You know the drill – detailed case study of individual games in which Kobe Bryant’s shots fell within a certain range. Today, three games: the Lakers’ 106-88 victory over the Heat on February 28th, the Lakers’ 95-98 loss to the Hawks on February 6th, and the Lakers’ 102-108 victory over the Mavericks on April 4th.
February 28th: Lakers 106, Heat 88
A rather run-of-the-mill game in the Lakers’ excellent season, this 18-point win saw Kobe attempt only 14 shots despite playing 41 minutes – and yet, the Lakers still won by 18. How’d that happen? And so you don’t have to run to the box score and check: this game occurred after the trades that brought Gasol to LA and Marion to Miami.
The Lakers jumped out to a quick 18 point lead in the first quarter, leading 18-4 at the halfway point and 22-6 with 3 minutes remaining. Preceding that lead, however, both teams were relatively inept through the 3 minutes – the Lakers led 6-2 on 3/7 shooting before taking off.
Over the next 5 minutes, the Lakers outscored the Heat 16-4. Kobe Bryant led the run with 6 points, but without controlling the ball: he attempted only two shots (both dunks) and made a pair of free throws. During the run, Walton went 2/2 on jumpers and Gasol threw in two dunks of his own (while missing a layup). Odom also made his only shot, while Fisher missed his only attempt (a three). Overall, however, the run is easily attributable to a balanced team effort.
Following that run, the Heat countered with a 13-4 run of their own. Kobe Bryant forced one bad shot (a fadeaway jumper), but overall – like last game’s run – the Heat’s run resulted from forced turnovers and strong shooting. Of the Lakers’ possessions following their 16-4 run, 3 ended in turnovers, 3 ended in missed shots and 2 ended in made shots – not exceptional, but not a horrible ratio.
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re basically looking at when the Lakers go on a run, when their opponent goes on a run, which players lead those runs, and the circumstances that result in runs. In this second quarter, there are three such zones: a 21-10 run to put the Lakers up by 18, a 2-12 run to bring the Heat back within 8, and a 4-0 run to give the Lakers a 12-point lead going into halftime.
In that decisive 21-10 run, we again see a collective team effort by the Lakers – but we also see the kind of play that sends coaches like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich into a frenzy. The Lakers, despite building their lead up by 11, shoot only 7/17. Bryant misses two jumpers (and makes a dunk) while Turiaf missed 3 of 4 and Gasol misses both his. Instead, carrying the Lakers through the run is Farmar, shooting 2/4 and making both his three-point attempts. Vujacic also scores 4 points on 2/3 shooting, while Walton makes his only attempt (a layup). Farmar and Bryant also contribute from the line, combining for 5 FTs. But overall, the Lakers’ run is keyed more by the Heat’s shooting woes (missing their first 7 FGs and shooting 3/13 overall), turnovers (2), fouls (4) and poor rebounding (4 Lakers offensive rebounds) leading to more Lakers possessions.
The ensuing 2-12 Heat run, like previous Lakers’ dry spells, should be attributed not to poor shooting (Lakers attempt only 2 shots during this run, missing both while Kobe makes 2 FTs), but to a lack of shot attempts: the Lakers had only 5 possessions during this span, with 2 ending in missed shots and 2 in turnovers. The Heat, in turn, made the most of their 6 possessions, ending 5 with made shots.
Ending the quarter, Kobe Bryant single-handedly put the Lakers back up by 4 with two FTs and a FG. During this time, the Heat went cold, turning the ball over once and missing two shots.
Let’s expedite this process. Third quarter runs: 6-11 Heat run (Heat trail by 7) and a 14-6 Laker run (Lakers lead by 15).
What happened at the beginning? The Lakers went cold: Fisher shoots 1/3, Bryant 0/1 and Walton 1/2 while no one else attempts a FG (Walton and Gasol each go 1/2 from the line as well). Of their first 11 possessions, 4 end in made shots (or made FTs, including 1/2 splits), 4 end in missed shots and 3 end in turnovers. Meanwhile, the Heat score 11 points – but, we don’t really care how they did that, now do we?
The Laker run that followed? It’s the end of the 2nd all over again: shooting was decent (6/13 with a FT and a three), balanced effort: 5 different players contributed to those 14 points. Towards the end, both teams went cold (neither team scores for 3 minutes), during which Kobe forces a few bad shots.
