A Regression to the Mean: Kobe Bryant Steps Up the Efficiency

Kobe’s start to this season has been, by all accounts, his most efficient game yet. As of this writing, Kobe has hit 55 percent of his shots, and 44 percent of his 3-point attempts, averaging 26.4 points a game. Kobe is averaging nearly five assists a game, and 5.5 rebounds in every contest. LeBron weenies would love to point out that LeBron has averaged these stats or better his entire career, but Kobe is a shooting guard. We’ll stick to reasonable comparisons.

Kobe, as of this writing, leads all other shooting guards (as well as the league) in scoring; incredible when you consider his tenure in the league but sobering when you realize that the 2 spot, not the center, is the most depleted position in the league.  Dwyane Wade, the shooting guard who most rank near Kobe, comes in 8th. Kobe ranks 2nd in terms of rebounds per game at the shooting guard position, coming in behind Andre Iguodala. And I’ve always considered Iguodala a small forward so in my mind Kobe ranks first in that category as well.

Kobe is also leading shooting guards in field goal percentage, edging out Heat SG Ray Allen. Free throw percentage? Top four. Assists? Top five. Steals? Top 10. His ORtg is 124 for crying out loud. All at the ripe age of 34, with 17 years of mileage and injury, averaging 36 minutes per game. Call me when your favorite player does that after nearly two decades of NBA playing time, aggravated by long playoff runs, Olympic exhibition, and a half a dozen injury surgeries.

And the sad news is, ladies and gentlemen, that this will not last.

Anytime you perform an experiment, it is good to know your constants. We know that Kobe doesn’t normally average 55% shooting over the course of a year. We know that he doesn’t normally hit 44 percent of his threes either. So what has changed? What could explain this jump in efficiency?

Here’s the list:

-Addition of Steve Nash

-Addition of Dwight Howard

-Implementation of Princeton Offense/Free flow offense

-Healthier knees/body

-Smarter shot selection

We can throw the Steve Nash one out the window: he hasn’t really played yet, and unless you perhaps want to factor in Nash’s endless positive enthusiasm, he’s been a non-factor.

Is it Dwight? Perhaps. Kobe’s usage rate has decreased dramatically, from 35.7 last year to 28.8 this year. Dwight is getting his share of touches and definitely has an impact.

While Kobe’s health and his decision making are significant factors, I’m putting my money on the system changes. Running any type of basketball offense sets a player up in certain spots on the court in certain positions to score. Kobe, over any player in the history of the game, is incredibly capable of scoring at any area of the floor. But there are some areas that are more amenable to easy points.

Kobe: +109.9 Attack FTW!

Check out this graph from Andrew Garrison and Phillip Barnett over at Forum Blue and Gold. While it is a week old, the tendencies Kobe demonstrated then and now have not changed much. He is attacking the rim relentlessly this year, at nearly double the rate of last year. And I believe it’s because of adjustments in the offense. Throughout the years, Kobe’s opportunities to score have been regulated by the offense in which he played.

I think his efficiency will decrease when D’Antoni finally gets his offense set up. Beckley Mason of ESPN mentions something critical right here:

Of particular note is how little Bryant is shooting off the dribble. Here’s something we’re used to seeing a couple times a game: Bryant, all alone on the wing, goes into a mesmerizing sequence of dribble fakes and footwork, often with the aim of creating space to squeeze off a pull-up jumper. While Bryant has as much skill as any player, that’s just an extremely tough way to score.

When Bryant attacks from the wing this season, he seems focused on attacking off of close outs, when the defense is at a distinct disadvantage, or with the aid of a ball screen. In both cases, Bryant uses the skill of his teammates to help get loose rather than taking it all on himself.

A lot of Kobe’s previous opportunities came on the wing. We saw that in the triangle specifically, because if Kobe is not in the mid-post, then he’s either making the entry pass and cutting away to the weak side two man game, or he’s spotting up for the corner 3. The triangle involves a lot of movement yes, but Kobe’s role in that offense was to fill the post or clear out.

With the Princeton, Kobe and the PG came down vertically towards the basket, already predisposing him towards the rim. The very structure of the offense was a two guard front that led to multiple cuts and screens. And when the motion started, Kobe was often seen cutting on pin down screens and then curling to the basket.

Frankly, I think Kobe’s efficiency will suffer (well, if 48% is suffering I’ll take it) with D’Antoni. His system is a spread pick and roll, with Nash and Howard filling the center, and everyone else spread on the wings. This is why people argued that the Lakers don’t have the personnel to fit that system. Mike will have to make a lot of adjustments to include the talents of Pau and Kobe. They can’t shoot threes all day.

We saw a little bit of it the other night when the Lakers played the Kings. Blake and Kobe ran a 1-2 PnR multiple times (and it was very efficient as a team) but Kobe took two midrange shots on those 5 possessions I’m discussing. Not terrible since they were open, but they’re not as efficient as a layup.

I really think the Princeton helped Kobe more than anyone, because it had the spacing of the triangle, but the movement was different enough to where he wasn’t posting up or on a wing. He was cutting off of pin down screens and every motion was towards the hoop. I was really excited about the potential of such a motion oriented offense.

Who knows? Perhaps D’Antoni designs his system so that Kobe’s off-ball opportunities will continue to flourish. But there’s only so much room on the court, and running a Nash-Howard PnR takes up a lot of space. Perhaps Kobe will have the opportunities to initiate the pick and roll himself with Nash spaced on the wing. Nash could keep defenders honest, and Kobe is as good a pick and roll initiator as any other 2 guard. But too much of this leaves Nash’s skills underutilized.

In any case, D’Antoni has his work cut out for him. Finding a way to use these tools to his advantage is something that won’t be resolved as easily as most fans think. But if Kobe continues to produce regardless of the system, we’ll have nothing to worry about.

Notes:

Props to PB at Forum Blue and Gold for this great read on Kobe’s shooting tendencies this year. Incredibly helpful and worth the read.

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