Kobe Bryant's significant drop in free throw attempts per game as a telling indicator that he was beginning the inevitable downward slide. As the theory goes, fewer free throw attempts reflect a lessened ability to get into the paint for high percentage looks, and a corresponding increased reliance on outside jumpshots. But with the continued development in Kobe's post game, the opposite appears to have happened.

In 2006-07, Bryant averaged 10.0 free throw attempts per game. The next year, that number dropped to 9.0. Last year, that statistic dropped much more dramatically, to 6.9 attempts per game. The incremental decrease seemed to indicate the steady slippage which came with age, and the significant drop seen last year was even less encouraging.

This year, however, that number is back up. In fact, it's higher than ever. Through six games this year, he is averaging 10.8 free throw attempts per game — and that despite a 4-FTA outing last night (prior to which he had averaged 12.2 attempts per game). In case you're wondering, 10.8 attempts per game is not just better than in 2006-07 — it is the highest mark of Bryant's entire career.

A look at some advanced statistics — courtesy of HoopData.com, which (among many other things) breaks players shot attempts down by distance from the hoop (thanks to Hardwood Paroxysm's Matt Moore for turning me onto this excellent resource) — helps us understand what's happening here. Consider these numbers:

  • In both 2006-07, and 2007-08, Bryant averaged 5.1 shots at the rim.
  • In 2008-09, that number went down, as Bryant averaged only 4.4 shots from point blank range.
  • Thus far in 2009-10, however, Bryant is averaging 9.0 shots at the rim.

Such an increase in close shots is mind-blowing. Rather than taking fewer shots at the rim than last year, Bryant is taking twice as many! Certainly, this goes a long way towards explaining Kobe's increased free throw attempts, as well. Meanwhile, this increased emphasis on inside work has been accompanied by decreased outside shooting — again, the complete opposite of what was expected from him coming into this season.

In 2006-07, Bryant attempted 5.2 three-point shots per game. The next year, that number was nearly identical, at 5.1. In 2008-09, it dropped slightly, though still fairly high at 4.1 three-point attempts per game. This year, however, the drop in three-point attempts that has accompanied his increase in close shots has been dramatic:  through six games, he has attempted only 2.2 three-point shots per game.

Bryant's work in the mid- to high-post has also seen greater emphasis. In the two years from 2006 to 2008, he attempted 1.5 shots per game inside of 10 feet (but outside of point blank range); this year, he has averaged 2.3 attempts from that range. The combined effect is an increase in close (at rim) and short range (<10 feet) shots from 6.6 per game in the last three years to 11.3 this year.

He has also taken approximately three more shots from 10-15 feet this year compared to three years ago, while attempting nearly two fewer shots from 16-23 feet.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that so far this year, 100% of Bryant's three-point attempts have been assisted — as opposed to between 64% and 68% in the past three years. This would seem to further indicate more careful shot selection from long range. It also tells us that his three-point attempts have been more a result of spot-up, open shots (i.e., the good kind), and less a result of settling for long, contested shots when closer, higher percentage ones can be had (i.e., the bad kind). While he hasn't been hitting well from that range, it's a clear indication of improved long distance shot selection, and if he keeps that up, the shots will start to fall.

Of course, this likely also explains why Kobe is back on top of the NBA scoring ladder, leading all players with an average of 34.5 points per game, and topping 40 points in three of his last four games (each time, strangely enough, with 41 points exactly) — all while shooting the highest raw percentage of his entire career, at 48.1% from the field (his previous high was 46.9% in 2001-02).

Of course, it's still early. It's entirely possible that the numbers from this very small, six-game sample size are a fluke, and will even out over the course of the season. This raises two obvious questions: First, is it really possible that Kobe's post game has improved this dramatically from a mere two hours with Hakeem, only a week before training camp? And second, are these numbers an indication of real, valid, significant improvement, which can be expected to continue, rather than just a fluke or a series of coincidences?

The answer to both questions, is would seem, is a resounding, "Yes."

Kobe's most recent mentor was in the stands when the Lakers visited Houston on Wednesday, and he watched as Bryant schooled renowned defender Shane Battier in the post. Jeff Eisenberg of the Press-Enterprise had this to say about the game:

What impressed Olajuwon most about Bryant was the fluidity with which the Lakers star duplicated his moves. Whereas some young big men twisted themselves into human pretzels trying to imitate Olajuwon, Bryant's agility and athleticism allowed him to have success within hours.

