Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and 5 Other NBA Stars Who Are Criminally Mislabeled
With stardom comes criticism. Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and other NBA players get criticized for being a certain kind of player and often these criticisms are not just unfair, they are flat out wrong.
That doesn't keep NBA fans from perpetuating certain myths though. Why should little things like facts get in the way of perfectly good rhetoric?
Here's a reason: because facts matter. Do stats mean everything? No, but they do mean exactly as much as they mean. Pardon the tautology, but that becomes necessary when people try to make them mean less than what they mean.
Here are seven players who are criminally mislabeled and why. In each instance, there will be a significant and detailed statistical analysis which proves why the player is criminally mislabeled. Players are not ranked, they are listed alphabetically.
Kobe Bryant Is a One-Dimensional Ball Hog
Kobe Bryant has spent his entire career being criticized of being a ball hog who repeatedly builds his resume by scoring a lot, but offering little else to bolster his game. Detractors point to a relatively low field-goal percentage to substantiate their claims.
This is a ludicrous description of Bryant and the stats bear it out.
First, to suggest that Bryant is nothing more than a shooter is flat-out disingenuous. Bryant has 6,142 career rebounds and 5,418 assists. There are only 12 players in the history of the NBA who have more than 6,000 boards and 5,000 dimes. Bryant deserves consideration as a top-20 player of all time based exclusively on his passing and rebounding stats.
The fact that he is one of the greatest scorers ever doesn't hurt his case either. But then there's another catch. This whole argument that a low field-goal percentage proves that Bryant is a bad shooter. Here's the problem with that assessment—it's wrong.
All shots are not created equal. Some shots are harder to make than others. Comparing a player who gets his points at the rim to a player who gets his points away from it are two entirely different animals. It's akin to comparing a running back's yards-per-carry average to a quarterback's and arguing that because Cam Newton averages 5.2 yards per attempt he's one of the best runners in the NFL.
Of course, if he were a running back he wouldn't be averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and that's what makes it a silly comparison.
Bryant shouldn't be judged based on field-goal percentage because he's asked to score from the most difficult parts of the court. No player in the NBA had more makes from the long-two last year and his field-goal percentage from that range was more than two percent better than the league average.
When you compare Bryant's averages to league averages, they suddenly look a lot better.
In the table below, the first row are Bryant's numbers in 2011-12. The second row is his average over the last five years and the last row is the 2011-12 league average.
3 Pt eFG%
Five Year Average
|League Average|| |
The data from this table was compiled at hoopdata.com.
What this table shows us is that, in spite of shooting with a torn ligament in his shooting hand for the bulk of the season, Bryant was essentially above-average to average in everything but his three-point shot, and no one has ever made the case that Bryant's claim to fame is due to his three-point shooting.
All Bryant has done is score 29,484 points and counting, with the majority of them coming from difficult positions on the court.
Now, the obvious response to this argument is, "That's the point. Why is he shooting from the hardest places on the court instead of passing the ball off to his bigs or getting to the rim?"
It's because basketball is not that simple.
There's a reason that every team in the league doesn't have five seven-footers hovering around the basket all the time.
There's a reason that small ball, when done right, can lead to championships like it did with the Miami Heat last season.
There's also a reason why the Orlando Magic had the fewest attempts in the league from the infamous long-two range but didn't get to the Finals, while the most efficient team in the league from that range was in the NBA Finals.
The key to winning basketball is not avoiding the harder places to shoot from in the league, but to make the most of them when they are there. Successfully converting at those ranges enables the other players on the team more shot opportunities by stretching the floor.
When Bryant was making mid-range and long-two shots, he was drawing attention away from Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
That's why, in spite of Bryant's taking so many shots at such a low rate, the Lakers' field-goal percentage actually goes up, not down, while he is on the court by 6.5 percent.
