The Lakers may be 4-5 on the season, but Kobe Bean Bryant has been as good as he’s ever been. While his career-mirroring numbers (26.4 ppg, 4.7 asts, 5.5 rebs) are nothing to be surprised over, it’s the relative ease by which Bryant has been able to perform at such a high level that has fans, teammates, and coaches (alike) so excited.
While I’ve never been the biggest fan of judging the game based solely (or even primarily) upon numbers and statistics, you can use figures such as ESPN’s John Hollinger’s famed Player Efficiency Rating (PER) as excellent frames of reference. Hollinger uses several statistical criteria, including: True shooting percentage (TS%), minutes played, assists, turnovers, and rebounds (among others).
For instance, last year, Bryant was the 17th ranked player according to Hollinger’s PER list with a 21.95 rating. This year, even without the benefit of being able to play with Steve Nash, Bryant has been playing at his most efficient level (27.68) since the 2005-06 season. In fact, outside of that performance of nearly a decade ago, Bryant has never had more statistically efficient numbers.
An easy cause of such improvement could be placed on the shoulders of Dwight Howard. Without a doubt, Howard’s presence in/around the paint makes things easier for each of his teammates. Andrew Bynum may get credit for having the game’s best post moves (which I still say belong to a motivated Pau Gasol), but Howard’s athleticism and ability to maximize his agility/strength at such a size simply creates opportunities most players are not accustomed to. That said, Bryant’s efficiency should actually be celebrated as a testament to his own abilities.
Let’s be honest, when folks quietly whispered about “chemistry” or “ability to make the parts fit” prior to the season, they were talking about Kobe Bryant. I know it, you know it, everyone should have been fully aware. Whether it is fair or not (which it no longer is), Bryant has been labeled as an individual that prefers to score the basketball above all else.
If we’re being completely honest about things, that hasn’t been a fair label for well over five to six years, and during the period where he most deserved such a characterization (post-Shaq to pre-Pau) it was actually understandable. Not to drag anyone’s name through the mud, but we all remember what those rosters looked like from 2005-2008. Even still, we haven’t seen Bryant’s PER at over 25 for some time. In fact, Bryant hasn’t attempted less than 20 shots per game since the 2003-04 season.
At 17 shots per game, Bryant is actually on pace to shoot less than he has since his third year in the league, even though he’s actually above his career scoring average (26.4>25.4 ppg). The 92 percent he’s currently knocking down from the charity stripe doesn’t hurt his case, either. Put simply, while everyone worried about Bryant’s ability to adjust to having better teammates, he was quietly smiling at every question. Truth is, Bryant is no longer that shoot-first (second, and even third) player that so many still base their judgements upon. Make no mistake about it, as he definitely has an insatiable desire to win at all costs. It’s just that Bryant is no longer a man possessed with doing it all himself, and actually seems to relish having teammates he can trust and rely upon.
With the Mike D’Antoni system set to officially make a debut on Sunday, I was recently asked if Bryant would be able to maintain his stellar play while adapting to a new mindset. I could only sit back and smile at the question, just as Bryant smiled about the perceived “chemistry” concerns. At one point, Bryant seemed to want to score and win at all costs. Over the past few seasons, that mentality has changed to simply wanting to win at all costs. Regardless of the system or offensive set, that’s an attitude that will always ring true.