The fourth quarter didn’t feature any truly discrete runs – the Lakers’ lead varies between 10 and 17, never less and never greater. The Heat pull within 10 late on a quick 7-point run (2 missed shots and a TO by the Lakers), but the Lakers respond quickly, holding the Heat to only 2 points over the final 3 minutes while putting up 11. In this final run, we see another team effort: 4 players contributing to that 11 points (4 for Turiaf, 3 for Odom and Vujacic, 2 for Davis).
The immediately obvious takeaway is simple: team effort, Lakers win. In this game, we see the Lakers get out to a quick start on a team effort, suggesting that Kobe never needs to take over with a flurry of shot attempts. But we also see another notable aspect: the Lakers were never challenged in this game. The closest the Heat came was within 8 points late in the second and 12 points late in the fourth.
This suggests some support for the idea that Kobe’s high-volume shooting is caused by the situation (which also causes the lower win percentage): when the Lakers are challenged, Kobe’s shot attempts rise as he tries to lift them out of it; and, obviously, the Lakers are less likely to lose games when they are actually challenged. But, this is speculation for the end of the analysis: I only mention it here so that later I can simply say ‘this further supports that idea I babbled about up there’.
April 4th: Lakers 112, Mavericks 108
This late-season victory represents an interesting issue with regards to our emerging hypothesis. In the two previous games we’ve analyzed, the Lakers were never truly challenged, forwarding the idea that his shot attempts go up when the Lakers are threatened and need Kobe to lift them past it. However, in this game we see the Lakers escape with a close 4-point win (after trailing by 4 with a minute to go), yet Kobe only takes 14 shots – 5 shots below his season average. So, what happened?
Runs: None. No, really, this was one of the most evenly-matched first quarters I’ve ever seen. The teams were tied at 31 after one quarter, with several lead changes and no lead larger than 4 points. The closest thing to a run for either team was a 7-0 run by the Mavericks to erase the Lakers’ early 8-4 lead.
Kobe got started early, nailing his first two shots (both 3′s) to put the Lakers up 6-2 only 30 seconds into the game. After that hot start, however, Kobe goes trigger-shy, accounting for only two assists, a rebound, a foul and two FTs the rest of the quarter (don’t get me wrong, 8 points in a quarter is good for Kobe, but this was on only 2 FG attempts). Doing the work for the Lakers instead are Odom and Gasol, accounting for 9 and 10 points, respectively – almost exclusively on dunks, layups and put-backs. Radmanovic and Fisher account for the Lakers’ other 4 points.
Runs: 0-17 to put the Mavs up by 15. That pretty much sums up the quarter. After Farmar’s 2 to open the second, the Lakers go 6 full minutes without scoring another bucket. As is our custom, when another team goes on a run we don’t look at why they scored so much – we look at why the Lakers didn’t. And unlike the past two games we analyzed (where the Lakers went cold due to turnovers more than missed shots), here the Lakers just forgot where the basket was – as a team, they shot 0/7 with one TO. But as we’ve seen in the past two games, they play as a team – in this case, they suck as a team, with Farmar and Radmanovic each accounting for two misses while Bryant, Gasol and Walton each accounted for one (with the turnover attributed to Pau).
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what we don’t see here. For the first time, we see the Lakers actually challenged – the Mavericks’ 15 lead is by far the largest deficit we’ve seen for the Lakers so far. But what we don’t see is Kobe Bryant single-handedly trying to lift them out of it – he takes only one shot in the first half of the quarter. Why not? There’s no telling at this point – my first instinct is to say that he recognizes that it’s only the second quarter, and there’s plenty of time for his teammates to lift them out of it. Personally, I believe that Kobe recognizes that a team effort is more likely to bring home a win than a strong individual effort by him, and perhaps the early deficit here motivates him to give his teammates the chance. We’ll know if this is a viable possibility if we see a continued reluctance to take over in the first half compared to the second.
The second half of the quarter matched the first quarter – the teams were even, with the Lakers trailing by between 10 and 15 points the entire time. During this time, we see Kobe continue to differ – he takes two shots, one a slam dunk and one a missed last-minute layup. Instead, accounting for the Lakers’ 21 points during this time are Odom (8), Fisher (5), Gasol (4) and Radmanovic (2). That puts Kobe at 3/5 at halftime with the Lakers trailing by 11.
Runs: 12-6 Laker run (Lakers trail by 5), 3-10 Mavs run (Lakers trail by 12). This quarter is easily divisible into three portions: a modest Lakers run, a modest Mavs run, and an even run, ending with the Lakers trailing by 2 – an overall net gain of 3 points for the quarter.
In the Lakers’ early run, we see what we might have expected: Kobe tries to take over. And succeeds, to a certain degree. In the Lakers 12-6 run to cut the lead to 5, Kobe shoots 3/4 for 6 of the Lakers’ 12 points over that period (also scoring are Odom (4) and Gasol (2)).