Bryant is not a ball hog. Nor is he a one-dimensional player. If you look at the stats more closely, he's one of the greatest all-around players in the history of the game who has made his bones the hard way, scoring from the most difficult places on the court and thereby opening up opportunities for his teammates to do the same.
Blake Grffin Is Just a Dunker
Blake Griffin offers a great example of the binary American way of arguing these days. For whatever reason, it seems that all positions have to be extreme and completely joined together. Only in America are views on education, abortion and taxes three completely disparate things, inextricably tied together.
Thus is the case with Blake Griffin. You are only allowed one of two extreme positions on Griffin. Either he is a great player who has no flaws or he is a player that only dunks and hasn't worked to improved his game because he still has holes after a whopping two years in the league.
Are there holes in Blake Griffin's game? Yes. He struggles with his jump shot and his defense needs work, although a large aspect of that can be laid at the feet of Vinny Del Negro, who couldn't coach his way out of a wet paper bag.
Look at the vault in Derrick Rose's, Luol Deng's and Joakim Noah's games once a real coach came along, especially on defense. Since Del Negro—or Del Idiot as I like to think of him—left, Deng has made an All-Star game and joined Noah on NBA All-Defense teams. Rose even won an MVP!
Having said that, there are more things to the game than dunking, jump shots and defense. Ergo, those holes in his game do not necessitate that all he does is dunk.
Let's take a stab at the non-nuanced approach.
Since playing his first game Griffin has 522 assists. That's fifth-most among all players who aren't guards in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com. If one argues that Griffin can't pass they must also conclude that Pau Gasol, Kevin Durant, Luol Deng, Josh Smith and Kevin Garnett can't pass either.
Griffin also has 1,706 boards since his first game. Dwight Howard and Kevin Love are the only players in the league with more rebounds in that time. That means Pau Gasol, Kris Humphries and DeMarcus Cousins don't rebound either if Griffin doesn't rebound.
Some argue that Griffin only gets soft rebounds. Exactly what makes a "soft rebound" soft or what magical ability Griffin has that makes so many soft rebounds available and why they all seem to go to him is beyond me.
Then again, maybe they're just regular rebounds.
Griffin also had the eighth most efficient hook-shot among all NBA players with at least 50 tries last year, knocking them down at a .588 rate. Players who, by comparison, have no hook shot include Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe and Andrew Bynum.
Of course, there is another alternative—nuance. Griffin is a player who is developing, has a great dunking game, a solid hook shot and is a more than capable rebounder and passer.
He might still have some holes, but it's worth giving him more than two years to have a fully polished game.
One last thing, by the by: dunking is not bad.
Dwight Howard Has No Offensive Game
Have you heard that Andrew Bynum is a better and more polished offensive player than Dwight Howard? Howard is such a great defensive player that it tends to take away from the fact that he's developed his offensive game considerably over the last few years.
There has been a kind of First Take-logic that has sodded the best-center-in-the-NBA conversation with this silly notion.
Let's be clear here. Right now, Howard is the best center in the league on both sides of the ball, and it's really not even much of a discussion.
First, Howard has dominated in the head-to-head matchups against Bynum, scoring at least 15 points in 10 of the 11 games they've faced off against each other. Bynum has cracked that total only one time and as neither outscored nor out-rebounded Howard when the two have played each other.
Of course, all games are not head-to-head matchups right? Here's a side-by-side comparison of Howard and Bynum last season.
There's not much question here, Howard dominates Bynum across the board. He scores more points, more efficiently than Bynum does. He's also a better rebounder.
Now, there are those who point out that Bynum was not the first option like Howard was, and that Bynum, given more opportunity, would produce at the same level.
That's not quite accurate. First, there's no reason to think that being the first option is going to lower a nearly three-rebound-per-game differential. Maybe it could bring the the nearly two-points-per-game differential closer.
Even that has a problem though.
Howard actually only takes 0.1 more shots per game than Bynum right now. That's one shot every 10 games, which hardly seems to compensate for nearly two more points.
