By Rob Mahoney
The polarity of public opinion spiraling around Kobe Bryant has created debate about his on-court impact where there ought be none. Bryant produces on a massive scale, makes crucial plays and is an NBA champion. He also has a history of poor shot selection so severe that it has, at times, disrupted the Lakers' offense, sacrificing the full utility of Bryant's teammates for the sake of needlessly difficult attempts.
There's still room for disagreement when it comes to evaluations of Bryant's game, if only because it's tricky to define exactly how much his pure scoring ability has helped the Lakers and how much his reckless gunning has hurt them. But ultimately, Bryant's limitations seem to be an inseparable extension of his strength -- a necessary cost of doing business with a maniacal superstar who needs to win on his own terms.
So Bryant went about his career with tweaks and changes along the way, but mostly operated under the same fundamental assumptions about shot distribution and offensive flow. He played the good teammate at times, but he largely took what he deemed to be his according to his own best basketball judgment, thereby giving the Lakers a chance in any game and too often shooting them out of games.
But some 30,000 points later, that mindset has magically -- and radically -- changed. As I noted earlier this season, Bryant's judgment has improved so dramatically that we may be bearing witness to Kobe at his very best. The basketball scholar with a mental library of moves, fakes and counters only now has the organizational capacity to optimize his skills within a team context. The 34-year-old in his 17th season is reading defenses and floor spacing more effectively than ever before, and actually playing off of his teammates consistently to create better scoring opportunities for all involved.
The most stark change has been the shift from independent scorer to pick-and-roll practitioner, an evolution at least partially motivated by the shambled state of the Lakers' point guard rotation. With Steve Nash still sidelined by a bum leg and Steve Blake out after abdominal surgery, Bryant had little choice but to assume creative control of the Lakers' offense. As a result, pick-and-rolls now account for 27.6 percent of Bryant's total possession usage, up from just 12.2 percent a season ago, according to Synergy Sports Technology. The Triangle-ish offense that L.A. ran under Mike Brown prioritized post play and cutting over high screens, but Bryant has long been a brilliant operator of the offense once freed by a hard pick.
Once gaining that slight spatial advantage, Bryant doesn't explode toward the rim, but instead uses a gradual entry into the lane as a means of creating defensive discomfort. It's a style that, strange as it might seem, mirrors Chris Paul's manipulation of the defense in similar contexts. As Bryant crawls into the lane, the discipline of every perimeter defender is tested. Opponents who double down to help against Bryant's patient dribble penetration are exploited by cutters and spot-up shooters in scoring position, not to mention Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol entering the scene on a delayed roll. Kobe simply makes the initial move and then lets the defense beat itself, all with a nice pull-up jumper and runner in his back pocket in case things don't go as planned.
That basic setup has done wonders in terms of pulling Bryant's offense closer to the rim, all without compromising his bulk scoring. Kobe has still attempted more field goals this season than any other player, but he's shooting fewer times per minute than he has at any point since 2005 -- all while his per-minute scoring has climbed to its highest mark in five years. That's resulted in a career high in true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws), and a huge jump in overall efficiency.
All it took to get to that new statistical high was the slightest shift in approach: the use of an initial screen rather than reliance on yet another self-created play in a long series of isolations. It's impressive as hell that Bryant was able to bludgeon his way to 30 points a night through one-on-one play, but doing so required him to prematurely hoist up shots in order to catch the defense off-guard or go deep into his arsenal on a possession-by-possession basis. As Kobe is finding out now, it never had to be that difficult. Even by taking only a single step around a pick before settling for a pull-up jumper, Bryant can create a vastly superior look to the fading, craning shots he was relying on as a solo scorer.
He's still dominating the ball (in fact, the percentage of his field goals that are assisted by teammates has dipped substantially relative to last season), but he's simply doing so in a more sensible manner. And what a difference that good bit of sense makes. By working more patiently and collaboratively, Bryant's offense has naturally gravitated toward the spots on the floor in which he's most effective. Take a look at how Bryant's shooting tendencies (as charted in shades of blue) coincide with his shooting performance (as charted on a hot-cold/green-red scale) over the course of this season:
... as compared to last season:
That's about as close as a superstar can reasonably get to optimal usage. Tons of Bryant's attempts are coming in the restricted area, and these charts don't even take into account the fouls drawn on those drives -- which have resulted in a solid increase in free-throw attempts per minute to create even more efficient scoring. Beyond that, Bryant has had plenty of opportunities to work from the right side of the floor (where he's most effective), all while significantly cutting down on his operations from the left block and wing areas, places that had previously translated to poor shooting performance. His three-point shooting has been particularly measured, with some 38 percent of his attempts coming from his hot zone above the break on the right side of the floor.
The exact reasoning for Bryant's breakthrough is a bit fuzzy, but this is exactly where many of his "critics" (read: those who criticized his shot selection) have long wanted him to go with his offensive usage. Kobe can still get buckets, and the Lakers would be silly to take the ball out of his hands too often. But his evolution into a more team-effective shot creator could turn out to be revolutionary within the context of his career, and a saving grace for a Lakers team that still has so much to figure out on both sides of the ball. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com