Pay the Critics No Mind: Kobe Bryant Has Been "Amazing"

We're in the middle of the 2009 NBA Finals, and Kobe Bryant is at center stage. He is a mere 48 minutes away from erasing his critics' single biggest talking point – the fact that he has yet to win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal. But while a Lakers championship is considered all but guaranteed at this point, Bryant's critics aren't giving up, choosing instead to highlight a couple of poor shooting games by Kobe as a way of detracting from the magnitude of his performance in the Finals.

This brings us to a primary error in the way many people perceive and discuss the game of basketball: They think that they can look at a box score, especially a player's shooting percentages, and that the numbers will tell them how effective the player was on the floor, and what kind of impact he had on the game.

They are wrong.

Now, I realize you may be skeptical when I suggest that box score numbers tell us little about a player's impact on a game – but allow me to present a single example which I believe will convince all but the most dogged of "Kobe haters" that box score statistics don't tell the full story, or anything close to it. Consider, if you will, Kobe Bryant's last two games:

  • In Game 3, he shot 11-25 from the field for 44% (44.4% from three-point range).
  • In Game 4, he shot 11-31 from the field for 33.3% (35% from three-point range).

Based on a glance at the box score statistics, and seeing these numbers, many would conclude that Kobe was more efficient, and thus more effective, in Game 3 than he was in Game 4, and therefore, that he had a more positive effect on Game 3 than he did on Game 4. But anyone who watched the games understands that such a conclusion couldn't be more wrong.

In Game 3, Kobe missed five of 10 free throws (in what ended up a four-point game), forced up several bad shots near the end of the game instead of running the offense, and committed a crucial turnover when trying to split a double-team with less than 30 seconds remaining, at which point the Lakers still had a chance to tie the game. It is the only game that I can recall in which I would blame the loss directly on Kobe's play. By contrast, in Game 4 Kobe made all the right decisions down the stretch, including several huge plays on both ends of the court that led to the Lakers tying the game. He then scored the first four points in overtime and assisted on Fisher's go-ahead three-pointer.

This is a classic example of how the box score statistics don't paint the whole picture – in fact, they don't even come close. While the numbers suggest Kobe was better in Game 3, any informed observer would tell you that he played much better in Game 4. If this doesn't convince you that relying on box score numbers to determine a player's effectiveness on the court is complete nonsense, I'm convinced that nothing ever could.

Kobe Couldn't Care Less

Now, I'm going to tell you a secret about Kobe Bryant – one that his critics really don't want to hear: He couldn't care less about his box score statistics. How do I know this? The answer to that can be long enough to deserve its own post, and perhaps it will get just that at some point. For now, however, I believe a simple example will do: Kobe always attempts the end-of-quarter full-court heaves.

That may seem insignificant, but consider this: With a few seconds left in any given quarter, the Lakers often have the opportunity to get a desperation shot off. The odds of it going in are extremely low. That pass almost always goes to Kobe Bryant, and he always takes the shot. In any given game, he gets two or three of those shots. They are virtually always misses; they were misses before he even got the ball, simply by virtue of the situation.

Consider the effect of this on his field goal percentage. Kobe averaged 20.9 shots per game in the regular season. Therefore...

  • In games where he attempts two last second, full-court heaves, those two impossible shots represent 9.6% of his shots. If he decided they weren't worth it and did not take them, his average FG% would jump from .467 to .517.
  • In games where he attempts three last second, full-court heaves, those three impossible shots represent 14.4% of his shots. If he decided they weren't worth it and did not take them, his average FG% would jump from .467 to .546.

I know what you're thinking: This is true for every NBA player, especially superstars. Not so. I recall, a while back, reading a blog post in which the blogger observed that many NBA players in such situations fail to get the shot off in time, releasing it fractions of a second after the buzzer sounds. (I believe it was Henry Abbott at TrueHoop, but try as I might, I can't find that TrueHoop post; any help?  UPDATE:  It has been on TrueHoop more than once, and Michael Lewis mentioned it in his NY Times article on Daryl Morey and Shane Battier.) As I recall, the blogger considered this highly suspect, as NBA players have been practicing getting a shot off before the buzzer for their entire lives. I absolutely agree – in the fourth quarter of a close game, when it actually matters, you will almost never see a player fail to get a shot off. The blogger suggested that players were conscious of the negative effects such shots could have on their field goal percentage, and pretended to attempt the shot, while intentionally failing to beat the buzzer in order to protect their stat line.

