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Kobe Bryant: A Tale of Two Seasons

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.

And so goes Kobe Bryant’s tale of two seasons.

If there has been one constant with the Black Mamba’s 2011-12 season thus far, it’s that there has been no constant. Bryant has wildly careened between brilliant “best player in the game” performances to head scratching, disastrous outings – making fans wonder why Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol don’t regularly snipe at him in the press. In the words of the somewhat un-real, turned pop star, Slim Shady: “Will the real Kobe Bryant please stand up?”

The numbers tell most of the story. Through 48 games, we split Kobe’s season into halves, 24 games where he shot below 45%, and 24 games where he shot above 24 games.

Games in which Kobe shoots < 45% 24 13-11 23.9 4.9 4.6 34.80% 85.90% 26.70%
Games in  which Kobe shoots >= 45% 24 17-7 33.1 6.3 4.8 50.30% 83.20% 32.30%

In the sub-45% games, Kobe has been horrendous, averaging 23.9ppg, 4.9rpg, and 4.6apg on a miserable 35% fg shooting — shooting accuracy that would make Jason Kidd cringe.

In the 24 games above-45% however, Kobe has been brilliant, putting up averages of 33.1ppg, 6.3rpg, 4.8apg while shooting 50.3% from the field. That represents 10 points more per game while shooting 15% higher from the field.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Laker’s fortunes have also vacillated with Kobe’s inconsistency. In sub-45% games, the Lakers are a pedestrian 13-11, an almost unthinkable mark for a team with 3 legitimate All-stars. In above-45% games, their record improves dramatically, to 17-7.

So what explains Kobe’s erratic performance?

A first guess might be that the compressed season has created performance variability when combined with Kobe’s age and injury history. However, a closer look shows little correlation here. Eight of Kobe’s sub-45% games have come on the back end of back-to-back games, while seven of his above-45% games have come under the same circumstances. In other words, Kobe has played evenly when faced with little to no rest time.

Competition does not seem to play a role here either. Sixteen of Kobe’s sub-45% games have come against playoff competition (teams that would currently qualify for the NBA playoffs), while thirteen of his above-45% games have come against the same group. Again, there is no strong evidence to indicate Kobe’s play has clearly diminished when playing against better competition.

The predominant factor appears to be the home/away variable (not surprising since the Lakers have one of the largest home/away record differentials in recent memory). Fifteen of Kobe’s above 45% games have come at home, while only nine have come on the road. On the flip side, sixteen of Kobe’s sub-45% games have come on the road, versus only eight at home. By and large, Kobe has performed much better in the friendly confines of Staples Center.

So what can we take away from Kobe’s season thus far?

First of all, we shouldn’t be surprised. Kobe’s career to date has been predicated on the supreme belief that he is fundamentally the best player on the court. This deterioration in this confidence, in most cases, occurs more slowly that the deterioration of the skillset. Kobe’s game has also been relegated in recent years to outside jump shots and post plays from the elbow. The nature of his scoring has led to increased highs and lows in his performance from game to game. Put another way, sometimes his jumper is on, and sometimes it’s way off.

There is precedent for this. We saw a similar phenomenon occur during the twilight of Jordan’s career. Jordan’s stats in his final 1997-8 season with the Bulls reflect a remarkably similar phenomenon.

Games in which Jordan shot < 46% 41 24-17 25.7 6.5 3.3 39.20% 76.50% 12.70%
Games in which Jordan shot >=46% 41 38-3 31.8 5.1 3.6 54.00% 80.50% 34.90%

For half that season, Jordan had games where he shot below 46%. Like Kobe, his overall FG% in these games was 15% lower than in the 41 games where he shot greater than 46% There are even more startling discrepancies. Jordan’s 3PT shooting became highly erratic, as he shot only 12.7% from the 3 point line in his sub-46% games. When Jordan was on that year, the Bulls were nearly unbeatable, going 38-3. When he wasn’t, they were much worse, going 24-17.

There are two questions that are of concern for Lakers fans going forward.

First – what does this mean for Kobe’s future? In the absence of a recognition of diminished skills, Kobe’s  worst case is that he develops into a next generation Allen Iverson, settling into a 41-43% FG percentage while consistently taking his team out of games with his need to score. The one mitigating factor in this nuclear (for Laker fans) scenario happening is that Kobe cares about one thing even more than his stats: winning. It is likely, even if it is a bit delayed, that Kobe will make adjustments over the next few years to raise his efficiency over what it has been this year.

