Kobe’s Finals Chapter

J.M. Poulard —  November 9, 2011

At some point in the near future, Kobe Bryant will retire and leave basketball fans around the world with a multitude of memories that will leave us collectively shaking our heads. On that front, the Lakers superstar may not exactly be on the same level as Michael Jackson; but his body of work reminds me of the King of Pop.

For instance, Jacko gave fans moments such as the moonwalk, Thriller, the Smooth Criminal lean and the Beat It choreography that are now immortalized on Youtube. In the same breath, few players can match Bryant’s incomparable feats down the stretch of big games; that much like Michael Jackson, will live seemingly forever thanks in large part to today’s social media (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc…).

Indeed, moments such as the lob pass to Shaq in the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Game 4 masterpiece finish against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals, the 3-point shot to send Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals to overtime and the contortionist shot against Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Finals are just a handful of the amazingly spectacular plays in Kobe Bryant’s career.

The two-time Finals MVP is sure to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame based on his achievements and his teams’ ability to deliver championships.

And yet, if we wanted to nitpick his career, it would be impossible to avoid his overall performances in the Finals; especially in comparison to some other greats.

Bryant has shown a high propensity to deliver in big games for the Lakers, however when presenting his basketball résumé; one cannot avoid the fact that he has had some subpar performances in the championship round throughout his career.

The best evidence to offer on this topic would be Bryant’s play during the 2004 NBA Finals. Indeed, Kobe spent the entire season balancing court dates with basketball games and played brilliantly. Mind you, his performance in the championship series led to Tayshaun Prince being crowned as the proverbial “Kobe stopper” because he held the superstar to a rather pedestrian 22.6 points per game on 38.1 percent field goal shooting.

Further compounding the issue, Shaquille O’Neal had a terrific series offensively, as evidenced by his 26.6 points per game on 63.1 percent field goal shooting; however he only shot the ball 84 times in comparison to his star teammate who attempted 113 field goals during the 2004 Finals.

Granted, one poor showing in the Finals in a decorated career is hardly worth mentioning; but a multitude of them has to be characterized as a trend. Have a look at Kobe Bryant’s statistical output in the NBA Finals throughout his career:

Finals

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

FG

2000

15.6

4.6

4.2

1.0

.367

2001

24.6

7.8

5.8

1.4

.415

2002

26.8

5.8

5.3

1.5

.514

2004

22.6

2.8

4.4

1.8

.381

2008

25.7

4.7

5.0

2.7

.405

2009

32.4

5.6

7.4

1.4

.430

2010

28.6

8.0

3.9

2.1

.405

Averages

24.7

5.6

4.9

1.7

.412

For the most part, Kobe’s production has been great however his shooting percentages leave much to be desired. His two worst Finals showings occurred in the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers (in which the Lakers were victorious) and the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons (where they were defeated in five games).

In addition, other than the 2004 Pistons and maybe the 2001 76ers (with Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and Raja Bell), none of the teams that the Lakers star guard faced in the title round had the Bruce Bowen-type defenders to throw at Kobe to essentially sit on his every move and limit his effectiveness.

And for better or worse, this is where Bryant has earned the reputation of a selfish gunner in the minds of many.

With rings on the line and basketball being played in front of an international audience on television, Kobe Bryant has showed the propensity to often take low percentage shots and consequently conclude games with an unimpressive shooting mark (the six-for-24 game is often cited as evidence of this).

Consequently, Kobe’s statistical output in championship series is on par with the playoff averages of one of the league’s most famous gunners: Allen Iverson.

Oddly enough, Iverson will always carry the reputation of the toughest little big man that did anything and everything possible to carry his team to victory (insert practice joke here); and yet, the former people’s champ (most saw the crossover king as such after he rocked Jordan to sleep) lacks the sustained playoff success to be mentioned in the same conversation as Kobe. Indeed, in 14 NBA seasons, Iverson appeared in 71 playoff games while Kobe Bryant has played in 208 games in 15 seasons.

Save for the 50-point games against the Toronto Raptors and the 48 points scored in a Finals game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 playoffs, one struggles to recall any truly dominant playoff performance by The Answer. Mind you, players can be effective in many ways; whether it’s by playing excellent defense or coming up big down the stretch of games. But on that front, Iverson is not close to being in the same realm as Kobe Bryant.