Ever since reading that blog post, I have watched for those scenarios, and found that the blogger's point was very well made. Many players, from scrubs to LeBron James, often seem incapable of getting a shot off at the end of any quarter but the fourth. At the same time, I can tell you from personal (albeit subjective) experience, as a Lakers blogger who watches every Lakers game, that I cannot recall Kobe ever failing to get that shot off (it ma have happened once or twice, but by and large, he takes those shots). He usually gets at least a couple per game, and he virtually always gets them off in time.

Whether you attribute this to his ultra-competitive nature, which won't allow him to stop playing at full bore until the clock reads 0:00.0; or to his abundant self-confidence, which allows him to believe that every shot he takes will go in; or to something else entirely, one thing is clear: Kobe Bryant, if he thinks of it at all, surely understands that those shots will hurt his field goal percentage; and, aware as he is of his image and of the continuous criticism he receives, he must know that his critics will try to use his field goal percentage against him. And he simply doesn't care. Kobe Bryant knows that box score numbers don't paint an accurate picture of a player's performance on the court – and if his reputation is anything close to accurate, what he cares about most is winning the game, which to him means always competing.

 

The NBA Finals and the Kobe Effect

Let's bring this full circle. We're talking about the 2009 NBA Finals, and we now know two things:

  1. Box score statistics don't come close to painting an accurate picture of a player's effect on the game.
  2. Kobe Bryant doesn't care what his box score statistics say, as long as the Lakers win the game.

In this light, let's take a second look at these Finals, this time looking beyond the box score and trying to actually understand what kind of effect Kobe Bryant has truly had on the 2009 Finals. As a case study, we'll use his worst shooting game, Thursday night's Game 4, in which he shot 33.3% from the field (35% from three-point range).

In the first quarter, the Lakers were truly terrible. Lamar Odom shot 2-4 and Derek Fisher shot 1-2, and no other Laker hit a shot – except Kobe Bryant, who shot 4-7 from the field, 5-5 from the free throw line, and had 13 points in the quarter, along with two rebounds and an assist, without a single turnover. Despite their horrible play, the Lakers ended the quarter down only four points to the Magic, mostly thanks to Bryant. Without him, the Lakers could easily have been looking at as much as a 12- to 15-point deficit, which could have been 20 or more by halftime. Such a deep hole would have been much more difficult to climb out of, making the Lakers' second half comeback far less likely. Thus, it is largely due to Kobe Bryant's stellar early play that the Lakers even remained close enough to use a dominant third quarter to take the lead.

As Kelly Dwyer said at Ball Don't Lie, "Bryant shot poorly, save for the first quarter, acting as the team's offensive savior for the second game in a row during that term as the Magic just crushed any other Laker's hope of securing an easy shot."

In that third quarter, the Lakers outscored the Magic 30-14. While Bryant did not shoot particularly well (he actually averaged 1.33 points per shot for the quarter, which Doug Collins would tell us is not bad at all), it is no coincidence that four of his eight assists came while the Lakers were taking back control of the game. Two of Kobe's four assists went to Trevor Ariza, who hit both of his three-pointers and was 5-6 from the field for 13 points in the period. It was largely due to Bryant's ability to command the double team, and his willingness to pass out of it to find wide open teammates for high percentage shots.

Bryant did not shoot well in the fourth quarter, missing six of eight shots and scoring only four points. But while he did not score either of the two baskets that enabled the Lakers to erase a five-point Orlando lead in the final 31 seconds of regulation time, he was a crucial participant in the four biggest plays to end the fourth quarter, as well as several big plays in the overtime period.