Following that, in the modest Mavs run, the Lakers’ woes come from possessions ending in turnovers (1), missed shots (2) and FT splits (1). More notably, however, is that Kobe appears to back off, commanding the ball at the end of only one of these possessions (the FT split). Needless to say, without watching the actual game it’s difficult to absolutely say that Kobe does, indeed, back off – but typically, looking at the player who results in a possession’s end (via turnover, shot or foul drawn) is an effective way of determining who’s in control.
Then, through the even ending of the quarter (or 11-7 Lakers run, if you’d like to call it that), Bryant shoots 1/2 (a 3-pointer) while Gasol and Vujacic each account for 4 points.
So, what does this tell us? Kobe fans will say he does just enough to keep the Lakers in the game, while still differing to his teammates somewhat to keep them in it. Kobe haters will say that he didn’t do enough (although if he’d tried to do more and failed, they’d criticize that too). I feel like this is a good moment to remind everyone that, as a die-hard lifelong Spurs fan, accusing me of being a Kobe fan is pretty silly. In a world with no Kobe, the Spurs could have won four more championships (’01, ’02, ’04, ’08) – the keyword being ‘could’.
The fourth quarter, like the first, has no true runs – instead, the Lakers steadily climb back, pulling within 5 early in the quarter and hovering between 2 and 5 down until 3 minutes to go, pulling within 1 and then tying before taking the lead in the final minute.
And where was Bryant in all this? Only one FG attempt (a missed layup) and 5 free throws. His free throws did come at key moments though – the first on a Technical to bring the Lakers back within 4 as the Mavs threatened to pull away, the second two to pull the Lakers within 1, and the final 2 to seal the game, putting the Lakers up by 3 with 14 seconds to play. But notably, Kobe didn’t try to take over the game – instead, the fourth quarter was dominated by Odom’s 10 points, Farmar’s 7 and Vujacic’s 5. From start to finish, though, the Lakers’ supporting cast proved able to shoulder the load, slowly chipping away at the lead.
The Lakers win against a top-tier NBA team while Kobe takes only 14 shots (only 12 of which I can actually find in CBS SportsLine’s play-by-play, oddly enough) – how did it happen? Same thing we’ve seen before: balanced team effort, and frankly, an incredibly above-average games by a teammate. In Game 1 it was Fisher’s 28 points, just shy of his career high. In Game 2, it was Farmar’s 24, a career-high. Here in Game 3, it’s Odom’s 31. All three games saw a Kobe Bryant teammate score at least 17 more points than their season average, allowing Kobe to lay back and let the game flow more. The question remains, was it Kobe Bryant’s unselfish play that allowed his teammates to play so well, or did their excellent play allow him to be unselfish? At this stage it’s difficult to say (given that we haven’t established the standard for comparison yet), but what’s certain is that we don’t see these players putting up these numbers on a semi-regular basis (showing they aren’t streaky shooters, able to get hot and score in bunches on a specific given night given the chance, like Jannero Pargo). Instead, they all had career games, which every player has at some point in a season. Credit Kobe with allowing such games to happen (given that he could easily dominate beyond allowing any other player being able to contribute at all), but in my opinion it’s unfair to say they would happen more often if Kobe hung back more. These kinds of games happen to every role player, but we don’t see them happening more often on other teams.
February 6th: Lakers 95, Hawks 98
Here’s where things should get interesting, theoretically. I typically don’t come back and re-write introductions once I’ve actually gotten through the statistics – I write as I research, so you’re walking through this the same way I do. It’d probably be better to research everything, form my conclusions, then write my analysis, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun, now would it?
In this game, Kobe Bryant takes only 16 shots in 37 minutes – no small number, granted, but 3 below his season average, and 7 below his season average not including blowout wins (and that one blowout loss). But unlike every other non-blowout game that saw Kobe take less than 17 shots, the Lakers lost this one. To the lowly Hawks, no less (hey, I live a mile from Phillips Arena, I get to call the Hawks lowly). So, what happened?
Runs: 2-7 Atlanta run (Atlanta up 5), 17-6 Laker run (Lakers up 6), 10-14 Atlanta “run” (Lakers lead by 2). Overall, a fairly even quarter; the early Atlanta run resulted from Lakers’ shooting woes as they went 1/5 to open (with Odom, Radmanovic and Gasol each missing one and Bryant hitting 1 for 2).
