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Kobe Bryant: At the Top of His Game

LeBron had to take his stats and go home. Kobe got the only numbers he cares about: 4 wins.
LeBron had to take his stats and go home. Kobe got the only numbers he cares about: 4 wins.

Kobe Bryant is 30 years old. In August, he'll be 31. In basketball years, that's getting pretty high up there, and as a result, the consensus among sports writers is somewhere between "he is not the player he once was" and "he can't continue to play at this level for much longer." The problem? He's been as good as ever, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

I believe the problem here is that people are evaluating Kobe based on expectations, rather than reality. It's like a referee who expects a foul to occur in a certain situation; when that situation occurs, he immediately calls the foul – not because there was one, but because he was already predisposed, be it consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that a foul would occur in that situation. Much like that ref, who is officiating based on expectations rather than based on what he sees in front of him, many in the sports world are judging Kobe Bryant based on their expectation that his performance should be declining, if not now then soon.

But what is right there in front of their eyes tells a very different story. And not only is Kobe Bryant playing amazing basketball in his own right, but even when compared to LeBron James (whose individual performance has fans, bloggers, and media types raving) Kobe Bryant has been better — both in terms of individual performance and end result.

Let's review, shall we? We'll breeze right on through the first two rounds of the playoffs, where Kobe was "just" pretty great, and then spend some time on the Western Conference Finals, where he was truly magnificent.

In the first round, Bryant started slowly. He took only two shots in the first quarters of each of the first two games, and an average of only five shots by half. In the third game, he shot poorly, as did most of his teammates. In Game 4, however, Kobe changed his approach. He had been looking to facilitate his teammates early in the game, looking for his shot more and more later on. In that fourth game, he took eight shots in the first quarter, making six of them, and then hit four of five shots in the second quarter. He went into the half with 24 points on 10-13 shooting. He finished the game with 38 points on 16-24 shooting (67%), along with six rebounds and two steals. His True Shooting Percentage (TS%) for that game was an astounding 72.5%. In the next game, he scored 31 points on an excellent 62.1% True Shooting, adding four steals and four assists, to lead the Lakers to an 11-point win to close out the series.

A slow start, perhaps, but after a necessary adjustment, I'd say that's not too shabby.

In the second round, Bryant faced the defensive duo of Shane Battier and Ron Artest. In these two players, the Rockets had what no other team has ever been able to throw at Bryant: not one, but two elite perimeter defenders on the court at the same time, whose primary purpose was to make Kobe's life difficult for 48 "minutes" every other day. Rarely has Kobe has to work so hard on the offensive end, and yet, this was nothing like LeBron James vs. Boston. Artest and Battier "held" Bryant to 27.4 points on 45.3% shooting (just 1.4% below his season average), 34.4% from distance, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. Not exactly basement-dwelling numbers. In addition, Kobe turned the ball over only 1.57 times per game, while collecting 2.0 steals per game on the other end.

Not his best series ever, but when that's the best that two premier perimeter defenders can do against Kobe, it seems counter intuitive to suggest that Bryant is playing anything other than excellent basketball.

And now we get to the good stuff, because the Western Conference Finals against Denver was one of Kobe Bryant's best series ever. He didn't waste any time, dropping 40 points on the Nuggets, on 59.3% True Shooting, along with six rebounds, four assists, and only one turnover. Most importantly, the Lakers won, and mostly thanks to Bryant. In a two-point victory, Kobe scored the Lakers' final six points. He scored a total 18 points in the fourth quarter, coolly hitting all nine of his free throws along the way. He also doled out two assists in the final frame, making him responsible for 23 of the Lakers' 31 fourth quarter points.

In Game 2, another contest decided by a single possession, the Lakers lost, but Kobe Bryant still continued to perform. He scored 32 points on only 20 shots, good for 65.6% True Shooting. He also had five rebounds, three assists, a block, and a steal, and by (questionable) design, he never got the chance to take potential game-tying shot.

In Game 3, Kobe Bryant continued his otherworldly performance, scoring 41 points on only 24 shots, continuing his incredible efficiency with 65.1% True Shooting accuracy. He added six rebounds, five assists, and two steals, versus only one turnover, as he led the Lakers to a closely contested come-from-behind win. Not surprisingly, Kobe scored 10 of the Lakers final 13 points.

