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Hoops Lab: Kobe's Career in Perspective

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Last week, I led with a story about finding my long-lost cousin instead of Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement. But when I did discuss Kobe in the Around the NBA section, I mentioned that I would likely take some time this week to evaluate his career and how it might compare with his historical peers. While Chris Liss may lament it, I think now’s a good time to do just that.

Kobe is one of the most polarizing players of his generation, and where he ranks on a list of top players will vary drastically depending upon the criteria you use. If it is based heavily upon the popular opinion of the casual fan, on jersey sales or on importance to pop culture then Kobe will rank very highly, as he’s probably the biggest star of his generation and one of the biggest of all time. You see that I’m calling him “Kobe” in this article, and not “Bryant” as a writer is supposed to do, but he’s reached one-name basis. Wilt. Kareem. Magic. Michael. Shaq. LeBron. The biggest of the mega stars tend to be one-name recognizable. Kobe is. Tim or Kevin might be ambiguous, but there is no doubt who Kobe is.

Similarly, if your criteria are built around the level of analysis you usually get in a barbershop, then Kobe is still close to as good as it gets. For those who have never been in a good barbershop argument, they tend to be decided by the guy with the most charisma who can spout off the quick resume bullet points the fastest while showing the most scorn that you (the opponent) would dare question his conclusion. Kobe has an outstanding bullet-point resume: five championships, two gold medals, scoring exploits, countless first-team All-NBA teams (deserved), countless All-Defense teams (more shaky), an aesthetic game built for the SportsCenter highlight, and the kind of cowboy mano-a-mano oversized personality that makes him either the perfect hero or the perfect villain, depending on which side you’re pulling for. Most of the NBA analysts on TV, especially the former NBA players, tend to use this level of analysis and Kobe measures out phenomenally on this scale.

But, if your criteria for your list are only about how good, how impactful, how effective Kobe was at the game of basketball then he still measures out as outstanding, though, just maybe, not quite as good as his reputation. Kevin Pelton wrote an article on ESPN Insider titled Why Kobe Bryant is Not a Top-10 All-Time Player that barely scratches the surface of a good analytic evaluation of Kobe. I think it’s a poor article because if you read it (and you have to have Insider to do so), it’s almost purely a nerd-stat dump. Kobe’s not top-10 all time because he’s only 15th in “Win Shares” and only 20th in “Expected championships added.” The problem: what exactly IS a Win Share or an Expected championship added? And why should they be the final arbiter of Kobe’s greatness more-so than things like championships or All-NBA teams, which are more accessible and easily debatable quantities for most?

No, to make a good evaluation of Kobe you have to go beyond his entry at basketball-reference.com. You can’t just spout numbers, either in his favor or against, and expect that to carry the day. Instead, you need to actually describe what his game is or isn’t and why that might or might not be most effective. Use the numbers to support the argument not as the argument, and be very clear with exactly what each number is evaluating and how it fits into the whole of the story that you’re telling.

Kobe Bryant is the best 1-on-1 player in the world that gets to play 1-on-1.” This is something that Kenny Smith used to say back in the Shaq and Kobe days, and in a way it fits for his entire career. Kobe is almost maniacally competitive, but in a very direct, 1-on-1 sense. That’s a key kernel of evaluating Kobe because basketball isn’t a 1-on-1 game, it’s a team game. In the Space Jam-type situation where aliens come to Earth and demand one player to play for humanity, Kobe would be on the short list of best nominees. However, one of the lessons that has come out of the regression analytics is that the biggest impact players aren’t the ones that (necessarily) dominate with individual scoring or excellent 1-on-1 defense; it’s the help offensive players (think Steve Nash) and the help defenders (think Dikembe Mutombo) that often dominate the plus/minus lists on one side of the ball. Or if they are a dominant individual performer, it’s in such a way that it warps the defense and makes life easier for teammates, achieving “help” offense as a side effect.