The subsequent Lakers run was mostly Gasol’s handiwork, scoring 9 on 3 FGs (one 3-pointer, 2/2 from the line); also contributing were Radmanovic (5) and Odom (3), while Fisher was the only Laker to miss a shot during this 4-minute stretch. On top of that, the Lakers committed only one turnover, while Kobe Bryant’s only appearances came in the form of three assists and a rebound.
Through the rest of the quarter, the Hawks narrowed their deficit slightly as the Lakers came back down to earth: well, actually, it’d be more accurate to say that both teams sank notably – or, to be more positive, put on a strong showcase of defensive ability. The Lakers closed the quarter shooting 4/9 while scoring on only 4 of 11 possessions (Gasol, Farmar and Turiaf each missing a shot while Radmanovic went 2/2 and Kobe went 2/4), but the Hawks didn’t perform much better and only narrowed the lead to two entering the second quarter. 6 of Kobe’s inevitable 16 shots came in the first, suggesting that his shot attempts dropped off as the game went on (or at least for some portion of the game), which – if our past analysis has any predictive power – should suggest the Lakers built a lead at some point. But we also know that the Hawks end up winning. How does that work?
Runs: 8-4 Laker run (Lakers lead by 6), 3-10 Hawks run (Hawks lead by 1), 13-4 Laker run (Lakers lead by 8). Both teams were pretty flat coming out, combining for only 12 points in the first 6 minutes as the Lakers shot 4/9 (Farmar 2/3, Odom 1/1, Gasol 1/4, Vujacic 0/1) with one turnover. As with late in the first, the Hawks still were even worse, letting the Lakers build their lead up to 6.
The following Hawks 10-3 run came over only 2 minutes (yes, the teams scored more in these 2 minutes than the first 6), and was largely due to the Hawks’ fast-paced basketball. The Lakers shot a modest 1/4 (1/3 Vujacic, 0/1 Gasol), while the Hawks scored on 5 consecutive possessions (including two offensive rebounds).
That last run put the Hawks up by 1 point, but the Lakers immediately responded with a 13-4 run. Give that run to Fisher – 3/3 from beyond the arc for 9 points, while Turiaf and Kobe each add 2 FTs (Kobe also missed a FG). Kobe’s sole FG attempt in the second quarter brought his total to 7 – partially expected, given that the Lakers built up a lead (as we mentioned at the end of the first quarter), although Kobe’s continued absence when the Hawks momentarily took the lead might be considered surprising. Fisher answered immediately, however (two 3′s within 40 seconds of the Hawks’ taking the lead), possibly belaying the need for Kobe to take charge.
The Lakers entered the third quarter up by 8, and not to be a spoiler, they ended it the same way. This entry’s getting long and, let’s face it, the Lakers’ supporting cast by name doesn’t matter to the conclusion of this study.
The Lakers built their lead up to 9 through the beginning of the quarter, only to see the Hawks rally and cut the lead to 2 – only to see the Lakers rally back and lead by 8 at the end again (maybe – again, the CBS SportsLine play-by-play doesn’t always match up exactly with the box score). And Bryant? 0-fer-4 in the quarter, with all his shots coming while the Lakers built up their lead to 9. No sign of him as the Hawks clawed back, or as the Lakers rallied again.
Theoretically, Kobe should have 5 shots remaining to be taken (6 in the first, 1 in the second, 4 in the third). Hopefully CBS Sportsline will cooperate this game.
The Lakers maintained their lead through the first half of the quarter, building it up to 9 and never leading by less than 4. That changed, however, when the Lakers hit 88 – the Hawks then rallied to tie the game. It stayed close through the last 3 minutes, with the teams exchanging leads until finally the Hawks sealed the win with 2 FTs from Joe Johnson with 3 seconds to go.
And Bryant? We got exactly what we’ve predicted. As the Hawks started to rally, Kobe tried to step up – he didn’t shoot in the fourth quarter until halfway through, taking shots when the Hawks began their run, as they were about to tie the game, after they tied the game (twice), and near the end. It’s also notable that in the last minute, the teams combined for 10 FTA and only one FGA (a Vujacic layup), suggesting that Bryant could not have done much more. The game was close, and a late turnover gave the Hawks the last trip to the free throw line, which was the difference in this game.
