This past Tuesday, against the Memphis Grizzlies, where when he last visited he finished out a 20 point, 5 rebound, 4 assist performance despite playing on a broken lateral tibial plateau, Kobe Bryant made more NBA history. As you have surely heard by now, Bryant missed the 13,418th field goal of his NBA career, leaving him in sole possession of first place in that historical category. As anyone who has followed Kobe's career knows, he also does not give a shit (and would probably use that exact phrase to tell you), and continues to shoot and build up his lead. To go with the theme of history in the making, this Friday Bryant will participate in his 48th matchup against Tim Duncan and his San Antonio Spurs.
These events have had me thinking a lot about Kobe. As many of the more frequent readers of this fine blog have surely noticed, I am a fan. However, even as an admittedly somewhat biased observer, I simply cannot understand why the basketball community (especially Twitter) feels the need for such hand-wringing and mocking of both Kobe's newest record and his latest contract (ever since it was signed).
Starting with the more recent criticism: has Kobe missed a lot of shots? Yes! The most in NBA history as it would happen. This is an inarguable statistical fact. Does that make him a bad player, or even "not much of an NBA player"? (I am not going to link to that TrueHoop article again) No. As some have mentioned though, creating shots is a skill! Anyone could go out and miss a bunch of shots in a vacuum, but a player has to be talented enough to justify continued playing time and shot opportunities to be able to rack up such a record. As Lakers coach Byron Scott told media after Bryant broke the record, "I don't care about that crap, and I'm sure he doesn't either...I don't mean to cut you off, but to me it speaks of his aggressiveness and his longevity." As another Lakers legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, put it, "I think it has a lot to do with his playing style", which is pretty much a perfect explanation. Bryant has always been willing to live dangerously (and even sometimes borderline insanely) when it comes to his shot selection, launching some shots that many other players would be ashamed or afraid to take. Whether you see that as a giant character flaw, or a key facet of his personality which contributed to his greatness is a round-ball Rorschach test that says a lot about the observer and concurrently has no right or wrong answer.
Regardless, Bryant's shot selection has earned him many outspoken critics, many of whom came out of the woodwork using advanced statistics to paint Kobe as an inefficient gunner (and sometimes more nuanced criticism to be fair). This advanced player tracking has also changed the way the game can be measured in ways beyond looking at shooting efficiency, such as this article from 2012 by Kirk Goldsberry that I feel helps explain very well Kobe's value in a nontraditional way. In his player tracking research, Goldsberry noticed that Bryant was responsible for more "Kobe Assists" ("a player or a team missing a basket that in a way leads directly to the kind of field goal generally referred to as a put-back, tip-in, or follow") than anyone, and why he is the namesake for the stat.
Goldsberry goes on:
"While Kobe haters may delight in the idea that many of Kobe's best passes are actually his missed shots, I would suggest that these folks temper their delight because, like it or not, these passes are effective. I would also argue that many times Kobe Assists are not as accidental as they may seem; in fact, the belief that these outcomes are "lucky" or these bounces are "fortuitous" diminishes the considerable skills required for an offensive team to extend a possession or score those critical "second chance" points. A 16-foot jumper during a fast break is a horrible shot in part because there is little chance a teammate is present in case you miss; that same jumper in a half-court set when Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are on your team and near the basket is nowhere near as foolish. The latter is the actual shooting environment in Los Angeles; this is the ecosystem where Kobe Bryant lives."
That was written when LA had Gasol and Howard to grab hold of Kobe's caroms. The more prevalent question now, given that he is leading the league in both scoring and usage rate but only shooting a suboptimal 38.8% from the field, is whether Bryant still lives in an ecosystem where his teammates are capitalizing on his misses. The answer to that question is yes and no.
