Of “Kobe assists” and their effect on player perception

Today there was a lot of talk about a Grantland article written by Kirk Goldsberry. In it, he explains a stat he began calculating last season. It counts the number of shots that are immediately turned into put back points for each player. He also recorded the number that were offensively rebounded. He calls each one Kobe assists, and Kobe passes, essentially because Kobe Bryant leads the league in them.

First off, let’s get something out of the way. In the article, Goldsberry attempts to explain the value of many of Kobe’s missed shots. Mentioning the “baseball-ification” of basketball, he says many of the new advanced statistics have failed to calculate environmental context. Here, he’s absolutely right.

Widely popular numbers like true shooting percentage and PER do a terrible job adjusting for how each event affects the next in the sequence over the course of a game. The former even has inspired a very broad usage of terms like “chucker” and “ball-hog.” Any scorer who doesn’t fit the perceived notion of “efficiency” that TS% brings is automatically less valuable as a scorer than those who do. In a vacuum, looking just at shooting attempts that go in and that don’t, this makes sense. On any individual shot, it’s always best that it goes in. What TS% does not take into account, is where those shots are taken and whether or not those shots are playing to the offense’s strengths.

Now, let’s get to Kobe, the subject of the article. I’m not going to try to tell you how many of his missed shots are more valuable than others. That’s somewhat outlined in the article. What I want to do is something I think Goldsberry did a poor job of explaining: how “Kobe assists” come to be.

There are a handful of great perimeter scorers in the NBA. Kobe is one. Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony are the others. Looking at LeBron James and Kevin Durant, a couple things out. Neither has ever played with a premier paint scorer, or even a particularly good one. The closest LeBron has come is a a 37-year old Shaq. The next closest is tall, but perimeter-oriented big man Zydrunas Ilguaskas. Now with Miami, it’s Bosh, who is a very good power forward. For all of Bosh’s ability, though, he’s also a big man who takes more of his shots from outside 10 feet. More than half of them actually with 6.8 outside 10 feet, and just 5.2 within. He scores in the paint as often as Andray Blatche, and that’s not per-minute. Not exactly a dominant low-post presence.

For Kevin Durant, it’s similar. His best-scoring big man, Serge Ibaka, shoots 6 times per game from beyond 10 feet and just 3.8 times in the paint. It’s a little different than Bosh, though, because Ibaka is a significantly better offensive rebounder, and therefore the finisher on far more Kobe-assists. I’m not sure I even need to address Kendrick Perkins, who shoots less than 4 shots per game, total. Still playing with 2 front court players occasionally taking up space in the paint, I’d expect him to play a more perimeter role than LeBron. Usually that’s the case, too. Especially so on nights where LeBron doesn’t handle PG-like duties.

Carmelo Anthony has played with many front-court scorers. Tyson Chandler, who shoots more in the paint than any of the other bigs mentioned, while taking nearly all of his attempts from within it. Nene, often regarded as one of the most underrated post-scorers in the NBA. Amar’e Stoudemire, who despite a suffering reputation, has long been one of the league’s leading in-the-paint scorers.

So clearly, playing different positions in very different offenses, the scoring roles for each of these players is also very different. My point here, is that great perimeter player often score at the rim as well, and that some of those opportunities are negated based on the personnel featured in the team offense. To the extent that Chandlers, Stoudemires, and Nenes clog the paint, perimeter scorers take more outside shots because having 3 players in the paint, and at the rim is not only redundant, but ineffective.

The same goes for Kobe, who has spent most of his career playing alongside either a dominant paint big, or multiple very good paint bigs, in Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. As skilled as Lamar Odom is,¬† he also took the majority of his shots in the paint during his tenure with the Lakers. So that’s a lot of players, a lot of size, and a lot of shots in the paint that Kobe is sharing.

There’s a couple sides to this argument as well, though. Simple logic says if you play with other great or very good players it should make things easier for you. But this points out the flaw in TS% and other similar stats. It measures individual points per shot and calls it efficiency, when that’s not actually what’s being recorded.

Most people understand what efficiency means, but for reference, let me define it: “Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” When it’s a team goal to score points, individual “efficiency” needs to be measured differently. What’s the impact on the offense is Kobe or Carmelo start going for their own, and force their bigs out of the paint so they can work for easier shots? There’s not exactly a good way to measure that, but certainly the negative effect on the offense can be clear just from watching the game. Not only are they expending more effort to get there, they are also forcing their bigs into less productive positions on the court.

Pau Gasol is a very good offensive rebounder. So is Andrew Bynum. So is Dwight Howard. So are just about every starting big man Kobe has played with in all but 3 NBA seasons. The penalty Pau Gasol has suffered in his own TS% is shocking, now that he’s being forced to the perimeter more by Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo perimeter-oriented offense. Big men who make their living in the paint do not help the offense nearly as much when they’re more than 10 feet from the basket regularly. Pau Gasol shooting more attempts from mid-range is doubly bad, because it’s a less efficient shot, not only for him, but for the team. He’s not as good at them, and there’s one less good rebounder there to pick up the offensive rebound.

So yes, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are often there to clean up Kobe Bryant’s misses, and that’s a great thing for Kobe, the same way it’s a great thing for Durant and James having gotten to play with other very good offensive players like Russell Westbrook, Dwywane Wade, James Harden, and Chris Bosh. And no, missing a shot is not an assist. It is not better than a make. Suggesting that is absurd. But it is definitely true that some misses are much more valuable than others, because of the way they fit into the team’s offensive strategy.

