Kobe Bryant Is An All-Time NBA Great, Unless You Do The Math
Is the retiring Kobe Bryant truly one of the best NBA players of all time? Or is he simply basketball's most celebrated shot-chucker?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
No matter how badly Kobe Bryant plays this season—and shooting 7-for-26 against the previously winless Philadelphia 76ers is a level of badness that's hard to match—he will finish his career next April ranked No. 3 all-time in NBA scoring, with more career points than Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Moreover, Bryant will leave the league with as many championships as Magic Johnson, and more titles than Larry Bird.
So far, so good. Except this: Bryant also will finish his career with more missed shots than, well, anyone who anyone who has ever played the game. Not to put too fine a point on it, but nobody in the history of professional organized basketball has thrown more balls at the basket that have failed to go in than Kobe Bean Bryant.
So, while Bryant has enjoyed a memorable and successful NBA career, he hasn't always found success on the court. How should we remember him?
Academic research makes it clear that perceptions of performance in basketball are driven by two factors: scoring totals and wins. Bryant has scored. His teams have won. As such, people see him as not just an all-time great, but one of the all-time greats, on the very short list of basketball's best of the best.
Problem is, scoring totals do a poor job of how a player impacts wins in basketball. Wins are about how well a team—not a single heroic player shooting over two defenders, but a team—gains possession of the ball without its opponent scoring; keeps possession of the ball; and ultimately turns those possessions into points.
Step one involves grabbing defensive rebounds and forcing turnovers. Step two involves avoiding turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds. Step three involves shooting efficiently and/or getting to the free throw line. As basketball analytics expert Dean Oliver has put it, four factors explain wins: shooting efficiency, rebounds, turnovers, and free throws.
Using those four factors as a baseline, how good is Bryant? Let's make a few career comparisons. First, compare Bryant to Jordan. Because of course we're going to compare Bryant to Jordan. Bryant often is referred to as Jordan's heir, and for much of his career he seemed to self-consciously pattern his game and mannerisms after His Airness.
Judging by the four factors, Jordan was better at everything:
Shooting efficiency (effective field goal percentage): Jordan 51 percent; Bryant 48 percent
Rebounds (per 48 minutes): Jordan 7.8; Bryant 7.1
Turnovers (per 48 minutes): Jordan 3.4; Bryant 4.0
Free Throw Attempts (per 48 minutes): Jordan 10.3; Bryant 10.0
Wins Produced is a statistic calculated by connecting all these factors—and everything else in the box score—to team wins. It's an attempt to evaluate just how much individual players contribute to the bottom line. If we look at this metric, we see that Bryant entering the current NBA season (we'll ignore the disaster that is 2015-16) produced 137.8 career wins, and that his career Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) was 0.142.
Given that average WP48 is 0.100—an average team made up of five players produces 0.500 wins per 48 minutes—Bryant's numbers are good. Above average! But nowhere near Jordan, who finished his career with 208.5 Wins Produced and a WP48 of 0.244, making him twice as productive than an average player for the duration of his career.
So Bryant isn't Jordan. Fine. Guess what? He isn't Clyde Drexler (188.1 Wins Produced, 0.244 WP48) either, or even Reggie Miller (181.9 Wins Produced, 0.183 WP48). How is that possible? Well, Drexler was a better rebounder and shot more efficiently. And Miller—who finished his career with a 54 percent effective field goal percentage—was flat-out amazing at getting shots to go in the basket.
What about Ray Allen? Allen was selected before Bryant in the 1996 draft and played the same position as Bryant, shooting guard, until 2014. Over his career, Allen wasn't quite Bryant's equal at rebounding or getting to the free-throw line. However, his effective field goal percentage was 53 percent; relative to Bryant, he was much better at getting shots to go in the basket.
That matters. In fact, it's not surprising that Allen finished his career with 147.9 Wins Produced and a 0.154 WP48, making him a more productive player than Bryant.