While the Lakers currently do not have as formidable a frontcourt as they fielded in 2012, the purple and gold still rank 8th in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage, grabbing 28.5% percent of their own bricks this year, led by Jordan Hill and Ed Davis, who are grabbing 15.4 and 14 percent of the team's own missed shots on offense, respectively. This is not quite the Howard-Gasol heyday (if one can even call that time a "heyday"), but it is still within this team's strengths to grab Bryant's misses, making his high volume of shots and raw inefficiency look a little bit better within such a context.
The other positive of Bryant's aggressive shot selection is that it causes defenses to tilt in his direction. Lost in the "Kobe Bryant is a selfish inefficient aging gunner narrative" is the fact that Kobe has been a more than willing playmaker, assisting on 20.3% of teammates field goals while he is on the floor. As a team, the Lakers rank 22nd in the league in assisted field goals. While assisted field goals have been shown not to correlate with efficient offense, and some of the Lakers' low ranking in that stat is surely caused by Bryant's isolation shots, his teammates surely aren't complaining about the extra defensive attention to Kobe giving them opportunities.
All of this is a roundabout way of arguing that for all of the grumbling, grousing, and guffawing at Bryant's misses and high usage, his aggressiveness and shot creation are far from being as negative of attributes as his loudest detractors would have one believe. The real issue with the Lakers is less with Kobe's on court production (except for his pretty pathetic defense) than with the teammates around him, which brings us to the other criticism of Bryant to be addressed here, his contract.
Regarding that contract: From a basketball perspective, under the current CBA, is Kobe Bryant worth 38%(!) of a team's salary cap? No, definitely not if you are trying to fill out a competitive roster; that is far too much. However, as many have stated before me, Bryant is unquestionably worth that much money, and is probably a bargain to the Lakers at that price tag from a business standpoint. The NBA, where the best players being paid far below their free market value so that billionaires can make a profit, and fans criticizing athletes for being selfish or uncompetitive when they do not give said billionaires a discount happens. (That is probably less catchy than "Where Amazing Happens"; I can see why they went with the latter.)
This specific accusation of selfishness is often leveled at Bryant regarding his contract, especially as compared to Tim Duncan's hometown discount, as Sam Amick of USA Today pointed out in his piece on the upcoming matchup between Duncan and Bryant this Friday:
"Yet the discussion that surrounds Bryant and Duncan these days has more to do with business than it does basketball - specifically, the claim that has been made by so many that Bryant should have followed in Duncan's footsteps when it came to negotiating what appears to be his final contract. While the 38-year-old Duncan signed a three-year, $30 million deal that expires this summer, Bryant - who inked a two-year, $48 million extension in Nov. 2013 - will make nearly that much this season alone."
Bryant has heard these criticisms, and addressed it directly to Amick, stating that, "It's a different market, man... San Antonio's not doing $2 billion TV deals - or $5 billion - so it's a different market." This will not appease many who will counter that every player is restricted on their earning potential by the same CBA regardless of market, and still take less in order to help their team field a competitive roster. I would argue that it should not be the responsibility of the players to manage the cap for the team. That is the general manager, owner, capologist, or whoever's job, not the players'. There is no field other than professional sports where a) salaries are artificially capped at a max amount; and b) that employees are expected to take discounts in order to save the business owners from overspending, especially for an organization like the Lakers which made a reported $100.1 million last year from basketball operations alone, first in the league.
In the end, Kobe Bryant does not need me to defend him. His resume (5 championships, 2 Finals MVP awards, 1 Regular season MVP award, 11-time selection to the All-NBA first team, the respect of his peers, etc.) speaks for itself better than anyone could speak for him. Is he less efficient than he once was? Of course he is, all players age and decline. He may now hold the record for most field goals missed, but that in no way makes him a bad player, and is a testament to his being the living embodiment of the philosophy that "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Kobe may be making more money than Tim Duncan, or Dirk Nowitzki, but if trying to make close to what his actual value is to his company makes him greedy, then I would suspect many of those who are criticizing him are just as "greedy" as he is.