End Of Season Report Card: Shooting Guards

 —  April 29, 2005

Welcome to all of the visitors from Instapundit, make yourself at home. This is a Laker blog but we talk all of the NBA here. Check out the links on the left for other great NBA blogs and sites as well.

That said, this is the wrap up post for another position on the Lakers (we’ve already done team management and point guard), and since there are more visitors here than ever let’s talk about who everyone wants to talk about: Kobe. These player-related posts will have players listed this way: Kobe Bryant (23.8/15.1/+2.8). Those numbers are: the player’s PER, his opponents PER for the season at his primary position, and his +/- averaged for 48 minutes. I stole this listing idea from Knickerblogger, and get the stats from his site and 82games.com. While none of these statistics is perfect, together they give a pretty good indication of what a player meant to a team.

Kobe must be a humbled man after the past two seasons he’s had — this was to be his team and it fell way short of expectations. He is taking blame for things both his fault and beyond his control, which comes with the territory of it being “your team.”

But on the court, the problems with this team were not all at Kobe’s feet. Kobe (23.8/15.1/+2.8) was very good — his PER was seventh in the league and down just slightly from last year (23.7). He had an eFG% of 48.2%, which is up from last season (46.8%) and back above his career average (48%). He had a career high in points per shot attempt, 1.13, largely because he got to the free throw line more than any year, drawing fouls on 16% of his shot attempts (10.1 free throws attempted per game this season, two per game more than last season). Kobe took more jumpers than ever before — 71% of his shots were jump shots, last year that was 66%. Kobe, in the face of being the main focus of the opposition, settled for the outside shot more often, he needs not to do that.

Some of those jump shots came because he was forced to bail out the shaky Laker offense way too much — 17% of Kobe’s shots came with three seconds or less left on the 24-second shot clock. That’s an insanely high percentage, but we saw it all season: After passing the ball around for 16 seconds, Chucky Atkins would find Kobe the ball with time running down and the rest of the Lakers would stand around while he was asked to create.

Certainly, part of the reason for those offensive breakdowns was Kobe himself. If there was one Laker who played outside of the offensive system this season (or should we say, both offensive systems), it was Bryant.

Then there was his defense, which started out strong but slipped as the season went along. Part of this was due to injuries — after the mid-season ankle injury his defense was never as good, his quickness just half a step slower. (Kobe played way too many minutes this season, averaging 40.7, which is one reason he played tired at times and never got healthy.) He finished the season with an oPER of 15.1, basically right at the league average (15) but much worse than last season (13.8). (As a side note, part of that was a lack of interior protection — if you beat Kobe off the dribble this season you could get to the hole, if you beat him last season Shaq was waiting for you.)

The big question with Kobe this season is: Did he, as the focal point of the team, make everyone around him better? That’s a mixed bag. Chucky Atkins (13.72/19.1/+1.6) and Chris Mihm (16.09/16.2/-2.1) had career years. But those are role players. The guy he needed to mesh best with, Lamar Odom (17.65/17.6/+1.9), played better with Kobe out — Odom deferred to Kobe and Kobe never did a consistent job of getting Odom involved.

Part of talking Kobe is also talking leadership — here is the one place I think he can grow. The reports out of practices were that he was more Bobby Knight than supportive mentor, and that aggressive style wears thin on many professional players. That said, at the end of the season he appeared to bond well with Caron Butler (16.1/20/-4) — it is possible Kobe is learning to use the carrot and the stick.

I’d grade Kobe out as a B this year, but hope that he takes it as would a driven straight-A student who earned his first B. He needs to assess what went wrong in his own mind and, hopefully, fully realize that he has to play within the offense (whatever it is), get teammates involved and lead by example first and foremost. I think he understands these things on an intellectual level, but doing them at a gut level with adrenalin flowing is another thing.

There is no question about Kobe’s work ethic — he will come back ready to play. He needs to come back ready to lead.

One guy who could take some of the minute load off Kobe next year is Sasha Vujacic (9.13/21.3/+5.2). There may be no player who had more written about him on this site this year than Sasha, and it’s because the rookie showed great flashes of potential (remember when he asked for a clear out so he could take Kevin Garnett one-one-one, then beat him to the hole for two). The problem was, those were followed by moments of indecision, poor defense and streaky shooting.

If it is Phil Jackson who coaches the Lakers next year, Sasha is the kind of tall guard he likes and that could mean more playing time. But first and foremost, Sasha’s defense must improve — he was solid playing the zone (which he played more in Europe) but struggled in man to man. He never really came close to figuring out how to get around a good pick — he lost his man almost every time. That said, he did show improvement as the year went on.

Sasha has amazing passing skills, but to really take advantage of those he has to become a more consistent threat to score himself. Sasha shot just 34.9% eFG% on jump shots this season, and that accounted for 79% of his attempts.

The limited number of minutes played by Sasha this season did not help his development — he needs to play summer league and in just about every pick-up game he can find. He needs to live in the gym. If he does all that, maybe next year he can become a more consistent part of the rotation — which would make we fans happy.