Thus, when discussing the Black Mamba, it’s important to do so with a hint of perspective. If we look purely at his numbers, many players have performed better than Kobe on the big stage; but not many have often delivered at the end of ball games to help either steal or secure a win at the expense of their opponent like Bryant has.

Consequently, Bryant’s slot in the pyramid of great players is relatively tough to evaluate given that the likes of Magic, Bird and Jordan all played their best in the Finals all the while piercing the heart of their opponents with a myriad of daggers to close out games.

The former league MVP is clearly one of the all time greats, but one has to wonder if his performances in the NBA Finals will eventually be swept under the rug or if they will be the one deciding factor that keeps him from being mentioned as the greatest Laker of all, as well as the greatest player of all time.

Only a matter of time before we find out…

J.M. Poulard

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21 responses to Kobe’s Finals Chapter

  1. I completely agree with the overall gist of this post. But to be fair, James Posey was an excellent defender in 2008. And while he was no Bruce Bowen, Mickel Pietrus (2009) was no slouch either.

  2. #1. I’d add that the Boston D of 2008 was brutal against every wing they faced. Their team D was some of the best the league has seen in the past 20 seasons. But, like you, I agree with overall tenor of the post.

  3. Fantasic, well-balanced post. We can acknowledge Kobe’s greatness, but we also have to acknowledge that he generally has not played his best ball in the Finals the way other greats have.

    It comes down to this for me: I believe Kobe was blessed with as much talent, skill, and polish as anyone in the league. His greatest flaw will always be his shot selection.

    I hate the MJ comparisons as much as anyone else, but I only use Jordan to illustrate a point. In terms of pure shooting ability, Kobe surpasses Michael. But Jordan was well aware of this and was more judicious with his selection, which is why the gap in their percentages is not as large as you’d imagine. You never saw Jordan throwing up shots from 3-4 feet behind the arc, with a hand in his face. He was great at knowing exactly where on the floor (and in what situations) he was most efficient. Kobe’s belief is that just about any spot on the floor is his spot. And as great as he is – and I believe he’s as skilled as anyone in the history of the game – this lack of a judicious shot selection will somewhat temper his legacy, as great as it still will be.

    I should add that I speak of the 90s version of Jordan. Kobe’s shot selection hasn’t matured to the same degree as he’s aged.

  4. It also should be mentioned that many of the historic greats often came up short in The Finals. Bill Simmons has made much of Kobe’s 6/24 game 7 in 2010, but how often does he talk about Larry Bird’s fg% in the 1985 finals game 6 clincher? (Spoiler: it wasn’t great) This isn’t to diss Bird’s legacy but to point out that if you’ve been to the Finals several times you are correspondingly going to have several bad games on the game’s biggest stage.

  5. I hate to always be the outside the box guy on this site…

    “The Finals” are sometimes the championship series and sometimes just the NFLs Pro Bowl. For the threepeet Lakers teams The Finals were the Western Conference Finals. Could Los Angeles have lost to the Pacers, Sixers, or Nets? It would have been like losing to the number eight seen in the western conference. Basketball experts will view Kobe’s breathtaking play against the Spurs and the Sacramento Kings as the measuring stick of his greatness. A kid in his early 20’s doesn’t usually dominate NBA Championship series like Kobe did. And make no mistake about it… Those were the NBA Finals. If we are talking about the 2004 Finals we need to understand Kobe didn’t workout that entire offseason and had a down year for a guy who should have been in his prime due to his legal issues.

  6. To me this is nitpicking to an extreme degree and it tends to overlook what #8/#24 did to GET us there. If you wanna talk about great playoff performances, remember Kobe’s absolute evisceration of the Spurs in the ’01 Conference finals. He took it to them on the road and Shaq absolutely pwned them at the Stapler. And to second what kehntangibles said, between ’00 and ’02, most of the sporting press regarded the WCFs as the finals. The Pacers were applauded for getting two wins vs. the Lakers, one after the emotional comedown of Kobe’s coming-out party in Game 4 at Conseco Fieldhouse. I remember a game February 29, 2000 which the sporting press rightly heralded as a preview of the WCF finals. The WCFs were amazing, as we know, the Lakers coming from behind in the series and in Game 7, with significant help from Kobe Bean Bryant.

