Opposing arenas, once filled with vitriolic detractors, can't stop showering him with praise. Writers and critics who had built their careers on deriding number 8 and ten years later, number 24, are now penning essays exalting his greatness. Former on-court and off-court foes who had battled him through wars of words and clashes on the hardwood are now treating him like a conquering hero. It's all a strange shift in attitude towards a player who spent a majority of his twenty-year career transitioning from a petulant young show-off to a stubborn, hard-nosed grinder to a ball-dominant veteran. As much as he is turning into a player that we can barely recognize, the hoops world at large is turning in lock step. It's a strange reality we live in during this 2015-2016 season, made all the stranger by the in-game product.
Because Kobe Bryant is the worst on-court influence in the NBA. There. I said it. And that's not a controversial opinion. But perhaps more controversial: has there been a worse season for a Lakers player over the last two decades?
I don't think so.
Looking at the past twenty seasons, only Kwame Brown's glorious run in the purple and gold from 2005-2008 comes to mind. However, even when Brown was averaging 6/6 with 2.5 fouls, 1.6 turnovers a game to 1.2 assists in 22 bumble-filled minutes a contest, his stout post defense was enough to redeem his value somewhat. More to the point, who was Kwame taking minutes away from? Ronny Turiaf? The remnants of Chris Mihm's ankles? Lamar Odom, who was averaging 38 minutes?
Much has been made about Kobe's performance through the first quarter of the season, whether it's merely the concept of what he's doing to how physically hindered he looks on the basketball court. It's not entirely related to his shooting, but to say it's not a large part of the problem would be a disservice to what we're seeing. Just to break it down, here are some quick facts about just how bad Kobe's stroke has looked this season. via Basketball-Reference.com:
- .306: That's his field-goal percentage. It's by far the worst in the NBA amongst qualified shooters and seven percent worse than last season, when he shot a fairly horrid 37 percent from the field. Even some of the worst volume chuckers in recent memory haven't reached such a low bar, including Antoine Walker (.363 in 2007-2008), Allen Iverson (.387 in 2003-2004) and Jamal Crawford (.352 as a rookie in 2000-2001).
- 320: That's his total field-goal attempts. He's shot more times than Klay Thompson, John Wall and Kevin Love in an average of 100 less minutes. None of them are shooting less than 43 percent.
- .219: That's his three-point shooting percentage. He's taken 137 such shots. No other player that has taken 100 threes this year comes even close to that mark. Danny Green, who is having an absolutely catastrophic year from beyond the arc, is only hitting 29 percent of his long balls. Kobe would kill for that percentage.
- .253: That's his free throw rate, the percentage of free-throws he's taking to field goal attempts. Other than a six-game sample size two seasons ago, he's never even come close to that mark. It's very indicative of how little Bryant is taking it to the rack this season.
- .428: That's his three point rate. It's his highest ever by almost 20 percent. Yes, 20. Which is nearly the percentage he's shooting from that distance.
- .320: That's his midrange jump shooting percentage. Kobe, a known marksman from 10-16 feet, is shooting 13 percent below his career average.
- 61 percent: That's the percentage of his games that he's scored less than 20 points. Since 2000, he's never had less than 20 in more 35 percent of his games.
- 6: That's the number of games Kobe's taken at least 14 shots and hit less than 30 percent of them. He's done that 48 times in his twenty season career, good for 12.5 percent just this season alone. That's not good.
- 5: That's the number of his worst-20 shooting performances he's ever had, and they're all this year.
To put this all in context, Fox Sports recently ran some numbers on basketball-reference.com, comparing Kobe's season to the worst shooting seasons in NBA history. For qualified shooters, no one has ever taken as many attempts as Bryant and shot as poorly. The two closest are Emmauel Mudiay, who is quietly having a historically dismal rookie year in Denver, and a bunch of players in the 1940s and 1950s, when the game was basically played with peach tree baskets and almost no dunks or lay-ins.
Based on his shooting alone, Kobe is one of the most detrimental on-court players in the league. It's almost unfathomable how many shots Kobe's taking, how many he's missing and just how much of a stark departure it is from his career norms. Critics have asked why Bryant is doing this, and the story has to be partially told by that last factoid -- it's got to be confounding to the Mamba himself that he's shooting so poorly. Everything about his performance this year isn't just a slight drop-off or a moderate curb in his numbers. Most nights, Bryant just doesn't look like an NBA-caliber player. It's a stunning development, even when all of his injuries and miles are accounted for. The fact that he's still somehow tricking himself into thinking that the shots will go in, or his offensive game will improve or that defenders aren't hip to just how horrid his percentages are is not only baffling, but downright delusional.
And that's just looking at Bryant's stats in a vacuum. Taking into account the opportunity cost of more able-bodied players with developed skills such as Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert and Nick Young (yes, we're including Hibbert and Young on this list, which should really tell you where Kobe's percentages have gone), it's even more hurtful to the Lakers that he's taking and missing so many shots. His usage rate is still through the roof, an even more damning statistic when considering that he's not drawing fouls or going to the free-throw line at anywhere near his career norms. Mathematically, it doesn't make any sense. Even in the flow of the game, Bryant isn't drawing double teams any longer, shooting down the notion that his mere presence with the ball in his hands has a net positive effect.
Looking past the shots he's taking away from veterans, we get into the meat of the problem. With head coach Byron Scott loyal to Bryant in a way that suggested extortion of the highest degree, players like D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are being benched in lieu of starting players like Bryant. Regardless of how you feel about Scott's stance on having his young players "earn" minutes, there's no way that their on-court performances are less detrimental than Bryant's. It's absolutely confounding. Is it important to reinforce the notion that playing time is earned, not given, regardless of pedigree and previous statutes? Absolutely. But according to Scott, he's also trying to win games first and develop players second. How can he be benching players for the sake of development and trotting out Bryant, whose shooting performances are detracting from wins? While it's not necessarily Bryant's call in regard to playing time or rotations, the fact that he's on the team and giving Byron the option to take away minutes from young, but ultimately more efficient players, is no doubt an on-court detriment.
Please note that I've made it past 1,100 words and haven't written one word about Kobe's defense.There's no doubt in my mind that his offense shoulders a ton of the load of his inefficiency this season, but his matador defense that's been largely derided for the past several seasons has hit an all-time low. Is there really any point in picking out defensive metrics for the purposes of this article? Or should we just save my time and yours and agree that Kobe is one of the worst defenders in the league? Settled? Good. Thanks.
All things told, there's really no doubt in my mind that with his offensive and defensive limitations, Kobe Bryant is the most detrimental player in the league to his team winning basketball games. Hands down, there isn't a bad attitude that can hold a candle to just how far in the hole Kobe puts the Lakers on a game-to-game basis.
What's staggering is that Bryant isn't just bad for the Lakers. He's been a historically bad player. I wrote last week that this isn't the Kobe Bryant I want to remember. It gets more and more true with each passing day.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino