Kobe Bryant: the Eternal Shooter or just a Ball Hogger?
In that particular moment, the player was on verge of accomplishing a truly spectacular feat. As he caught the ball off a Duhon pass and danced his way into the paint to score, the whole basketball fraternity stood up to applaud and revere a true transcendent superstar. The shot was tough, the milestone even more special. The Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant had just scored his 30,000 career point, the 5th NBA player ever to achieve the feat, and the youngest to get that far.
17 years in the league, five championships and seven NBA Finals appearances. The kid whose introduction to the sport was far away from the glamour and the glitter of the NBA, in the discreet and not so shimmering courts in Italy has truly conquered the much bedizened and celebrated rostrum. His resume seems faultless, and the comparisons to the legendary Michael Jordan are inevitable. The stats might truly prove Jordan to be the better player, but nobody can doubt the fact that Bryant is maybe the closest anybody will ever get to Jordan. LeBron might push his case, but with just a single ring coronating his career, the KING for certain needs more jewels on his crown.
However, there are still many detractors who believe that Kobe’s greatness has often come at the expense of his teammates. His insolence and supreme belief in his abilities often has seen him try to do too much and win games on his own. However, that is how Kobe plays the game. Kobe loves to win and it is this competitive streak that forces him to do so much more than he should.
For Kobe, it has always been a challenge, a “me against the world” mentality. Maybe this emotion is something that he carried forward from his days at Lower Merion High. The school in Philadelphia was no force to reckon on the state basketball scene, and nobody was ready to give the young teenage kid from Italy much of a chance. In his first year with the team, he failed to make it to the top of the State Championships. After the loss, a dejected Kobe would stand up and claim that he is going to win the Championship the next year.
Nobody gave his prophecy much notice, with his friends trying to coax him and help him get over the loss. But, the Black Mamba was not to be denied as he led Lower Marion to the State Championships next year, playing all five positions and averaging hypnagogic numbers such as 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists en route to being named the Pennsylvania Player of the Year. The achievements may not be as significant as its implications, as the experience of playing for Lower Marion pretty much transformed Bryant from being an extremely talented basketball player into a winner. The never-say-die spirit, the defiant attitude and to fight even when all chips are down; qualities that are the driving force behind many of Bryant’s clutch shots.
At Lower Marion High, the players and the coach were more than happy to ride his superlative talents, and allowed him to have his say on the court. However, in the NBA, the situation isn’t quite that simple. Kobe’s determination and desire to win saw him getting into many feuds with the coaches and the players. Be it with Del Harris, or with Shaq. Many of his teammates tried to change his ways, but Bryant was defiant and determined to be the best player he could be, and to be that he needed to always have the ball in his hands. Shaq couldn’t accept that and he left. Smush Parker couldn’t accept that too and thank god that he left. Maybe the best validation to this would be Metta World Peace’s statements after he hit the clutch three against the Celtics in game seven of the NBA Finals.
“He trusted us and made us feel so good and he passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball! And he passed me the ball. Kobe passed me the ball, and I shot a three.”
Well, if your teammate can burn you after winning a Championship, I don’t think the numerous Facebook Trolls and Twitter feeds about Kobe not passing the ball can do much harm.
While Shaq might have been right about Kobe to an extent, Smush Parker for sure can’t be taken seriously, and this is where the ball-hogging syndrome gets so tricky. With Shaq, the Lakers were best served in allowing their offense to flow through him. In the three seasons of 1999-00, 2000-01 and 2001-02, Kobe averaged over 22 shots per game, on 46% shooting and averaging over 3 turn- overs per game. Shaq on the other hand, averaged 19 shots per game, on 57% shooting and also turned the ball over far less. The duo might have done enough to three-peat, but the reasons behind Shaq’s disgruntlement were not so much unjustified.
However, with the team of 2005-06, Kobe had to endure the likes of Parker, Kwame Brown, George and Chris Mihm. He just had no options to go-to, and was forced to do it all on his own, night-in and night-out. The 81-point game against the Rockets was just a true example of what Kobe and the Lakers had to do to win. Not surprisingly Kobe averaged over 27 Field Goals attempts per game, and he did most of them facing against double-teams and had to shoot almost impossible fade-away’s. It wasn’t that he didn’t wish to dish the ball, but if you look at the percentages and offensive ratings, allowing someone like Smush Parker to shoot an open shot was not a sensible choice. It was not that Kobe didn’t wish to trust his teammates; it was just that he knew he shouldn’t give it a shot.
With age, Kobe showed some maturity in his game, and found a way to win while still not compromising on his offensive scoring abilities. He still got his 20 shots per game, but he also tried to read opposition defenses and create plays. And with the injuries to Nash and Blake, the onus was on Bryant to carry the team through.
Bryant did deliver, leading the league in scoring with an average of over 27 ppg. Not bad for a 34 year-old I guess, but a more surprising stat is that the Lakers are 1-7 in matches that Kobe has managed to score over 30 points.
A possible and mush popular explanation is that Kobe has been shooting the ball too much. In the Lakers last loss against the rockets, Kobe ended up with 14-31, and adding the turnovers and assists, Kobe had the ball in more than half of the 82 Laker possessions. The trio of Jamison, Howard and MWP combined for only 27 shots. When you have someone like Howard on the floor and he only manages 9 shots in a game, there is certainly something wrong in the flow of the offense.
However, how much of it is Kobe’s fault? If you look at the season averages so far, Kobe has averaged a total of 19.2 attempts a game and converting on 49% off those shots. This is Kobe’s best career shooting percentage, and his PER of 25.7 puts him among the best in the league. While the trio of Gasol, MWP and Howard would wish to have more attempts, it can’t be simply put down to Kobe’s tendency to shoot the ball too much. Gasol has struggled throughout this campaign, averaging a career low in Field Goal percentage and PER. With D’Antoni emphasis on floor spacing, Gasol has been forced to play more of a stretch-four, and has been mostly forced to roll to the elbow and shoot jumpers. Gasol also is not very effective in a transition game as the dexterous Spaniard has never been known as a run-and-gun player.
His rebounding numbers might still be up, but with his limited time on the low-post, D’Antoni and the Lakers might be giving up on one of the most potent low-post scoring option in the NBA. Gasol and Kobe might still make a very effective pick-and-roll pair, but Gasol’s reduced efficiency and injuries mean that the Lakers have not been able to make the most of this offensive maneuverer. Bryant has always revered and lauded Gasol’s basketball IQ, and has certainly missed Pau on the offensive end of the floor. Not surprisingly his open media statements calling Gasol to wear his big-boy pants, because Kobe needs Gasol to have a good game more than Gasol himself.
Howard on the other hand, has also been struggling to come to terms with the much prevalent hack-a-Dwight strategy. With teams content and predisposed to fouling Howard and sending him to the free-throw line, his productivity has certainly suffered. Howard has not been able to exert himself on the low-post, and in the clutch moments has let the team down at the charity stripe. The match against the Rockets was maybe the best example of how teams could best use the hack-a-Dwight strategy. D’Antoni and the Lakers might choose to let Howard play through the tirade and overcome his frailties, but for now his Free Throw shooting has certainly proved a liability for the Lakers.
Also, MWP and Jamison have provided some bright sparks, but have proved themselves to be too inconsistent and unreliable.
And amidst all this ataxia and mobocracy, the Black Mamba has certainly been the only bright spot for the Lakers. He has tried to play the role of a distributor, and did his best to cover-up for the absence of Nash. In the previous encounter against the Rockets, he ended up getting a triple double and amassing 11 assists. In all of the game so far, Kobe has certainly shown a desire to create for the other players in his team, but with the bench players putting up dismal numbers, and with the trio of Gasol, Howard and MWP having inconsistent stretches of games, his passes and playmaking ability has been largely under-stated.
Kobe hasn’t done much of his isolation post-up sets, and has certainly shown a desire to pass and share the ball. However, the passes and plays will never make it to the stat-sheet, unless the Lakers knock down the shots.
Kobe thus is left with not so many convincing options. He can’t look to get the ball to Howard often enough, as he knows that he wouldn’t be most certainly allowed to get a shot off. MWP isn’t reliable and Gasol isn’t getting the deep post situations. Thus even though the Lakers try to get the ball moving and rotate it around the perimeter, most of the players look to Bryant to bail them out. And he has done that pretty admirably so far, shooting at a pretty high percentage.
If he is launching a lot more shots than any of his teammates, it is also because he doesn’t have many options to look for. The Lakers know and understand that, and with Nash expected to join the ranks soon enough, the debate about Kobe and his ball-hogging can soon be put to the rest. Even with Nash’s return expect Kobe to launch up a huge volume of shots, because unless D’Antoni figures out a way to get more productivity out of Gasol, and Howard fixes his free-throw nightmares, it is all up to Bryant and Nash to get the Lakers through.
For now, Bryant is surely missing the Canadian wizard. The “Severus Snape” lookalike has his task cut-out when he comes back, and nobody will want him back more than Bryant himself. Till then he is all alone and with the Thunder up-next, expect another herculean effort against the Durant led Thunder. Kobe’s back is against the wall.
The previews and the predictions may go for a comfortable Thunder win, but you never ever discount the Black Mamba.