This game is interesting because it represents, to a large extent, what we might expect to see in the next group of games: Kobe’s shot attempts going up when the Lakers are challenged. This game represents an intersection of the two groups: like what we hypothesize may happen in the next group, Kobe’s shots go up when the Lakers are challenged; but like the previous games in this group, the Lakers were in control for the majority of the game, allowing Kobe to differ more. This is actually essentially the same reasoning that allowed us to leave out blow-out victories: because of the Lakers’ strong performance anyway, Kobe is able to contribute less without hurting the team’s chances. In blow-outs, this goes far enough to allow Kobe to actually sit on the bench, but in these in-between games he (theoretically) stays out on the floor in case the other team makes a run. This game is a good example: although the Lakers hold a modest lead halfway through the fourth, Kobe stays out because the game isn’t quite in-the-bag. And when the Hawks make their run, Kobe tries to answer – this time, his shots don’t fall. It happens.
So what does this predict for an overall thesis? It’s still pretty early to say, but my prediction is that we’ll see Kobe’s shot attempts increase when the Lakers are challenged, like we saw here. Hopefully I’ll be able to find some games where the Lakers hold big leads, then give them up to test this idea more conclusively.
Since this is the last game in this group, let’s also revisit our initial question: we know that Kobe shoots more in losses than in wins. Does Kobe’s high-volume shooting lead to his teammates’ performing poorly, or does his teammates’ poor shooting lead to Kobe taking more shots? Either one could cause Kobe to shoot more in losses – it’s a problem of causality.
But what we’ve found so far is that this may have been an entirely wrong way to approach the problem: there aren’t any games (at least in this group) where Kobe came out shooting, only to see his teammates falter as the game went on; and there aren’t any games where his teammates came out cold, and Kobe responded by taking more shots. Instead, we see Kobe take shots when he needs to, and differ to his teammates the rest of the time. This leads to a very, very obvious, yet still incredibly important, fact: the Lakers are more likely to lose games in which they’re actually challenged. I know, revolutionary, right? But it makes sense that if (a) Kobe shoots more when his team is challenged and (b) the Lakers are a winning, dominant team, then on average, he’ll shoot more in losses than in wins. The ‘dominant team’ part of that conclusion is necessary because it shows there are more Lakers’ wins where Kobe takes fewer shots than usual than Lakers’ losses (I can explain this more thoroughly if need be).
Now, this doesn’t completely clear out our original comparison (namely, does Kobe coming out shooting cause his teammates to fail to get into a rhythm, or do his teammates’ early shortcomings cause Kobe to need to shoot more?) – this comparison might still correlate to when the Lakers are challenged. But it might not – we’ll keep an eye out.
The more important proposition at this point is whether or not Kobe’s shot attempts habitually rise when the Lakers are challenged by their opponent. If so, we have our evidence. If not, we’re back to the drawing board. It’s also important to note that a single game won’t prove or disprove this – considering how many games there are in the next group (47), we’re going to choose around 7 games. Not randomly, though – I’ll cursorily look over at least half those games and choose some that are representative. If the Lakers regularly jump out to an early lead and give it up, we’ll include a couple of those. If the Lakers regularly leave it close and pull away late, we’ll include more of those. And if there’s no trend, we’ll look at a bunch of different general trends.
I also want to make sure it’s clear that there are no conclusions yet – all we have from this portion of the study is a standard of comparison. We’ve observed certain characteristics of these games: when the Lakers are in control, Kobe’s shot attempts are low – that’s the main takeaway from this portion. There’s also early evidence that when the Lakers are at risk of either losing (towards the end of the Hawks game) or falling behind too far to catch up (third quarter of the Mavericks game), Kobe starts shooting to try to shoot the Lakers back into it. Our conclusion will be proven if we see that the Lakers are challenged more often in our next group of games than in this previous one, and if Kobe’s shot attempts continue to go up when the team is challenged.
I’ll also be (mercifully) differing to the more brief analysis used in the last game of this analysis, so the next stage won’t be a novel.
LITTLE WHITE TAKEAWAYS
No actual real conclusions in this portion; in this part of the study (continued from the last part), we looked in-depth at the games in which Kobe Bryant shot 16 or fewer shots – 5 fewer than his season average (not including blowouts). What we found is that in these games, one major trend emerges: in games where Kobe doesn’t shoot as much, the Lakers aren’t really challenged. In these games, the Lakers are in control the majority of the game – most notably, the entire Denver and Miami games. When they’re challenged – by either an opponent’s late comeback (Atlanta), or an opponent threatening to pull away (Dallas) – Kobe’s shot attempts go up.
But the important aspect of this hypothesis is that the challenge precedes (and, thereby, causes) the shot attempt increase. In the next installment, we’ll look at a collection of games where Kobe attempts around his season average (18 to 28 shots). If we see this trend continue – that is, that Kobe takes more shots under particular circumstances – we’ll have conclusive evidence for why Kobe takes (on average) more shots in losses than in wins.