Kobe would fit more into the latter category, indirectly making it easier for his teammates just by being so good himself. And I should point out, Kobe was almost inhumanly good at creating offense for himself. The advanced boxscore stats such as PER or Win Shares hold Kobe in very high regard, but not at the highest of levels because his gross scoring efficiency isn’t absurd like Stephen Curry this year, Kevin Durant in 2014 or most of LeBron James’ career. But Kobe’s skill was that he could scale up his usage into the ridiculous and still maintain reasonable efficiency given that he was shooting so often. Said another way, Kobe could take and make bad shots at a decent enough efficiency (relative to bad shots) that his overall efficiency reached the line of “best efficiency vs. max usage outside of Curry” chart if you pushed the usage high enough. Find Kobe ’06 on this chart, which was tweeted to me by @JasonRubin91:



So, even though Kobe wasn’t a direct help-offensive player nor was he absurdly efficient overall (just relatively efficient for super-high usages), he STILL measured out as one of the most elite offensive players of his generation. Using a plus/minus-based regression technique (that I won’t bore you with details about, but if you’re interested ask in the comments and I’ll speak more of it), this was the top-5 list of players based on how positively they affected their teams’ offensive scoring margin over their top five years between 1998 and 2012:

  1. Steve Nash (+9.1)
  2. LeBron James (+8.1)
  3. Dwyane Wade (+7.9)
  4. Shaquille O'Neal (+7.6)
  5. Kobe Bryant (+7.4)

For comparison’s sake, Dirk Nowitzki was seventh on that list (+7.0), Chris Paul ninth (+5.6), Kevin Garnett 12th (+5.4), Tim Duncan 15th (+4.8), Allen Iverson 18th (+4.7), Paul Pierce 25th (+4.1), Carmelo Anthony 30th (+3.8), Vince Carter 31st (+3.8) and Tracy McGrady 36th (+3.7). This is just one method, and it's not perfect, but the important thing is that it’s a method based entirely upon how a player’s presence correlated with a positive effect on his team and had nothing to do with the box scores. Kobe’s point totals or efficiency didn’t matter to this ranking, any more than Nash’s assists or LeBron’s all-around game, except in how those offensive positives helped their teams. And on this list, Kobe clearly was among the best-of-the-best of his generation; among them, not THE best. The best distributors, the best of the scorer/creators and the most dominant individual scorers tended to have slightly higher impacts than him. Just on offense.

And on defense, the story gets worse for Kobe because while his accolades say that he tied for the most First-Team All Defense nods in NBA history, the reality is that his defense wasn’t as impactful as it was made out to be. Again, Kobe could be EXCELLENT as a 1-on-1/on-ball defensive player who could try to win his matchup. But what about when his man didn’t have the ball? Historically, when his man didn’t have the ball, Kobe tended to pay more attention to the ball and float around potential passing lanes rather than to follow his man around screens. Similarly, Kobe would break the team defense to try for the big play as opposed to faithfully going through his rotations. And though off-ball defense and rotations aren’t sexy and don’t end up on SportsCenter, they are hugely important in building an effective team defense. Those kinds of non-sexy defensive traits are characteristics of the Shane Battiers and Tony Allens of the world, who (despite the lack of defensive hardware) were much better perimeter defenders than Kobe ever was. Using a similar plus/minus approach based on the best five seasons of players between 1998 and 2012, the top-5 wing defenders were:

  1. Shane Battier (+4.3, 13th overall on defense)
  2. Metta World Peace (+4.1, 17th)
  3. Tony Allen (+3.8, 20th)
  4. Luol Deng (+3.7, 22nd)
  5. Eddie Jones (+3.5, 29th)

Where’s Kobe on this list? With his defensive score of +0.8, he ranked 275th among defenders overall and far away from being even close to elite as a perimeter defender. The best defenders are all bigs (Mutombo +7.3, Garnett +6.5, Duncan +6.2, David Robinson +6.2, Ben Wallace +5.5 and Rasheed Wallace +5.5 dominated the top of the list overall on defense), but dominant perimeter wing defenders can still make a big impact at that end. Unfortunately for his ranking, reputation aside, Kobe wasn’t actually one of those dominant perimeter defenders.

