All-Brick Layers Team: Kobe playing like Wizards era Michael Jordan
"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week: highlighting five players who are off to rough shooting starts in 2014-15.
Kobe Bryant made history Tuesday night by setting the NBA’s all-time record for the most missed field goals. This was, in keeping with Bryant’s famous ability to polarize, either a forgettable inevitability for a long-tenured scorer or the definitive factoid of a flawed, me-first gunner. "I’m a shooting guard who has played 19 years,” Bryant said matter-of-factly, according to the Los Angeles Daily News, apparently believing no additional defense was necessary. One thing is certain: Bryant’s passing of Michael Jordan on the NBA’s scoring list will soon bury this milestone, as “No. 3 all-time scorer” has a much more appealing ring to it than “the guy with the most misses.”
Indeed, history need not concern Bryant right now, as the present is troubling enough. L.A. fell to 1-6 with its loss to Memphis. Although Bryant is the NBA’s leading scorer at 26.7 points per game, he could very well be headed for the worst shooting season of his career. Through seven games, Bryant is shooting a career-low 39.3 percent overall and just 28.9 percent from outside even though his league-leading 24 field goal attempts per game dwarf the rest of the league (Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is the only other player averaging more than 20 shots a night).
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In Bryant's defense, it should be noted that the 36-year-old's return to full health and major minutes after two major injuries was not guaranteed. There are also some obvious explanations for Bryant’s high-volume approach: L.A.’s makeshift roster is lacking in talent and beset by injuries, new coach Byron Scott has fully committed to a Kobe-centric offense, and the Lakers’ defense is so pitiful that it almost doesn’t matter what happens on offense.
Bryant has had his moments, too, such as an electric stretch of hot shooting against the Warriors and a handful of nostalgia-inducing lay-ups and dunks. In sum, though, Bryant has had a really rough go: he has yet to shoot above 44 percent in a game, he took an eye-popping 37 shots (making just 14) in a loss to the Suns, and his assist rate is down considerably from the 2012-13 season, the last time he was truly healthy. Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson has come to Bryant’s defense – noting on Twitter that “Most players can’t GET 10 shots, let alone 30+ shots. It takes a special athlete to get a good shot in the NBA” – but Bryant’s early shooting performance is, basically, indefensible and nearly unprecedented.
File this under the “you can’t make this stuff up” heading: the best historical comparison to Bryant’s current shooting production is actually Jordan… the 38-year-old Jordan who dusted off the sneakers (again) to join the Wizards in 2001. The similarities, particularly in their advanced numbers, are fairly stunning.
Bryant, 2014-15: 34.9 MPG, 26.7 PPG, 39.3 FG%, 42.6 Effective FG%, 38.2 Usage Rate
Jordan, 2001-02: 34.9 MPG, 22.9 PPG, 41.6 FG%, 42 Effective FG%, 36 Usage Rate
While Bryant has the raw scoring edge, the two players are virtually identical in terms of their scoring profile. Both Bryant and Jordan posted extraordinarily high usage rates with middling results from an efficiency standpoint. That phase of Jordan’s career is regarded by many as the “Pretend It Never Happened” era, which doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture for what’s to come for Kobe between now and July 2016, when his current contract runs its course.
To get a sense for just how far “out there” Bryant has been when it comes to chucking this season, take a look at the following scatterplot, which compares the league’s 60 most prolific shooters by usage rate and effective field goal percentage.
Bryant, that lone minnow swimming all by his lonesome in the dreaded bottom right quadrant, really has been the ultimate outlier so far. His league-leading 38.2 usage rate is more than five points higher than Sixers guard Tony Wroten, who ranks second in the category, while his 42.6 effective field goal percentage is better than only five of the league’s 60 most-prolific shooters this season. “Unapologetic” would be the most polite way to describe what’s happening so far with Bryant’s shot-chucking and shot-missing.
These four players join Bryant on SI.com’s early-season All-Brick Layers Team.
Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
It’s not often that unsightly struggles in New York City go under the radar, but that seems to be the case so far with Anthony and the Knicks. The 2013 scoring champ is way off his usual production -- averaging just 20.3 points while shooting a career-low 39.1 percent overall and just 30 percent from deep – which isn’t exactly the start New Yorkers hoped for after Anthony re-signed this summer for $124 million over five years. Meanwhile, the Knicks are 2-6 and losers of five straight, with memories of Anthony’s dagger burying the favored Cavaliers in Cleveland’s home opener already far in the rearview mirror.
Still, Anthony’s plight seems redeemable in a way that Bryant’s doesn’t. First-year coach Derek Fisher is still learning the ropes and the Knicks are still trying to make sense of the triangle offense. With a franchise player as talented as Anthony, push will come to shove at some point: he will either find ways to be successful in the new system, or the new system will get put on the backburner so as to unleash his full abilities. As it stands, Anthony ranks No. 6 in usage rate and No. 57 out of the 60 most prolific shooters in effective field goal percentage. There’s basically nowhere for Anthony to go but up, even if a rejuvenated scoring touch won’t do anything to fix New York’s defense, which ranks No. 27.
Josh Smith, Pistons
I’m sure you’re totally blown away by his inclusion here. The best thing that can be said about Smith’s early shooting numbers is that he continues to do a pretty good job laying off the threes. That’s important, because he’s shooting 9.1 percent from downtown. For reference, that would only be an acceptable percentage if he was launching all of his three-point attempts from halfcourt.
So far, new coach Stan Van Gundy’s magic touch has yet to reach Smith, who is sporting the dreaded “Chinese Flag” all-red shot chart. Smith ranks No. 21 in usage rate and tied for No. 60 in effective field goal percentage among the league’s 60 most prolific shooters.
Trey Burke, Jazz
Last month, Burke was tabbed by SI.com as one of five sophomores set to take the next step this season. So far, that step ha led to a head-first stumble down a flight of stairs for Utah’s 22-year-old point guard. The good news is that Burke’s slumping hasn’t crushed the Jazz, who are 3-5 and have already established themselves as one of the league’s most entertaining young teams. The bad news is that Burke’s shooting numbers are so bad that they just about defy comparison.
Burke is currently shooting an anemic 30.2 percent from the field and 22 percent from deep while posting a usage rate of 20.7. Prior to this season, no NBA player has ever shot worse than 31 percent from the field while posting a usage rate greater than 20; put simply, it’s proven to be impossible to miss that often and still get playing time and scoring opportunities. Jazz fans who aren’t yet ready to turn the keys over to 2014 lottery pick Dante Exum must hope that Burke’s numbers will improve as he continues to get acclimated to life under new coach Quin Snyder. It’s still too early to condemn Burke to the “hopeless” pile, but he is tied with Smith for the worst effective field goal percentage among the NBA’s 60 most-prolific shooters. That's the definition of bad company.
Lance Stephenson, Hornets
Including Stephenson on this list makes for a clean five-for-five sweep when it comes to players who are adjusting to life with new coaches. Stephenson’s transition, like the others listed, has proven quite rocky, as he attempts to find his fit alongside Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. On Tuesday night, Stephenson went scoreless (taking just one shot) in the fourth quarter as Charlotte blew a 23-point lead in Portland. Afterwards, he told reporters that he “definitely” wants more late-game opportunities.
“I didn’t get the same looks in the fourth quarter,” Stephenson said, explaining why 11 of his 14 points came in the first half. “We went down to Big Al and we played off of Big Al. He’s a threat too on the floor. I felt like we could have mixed it up. … I feel like I can create for others and make the right plays every time. When I get looks, when I’m called plays, I make something happen every time.”
That has been the case in the past, and it was the case when Stephenson sank a dramatic game-winning three-pointer against the Hawks, but on the whole he’s been a mess this season. Stephenson’s 34.8 effective field goal percentage puts him behind both Smith and Trey Burke, and tied with Orlando's rookie brick-laying extraordinaire Elfrid Payton. Stephenson has found other ways to help – his rebounds and assist numbers are both up so far – but one of the defining question for the 3-5 Hornets is whether Stephenson can find satisfaction without an expanded offensive role. Steve Clifford is wise to continue with his measured approach towards Stephenson until his mercurial new guard brings his shooting numbers up to respectability.