Second – can the Lakers, like the ’98 Bulls, win a championship despite the fluctuations of their biggest star? It remains to be seen. The one key factor, given the data above, seems to be home court advantage. The Lakers at this point are destined for at least 2 road series to cross in their path to a ring (OKC, Miami) and possibly 3 (San Antonio). Given Kobe’s statistics away from home, this appears to be a daunting task. Still, if Kobe’s Jekyll and Hyde act has taught us one thing this season, is that all the Lakers need to win is for the right guy to show up at the right time.


19 Responses to “Kobe Bryant: A Tale of Two Seasons”

  1. Should read (OKC, CHI) lol, but overall good article.

    Posted by pointguard40 | March 26, 2012, 11:13 am
    • ha – fair enough, pointguard40. And given the way the Heat have played of late, that becoming more than a longshot possibility at this point.

      Posted by Brown Mamba | March 26, 2012, 9:05 pm
    • Chicago isn’t going to get past Miami in a playoff series. They couldn’t last year with the best record in the league…and they won’t be able to this year with the best record in the league. Miami could have the best regular season record if that is what it cared about. But they don’t. They care about being fully ready for the playoffs. I am not worried about Miami’s recent play because I think its just them being lazy, that is something they can fix by playing harder.

      Posted by nightbladehunter | March 27, 2012, 7:34 am
      • Nightblade — that may be true, but you still need to be concerned about (1) there lack of showing up against top notch competition and (2) Lebron’s continued tendency to disappear periodically when the stakes are up. Perhaps these get figured out in the playoffs. .we’ll see.

        Posted by Brown Mamba | March 27, 2012, 8:14 am
        • 1)The Heat have an above .500 record against the top 10 and top 5 teams in the league this season.

          2) LeBron had some of his best games this season against those teams.

          Just setting the record straight.

          Posted by The Realist #2 | March 27, 2012, 10:16 am
          • um — against the top 5 teams this year (OKC, Lakers, Spurs, Bulls, Magic), the Heat are 5-5. In their last 5 games against these teams, they are 1-4. In at least 3 of those games, Lebron failed to reach the 20 point mark on terrible shooting performances.

            Just setting the record straight .

            Posted by Brown Mamba | March 27, 2012, 3:01 pm
          • My mistake on the W-L record against the top 5. Didn’t count the 5th loss they had.

            Still, your previous post didn’t exactly give the Heat any credit for that record – except for the Bulls (and they only play the Lakers, Spurs, and Thunder once this season) other top teams arent lighting it up either against the heavyweights either, and have also played less games against the elite than the Heat have. And while you’re able to point out 3 games that LeBron didn’t play well in, you’re conveniently disregarding the games in which he turned in great performances.

            Posted by The Realist #2 | March 27, 2012, 4:36 pm
          • Realist #2 — not sure what I said that was actually objectionable.

            Have the Heat struggled against top competition? At a .500 record, which is well below their overall record, the answer is yes. This is especially true in recent times where they have been terrible.

            With regards to Lebron, I never said he was consistently bad, just made the comment that he would disappear “periodically” (last time I checked, periodically, don’t imply anything close to a majority). The same was true last year in the playoffs, when he disappeared for just a handful of games. Unfortunately, a couple of those games were the most important of the Heat’s season.

            These are just facts. He can still overcome this year (and I happen to think he will), but you can’t generally deny them.

            Posted by Brown Mamba | March 27, 2012, 5:28 pm
          • I just think that if you’re going to talk about the Heat’s record against the elite teams, at least also mention that the other elite teams haven’t been impressive in that department either. Only the Bulls can say they’ve been “great” against the elite, and they will play less games against the top teams than the Heat will. It’s not exactly a revelation that your record against the top teams is not going to be as stellar when it’s compared to your overall record (which features the bad teams you play).

            As for LeBron, pointing out what he didn’t do in the Finals while overlooking his play in the earlier rounds (which is needed to even PLAY in the Finals in the first place) is flawed. You need 16 games to win a championship, not 4. And none of them count as more than one game.

            Posted by The Realist #2 | March 27, 2012, 7:07 pm
  2. I had no problem with Kobe’s efficiency and volume of shots in the beginning of the season, Pau was not himself because of the trade rumors, Andrew was experiencing for the first time in his life what being doubled is like and the Lakers quite honestly might’ve had the worst offensive players at their position in metta and fisher. Add that to the worst bench in the league and a new coach and system, I almost expected it.