    In ’01, the Sixers got exactly one game and the sports press was (rightly) shocked at it. The ’01 WCFs, Mr. Bryant destroyed the Spurs. I lived in Texas at that time and it was BEAUTIFUL to be able to taunt my co-workers over Kobe’s brilliance. And in ’02 the Lakers walked over the Nets in what most regarded as a mere formality. Those finals series were not the most difficult series Kobe played in those years. Obviously ’04 Tayshaun shut him down. But Kobe has been great, has always done what his team needed. It seems exceedingly petty to focus on what he might not have done, particularly when his efforts were a huge part of what got us to the Finals, and perhaps it’d be more useful to look at the shortcomings of other Lakers.

  7. Somehow, someway, Kobe has been the best or arguably second best player on five championship teams, which suggests that he manages to get the job done, although it can be harrowing at times.

  8. Just one more proof that statistics can prove whatever point you want to make. This isn’t to either praise Kobe, or to bury him, but he has always been so central to the Laker team – offense and defense – that citing statistics simply cannot do justice. The same is true of Magic, Bird, and Jordan.

    When a team is effectively built around a person, then you simply must see the games to understand that person’s play. Actually, Kobe’s greatness is further cemented because of his having to play 2nd fiddle to Shaq. This is also true of Magic in his first years and may be a real factor in why people think Jordan was greater than Magic.

  9. I do believe to be fair, during the 3 peat, you have to consider the work kobe did against the Spurs, the Blazers, the Kings et al. You mention Bruce Bowen-ish defenders, you must consider what Kobe did to Bruce Bowen himself.

    I dont think Kobe could have played much better during the 2008 Finals. The defense they were throwing at him was tremendous, and he made the correct play more often than not. In 2004, there were a myriad of factors leading to what i like to refer to as the “collapse of the Laker Union”. Kobe was one of many. Shaq should have gotten the ball more, however, he was not dominating like he should. He was not commanding a double team, as the pistons were comfortable letting Wallace (2 X DPOY) single coverage him.

    I would ask the question of why do you think Kobe has played “worse” in the Finals than the playoffs. Particularly the WCF where he has played his best vs equivalent competition. I contend given the nature of his play, he simply succumbs to fatigue at this stage of the post season. His shots are a little flatter, his lift a little lower, etc etc. Even Kobe’s poor shot selection in the finals could partially be attributed to a higher level of fatigue as compared to the playoffs. In comparison, Jordan played a similar game to Kobe, but was a naturally more athletic than Kobe. Combine that with his modestly better shot selection (same shot volume though) and you get better (see: more efficient) finals efforts. Just my thoughts.

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  11. Very nice piece..

    But my sentiments lie more within David Friedman’s summary which, to me is rings more objective ;

    http://20secondtimeout.blogspot.com/2010/06/placing-kobe-bryants-career-in.html

    Cheers!

  12. @5 I couldn’t agree more. Let’s not forget what Kobe has done to PHX recently in the WCFs either

  13. nimble (12),

    Very good link. I urge everyone to read this post. David Freeman is a guy that anyone who follows the NBA intensively should read, even if only to add perspective to NBA issues/topics.

  14. The 2000 Finals stats are misleading because in game 2, Kobe only played 9 minutes, scoring 2 points (with 4 assists) before severely injuring his ankle. Throw that game out and he averaged 19 ppg. Game 5 that year was admittedly a certified stinker (for the whole team), and as I recall his ankle was still giving him a lot of trouble. Since he basically won game 4 that year, I think he gets a pass.

    Really, the only bad Finals for Kobe came in 2004, and even then, the only game the Lakers won that series was made possible by his OT-forcing 3.

    As for his other Finals, he was a solid champ in 2001, terrific (much better than people remember) in 2002, great but not great enough in 2008, absolutely incredible in 2009, and heroic in 2010.

  15. Friedman*

  16. Rusty Shackleford November 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    @ #12 – Right now any article not regarding the lockout dragging on intrigues me. However, regarding this post and the article you posted, I always take arguments made by using stats with a grain of salt. The stats are always spun in a manner to prove a point.

    All of that being said, the one fact that I think is overlooked in the Kobe vs. Jordan comparison as far as legacies go is that the Lakers were rebuilding during a fat portion of Kobe’s prime. If they could have assembled this current roster even one year earlier we might be having a whole different discussion. . . In my opinion.

  17. Didn’t like this column, beginning with the comparisons to the King of P(r)op(ofol) and carrying over into some myopic views on certain situations.