Thus, Kobe’s two-way impact is dominated almost entirely by his offensive impact, and while that was wonderful, top-5 of his generation, when you include defense in the mix he slides down behind more of his peers (Garnett and Duncan, in particular, moved way up with defense factored in).

Now again, the only quantitative measure that I’ve used so far is an “impact” estimate based upon plus/minus regression. It's not a perfect stat, as there are caveats to consider, and even in a perfect world “impact” isn’t exactly the same as “goodness.” But for me, personally, how much a player can impact his team’s bottom line is the most important thing. There are at least four players whose careers majorly overlapped with Kobe that I would take over him: Shaq, LeBron, Duncan and Garnett. If we include the 90s, I’ve got Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon higher. Bring in the 80s and I put both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird over him. Take it to the 70s and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was better. Bring in the 60s and I’ve got to move Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain ahead as well. I’ll stop there because going back much further takes us before the shot-clock era, but even still, that is 11 players that I have clearly over Kobe Bryant. Kobe would then be in a competition with Dirk Nowitzki, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West for the next slots in the rankings.

So at the end of the day, though I disagree with Pelton’s methodology, I do agree with his assessment that Kobe Bryant isn’t one of the 10 best players of all time. He’s got a strong argument for top-15, though it’s not a slam dunk. Top 20 almost definitely; and that still puts him on the very, very short list of the best to ever step on the court. As the Black Mamba’s career winds down, that’s how I’ll remember him. As one of the best that ever did it, with one of the most decorated careers that we’ve ever seen, who above all, always did it his way.

Around the NBA

Twitter forward of the week 1 – Holy crap, Steph: I showed a chart above that plotted the shooting efficiency versus the usage percentage for the 448 best high-volume scoring seasons since 1979-80. I used the chart to show that even though Kobe’s gross efficiency wasn’t as high as some others, in (arguably) his peak season of 2006, his shooting efficiency reached the line of “best efficiency vs. max usage outside of Curry”. Well, now I want to point out the giant elephant on that chart: HOLY CRAP STEPH! On a chart of the most efficient big scorers in history, as Jason points out, Stephen Curry is literally off the chart. And I mean way, WAY off the chart. If Curry continues to score at this pace and efficiency, we’re not just looking at the best scoring season in NBA history, we’re looking at a quantum leap forward in what we even would have thought was possible. Curry is in the midst of a season to tell your grandchildren about.

Twitter forward of the week 2 – Grumpy old men can jump: If you’ve paid any attention at all to the NBA this week, or to SportsCenter, or even just to Twitter, you already know that Kevin Garnett dunked the hell over Blake Griffin this week. In his 21st season, grumpy old Garnett got hyped on the fast break and took off from outside of the charge circle to posterize Griffin. But the funniest part of the whole thing, as pointed out in this Vine made by @andrewthehan) may have been the reaction of Paul Pierce. Pierce, Garnett’s running mate in Boston and Brooklyn, could only cover his face in embarrassment as KG smashed over new teammate Griffin:



Gobert’s knee: Rudy Gobert has missed three games with a sprained knee and is out indefinitely. On Tuesday, Gobert said that he is getting better but that he wouldn’t return until he was 100 percent. Some reports have indicated he could be out until January.

Kawhi’s stomach bug: Kawhi Leonard missed Monday’s game with a stomach bug and is questionable for Wednesday's game. Since it’s an illness it shouldn’t be a long-term issue, but DFS players in particular will want to pay attention on his availability.

