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Kobe Bryant: Perception vs. reality
by David Friedman / February 25, 2005

Kobe Bryant (27.8 ppg, 6.6 apg and 6.2 rpg), LeBron James (25.4 ppg, 7.7 apg and 7.1 rpg) and Dwyane Wade (23.5 ppg, 7.3 apg and 5.2 rpg) are three of the top perimeter players in the NBA. Each ranks in the top ten in scoring and is a nightly triple-double threat, yet James and Wade are lauded for making their teammates better while Bryant has been widely labeled as selfish. Among those who consider that criticism unfair is veteran NBA player, assistant coach and head coach Fred Carter, who currently analyzes games for NBA TV.

"For some people perception is reality," Carter said. "The echoed word becomes the accepted word. It becomes the choice phrase. But he won titles and he does get the assists. He does get steals and he does get blocks. He's not a guy who just plays on the offensive end. What happens is that people have the tendency to echo the words of everyone else. It's unfortunate."

Bryant's field goal percentage is hovering around the .410 mark, which would be a career low. This is the main statistical ax that critics grind against Bryant, saying that he is more focused on winning the scoring title than making his team better.

But that argument has flaws, according to Carter.

"Any time a guy is a volume-shooting guy like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, the shooting percentage is going to be down because they attract a lot more defensive attention. Spot-up shooters or stand-still shooters, plays are run for them and that's basically all they can do, spot up and shoot, so they get open shots and knock them down. People kind of get confused with field goal percentages and the quality of the baskets that you make. Kobe makes a lot of quality baskets. I don't look at his field goal percentage. I look at the productivity of his shots in terms of the fourth quarter and what shots he makes then."

Bob Chaikin, whose fine statistical research can be found at bballsports.com, ranks shooting efficiency with a statistic called scoring field goal percentage. The formula is: (Two point field goals made + 1.5 X Three point field goals made + Free throws made/2) / (Field goals attempted + Free throws attempted/2).

This method provides a more complete picture than field goal percentage does because it accounts for the added value of three-pointers made plus the points produced by drawing fouls and making free throws.

James (.491) and Wade (.478) have better field goal percentages than Bryant does, but neither makes as many three-pointers or free throws as Bryant. Consequently, as of February 22, Bryant's scoring field goal percentage of .529 is not much worse than James' .551 and Wade's .544.

The league average for scoring field goal percentage is around .520, a figure that Bryant and each of the Laker starters exceed. Bryant is not merely padding his individual scoring numbers. The defensive attention that he attracts and his playmaking skills are leading the team to an above average level of shooting efficiency. This is significant, especially considering that the other four starters are Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, none of whom has played in even one All-Star Game. Meanwhile, James and Wade are each teamed with All-Star centers. Laker center Mihm, a career journeyman, has benefited greatly playing alongside Bryant, enjoying career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists. In addition to their above average scoring field goal percentages, each Laker starter (other than Bryant) is also posting a career high in traditional field goal percentage.

NBA analyst Fred Carter notes that by getting to the free throw line frequently Bryant does not just enhance his individual statistics, but he also creates more free throw opportunities for his teammates and causes foul trouble for the opposing team.

"When Kobe is out of the offense the Lakers do not get into the bonus as quickly as they normally do. Check free throws attempted and see how they were with Kobe playing versus now (when Kobe missed 14 games)."

Another area worth examining is versatility. One would expect that a selfish player does nothing but shoot. Nine NBA players have amassed triple doubles this season. Bryant and Chris Webber are tied for second with four, trailing only Jason Kidd's five. James has two and Wade has one. James has 18 double doubles, while Wade has 13 and Bryant 12.

Bryant's critics are quick to counter that he leads the league in turnovers at 4.4 per game, but Wade ranks second at 4.2 and James is seventh at 3.2. MVP candidate and league assists leader Steve Nash ranks eighth at 3.1. Turnovers have only been recorded by the NBA since 1977-78, but since that time it has been common for great playmakers such as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas to rank among the league leaders in this category. Players who commit a lot of turnovers generally fall into one of two categories: great players who have tremendous scoring/playmaking responsibilities and big men with bad hands.

Ultimately, making one's team better is reflected in wins and losses and most NBA games are decided down the stretch. While great players strive to keep their teammates involved throughout the game, in the closing moments it is often necessary to take over the game. Tracy McGrady's 13 points in the final 35 seconds to defeat the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season are perhaps the ultimate recent example of this.

Bryant consistently elevates his game in clutch situations and this year he is leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring at over 8.5 ppg. Carter says that Bryant has two traits that enable him to thrive in crucial moments.

"One is competitiveness. He stays at a high level of competitiveness. Also, energy level. A lot of players get tired (but) the great players don't get tired. They have a special level of energy; they can tap that source and they can still stay at a high level of efficiency and proficiency. That's Kobe Bryant; he is able to do that. MJ was the same way. There are certain players who can raise their energy level for the fourth period and Kobe Bryant can do that."

Of course, offense is only part of the game. Second-year players James and Wade have each made notable progress this season on the defensive end, but Bryant has already made the All-Defensive Team five times during his career, including three First Team selections. Bryant made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team each of the last two seasons.

When Bryant missed 14 games due to a severe right ankle sprain, the Lakers struggled to a 6-8 mark and his absence was felt at least as much on defense as on offense, Laker coach Frank Hamblen points out: "He is one of those guys who is talking defensively and helping defensively. The way he plays, as hard as he plays, the other guys feed off that."

TNT analyst Charles Barkley has mentioned on several occasions that he believes there are only three true superstars in the NBA: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. A glance at the Western Conference standings shows that Garnett's Timberwolves and Bryant's Lakers are among the teams fighting for the final playoff spot. Garnett has two former All-Stars playing beside him and basically the same nucleus that made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, while Bryant's Lakers have been almost completely reconstituted. Postseason success is the best way to silence critics. If Kobe Bryant stays healthy for the remainder of the season, he will have a great opportunity to refute not only those who question his ability to make his teammates better but also Barkley and anyone else who denies that he is a true superstar.

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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