Game 4 was a Nuggets' blowout, and while Bryant never gave up, I have come around to ascribe Chris's theory that Phil Jackson intentionally conceeded this game in exchange for much needed rest – leaving Kobe Bryant, never one to simply surrender, to go into desperation mode, throwing up tough, low-percentage shots in an unlikely effort to shoot the Lakers back into the game. Even still, Bryant shot a very decent 53.6% True Shooting, adding seven rebounds and five assists to go with only a single turnover.

In Game 5, the Lakers came back with a vengeance, and Kobe Bryant led the charge – but not in the way you'd expect. He scored 22 points, but he took only 13 shots in the game (an impressive average of 1.7 points per shot), but it was his passing that secured yet another hard-fought win for the Lakers. In this game, the Nuggets double teamed and trapped Bryant more aggressively than they ever had before, and he made them pay. With the game on the line, he resisted the urge to do it all himself, instead making every right decision. He let the double team come, and rather than passing out early, he made them commit. As a result, his passes out of the double teams were unbelievably difficult, but he hit them with precision and made them look easy. With two Nuggets fully committed to Bryant, his teammates were left to play 4-on-3, and they took advantage of their numbers over and over again.

If Bryant was brilliant in Game 5 – and he was, even without posting gaudy individual numbers – he was godlike in Game 6. The Lakers absolutely dominated this game, and once again, it started with Kobe. He scored 35 points on only 20 shots (1.75 points per shot), posting an absolutely unbelievable True Shooting Percentage of 73%. He also had 10 assists, six rebounds, one huge block, and yet again, only one turnover.

Once again, the Nuggets aggressively trapped Bryant in Game 6, and once again, he made all of the right decisions. He never forced his shot, never attempted to play one-on-many, and consistently found the open man for an easy score. Along the way, he provided some very solid leadership, encouraging Gasol to be aggressive with his own shot, diagramming plays during timeouts, and instructing players like Shannon Brown during free throw breaks. As a result, the Lakers rolled to a 27-point blowout to close out the series.

In the six games of the Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant made 48.1% of his shots from the floor, averaging 34 points, 5.8 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game. Very importantly (as we will soon see), he shot 93.1% from the free throw line, making 67 of 72 attempts. He was incredibly efficient with his own shot, averaging 1.56 points per shot and scoring at an insanely great clip of 62.7% True Shooting over six games.

Throughout the Conference Finals – and even now that they are over – the general consensus has been that Kobe Bryant has been "not bad," and LeBron James has been incredible. Clearly, Bryant's performance by itself should be regarded as truly incredible. But beyond that, the disparity in how Bryant and James were seen in their respective Conference Finals series demonstrates the different predispositions with which people evaluate each player.

Consider the following:

  • LeBron, a (very big) small forward whose primary advantage over Kobe is his supposedly unstoppable ability to get to the rim, shot 48.7% from the field, nearly identical to Kobe's 48.1% from the field.
  • LeBron's True Shooting Percentage was a very solid 59.1% for the series, but Kobe's was an incredible 62.7%.
  • LeBron took more three-pointers than Kobe did, but while Kobe made his at a respectable rate of 34.4%, LeBron shot a miserable 29.7% from distance.
  • LeBron took more free throws than Kobe did, but he hit only 74.5% of them, whereas Kobe hit 93.1% of his. (Important: In the fourth quarter of Game 3, LeBron missed 5 free throws that may have cost him the game. More on this later.)
  • LeBron turned the ball over 4.17 times per game; Kobe only turned the ball over 2.17 times per game. (Important: In the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4, LeBron committed 7 turnovers that may have cost him the game. More on this later.)
  • LeBron scored 4.5 points more than Kobe during the Conference Finals, but he needed 4 extra shots per game to do so (and 5.3 extra shooting possessions, when shot attempts that result in free throws are accounted for).

Considering all of the above, it baffles me that the talking heads continue to underrate Kobe Bryant's performance in the Conference Finals, while ranting and raving to no end about LeBron James' brilliance.

Even more important than all of the above, however, was the result of the six Conference Finals games that each player participated in. While LeBron James was statistically and individually impressive, he also dominated the ball for his team. When Kobe has done the same thing in the past, he has been criticized for taking his teammates out of the game. Why is it that now, with LeBron doing the same, he doesn't receive the same criticism?