Bryant showcased some of what he learned in front of Olajuwon on Wednesday night, shaking off the effects of a lingering cold to score 41 points on 15-for-30 shooting in an overtime victory against the Rockets. Olajuwon was especially pleased to see Bryant take a perimeter defensive ace such as Battier into the post and comfortably turn and score around him with either shoulder, one of the skills they worked on together.

So, has Kobe already incorporated Hakeem's moves into his arsenal? Apparently so. Bryant is well-known for being able to try a move one day in practice, and use it flawlessly and to devastating effect the next day in a game. In the Houston game, Eisenberg described Kobe as repeatedly staring at the same person as he ran down the court after scoring in the post — Hakeem Olajuwon, sitting courtside. For his part, The Dream knew exactly what the stare meant:

"He looked at me to confirm, 'I'm using what you taught me,' " Hakeem Olajuwon said. "That was the greatest gift for me. It was wonderful."

Clearly, this is no coincidence. Clearly, Bryant's increased post work has been deliberate — and extremely successful. His interaction with Olajuwon from the court makes that obvious, and Olajuwon's comments after the game confirm that he sees Bryant as having successfully incorporated what The Dream taught him into his game. The complete helplessness of Shane Battier, the defender thought to be the best at defending Kobe Bryant, is the proof in the pudding.

And that's just in the last couple of months. As good as Kobe already is in the post, and as quickly as he has already incorporated the moves Hakeem taught him into his arsenal, expect him still to continue to improve, as he continues to practice and use his new moves.

It's only six games in, and the sample size is small, but every indication is that this major improvement in Kobe Bryant's game is deliberate, real, and here to stay. That steady decline that was predicted for Kobe going into the season? Go ahead and put that on hold, for the time being, as Kobe appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

UPDATE:  A valid point relating to Kobe's dominance in the post that has been raised is that of the Lakers's current lack of quality personnel down low. This is only partially true; for the majority of these games, Andrew Bynum has been on the floor, and playing quite a few minutes (showing excellent stamina, to the great delight of Lakers fans everywhere). Yes, Pau Gasol has been missing — but his return will have less of an effect on Kobe's post presence than you might think, for three reasons. First, he and Bynum only share the court for about 15 minutes a game, maybe 20 at most; thus, you can expect Kobe to play similarly while Gasol is at center (and Bynum on the bench) to how he has while Gasol has been injured. Second, it's entirely likely that Kobe will get a couple extra close shot opportunities with Gasol in at center, since Gasol is both more willing to defer than Bynum, and a much better passer. He also demands more attention than Bynum, which could lead to some very effective two-man play in the post between Kobe and Gasol. Third, the simple fact is that Kobe gets a certain number of "do your own thing" possessions per game, regardless of who is on the court. In the past, this meant facing up and taking his man off the dribble; based on his blatantly obvious mindset to start this season, however, it seems reasonable to expect him to use those possessions mostly in the post. For those possessions, it won't matter who's on the court — they'll make room for him wherever he wants to be. So while Gasol's return could change a few things, I don't expect it to have a significant impact on Kobe's post game; I expect this to be a primary emphasis for Kobe going forward.

I leave you with some thoughts from Kelly Dwyer, expressing the potential greatness that could result from these new developments — indeed, this new leap — in Kobe's game:

Kobe Bryant was so picturesque perfect in this game, and I don't mind telling you that this is just about as good as I've ever seen him.

He's, literally, scored nearly twice as much as he did tonight (41 points). He's done brighter, flashier things on bigger stages, with more to lose, with more going on. Doesn't matter.

Against Shane Battier, who knows exactly what to do, Kobe did something he's never done against Shane - take it to the post.

Take it to the post, to that triple-threat, and drive the Rockets mad. Make them his absolute creature. Just run things. If this is latter-day Kobe Bryant, then latter-day Kobe Bryant will be dominant. Completely and utterly dominant. Jordan-esque, dominant, in a way that Kobe just wasn't even when he was dropping 40 by hitting contested jumpers from 21-feet away.

Just the perfect game. As I mentioned before - he's faced scarier circumstances. But the game's most dogged competitor put dogged those instincts aside tonight, in favor of a brain that ranks amongst the game's elite. The game's all-time elite.

I know it's the first week of the season, I know you think I'm fawning, and I don't care. This wasn't just another 41-point game for Kobe Bryant. This was basketball, at its best.

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