It’s here that Bryant and James are at extremes. James plays power forward now in the Heat’s quick, athletic, and skilled small-ball lineup. Bosh, long a PF in the league, now plays center most of the time. And that works for them on offense because of all the good perimeter scorers they have on their team. It opens up lots of inside shots for LeBron and Wade because it forces opponent’s big men not only to guard him, but for the center to follow Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem out to 15 feet.

Another important thing to remember here, is that no matter how good a jump shooter you are, from inside or outside the arc, eclipsing the shooting efficiency of a shot at the rim is nearly impossible, especially when talking about a player who is a good finisher and should be taking shots in the paint. To that effect, it’s important to note that over the past 6+ seasons, LeBron has averaged more than 2 more attempts at the rim per game than Kobe, and that it’s not all a product of individual performance. Therefore, LeBron’s own TS% is given a boost that Bryant’s isn’t.

So while playing further from the rim regularly helps the Lakers win games, Bryant’s individual numbers take a significant hit. There are a couple occurrences throughout his career that also illustrate this. His own TS% has fluctuated, but never been higher than in the seasons that his teams did the worst. Over the 3-year span that the Lakers were either exited in the first round of the playoffs, or didn’t make them at all, Bryant had his best stretch of shooting efficiency he ever has. In 3 consecutive seasons he posted a TS% number higher than he ever had before. There are a couple reasons for this. One was being in his physical prime. Despite that, it’s incredible to see that his own efficiency numbers are at their best in the seasons that he had the least help. The other reason was because there was no post-beast he had to share the paint with. No Shaq. Pau was still in Memphis. Bynum was a teenager still learning his way. There was only Odom, who at the time did a lot more ball-handling and a lot more perimeter shooting. The lanes weren’t as open as they are in the Miami offense, due to Kwame Brown being the team’s starting center, but there was still a ton more room in the Staples Center paint for Kobe to work with. It showed then, on the court, and it still shows in his TS% numbers over that stretch.

What he’s done this season is also interesting. In the more open Princeton and Run-and-gun, Kobe has posted another career high in TS% (so far) because Antawn Jamison is seeing a lot of time on the court and Pau is being pushed out of the paint in addition to struggling overall. With those lanes open again, Bryant is putting up numbers better than we’ve ever seen from him. If Pau ever gets reinstated to the paint, we can probably expect that number to fall. The Lakers record would probably also improve.

Goldsberry opened his article by detailing¬† a play in which Bryant missed an open-three that went for an offensive put-back by Dwight Howard. While it’s a good example of how the Lakers offense should encourage shot-taking when Dwight is positioned down low, it’s not exactly an example of how Kobe’s own over-shooting is not a detriment to the team, as many fans seem to believe.

There’s a couple things I’d like to point out. Kobe is great at knowing when to shoot the ball. That’s a stark opposing view to many who believe he’s one of the biggest ball-hogs and “chuckers” the NBA has ever seen. But let me explain. Kobe shoots the ball a lot. More than anyone in the NBA. So much, that he’s lead the NBA in FGA 6 times in 8 years. The other two seasons, he was 2nd.

He follows in a line of SG’s that have regularly lead the league in that category. Since the modern era of the NBA (starting with the arrival of Michael Jordan as a superstar), a SG has lead the league in shot attempts 21 times. All others? 6 times. Each time it happened, the previous year’s leader was either not playing in the NBA, or suffered a significant injury. So it’s not like there isn’t precedence for this. Shooting guards in the lead-player role tend to shoot the ball a lot. Kobe isn’t alone.

All that said, most of his shots are good ones. Contested, not contested, off-balance, most times it doesn’t matter. All players shoot bad shots. All players make bad decisions. That Kobe takes difficult shots does not necessarily mean he’s taking bad shots. Many of the shots he takes early, or that lend to the image of him as a ball-hog, are actually opportunistic. The trap from a big man at the elbow that results in a quick jumper. The switch to the big man that ends in the same. The three point shot in transition with a big man already having established position.

Often the choice to shoot the ball is to save a turnover from a forced pass, or to prevent the stalling of the offense, requiring it to be reset. Usually an offense that gets reset doesn’t result in a high-quality shot opportunity. Bigs often give up their established post position to go to a “spot,” or to receive the pass from the trapped player, and with little time left on the clock after a trap, getting a quality shot attempt up is not the easiest task. All of this isn’t something that applies solely to Kobe Bryant.

Among players I’ve watched regularly over the past few seasons, there have been a few that have shown some of the same tendencies. Not all are well-known. Carmelo Anthony is one. As a worse creator/passer than Kobe, it makes even more sense for him to shoot the ball in those types of situations. There is also Ohio State forward DeShaun Thomas. I often made a similar argument for Warriors rookie Harrison Barnes leading up to the 2012 NBA draft. Dallas Mavericks shooting guard O.J. Mayo is yet another. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like that Goldsberry named the stat after Kobe, whether he leads in the category or not. It makes very good observation and breakdown look silly, or average. And that’s not to be a insult to him. He did really great work on the article and it’s not on him to please other fans with the terms he uses.

It’s sad that fans who often used statistics to criticize Kobe’s game are so unwilling to consider the other ways he may be conducive to winning games. It reminds me that there’s always been a double-standard with many proponents of advanced statistics. Much of the fan push for increased use of complicated numbers has come from small-market fans who have little love for Bryant. He’s become the “poster-boy” of the reasons they believe traditional numbers and evaluation need replacing. Accepting that they may be wrong about his volume shooting would be a step back for advanced statistics, so they’re using the name of the stat to make light of it instead, many ignoring the point Goldsberry makes completely. For anyone actually reading this, I implore you to reconsider how you feel about advanced statistics. They’re very helpful tools, but they’re not necessarily replacements for simple counting numbers or the eye test.