To many basketball fans, that notion probably seems ridiculous. Howl-worthy. Miller and Allen can't possibly be better than Bryant. Not even Miller or Allen themselves would make that argument. Would they? Remember: scoring and winning dominate perceptions of NBA ability. Relative to Miller and Allen, Bryant scored more points and won more titles. But that doesn't mean he was actually better at helping his teams win games.
To understand the importance of shooting efficiency, consider a baseball analogy. Last MLB season, Nick Castellanos of the Detroit Tigers posted an OPS of 0.721, a mark that was exactly at the league average. In 549 at-bats, Castellanos hit 15 home runs and had 140 hits.
Now, let's imagine we re-wrote baseball's rules and the Tigers got to bat Castellanos as often as they wanted to—and out of that, Detroit sent Castellanos to the plate five times as often, or 2,745 times. Now imagine that in those 2,745 at-bats, Castellanos still has an OPS of 0.721. Yet because he has so many chances, he might now finish with 75 home runs and 700 hits.
Those numbers would easily lead the league, assuming the rules were not changed for any other player. But would they really make Castellanos the best hitter in baseball? Or would he still be perceived as average?
I think most baseball fans would argue the latter. Ultimately, it's not totals that matter in baseball. It is how efficiently you use your opportunities to create those totals. And the same logic should apply to basketball. An average NBA shooting guard has an effective field goal percentage of 48.6 percent. Kobe's career mark is 48.3 percent. Sure, he's enjoyed some above average years, but he's also suffered some below average seasons.
As a shooter over his career, Bryant basically has been the basketball equivalent of 2015 Nick Castellanos.
If that's the case, then where did all of Bryant's points come from? Well, Bryant has scored bushels of points because he has taken bushels of shots. The key word is take. As I've noted before, when a perceived star player departs a team, total shot attempts barely change. All that happens is that the shots said "star" was taking are now taken by someone else. Which means we shouldn't be fooled by scoring totals. What matters most is efficiency.
This leads to a related question: if efficiency is so important, then how the hell did Bryant win five NBA titles? There's no doubt that he contributed—as I already mentioned, he has been an above average player, largely because he rebounds well and gets to the free throw line. But Bryant also has been blessed with some very productive teammates.
When he played with Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers won 69.7 percent of their games and three titles. After O'Neal left for Miami in 2004, the Lakers did much worse. When Pau Gasol joined the Lakers in 2007, the team thrived once more, winning 62.5 percent of their games and two championships.
By himself—without those productive big men—Bryant has been far less successful, with his Lakers teams winning just 43.3 percent of their games.
The current season is even worse. Much worse. Bryant is rebounding and getting to the free throw line below his career rates, and he is now (amazingly!) awful at shooting, with an effective field goal percentage of 35.9 percent. Lakers coach Byron Scott insists that Bryant is not going to be benched or told to stop shooting—to the contrary, he leads Los Angeles in shot attempts. That's not doing the Lakers any favors, and isn't really helping Bryant's legacy, either.
How so? If Bryant keeps chucking, he will end up with more than 1,000 field goal attempts. And that will earn him a place in history. The last person to shoot worse than Bryant while taking more than 1,000 shots was Hot Rod Hundley in 1959-60. Keep in mind, the NBA was vastly different in the late 1950s, with the average player shooting 41 percent from the floor. Relative to his peers, Hundley wasn't all that bad; relative to his peers, Bryant is.
In fairness to Bryant, his dropoff is hardly surprising. NBA player performance tends to peak at age 26 and decline dramatically after age 30. Bryant is 37 and coming off a series of major injuries. Age and time eventually rob every player of the ability to compete at the NBA level.
Once upon a time, Bryant competed. The numbers say he was good. But despite all of his points, those same statistics don't place him among the NBA's all-time greats. Not when his prolific point totals are matched by so, so, so many missed shots. Scoring matters, but how your score matters a whole lot more.