With 38 seconds remaining in the game, the Lakers were down five, and things did not look good. The Lakers needed to score quickly in order to set up a two-for-one situation, to even get the chance to tie the game. Kobe Bryant could have taken over and attempted to do it by himself, forcing a long three or a contested fadeaway jumpshot. Instead, with the defense keyed in on him, Kobe drove straight to the front of the basket, and then executed a gorgeous spin move that sealed off Dwight Howard and enabled Bryant to dump the ball off to a trailing Pau Gasol for a wide open dunk. It was one of the most beautiful plays I have ever seen, and it showed Bryant's willingness to create quality opportunities for his teammates, even with the game hanging in the balance. Without it, Derek Fisher would never have had the opportunity to make that three-pointer and force overtime.

On the other end of the floor, Kobe Bryant made what may have been the unsung play of the game. The Magic executed their offense with flawless precision, somehow getting the ball to Dwight Howard for what appeared to be a wide open dunk with only Kobe Bryant nearby. Immediately, however, Bryant swooped down (up?) on Dwight Howard, wrapping up his arms and pulling him to the ground to prevent him from making the basket and force him to earn his points at the free throw line. Consider that for a moment. Kobe Bryant is listed at 6'6", 205 lbs. Dwight Howard is listed at 6'11", 265 lbs. By all accounts, Howard is so strong that we would likely expect him to simply lift Kobe off the ground before we'd ever imagine the Kobe could actually drag him to the ground. Empty the Bench said it best:

Kobe is strong as hell. In the first half, he ripped the ball out of Howard’s hands, prompting a foul from a pissed-off Superman. Then he completely pulls Howard to the floor with 11.1 seconds left so that he can’t get an open dunk. This feat of strength turns out to be a game winner, as Howard klunks both free throws, keeping the Lakers within one basket.

The play was not only an incredible display of strength and will on Kobe's part, but it was also an incredibly smart play. In a split second, Kobe Bryant understood what many players do not grasp in time, and he did exactly what he had to. He fouled Dwight Howard in such a way that Howard was unable to make the basket, sending him to the line while preventing any possibility of an "and-one" three-point play. Howard missed both free throws, making Kobe's foul one of the best and smartest fouls ever committed in a basketball game.

The Lakers now had 10 seconds to score three points, tie the game, and force overtime. They wouldn't even be in this position without Kobe Bryant's last two plays, one on each end of the floor. Derek Fisher has received all of the glory for hitting the shot, and rightly so – but what shouldn't be overlooked is that once again, Kobe Bryant made the perfect decision, which led to Fisher's game-tying shot.

Here's something you may not know, but which likely won't surprise you: Unlike the last shot of the Lakers' Game 4 loss to Denver, that final Lakers possession of the fourth quarter was not drawn up for Derek Fisher. It was intended for Kobe Bryant. But when Kobe received the pass, he was immediately trapped in the backcourt. Without so much as a second thought, he immediately passed out to Ariza, who relayed the ball to Derek Fisher. (Ariza also deserves some credit, for instantly reading the situation and making the perfect decision despite the broken play.) You know the rest. But the fact is that no one would have been surprised if Kobe had decided to hang onto that ball, found a way to get down the court, and forced a three-pointer to tie the game. It might even have gone in. But he didn't do that. With the game on the line, he willingly gave up the ball and trusted his teammates to make the play for him. With so much talk about Kobe not trusting his teammates, it's unfortunate that so little has been said about Bryant's willingness to make the right plays, even when that meant giving up the ball and trusting his teammates to make shots, rather than forcing shots himself.

Derek Fisher nailed the three-pointer, but four seconds remained for the Magic to attempt a final shot – an eternity at the end of a basketball game. Once again, Bryant made one of the biggest plays of the game. Using a series of cuts and screens, the Magic created several mismatches on the floor. At TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz painted the picture:

On the second attempt, all kinds of things were happening: 

  • Rashard Lewis ran interference on the inbounds play, which freed Pietrus up to collect the ball from Turkoglu about 30 feet from the hoop. Lamar Odom, who got caught on the action, was left to cover Pietrus, while Kobe Bryant drew Rashard Lewis on the switch. 
  • After his solid down screen to free up Pietrus, Lewis swung around Dwight Howard in the middle of the lane to fade to his favorite spot along the 3-point line on the left side. He dragged Pau Gasol -- Howard's man -- with him.
  • ...which meant that Dwight Howard now had position deep, deep, deep in the post against Kobe Bryant.