    What I can’t understand is why he thinks its still needed, Bynum is becoming featured in the offense and is throwing 30 point games like its nothing and Pau seems to be motivated now. Still other than the Rockets game, Kobes shot attempts has gone down since Sessions has joined ship and the ball has been out of his hands more, 18-20 shots is a more feasible amount for Kobe and hopefully he can get his legs under him for the playoffs.

    Posted by stillshining | March 27, 2012, 8:19 am

    Kobe is injured, not just the ones from this year but going back through seasons, playoffs and rings. Playing at his level while injured is just unheard of and he will continue to do so. Players have missed months, seasons as well as retired and at his age he just mans up and playes period.

    Posted by oxith | March 27, 2012, 11:53 am
    • I would doubt that Bryant will become more efficient.

      I would also take issue with the belief that Bryant cares more about winning than his performance. There is ample evidence that suggests that he only cares about winning as a by product of his performance, and not that other way around, as you suggested.

      Posted by Paulie Walnuts | March 27, 2012, 6:22 pm
  4. I would also like to point out that 38-3 and 17-7 is not really a good comparison.

    Also, Jordan was 36 years old in 1997-98. Will Bryant even be getting starters minutes in three years. let alone winning a league MVP?

    Finally, even at 36 years old, was there any doubt that Jordan was NOT the best player in the NBA.

    Is Bryant even regarded as the best player now at 33?

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | March 27, 2012, 6:42 pm
    • My apologies,

      I was gravely mistaken. Jordan was only 34 not 36 in 1997-98.

      The age comparison is a bit more apt, but the results are still very deviant.

      Nonetheless, it is an interesting viewpoint.

      Posted by Paulie Walnuts | March 27, 2012, 6:50 pm
      • Actually Jordan was 35 in 1997/98 (well at least he turned 35 that season).

        Also Jordan was much more consistent. He shot less efficiently when Pippen was out and not because he was inconsistent.

        With Pip in the line-up MJ’s stats were actually almost as good as the year before:

        44 Games with Scottie
        38.6 MPG, 28.8 PPG, 48.1 FG%, 25.7 3P%, 80.2 FT%
        38 Games W/O Scottie
        39.1 MPG, 28.6 PPG, 44.8 FG%, 21.2 3P%, 76.5 FT%

        Obviously MJ was much more efficient in terms of shooting when Scottie was healthy.

        Lakers on the other hand are pretty healthy this year (Bynum missed only 4 games).

        And also as you pointed out 38-3 and 17-7 is a huge difference.

        I would say that Kobe is one of the main reasons behind Lakers’ relatively poor winning record this year.

        With the level of talent they currently have they should have easily won more games.

        Posted by doosiolek | March 28, 2012, 2:24 pm
    • In fairness, there is an argument to be made that Jordan was not the best player in the NBA at that point. It’s easy to forget, but Karl Malone was the reigning MVP and bested him in Win Shares, WS/48 and PER in 1997-1998. His production was higher and he was more efficient getting it.

      Malone’s lingering moments in our memory may be the very poor 1997 finals and MJ’s steal in 1998, but there’s good evidence that Malone was actually an extremely clutch player whose reputation of having a disappearing act in big games and clutch moments was based more on cognitive bias than reality (much like Dirk until recently and Lebron James today). As usual, history is written by the victors.


      Also, at the end of MJ’s career he benefitted from the greatest coach of all time and 2 of the top 50 players ever in Pippen and Rodman. Malone had Stockton, Jeff Hornacek and Jerry Sloan-not quite at the same level, to say the least. Also when the teams matched up, Malone had to go up against a top 10 all time defender in Rodman-Utah had Byron Russell to throw at Jordan. Even then, the Bulls needed some extremely friendly officiating in elimination games that year to help them beat both the Pacers and Jazz.

      Was Malone actually better than Jordan at that point? I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think there’s at least reasonable doubt.

      Posted by Lochpster | March 27, 2012, 8:12 pm
      • Loch,

        I agree with your logic. My question was one aimed more at where MJ was regarded at the time.

        I also agree with the myth of Malone being “a choker”. It’s amazing how a career spanning 54,852 minutes gets reduced down to two or three single snapshot moments that suddenly outweigh everything else.

        Posted by Paulie Walnuts | March 28, 2012, 3:48 am
  5. Jordan also garnered 6 first place votes for defensive player of the year in 1997-98.

    That’s quite a statement of his reputation.

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | March 27, 2012, 6:53 pm

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