Additionally, if Howard did it as the No. 1 option, it means he is doing it with more defensive attention on him.
Andrew Bynum doesn't face as many double-teams as Howard does. When he does, he doesn't fare very well because he doesn't see the court very well which means he doesn't pass out of them very well which means teams don't have to worry about double-teaming him. Instead he ends up turning the ball over.
According to ESPN's Ryan Feldman:
Bynum turned the ball over nearly three times more often when he was double-teamed in the post last season, nearly once every four plays.
Bynum scored the fewest points per post-up play when double-teamed among the 31 players with at least 50 post-up plays last season. Only Kevin Durant turned the ball over more often on those plays.
It's questionable whether, as the first option, Bynum will produce at the same efficiency. Certainly not if he's turning the ball every fourth time he touches it.
It's possible he'll maintain the same efficiency. It's also possible he won't. Considering his history with double-teams it's not unlikely that it will take a big dip.
Bynum is clearly the second-best offensive center in the league, which is evident by Howard's dominance over Bynum, both in head-to-head matchups and overall statistics. This proves that Howard is the best center in the league, on both sides of the ball.
Kevin Love Doesn't Play Defense
Kevin Love is a great offensive player but he plays absolutely no defense at all, right?
Defense is amorphous and sometimes it's hard to see whether someone is playing defense or if he's just playing on a bad defensive team.
Certainly, there is a degree of watching that can help but here confirmation bias can be an issue. A player gets burned twice and that proves he's soft, even if he gets stops on the next 20 plays. It's human nature to see the things that you want to see and ignore the things you don't.
Here are the on-off defensive ratings for the Timberwolves' most common starting lineup.
Ricky Rubio is clearly the defensive star of the team, but after him Love is the only player that doesn't make the defense suffer.
In fact, playing with the others probably tends to drag down his defensive numbers. By calculating data from BasketballValue.com, when Love and Rubio are on the court together, the team only gives up 102.2 points per 100 possessions.
Also, when Love is on the court without Ridnour, the team gives up 102.2 points per 100 possessions.
In other words, Rubio good, Ridnour bad.
Clearly, the Timberwolves have defensive problems but they aren't because of Love. In fact, once one recalls that one of the key elements of defense is the defensive rebound it's hard to argue that Love is not at least an average defensive player.
Is he great? No. Is he good? No, he's not really good, either, but he is above average and he does play with effort. According to Synergy, his defensive points per play of 0.79 is closer to Elton Brand's 0.7 than Serge Ibaka's 0.88 or Carlos Boozer's 0.89.
I bring up these three names for a pretty particular reason. Brand is a solid defensive player on a good defensive team, Ibaka is a good defensive player on a bad defensive team and Boozer is a bad defensive player on a good defensive team.
Love's numbers are far closer to a solid defensive player on a good defensive team even though he's not on a good defensive team.
This year he'll have far better defensive players at the small forward and shooting guard positions which will make his defense magically better.
There are not a lot of players who can single-handedly carry an entire defense a la Dwight Howard, and Kevin Love is certainly not one of them. However, given a respectable defense around him, he can hold his own.
Rajon Rondo Is Just the Product of Playing with Hall of Famers
Anyone can pile up assists playing with three or four Hall of Famers. That's the general criticism of Rondo. However it's a completely unfair one.
Could anyone get assists playing alongside Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Certainly. Anyone can also drive Jimmy Johnson's car but that doesn't mean they can win the Daytona 500.
Rondo ultimately is a race car driver. He's a tremendous facilitator with amazing vision and a knack for finding the right player to take a shot.