During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers' offense essentially reverted back to that old "give it to LeBron and let him do something" offense. Is it really any surprise that the productivity of LeBron's teammates suffered while they were standing around watching and waiting for him to do something with the ball? It shouldn't be; an offense so completely dominated by one player can only be so effective. And yet, somehow, LeBron's teammates are receiving all the blame for their unexpected playoff exit. LeBron deserves his share, as well, for dominating the ball and taking his teammates out of the game. It worked once, in Game 5; the rest of the time, it hurt his team.

Some will point to LeBron's assists: he averaged an impressive eight assists in the Eastern Conference Finals. Again, I ask you, is it any surprise that he is collecting assists when the majority of the Cavs' possessions end in LeBron making a play with the shot clock winding down? The "give it to LeBron" offense does not encourage ball movement. That extra pass? There isn't time for it, and even if there was, players aren't moving enough to make it worthwhile, because they have been too busy standing around waiting for LeBron. Shoot enough, and you will score plenty of points; pass enough in situations where additional passing is not encouraged, and you will rack up plenty of assists. None of that makes an offense built on waiting for LeBron to do something late in the shot clock anything close to efficient.

On the other hand, while LeBron was dominating the ball and putting up incredible stats, all the while stifling his team's offense and taking his teammates out of the game, Kobe Bryant was on the other side of the country, worrying more about winning than statistics. While LeBron was taking over at the end of games, dominating the offense, Kobe Bryant was gladly giving up the ball to facilitate ball movement and the creation of incredibly easy shots. While LeBron was busy putting on individual performances that would end in losses, Kobe was sharing the ball and allowing his teammates to share the moment with him. As a result, that moment was much more enjoyable, both for Bryant and for his teammates.

The key statistic: In six games, Kobe Bryant took 131 shots; LeBron James took 154, also in six games. Adjusting to account for shooting possessions that ended in free throws, the disparity grows even larger, with LeBron (195) using 32 more shooting possessions than Kobe (163) – an average of 5.3 additional shots per game. Impressed by LeBron's 38.5 points per game? Consider that Kobe sacrificed his own shots to get his team wins, but if he had taken as many shots as LeBron, he would have averaged 41 points per game.

And that's not where it ends. As the bullet points above show, it's quite a stretch to actually suggest that LeBron James was better than Kobe Bryant in the Conference Finals – but if you're still not convinced, consider this. As I mentioned above, LeBron James committed 4.17 turnovers per game to Kobe's 2.17; in Game 4, he committed seven turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime alone. Orlando won the pivotal game by two points, putting Cleveland in a hole they would never be able to dig out of. Had LeBron been able to control the ball in the fourth quarter, the overtime period would never have been necessary; had he gotten control in overtime, the Cavs might still have won the game.

And how about Game 3? LeBron missed five free throws in the fourth quarter alone. The Magic won by 10, but before the final 34 seconds, in which they increased their lead by five points due to "garbage time" fouling, Orlando had only a five-point lead. Had LeBron made those five free throws — the way Kobe made all nine of his in the fourth quarter of Game 1 (decided by two points) — the game would have been tied with 34 seconds left, and the end-of-game fouling would have been unnecessary. Again, the Cavaliers would have had a great chance of winning that game.

Here's the point: A look at Kobe Bryant's performances should tell you that he has had a stellar playoffs, and that the Western Conference Finals was among the best series of his career (which, in his case, is saying a lot). His incredible numbers for the Western Conference Finals only reinforce this observation. And if you're still not convinced, an honest evaluation of his performance compared to that of LeBron James, whose individual play in the Conference Finals is being lauded as some of the best basketball ever seen, will show you that Bryant has actually been better than James. He has been more efficient offensively, he has avoided key mistakes like missed free throws and hordes of turnovers that potentially cost LeBron two games, and he has kept his teammates involved and made all the right decisions in close, important games. In the end, only the final result matters, and while LeBron was busy playing his own game and racking up his own statistics, Kobe Bryant was sacrificing some of his own production in order to collect the most important statistic of all: Wins.

By any measure, Kobe Bryant has been as good as ever in these playoffs. LeBron's Eastern Conference Finals performance may be hailed as one of the greatest of all time, but Kobe's Western Conference Finals performance was even better. And while LeBron is back at home, trying to convince us that his refusal to congratulate the Magic or talk to the media wasn't poor sportsmanship, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are heading into the Finals at the top of their games.

The "big three-oh"? It means nothing to Kobe.

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