Kobe Bryant Majored in Drama, Not Math
Kobe Bryant's 60-point, 50-shot final game was a microcosm of his career—and of a shot-jacking, hero-ball style that modern analytics have rendered obsolete. Is that a good thing?
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
There may never be another Kobe Bryant. If that sounds clichéd, that's because it is: we tend to say the same thing any time a great athlete retires.
However, in Bryant's case, it's probably true. And if you're a basketball fan, it's important to understand why.
Bryant was a rare and mammoth individual talent. Players with his skill, athletic ability, and competitive drive come along once a decade, and seldom play for two decades. Yet putting Bryant's unique brilliance aside, there's another reason we likely won't see the likes of him again: because the NBA no longer wants Kobe Bryants.
Oh, sure, the league needs and demands star players on Bryant's level. It has basketball #content to sell. Yet when it comes to how those stars play the game, it's unlikely we'll see anything approaching a Bryant facsimile. Sixty points on 50—that's 5-0, a modern era record—shots, like the 37-year-old Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard put up on Wednesday night during his final game at Staples Center? Don't expect copycats.
Much as the quest for fuel economy ended the reign of the muscle car in favor of the sporty hybrid, contemporary basketball's focus on efficiency has rendered the Bryant-style volume gunner something of an anachronism, a hoops dodo being crowded out of the on-court ecosystem by the long-distance, floor-breaking wizardry of a Steph Curry, or the blatant analytic calculation of a James Harden.
Look, Bryant isn't the final car off the line in a factory's final production run. The NBA is scattered with rangy, athletic wings who mimicked his example, developing what they thought was the proper game. Case in point? Rudy Gay, whose focus on the sort of isolation play seemingly perfected by Bryant has made him the poster child (and/or whipping boy) for pre-analytical basketball thinking.
Still, things are changing. Quickly. Unlike, say, Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony—probably the last Bryant-like stars—today's wing players are first and foremost expected to create space through their outside shooting ability. The perceived progress of multi-dimensional prospects such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andrew Wiggins, and likely upcoming NBA Draft No. 1 pick Ben Simmons will depend in large measure on their ability to make three-pointers.
When Bryant came to prominence in the late 1990s, by contrast, this sort of duty was relegated to spot-up specialists—players not talented enough to, in the parlance of that era, "get their own shot." The success of one-on-one scorers like Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, and, yes, Michael Jordan had created a template for how one fulfilled the role of being "The Man" on a contending team. That this sort of play easily fit within the star-driven marketing paradigm created by the NBA— along with assists from corporate partners such as Nike, Gatorade, and McDonald's—was a just a bonus.
Within this narrative framework, victory supposedly was determined by will as much as skill. Outcomes rested on the star player's moxie and mental toughness in getting "tough buckets" at "winning time." Small wonder, then, that in the 2000-01 season, every NBA perimeter player using at least a quarter of his team's possessions—aside from Antoine Walker, and shimmy on wayward son—took at least 30 percent of their shot attempts from midrange, defined as the area between 15 feet away from the basket and the arc.
By comparison, only five of 25 such players have done so in 2015-16. The norms of "MoreyBall" shot selection—shoot three-pointers or take the ball to the rim, because basic math—have been embraced throughout the league. Those same "winning time" shots are now more commonly derided as selfish "hero ball" than lauded as evidence of character and will to win.
Moreover, the Bryant-esque practice of a single player taking over a team's offense and monopolizing the ball for long stretches of shot-hunting isolation play is almost anathema. Few greater insults can be hurled at today's player than to call him a "ball-stopper." In many ways, these changes are self-evidently good: watch the ball-sharing, pass-slinging Golden State Warriors for a quarter, and you won't need an analytic tutorial to understand why self-created 17-foot pull-up jumpers are now a basketball weapon of last resort.
So: the version of the game that made Bryant a star is dying off, pretty much of its own accord. Efficiency favors three-pointers and point-blank shots; the legalization of zone-ish defense discourages 1990s-style isolation scoring in favor of rapid ball movement; and a crackdown on defensive hand-checking has made sweet-shooting point guards more valuable than wing chuckers. When defenders are less able to body ball-handlers away from the basket, the ability to rise up, over, and through that sort of defense becomes far less valuable, no matter how rare or athletically impressive it may be.
And therein lies the cost to the NBA's search for dependable, fungible, almost metronomic perimeter efficiency.
Bryant may not always have played basketball the right way, at least as currently defined, but he was alternatively thrilling or terrifying to watch, depending on your rooting interests. Which also matters! After all, the league is first and foremost show business. Teams are keenly interested in winning games, but also in filling seats and selling eyeballs to advertisers. If Bryant's virtuosic hero ball completely dies out, so too might some of the variety and individual expressiveness that makes the NBA dramatic and compelling. Is that really what we want? When Bryant bowed out with a 60-point blaze of chucking glory—upstaging the Warriors on the night they won their NBA regular season-record 73rd game—were we not entertained?
Understand, I'm no one's idea of a Kobe fanboy. I grew up a Boston Celtics fan, and am steeped in the so-called "analytics movement." The Venn diagram of that overlap places me squarely in the epicenter Kobe Haterstan, a place where exclaiming "6-for-24"—Bryant's shooting performance in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals—is a bit like quoting chapter and verse of scripture.
Still, I can recognize the NBA will be poorer without Bryant. Even accounting for some of the specific troublesome aspects of his personality and history, the league will miss the idea of Bryant. An assembly line of Three-and-D swingman may be great for offensive efficiency and salary cap gymnastics, but it will also be a little numbing, perhaps even dull, because basketball, in part, is an imaginative exercise. Analytics teaches us to be wary of mushy narratives and improbable occurrences; fandom asks us to enjoy them regardless.
The numbers show—and they do, they really, really do—that Bryant's reputation as a crunch-time assassin is largely a myth. But does that diminish the feeling of dread faced by opposing fans and players alike whenever he elevated over a triple team in a crucial moment? The giddy joy of Bryant's final fourth quarter, which saw him outscore the Utah Jazz all by himself? The NBA needs more than players as production widgets. It needs struggle and suspense. Stars who play the odds, for sure, but also stars who make the improbable routine—or fail spectacularly while trying. Knowing Bryant was taking a terrible shot, but could still make it anyway, and either expecting or fearing the outcome? That anticipation, the moment just before the roller coaster tips over the crest of the big drop—that's the thrill that keeps us coming back.