Gasol’s ankle: Marc Gasol left Tuesday’s game midway through the third quarter with a sprained ankle and did not return. Consider day-to-day for now until more details on the injury surface, but the Grizzlies play again on Wednesday. The timing of the injury is unfortunate, as Gasol had gotten into a groove before the injury, averaging 21 points, 10.3 boards, 3.3 blocks, 2.8 assists and shooting 53.4% from the field and 84.6% from the line in the four games leading into the injury.

Klay’s X-ray: Klay Thompson had a scintillating game on Tuesday, scoring 39 points, including 10 treys, seven boards and six assists in a win over the Pacers. It was clear that his game was going to be special in the first half, as I tweeted here while watching the game:


Unfortunately, Thompson had to leave in the closing minutes of the game with an ankle injury. X-rays taken on the ankle were negative, and Thompson spoke optimistically, but for now consider him day-to-day with the Warriors’ next game scheduled for Friday.

Ariza’s fall: Trevor Ariza took a hard fall in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game while going up for a layup. He went back to the locker room and didn’t return due to a back injury. The Rockets play again Wednesday, but Ariza should be considered questionable for that game until more details surface.

Carroll’s knee: DeMarre Carroll has a right knee bruise that will cause him to miss an indefinite period of time. It wasn’t obvious when Carroll sustained the injury, but it comes at an inopportune time, as he was just playing himself back into rhythm after missing time with plantar fasciitis. Terrence Ross started in Carroll’s place Monday and had 22 points, six boards, four treys and two steals in 39 minutes to get himself onto the “New Additions” list below.

Hollis-Jefferson’s ankle: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has a broken bone in his right ankle that will require surgery. While he still has no official return date, Nets coach Lionel Hollins suggested that he could miss around 10 weeks. This is really unfortunate for Hollis-Jefferson, who had moved into the starting lineup and was quietly having a strong rookie season. In his absence, Bojan Bogdanovic had 19 points, five boards, three treys, two steals and an assist in 38 minutes Tuesday against the Rockets to get himself into “New Additions” as well.

Got the drank in me going back-to-back: Back-to-backs 12/8– 12/15
TW: Rockets, Grizzlies, Magic, Jazz
WT: Hawks, Bulls, Clippers, Knicks
TF: Thunder, 76ers
FS: Celtics, Hornets, Pistons, Warriors, Pacers, Lakers, Bucks Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Wizards
SS: None
SM: Grizzlies, Heat, 76ers, Suns, Raptors, Jazz
MT: Nuggets, Rockets

New Additions:

Patrick Beverley (45 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues): Beverley has beaten out Ty Lawson for the starting point guard job in Houston, and he doesn’t seem to be in danger of losing it anytime soon. He has scored in double-digits in five straight games, a stretch in which he also has 11 steals and 13 made 3-pointers.

Bojan Bogdanovic (32 percent): As mentioned above, Bogdanovic had 19 points, five boards, three treys, two steals and an assist in 38 minutes Tuesday in his first start since Hollis-Jefferson went down. Hollis-Jefferson is expected to miss the next few months, so Bogdanovic could have a long run as the starter.

Rodney Stuckey (23 percent): Stuckey had a run of four-straight solid games in which he averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 boards, 3.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 30.5 minutes per game before throwing up a clunker Tuesday night. Stuckey still comes off the bench, so his role and minutes aren’t guaranteed, but he hit a zone last season when he was one of the most productive sixth-men in the NBA for long stretches of time, which makes his current hot streak worth noticing.

Jon Leuer (21 percent): Leuer took over as the starting power forward for the Suns when Markieff Morris was out injured, and his solid play (in conjunction with questions about Morris’ place in Phoenix) have allowed him to keep the job even with Morris back. In his last four games as the starter, Leuer is averaging 13.8 points (51.1% FG, 62.5% FT), 6.8 boards, 2.5 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 treys in 33.3 minutes per game.

Terrence Ross (11 percent): As mentioned above, Ross had 22 points, six rebounds, four made threes and two steals in 39 minutes Monday in his first start with DeMarre Carroll injured.