Friday, October 26, 2012

What Should We Expect From Kobe Bryant Next Season?

Kobe Bryant almost seems like a legend, doesn't he? The sheer amount of time played for Bryant is ridiculous. At age 34, he has 42,377 minutes played, not counting playoffs or international play. Including playoffs, Bryant’s minutes increase to 51,018 minutes of total NBA playing time. Compare that to Michael Jordan, who, at 39 years old, retired with 48,485 minutes of total NBA playing time under his belt.

Such wear and tear requires players switching up their playing styles and adapting to the way the NBA is evolving. One of the reasons Bryant has had longevity in this league is evolving his offensive game to the point of no longer needing elite athleticism to beat defenders. Bryant has evolved from the 1-on-1 type player from the early 2000’s to a player that has learned how to play within his coach’s offensive system, learned how to take advantage of off ball situations and has let his team help him out; the difference in percentage of Bryant’s baskets that were assisted on is enormous from 2001-2002 to 2011-2012 campaign. 37.2% of Bryant’s baskets were assisted in 2002; 44.4% in 2012. Comparing Bryant from 2001-2002 to last season’s version, the numbers tell the tale.
2001-2002 Bryant
2011-2012 Bryant
Points Per Game
Field Goal %
Win Shares per 48
Offensive Win Shares

The biggest difference between Old Kobe and Kobe of Old is offensive efficiency. In 2000, Bryant was elite in this aspect, recording a superb .196 WS/48 and having an elite 9.2 OWS in 68 out of 82 games played. Kobe last season had a good but not great .132 WS/48 and 4.2 OWS in 58 out of 66 games played. Bryant has lost athleticism and can no longer rely simply on driving past opponents. This information gives us the obvious: Kobe Bryant is no longer the dynamic and athletic ‘Fro Kobe (or Frobe) from the early 2000’s.
Bryant has evolved and is no longer a one trick pony. 10 years ago, Bryant was primarily a slasher style shooting guard, meaning he would try to drive on opponents to create offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates. Kobe from 2011-2012 has become one of the most creative offensive players in NBA history. Comparing Kobe’s season’s again show us how exactly he’s evolved:
Shot distance
2001-2002 Bryant
2011-2012 Bryant
At Rim
63.4% (325-513)
67.8% (162-239)
3-9 Feet
45.4% (137-302)
41.8% (112-268)
10-15 Feet
44.3% (185-418)
42.4% (113-314)
16- 3 point line
38.7% (234-605)
41.6% (195-469)
3 pointers
28.9% (55-190)
30.0% (104-347)

Young Kobe’s willingness to constantly drive in brought us efficiency from the floor (and some very exciting moments like this, this and this) but it also brought us a more one dimensional player, not to mention injury. Bryant, last season, experienced his worst shooting performance since being a starter. Part of this has to do with age, part of it injury; Bryant had just returned from Germany and had just done a platelet-rich plasma therapy called Orthokine and on top of that, tore wrist ligaments to begin the season and played through the season with that, as well as an assortment of other injures such as a broken nose and concussion suffered during the All Star game at the hands of Eastern Conference All Star Dwyane Wade, and most importantly, shot selection for Bryant has been poor. While Bryant has expanded his game to the point of still being able to shoot a high percentage from nearly anywhere on the court, he has also developed the bad habit of shooting from farther than necessary.

Bryant’s shooting range 10 seasons ago was limited to 15 feet and in to be efficient, anything outside of that range was a struggle for young Kobe as he would shoot a very low 36.3% from 16 feet and out. Current Kobe has expanded his game to include: an effective post game, magnificent mid-range game in which he opens space for himself using a wide array of pump fakes and his excellent foot work (his amazing footwork can create separation often without even dribbling, using an agile pivot and quick head fakes to throw multiple defenders off-balance) only surpassed by Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin McHale and Jordan in NBA history and even though he works a bit harder to get his shots, a well-rest Bryant is capable of rising above a defense to close out a game. Even at this stage, Bryant commands a team’s entire defensive focus and shows an ability reserved for the all-time greats to excel under those circumstances.

Bryant has good height at the shooting guard position, excellent strength and court vision. Combine those with his outstanding post game for a guard, and teams cannot afford to have point guards, combo guards or guards smaller than 6’4’’ attempt to cover him. The Lakers offensive system benefits greatly from the fantastic offensive talents of Bryant, especially because it’s no longer the Triangle Offense. Most teams have one defensive specialist who will always key on Bryant for the majority of the game. The problem with doing this is that most defensive specialists are, as can be expected, one-dimensional. Thus, it allows Bryant – himself a fearsome defensive force – to roam the paint and help out teammates as well as play free safety in the passing lanes and since he doesn’t have to expend much energy guarding the defensive specialist, he can focus his whole arsenal of moves against said defensive player, and generally be more creative and less predictable on the offensive end, and make things easier for himself.

Unlike with other 2-guards in the league, the opposing team simply can’t afford to not put a defender on Kobe, necessarily sacrificing offense. Furthermore, the age old tactic of letting a star offensive player score as many points as he wants, while shutting down the rest of his teammates doesn’t generally work against Los Angeles because Bryant’s teammates are too good to completely shut down. This defense is especially ineffective against the Lakers because Steve Nash will create shots for everyone else. Furthermore, Kobe is the rare offensive superstar that, if he shoots a high percentage, is quite capable of scoring enough to beat a team all by himself, as games of 81 points, 62 points in 3 quarters, and other such offensive outbursts show us.

When going against players his size and larger, Bryant can penetrate, but not like 2002 Bryant; He has slowed down enough to no longer be able to turn the corner against defenders; however he is still explosive. Bryant has the entire repertoire of ball-handling jukes, absolutely paralyzing hesitation moves and foot-placement, making him effectively much faster than he probably is at this point in his career. He has complete mastery of the mid-range game, as well as the footwork necessary to operate effectively from the pinch post. Bryant is also an extraordinary facilitator when inclined, or when the situation demands it.

What can we expect from Kobe Bryant next season? That is a tricky question since Bryant has never played with an elite point guard in his career, however Bryant has adapted well to his teammates over the course of his career so there’s no reason not to hope that Bryant will feed off of Nash, and improve from last season. Nash makes the job much easier for Bryant and everyone else on the roster; I believe Bryant should be used more in a Rip Hamilton like way, having off ball screens set for him to get into a far better position and much closer to the basket than when Bryant tries to 1-on-1 things. Bryant’s excellent court vision will also help him utilize the backdoor of the defense with much higher success now that Nash is on the team. The transition game also opens up for Kobe and the Lakers with Nash on the roster. It’s not comparable to that of Miami’s dunk fest between Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, nor should we expect it to be, however Los Angeles will make nearly every steal count, and make every transitional basket look similar to the 1980’s Showtime Lakers led by Magic Johnson. I fully expect next season to be Bryant’s most successful season as an individual player. Efficiency should not be an issue for Kobe playing with Nash.

Expect Kobe to score anywhere from 25-29 points per game, and be much more efficient from the field, anything from 47-52% shooting. His OWS should also sky rocket playing with Nash. 10 or more OWS is certainly within reach for him, as well as a .200 or more WS/48. Kobe Bryant may have his finest, most complete season yet; his transformation from a slasher to a do-it-all type shooting guard has helped him age like a fine wine. It also helps to be playing with a Top 5 point guard and one of the best passers in NBA history.