    The fact that the 2004 Lakers ever made it to the Finals is just astounding considering everything that was going on around that team that season.

    And to suggest a “lesser” performance against the 2008 Celtics tarnishes Kobe’s legacy is a joke. That was one of the greatest defensive teams in recent memory, and had some great one-on-one defenders to augment its team D. Jordan would have struggled against that team over a seven-game series too.

    To use Finals results like that against Kobe is a joke. Why not discuss what great defensive teams with stalwart defensive guards Jordan had to match up to in his trips to the Finals. (Hint, there were none).

    In ’91 the Lakers were guarding him with smalls like Byron Scott and rookie Tony Smith.

    In ’92, Portland’s best defender was Cliff Robinson, not the type who can cover a 2.

    1993 probably was the toughest defender Jordan ever saw in the Finals in Majerle. But the KJ-Barkely era Suns were a scoring team, not a defensive team.

    Gary Payton was a great defender in 1996, and this may have been the toughest Finals Chicago saw. But the 2008 Celtics were far tougher.

    Utah in ’97 and ’98 played adequate D, but again, if you only have to contend with Bryon Russell — and can push off against him with impunity — what are we talking about here? Tell us again how Kobe comes off worse for wear here…

  18. While I see the points of all this, I can’t completely stand beside it all. When you look at the first listed year, Kobe was for the most part, the side kick. Yes he did his thing but that was Shaq. The following 2 years is when Kobe really did his thing and became more of a presence and became the 1b to Shaq’s 1a. I’m sure you’d see a nice statistical bump in all the other categories once you factor that in. Also, today’s players are far more athletic and capable of handling a Jordan or Kobe type player then years ago. Granted, the rules nowadays would make it easier for someone like Jordan but at the same time, the skill is better. You see many more superstars in the league and many more stars then in the 80’s when certain icon’s stand out. But with the Jordan era also comes the ability for teams and players to learn how to better defend someone like say Kobe. Another thing about Jordan vs Kobe though is Jordan didn’t lose his step as early in his career as Kobe did. Kobe with his knee injury made him lose his elevation and his step a bit sooner then I’m sure he cared for, god knows if he didn’t get hurt how much more effective he’d be today.

    We also look past the fact that during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Finals, Kobe has been hurt. His injuries are such that the vast majority of players would be recovering getting surgery, whatever. Then there is Kobe. Dislocated pinky he never got repaired, played through an avulsion fracture in his index finger on his shooting hand which developed arthritis, issues with his knee still and multiple sprains on his ankle. I’m sure I’m missing some things here but the issues he deals with and rehabs and restrengthens and has to constantly refine his game for make it all the more astonishing that he’s been able to do what he’s done in his career. You consider everything there and how many players would have either called it a season or hung up their sneakers altogether then look at Kobe.

  19. I can only agree with the other comments regarding the fallacy of looking at the Shaq/Kobe Finals appearances. In every case the Lakers were in their cruise control mode after having vanquished the “real” competition in the Western Conference.

    Beyond that, Poulard has had a consistent anti-Kobe bias since before he even joined the blog. And while I think that any discussion of Kobe as GOAT necessarily starts with Kobe being an underdog (and I would at this point argue against it), Poulard is now laying the groundwork for an argument that Kobe is not the greatest Laker of all time.

    This is just shear foolishness. The only other serious candidates are Magic, West and Kareem. Both Magic and West have stated that Kobe is the GLOAT and Kareem doesn’t even have a statue.

    Example of this passive aggressive Poulard bias –

    “And for better or worse, this is where Bryant has earned the reputation of a selfish gunner in the minds of many.”

    At no point have you ever made it clear that you do not share this view. In fact the point of this article seems to be to support this as your thesis. If thats the case you should make it more clear to your readers instead of continuing to engage in your stealth campaign against Kobe Bryant.

  20. I believe I have seen every playoff series Kobe Bryant has played in. There is only one series where Kobe was a net negative to his team and that was the 04 Finals vs. Detroit.

    Kobe’s play in that series was disasterous and very, very selfish, I don’t think even Kobe’s biggest fans would sugar coat that. However it does say something about his greatness that in his entire basketball career Kobe has really played only one bad series especially when juxtiposed against series (08 vs. Phoenix, 01 vs. SA, 02 vs. Sac) where he was positively sublime.