Is Kobe Bryant Still the Best Shooting Guard in the NBA?
When it comes to creating the dividing lines between the NBA's elite players, one is often forced to split hairs.
The fact is, the level of talent and production is so remarkably high among that crop, that there's no choice but to place divisive value in the specifics of approach and execution—a process which often seems harsher to particularly talented stars than it's really intended to be.
Yet, aside from harping on relatively minor weaknesses, there simply aren't that many ways to create differentiation between some of the best in the game.
Such is certainly the case when it comes to assessing the class of the NBA's nominal shooting guards—an exclusive group that at the moment consists of just two similarly productive players: Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
There is an oddly large contingent of basketball fans who still see Bryant as the NBA's best all-around player, but that ship has long since sailed. LeBron James had made the "Best in the NBA" debate a bit pointless over the last several seasons, but Bryant remains a reasonable contender for the top player at his slotted position.
Unfortunately for Bryant and the Laker legions, he's no more than that.
Wade surpassed Bryant some time ago, but his coup was veiled by Kobe fanaticism and widespread denial. The case to be made for Bryant isn't at all impossible, but with all of the mounting evidence in Wade's favor—even as he comes off an underwhelming postseason run—it's becoming harder and harder to be persuaded in the long-time Laker's favor.
Much of that stems from Bryant's willingness to submit to his own vice.
No NBA regular averaged more shot attempts—in raw total, per game or per minute forms—than Bryant did last season, and it wasn't exactly close. If those shots were created organically through the course of the Laker offense, that wouldn't be all that much of a problem. But Bryant doesn't seem to have any intention on curbing his isolation habits—only fueling his natural desire to shoot and denying Los Angeles the opportunity to run more balanced sets.
This is hardly a problem unique to Bryant, and yet his shooting volume is uniquely gaudy. Wade's usage rate, for example, isn't at all insubstantial, and yet Bryant—largely through field-goal attempts, seeing as the two players have nearly identical turnover rates—uses nearly five percent more of his team's offensive possessions.
The nature of Bryant's usage enters him into dangerous territory, particularly once we factor in just how many of his shots come outside of an efficient shooting range. Neither Bryant (30.3 percent) nor Wade (26.8 percent) is an effective three-point shooter, and yet the latter at least had the sense to curb his attempts: Wade averaged just 1.2 three-point tries per 36 minutes last season, compared to a baffling 4.6 hoists for Bryant.
Kobe can, in theory, make shots from beyond the arc. But that doesn't mean he should throw up five tries a night in the hope that he might convert them at a rate well below the league average.
Part of the problem is that many of Bryant's field-goal and three-point attempts come in isolation situations, where he's especially inaccurate. According to Synergy Sports Technology, 114 of Bryant's 350 three-point attempts came as a result of an isolation possession last season, and he unsurprisingly converted just 28.1 percent of those looks.
Bryant isn't an accurate three-point marksman under any NBA context (he only made 31.6 percent of his three-point attempts as a spot-up shooter), but forcing his way into iso heaves is a surefire way to negate some of his otherwise tremendous impact.
Meanwhile, Wade's three-point attempts per minute have dipped in each of the last three seasons, as the dynamic Heat guard has shied away from the long ball and looked to focus on what he does best.
Wade is hardly infallible in his commitment to both avoiding the three and fighting off the temptation of hero ball, but even his veers into iso territory pale in comparison to Bryant's. Per Synergy, Wade used 15.3 percent of his possessions last season in iso situations, while Bryant used almost double that percentage despite playing alongside two of the best post players in basketball and having pick-and-roll partners aplenty.
Some of that disparity reflects a Laker offense struggling to find itself in an odd, compressed season. But much of it is Kobe being Kobe, and what we've come to expect—and what so many have glorified—in one of the league's premier scorers.
Regardless, that difference in approach matters greatly when the line between the two stars would otherwise seem to be razor-thin. Wade is a slightly better rebounder and assist man on a per-minute basis, while Bryant has a slight edge in scoring. Both handle the ball plenty and turn it over accordingly.
The big difference comes in their offensive discretion, where Wade is just an altogether more choosy—and thereby more efficient—player. He approaches the game in a very different way, and the margin in effective field-goal percentage between Wade (50.6 percent) and Bryant (46.2 percent) is equivalent to the gap between Bryant and Luke Walton (42.3 percent), his former role-playing teammate.
It may seem easy to ignore the importance of those kinds of percentage points, but Bryant's high(est)-usage style has clearly gotten the better of his him and his team.
He's unbelievably versatile and tremendously talented, but every shot need not come on a contested turnaround jumper. What makes Bryant so irritating to watch at times is how clearly he disregards his own basketball intelligence and makes a difficult play simply for the sake of making a difficult play. Wade's no stranger to testing the limits of his talent, but he also tends to let the game come to him.
The line between the two superstars is a bit thinner on the defensive end, but the edge still goes to Wade for his ability to not only hound opposing ball-handlers, but play spectacular help defense.
Wade may get a bit too caught up in playing the passing lanes and doubling down from the perimeter at times, but those aspects of his defensive game allow him to make a more complete impact in Miami's operation. Even without Chris Bosh in the lineup during the Heat's championship run, Wade and James were able to do phenomenal and far-reaching work by way of their pressure and rotations. They each elevate the importance of their defensive positions, something which Bryant—even in his days as an outstanding on-ball defender—was never quite able to do.
At this stage and age, Bryant is often moved off of an opponent's primary wing threat for a good chunk of the game, thus negating much of his primary defensive value for the sake of saving wind. It's an understandable concession, but one that only makes it that much more difficult to claim his defensive superiority. If Bryant is best when guarding top-flight wing opponents yet spends much of the game not guarding such players, why would his defensive play be in any way preferable to Wade's more holistic game?
Yet many will claim that to be the case, with images of a 23-year-old Kobe fresh in their minds.
They'll recall his persistence in fighting around screens and refusal to give up even the slightest step and assume that the Bryant we see today is merely an extension of who we saw before the surgeries and the treatments and the unfathomable playing time.
Who is the NBA's best shooting guard?
That's the enduring problem with assessments of Bryant's game; with bottled greatness and incredible moments to reflect upon, it can be tricky to really assess Kobe for Kobe. But the player we see before us only submits to his worst habits more often and largely refuses to cave to any age-related decline.
Bryant's a stubborn and incredibly passionate player, and that's where things get complicated for a star at this particular juncture. The underlying traits that make Bryant a captivating personality and phenomenal player are the same as those that drive him to patches of limitation or excess.
He could let go. He could lean on his teammates more consistently. And considering the additions the Lakers made this offseason, maybe this is the year where Bryant finally concedes to accepting help.
But that's just not who Bryant is or has been, and until we see a legitimate reversal in course, there's little reason to expect him to shy away from high usage and inch toward improved efficiency.
At his peak, Bryant was prolific enough to diminish the import of his shot selection. But he's faded a bit without changing his ways, thereby leaving an opening for the more stable and efficient Wade to claim this particular positional crown.
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