Prior to the start of the regular season, I predicted that Kobe Bryant would have his most efficient ever season shooting the ball. His health will probably be a concern until he retires given the toll his 17-year career has taken on his body and thus it stands to reason that his physical skills will continue to erode, but the difference this season in comparison to previous ones is simple: Bryant no longer needs to carry the entirety of the load, and he is playing like it.
The way I saw it, the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard would mean that Kobe would get more opportunities to simply stand around on offense and watch things unfold as opposed to being part of every single offensive possession or worry that a play might be doomed without his involvement.
Last season, the Lakers often seemed lost when Kobe went to the bench because it meant that either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol would see swarms of defenders attack them since the purple and gold lacked good knockdown shooters or other players capable of creating good shots for themselves on a consistent basis.
But this season? Forget having any chance of putting the clamps on Kobe Bean.
He is playing just about the same amount of minutes, but he has been less of a dominant fixture as far as handling the ball so far this season. His usage rate (percentage of possessions he uses up) is down from 35.7 to 28.8 thanks in large part to Dwight Howard’s dominating presence in the paint. Bryant now gets more opportunities to play away from the action and then cut to the basket where he can simply catch and finish with defenses worried about D12’s damaging plays on the low block (our very own Phillip Barnett and Andrew Garrison from Silver Screen and Roll wrote an amazing piece on this last week, you can find it here). Also, Bryant has been masterful at running hand off plays or back cuts with his big men — particularly around the high post — where he has simply caught the ball and exploded to the basket. Add it all together and Kobe is shooting a career high 55.1 percent from the field, albeit in eight games.
Given the small sample size, should this be viewed as a fluke or perhaps a trend for the remainder of the season?
I would side with trend.
The Black Mamba is one of the most devastating shooters — especially off the dribble — in league history, but his willingness to at times force up long contested shots or simply get caught with the rock in his hands late in the shot clock have long contributed to his field goal percentage looking pedestrian at times. The difference this season mind you is that the Laker superstar has done much less of this than in recent seasons. Once again, we are looking at a small sample size, but Kobe has completely altered his shot selection thanks in large part to the personnel around him.
The long-range 2-point shot has always been a huge weapon for Bryant given his ability to rise and take the jumper when the offense bogged down and the paint clogged; but this season he has decreased these attempts in favor of getting the ball to the rack. Hoopdata tells us that the former Lower Merion star is averaging 2.6 long-range 2-point shots, which represents a career low for Bryant (the site started tracking this data in 2007). He hasn’t stopped shooting the ball though, he has instead replaced those inefficient shots with the most efficient ones: attempts right at the rim.
According to Hoopdata, the perennial All-Star is attempting a career high 6.7 shots right at the rim. For the sake of perspective, his highest figures prior to this season came in both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, also known as seasons in which he was still an athletic marvel. Some might say that Bryant is following in the foot steps of what Dwyane Wade — and to some extent LeBron James — accomplished last season, in reducing his amount of long-range shots, but that would be inaccurate. Wade reduced his 3-point field goal attempts in favor of slightly increasing his amount of mid-range jumpers whereas Bryant has morphed into a rim attacker.
For the sake of perspective, have a look at some notable players that generate shots at the rim and where Kobe fits amongst them so far this season :
Shots at rim per game
As you can see, Bryant compares favorably to interior players as well as some bigger, taller and stronger perimeter players; and yet he is right up there with them despite his advanced age. The Black Mamba should be at the stage of his career where he floats out to the perimeter and tries to do most of is damage from there, but instead, he has other ideas with respect to spots where his attempts come from.
The change in his shot selection has been assisted by the decreasing rapidity to which defenses have rotated to him because of the tandem of Howard and Gasol. Consequently, Bryant is attacking faster and spending less time with the ball in his hands trying to anticipate how he is going to be defended. The stats bear this out as well.
MySynergySports tells us that last season Kobe spent 27.9 percent of his possessions in isolation situations, and his field goal percentage in such instances stood at 37.3 percent, which isn’t much of a surprise since he often ended up settling for a tough contested jumper after a plethora of pump fakes. This season he has been much better in this respect. According to MySynergySports, Bryant is only utilizing 17 percent of his possessions in isolation situations, and is shooting a blistering 56 percent from the field in these scenarios. Even his post up opportunities have somewhat diminished as he has focused on mixing up his game and striking from all over the court. He is spotting up more (yes, he’s getting more open looks), is much more involved in the pick-and-roll and getting more transition opportunities.
Kobe Bryant, at the tender age of 34 years old, is reinventing himself as a player and taking the ball to the basket more, at an age where these attempts should be progressively decreasing with each passing season. The knock on the superstar throughout his career has been that he has been quick to put up low percentage shots, but far too often the context of some of his attempts were simply ignored. This season, he’s made the necessary adjustments to take advantage of defenses as well as the gifts of his teammates. The scariest thing for the rest of the league is that Kobe’s efficiency might actually improve (!). Most of the Lakers regular season games have been played without Steve Nash, which seems incredibly relevant given the amount of open shots he helped Kobe generate in the preseason.
Between the Lakers’ poor record to open up the season, the firing of Mike Brown, the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, the James Harden trade and the Knicks undefeated record, Kobe’s shooting figures has flown under the radar; and yet one could make the argument that it should be one of the biggest stories of the season given that it’s happening so late in his career.
At some point, the Lakers will have a winning record and this will become a huge topic of conversation, but why wait until then right?