Welcome to a new series at FB&G where we will take one player on the Lakers’ roster and discuss one specific skill they possess. Sometimes it will be something very subtle, others it will be more straight forward. We’ll try to shed some light on how this skill can help the team in the coming season. Our previous entries can be found here. Today we look at Kobe Bryant and his ability to draw fouls.
Kobe Bryant is one of the most skilled players to ever play in the NBA. Whether we’re talking about his passing, his footwork, his midrange shooting, or his positional rebounding it is difficult to isolate one single aspect of his game to focus on which helps him or the team be successful.
As he has aged and injuries have affected his physical ability, however, his general skill level has become ever more important. No longer able to simply blow by his man off the dribble, his footwork out of the triple-threat or the post is even more important. Without an ability to just out-jump his defender, his array of feints and fakes to get his man off-balance and create separation for his jumper is more valuable.
These tricks of the trade make up a larger proportion of his success on the floor, allowing him to still impact a game without being able to physically overwhelm the opposition. One place these tricks show up most often now, though, isn’t to shake himself free for a move, but to draw his man in closer in order to create contact and draw fouls.
Over the course of his career, Kobe has lived at the foul line, attempting the 3rd most FT’s in the history of the NBA. And while that is the byproduct of longevity, it’s also one of ability — which he continues to maintain. Last season he averaged 6.9 FT’s a game and drew 5.1 fouls a contest. In 2013 and 2012 (I’m leaving out 2014 since he only played in 6 games) those numbers were 8.0 FT’s with 6.0 fouls drawn and 7.8 FT’s with 5.8 fouls drawn respectively.
In other words, while his numbers did dip some last season, they’re still on par with where he’s been the last several years. In fact, those 5.1 fouls drawn per game last year were still good for 9th in the league, tied with Carmelo Anthony and trailing only the likes of LeBron, DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis (in other words, some of the best players in the league).
From the days of Shaq, Lakers fans know very well the value of a player who can draw fouls. Those infractions put the other team’s better defenders on the bench, get opponents into the penalty earlier (creating FT’s, and all the benefits that come with them, in the process), and they allow the Lakers to set the terms of engagement on both ends of the floor with more regularity.
Next season, Kobe will almost surely continue to be a hybrid player who functions as both a ball handling wing and a post up “big” acting in the hub of the offense. He’ll be asked to establish the post, draw double teams, and make the right pass/shot decisions. He’ll be a primary and secondary ball handler in the pick and roll, looking to turn the corner to create shots for himself and his teammates. He will work off picks away from the action, curling into his comfort zones at the elbows and the top of key.
In working all these different parts of the floor, though, one constant will remain: he will be looking to initiate and draw as much contact from his defender as possible to help draw fouls. Whether that’s from establishing position and backing his man down in the mid-post, rubbing off a P&R and keeping his man connected onto his hip, or darting off ball into and around defenders looking to obscure his path, Kobe will work every angle he knows to get that whistle.
There are concerns, of course. As most players age and their physical abilities decline, the favorable whistle they get from the referees also diminishes. The NBA, in general, favors the attacking player whose physicality overwhelms defenses to the point where fouls result. As the years have passed, we have seen Kobe hunting more and more fouls which are not called by the referees. If that trend continues or ratchets up a notch, we may see that frustrated Kobe, hands up, barking at the ref more often than we’d like.
My gut says, though, that his craftiness combined with the respect he’s maintained from the refs will continue at a high enough level to benefit himself and, maybe more so, the team at large. And if that’s the case, his ability to draw fouls may end up being one of the more valuable skills (among the many) he brings to the team.