Watch a replay of that possession, and keep your eye on Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Remember, Howard has at least five inches and 60 pounds on Bryant. While Arnovitz points out that Pietrus, instead of forcing his own shot, could have found either Rashard Lewis in the corner or Dwight Howard at the basket, know that a pass to Howard would not have been a sure thing. Despite the size disadvantage, Kobe was using his body and defending Dwight for all he was worth. He had Howard fronted, and he was working hard to deny an entry pass, or easy access for an alley oop. Had Pietrus managed to get the ball into Howard – no easy task, as I would have given Kobe 50/50 odds to deny and deflect that pass – Kobe had great position to either strip the ball or once again force Howard to earn it at the line. Thus, despite the huge mismatch, Kobe played some incredible defense on Howard, making Howard only a slightly better option than Pietrus' forced shot.

Pietrus missed, and the game went to overtime. Kobe hadn't since the 4:48 mark in the fourth quarter, but he had played an absolutely critical role in all of the final four possessions in the game, and was largely responsible for making overtime possible.

In overtime, he made his first two shots, responding to Rashard Lewis' cold-blooded three-pointer and putting the Lakers back on top. He missed his next shot, and then appeared to airball the next one, and finished 2-5 in the extra period. However, it is important to note that one of his misses was an egregious missed foul, in which Kobe was blatantly hit on the wrist as he completed his shot, thus forcing the air ball. Had the play been called as it should, Bryant likely would have finished 2-4 from the field and 2-2 from the line, with six points (good for an impressive 1.5 points per shot) and an assist in the five-minute period. Nonetheless, his two early buckets once again kept the Lakers in the game.

Finally, he made yet another key play, facilitating the shot that would put the Lakers ahead for good. He received the ball in the post, and Jameer Nelson (who was defending Derek Fisher) quickly came to double him. Bryant kicked the ball out to Fisher at the top of the arc, and Fisher drained yet another huge three-pointer, putting the Lakers up three with 31 seconds remaining – a lead the Lakers would not give up for the remainder of the period. Gasol sealed the deal with a scramble play off of a Howard rebound tip, finishing with an uncontested dunk and putting the game out of reach for good.

 

Don't Believe Everything You Hear (or Read)

Along the way, Bryant did more than just make all the right plays on the court with the game on the line. He also stepped up as a leader. In timeouts, he could be seen encouraging players, leading huddles while Phil Jackson was busy drawing up plays, and instructing his teammates on various aspects of the game – how they could exploit weaknesses in the defense, what they should do in specific situations, etc. His communication with his teammates was simply superb, and his ability to impart his confidence and composure to the other Lakers on the floor was plain to see. He was an excellent leader on and off the court, both in word and by example, and it showed in the poise showed by the entire team in such a high pressure situation.

So, the next time someone tries to tell you that Kobe Bryant has been anything less than incredible in these Finals (or, as the NBA would say, "amazing"), pointing to his shooting numbers in the box score, remember that box score statistics don't tell the whole story. In fact, often they don't even come close. And keep this example in mind – whereas the numbers might suggest that Kobe was better in Game 3 than in Game 4, you know from watching the games that the opposite was true. And whereas the number might suggest that Kobe was ineffective in Game 4, you know that while he may have missed a few shots along the way, in truth he controlled the game when it mattered most – keeping the Lakers in the game in the early going, embracing the role of facilitator in their dominant third quarter, orchestrating the four most important plays of the game to end regulation, scoring the first two Lakers baskets in overtime, and assisting on Derek Fisher's go-ahead three-pointer to take the lead for good.

No longer able to criticize him for not leading his team to a championship, Kobe Bryant's critics will try to portray his individual performance in this series as less than impressive. But the truth is, he has been truly amazing – arguably the best he has ever been, despite his age – and it is because of him that the Lakers are about to win the championship they have been hunting for two years. A missed shot here or there doesn't change that one bit.

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