BREAKING NEWS: Kobe Bryant played terribly in last night's loss to the Utah Jazz. Like, really, really terribly. Quite possibly the worst game he's played in his entire career. Let's re-visit the grizzly stat line in it's full horrific glory:
Kobe has shot worse in his career. Once, in 2004, Kobe shot 2-16 from the field (12.5%). Other than that, he's never shot worse than last night's 15% from the field when attempting more than 15 shots. He's turned the ball over more than seven times before (remember his "wrong kind of triple double" game earlier this season"). He's scored less before. But never, in his entire career, has he shot that many shots, hitting so few, scoring so few points, while turning the ball over as many times as he did and assisting as little as he did. There is a compelling argument to be made that we witnessed the wrong kind of history vis-a-vis Mr. Bryant last night.
Whenever we are cursed with one of these rare Kobe Bryant performances, it inevitably leads to the not so enjoyable argument over whether Kobe Bryant's gunning ways sometimes do a disservice to his team. After all, when you have uber-effective big men like Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol hitting 12-14 and 8-12 shots respectively, the question must be asked whether, on nights like last night, the Lakers might not be better off if Kobe Bryant weren't on the team. It's an argument your humble scribe has felt compelled to make before, and is willing to make again.
There's just one problem ... last night's performance doesn't fit the narrative.
To understand why, we need some definitions to establish the subtle difference between two terms that might be applicable to Bryant's performance. Those two terms are bad and detrimental. To the internets!
Adjective: Of poor quality; inferior or defective:
Tending to cause harm.
Courtesy of Google dictionary, or whatever it is that gives you a definition when you search for "word" definition on Google.
Nobody, throughout the entirety of the internet, will dispute that Kobe Bryant had a bad game last night (and considering the passion and devotion of some Mamba fans, that is a small miracle all on its own). But was Kobe's game detrimental to the Lakers? Certainly it was in the sense that, if Kobe plays better, the Lakers undoubtedly win the game. Certainly it was in the sense that, if Kobe ceded more shots to his more efficient offensive teammates (and they, in turn, maintained the high efficiency), the Lakers would likely win the game. But these are the kinds of comparisons that don't make sense in sports, because no game exists in a vacuum.
Instead, to truly discern the difference between bad and detrimental, you have to look at Kobe's behavior as compared to a normal contest, and determine whether what he was doing was actively harmful to the Lakers, or whether his performance was simply of poor quality. Doing so requires some baseline assumptions as to what determines good vs. detrimental behavior. Those assumptions are:
- Good Kobe distributes the ball when necessary; Detrimental Kobe forces shots against double teams (Evidenced, poorly I might add, by assists, and also by usage rate)
- Good Kobe attacks the basket; Detrimental Kobe settles for long jump shots (Evidenced by shot locations and free throw attempts)
You'll notice that none of these assumptions have anything to do with performance. That is as it should be. Kobe can make stupid decisions all night long, and then nail the incredibly difficult shots which result from his poor decisions. That is still Kobe being detrimental to the team; remember the definition here ... tending towards harm. Kobe can make all the right decisions, and be as cold as a bad Ice Cube commercial, and it is still Kobe being good, from a behavioral standpoint at least. And last night falls far closer to good than bad in any analysis of Kobe Bryant's behavior.
We'll start with Kobe's distribution. Kobe had four assists last night, one short of his season average (which clocks in just under 5 assists per game). His assist % of 17.7% is well below his season average of 25.9%, so chalk that up to the negative category. Also of note, of Kobe's 7 turnovers, I counted three of them as the result of bad passes, but even those can be taken as evidence of him not being shy about sharing the basketball. But the real important point here is usage. Kobe Bryant leads the league in usage rate on the season, utilizing 37.2% of his teams possessions when he is on the floor. Where did Kobe fall on the usage meter last night? Even with his 7 turnovers, Kobe clocked in at 34.8% on the season, below average. His shot attempts fit the same narrative. 20 attempts on the evening is nearly 4 shots less than his seasonal per game average. Kobe shot the ball terribly last night, but he most certainly wasn't in full blown gunner mode.
Now for the types of shots Kobe was taking. Here's Kobe's seasonal numbers in terms of where his shots usually come from (courtesy of Hoopdata.com). Apologies that these screenshots are a little blurry, I can't get them to upload properly.
So, on the season, Kobe is averaging just less than 4 attempts at the rim, another 3.2 within 3-9 feet, another 3.9 within 10-15 feet, just under 8 from the most inefficient place on the court 16-23 feet, and roughly 5 three point attempts per game. How does that compare with where Kobe was shooting the ball last night?
As you can see, Kobe was doing most of his (non) damage from pretty close to the basket. He got three attempts at rim (compared to a season average of 4). Four attempts within 10 feet, compared to a season average of 3. Five attempts within 15 feet, against 4 season average. And the major, major indication that Kobe was not just doing his selfish gunner routine? He shot just two attempts from 16-23 feet, when he normally takes 8 shots per game from that distance. Yes, he shot six three point attempts as compared to his season average of five, and guess what ... he was more efficient from three than he was from any other location on the court except at rim shots. Kobe also shot nine free throw attempts which is, you guessed it, above his season average of 8.1 per contest.
But if you want real proof that Kobe Bryant didn't play detrimentally last night, we need to throw the same analysis at a game that I feel confident in labeling as a truly detrimental. On January 1st, Kobe had one of his other "worst games of all time" performances, after which I wrote that it "was one of the single most selfish performances you will ever see in the game of basketball". How does that performance stack up in terms of measuring behavior?
Here's Kobe's box score from that evening. He shot a higher % from the field, but had significantly more attempts than last night's game (28 to 20). He had the same number of assists, and one less turnover. He was much less active on the boards (2 in Denver, 6 last night), though we haven't really used that as a criteria so far, so starting now would be unfair. From a distribution standpoint, both of these terrible performances are in a virtual dead heat. Except that his usage in Denver was as far above his season average (41.2% on the evening vs. 37.2%) as last night's was less than his season average.
That, my friends, is what gunning looks like. Only two shots at rim, 4 shots from within 9 feet, and then 7, 7 and 8 shots respectively from the furthest distances on the court. Combine it with only four free throw attempts on the evening and you can see that, as suspected, that cold, dark night in Denver is most certainly the more detrimental performance of the season.
Last night, Kobe played a bad game of basketball. To quote him with his own words, he "shot like shit." But his style of play wasn't bad. In fact, it's exactly the style we'd want him to play. He was aggressive, the majority of his shots came from close range, he got to the free throw line quite a bit, and he took less part in the offense as the big men around him found success. We want Kobe to play, behaviorally, like he did last night more often, because that is how he can be the most effective player he can be.
But guess what folks, efficiency, for all of its predictive glory, is still random. Even if you hit a certain kind of shot 90% of the time, there's still going to be some rare and random occurrence where you miss that shot 3 times in a row. All you can do is play the percentages and try to do the things that tend to reward good behavior, and stay away from the actions that usually end up in failure. We want Kobe Bryant to be an aggressive, attacking basketball player who deals the majority of his damage closer to the basket and last night, that's exactly what we got. It just so happened to correspond with one of Kobe's worst statistical performances of the year. That doesn't make the performance detrimental.
Just really, really bad.