Kobe Bryant is indisputably one of the best scorers in NBA history. He’ll enter the Lakers’ game against the Spurs on Friday just 30 points behind Michael Jordan for No. 3 on the league’s all-time scoring list -- and knowing Bryant’s ultra-competitive nature, it seems likely he’ll want to surpass MJ while playing his longtime rivals in San Antonio.
If Bryant does try and pull off a vintage “Vino” performance, however, it might be even tougher for the Lakers to win than it typically has been during this trying season for the storied franchise. It’s gotten to the point where Magic Johnson is openly rooting against his former team in hopes they can nab a high draft pick next summer.
To the surprise of no one, Kobe is not in favor of punting what will likely be his second-to-last NBA season. “Players play, and players try to win every single game. That's just what we do,” Bryant said according to ESPN.
That’s all well and good, but if Bryant wants to get serious about winning, he’d be well-advised to pass up on some of those shots and shift the scoring onus onto his teammates more often.
In Lakers' wins, Bryant has averaged 21.3 shot attempts with 7.5 assists. In losses, he’s launched 22.8 shots on average and collected about half as many assists (3.9) per contest. The Lake Show is clearly better off when Bryant balances his otherworldly scoring abilities with an awareness for wide-open teammates.
Last week, Los Angeles won consecutive games against the Raptors and Pistons as Bryant dished out 25 combined assists. But he also turned the ball over 10 times against Detroit, which might have temporarily discouraged him from taking a pass-first approach – he has just 16 assists in the Lakers’ last four games.
Though Bryant has seemingly made a point to limit contested shots in favor of finding open teammates at times this year, he’s still clearly adjusting to the role of distributor.
Mamba apologists will point to the fact that Bryant is leading the league with 25.5 points per game. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s easy to conclude Kobe is mired in one of the worst shooting campaigns of his 19-year career. Let's take a look at five graphs that demonstrate that trend:
Bryant has gone back to his old gunner ways recently, and it hasn’t helped his shooting nor his assist-turnover ratio -- he’s converted on just 34 of his 88 attempts (38.6 percent) with 16 assists and 13 turnovers over the Lakers’ last four contests.
Despite posting six 30-point games this year, Bryant leads all NBA players with 300 missed field goals, and no one else is even close.
Much has been made about Bryon Scott’s bizarre aversion to three-pointers in favor of long two-pointers, which have been proven over and over again as the least efficient shot in basketball. Before the season, Lakers fans might have taken solace in the fact that part of Bryant’s greatness is tied to his ridiculous ability to nail turnaround jumpers just inside the arc.
But Bryant has taken that strategy to a new, wildly inefficient level this season. With 169 shots between 16-23 feet from the basket, he’s on pace to lead the NBA in attempts from that distance. Meanwhile, he’s only getting to the rim for 6 percent of his shots.
To put that in perspective, noted long-range residents Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry manage to drive to the bucket for 14 percent and 11 percent of their shots, respectively. Dwyane Wade, perhaps Kobe’s most effective modern comparison, takes 10 percent of his shots within four feet of the rim.
Maybe Scott’s preferred strategy of getting to the rim will eventually take root in Bryant’s mind, and his efficiency will rise accordingly. It’s also possible that the Mamba’s Achilles injury suffered in April 2013 has hindered his ability to drive through defenses. If so, this could be the beginning of a permanent decline in Kobe’s game.
It’s not just your imagination. Kobe has taken more shots this year than he has in the past several seasons, and he hasn’t been making them as often. His overall field goal percentage (39.0) is the worst it’s ever been, and even his free-throw percentage (80.2) is the second-worst of his career.
Bryant hasn’t attempted as many three-pointers (5.3 per game) since his legendary ’05-06 chuckfest brought on by the presence of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. But he’s only converted on just 27.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, a mark that’s 5.8 percent lower than his career average.
Since the Mamba became a full-time starter in the 1998-99 season, he hasn’t shot at less than a 43 percent clip over a full season. It would take a significant turn of events to maintain that run.
Player Efficiency Rating was developed by statistician John Hollinger – who now serves as the VP of Basketball Operations for the Grizzlies – as a way to represent all of a player’s contributions into one number. The league-average PER is always 15.00, so players can be compared across different eras.
Kobe’s career PER (23.3) ranks No. 20 all time, and seventh among active players. But that figure has plunged to 19.5 this year, his worst mark in a full season since before the turn of the millennium. That can largely be attributed to – you guessed it – a drop in efficiency on offense.
After becoming the first player in NBA history with 30,000 points and 6,000 assists in a win over Toronto last week, Kobe made a point to tell the media that he passes more than his critics have been saying.
Considering the record, it’s a fair argument. And when Bryant does try and dish out dimes instead of playing hero ball, Los Angeles can usually rest easy. But that mentality just isn’t embedded in him quite yet.
If the Lakers are actually going to put up a fight in the Western Conference this season – and Bryant clearly favors that strategy over tanking -- the longtime isolation specialist will need to depend on his teammates.
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