Looking at the Celtics stats while Rondo is on the court shows that Rondo is crucial to the team. Here is some data provided by the advanced stats section at NBA.com. First, here are his basic stats:
|Per 48 Min||46.0%||36.7%||15.3||23.4||14.7||91.3||2.5|
|Rondo on court||46.7%||37.5%||16.3||25.3||13.9||95.5||4.8|
|Rondo on bench||44.9%||35.4%||13.8||20.5||16.0||84.5||-1.2|
Now here are some of the advanced stats:
|Rondo on court||101.5||96.4||5.2||19.8||10.94||50.2%||54.2%|
|Rondo on bench||94.4||94.0||.4||17.5||13.66||48.5%||52.4%|
I didn't include the rebounding data on either because rebounding is not part of the point guard job description so to speak.
However, it's pretty evident that the Celtics are a better offensive team and defensive team while Rondo is on the court. In particular, the assist ratio and total assists per 48 minutes is striking when Rondo is on the court.
The team averages 25.3 assists per 48 minutes while Rondo is playing compared to only 20.3 when he is not. That's a difference of nearly 25 percent. There's also the fact that the team shoots 1.7 percent better when Rondo is on the court compared to when he's off.
Furthermore, based on original research from box scores, the Celtics as a team averaged 24.1 assists per game in games Rondo started versus 21.5 when he didn't.
Everyone can drive a race car but not everyone can be a race car driver.
Derrick Rose Shoots Too Much and Disrupts the Flow of the Offense
Some people say that Rose is not a pure point guard, that he's just a volume scorer that disrupts the flow of the offense.
That is like saying that the carburetor is just a thing that makes explosions and disrupts the flow of gasoline.
Not only is the offense better with Derrick Rose shooting, but the entire premise of the offense also revolves around him. The reality is that the Bulls are a better team when Derrick Rose shoots more. In fact, that's more true with Rose than with any player or team in the league.
I compiled data for the 10 players who have gone over 18 shots in a game most frequently over the last two seasons. Here they are, along with their wins, losses and winning percentage.
The reason the Bulls win when Rose shoots is because the offense is designed around him scoring. In fact, Tom Thibodeau got the head coaching job based on his selling this exact style of offense of Rose taking the lead to penetrate and then either scoring or kicking out to his teammates.
Those who criticize Rose as not being a true point guard also ignore the fact that Rose has the eighth most assists per game over the last two seasons. A lot of pure point guards are doing a worse job of passing than Rose.
Not being able to score does not make you a great point guard. Being able to pass does, and Rose is an accomplished passer. He just also happens to be the most accomplished scorer on the team as well. What makes Rose an elite player is that he is able to beat you with both his passing and scoring.
Once again, I looked at the players who had the most games with at least 20 points and eight assists. Here are the results, along with wins, losses and winning percentage.
Once again Rose is near the top of the leaderboard when it comes to winning percentage and has the most wins in games in which he scored 20 points and had eight assists.
It's hard to say he's just a scorer when he's racking up assists. It's also hard to say he's hurting his team when it keeps winning because of what he does.
Russell Westbrook Is a Selfish Player More Concerned with Scoring Than Winning
Russell Westbrook is a selfish player who is stealing shots from Kevin Durant and if he would shoot less and pass more then the Thunder would be a better team.
This is one of the most egregious accusations that can be be made because it not only attacks the play of the player in the question, but also the actual character of the player in question.
To say that Westbrook is just being selfish would require an intimate knowledge of him and not a single player or coach around him has suggested that he is a selfish player. In fact, the player who has been most purported to be the victim of his selfishness, Kevin Durant, has been his fiercest defender.
Therefore it's really hard to believe that these motive-based attacks have any basis in fact. However, some could argue that Westbrook's play speaks for itself and it speaks of selfishness. After all, if he's not selfish, why does he keep firing up shots when Kevin Durant is the better scorer?
Maybe it helps the team win?
One thing that stood out on the previous slide is when Westbrook shoots more than 18 times in a game, the Thunder are 51-24. When Durant shoots more than 18 times in a game, the Thunder are 61-48, a 61 percent win rate.
In the 22 games in which both players had over 18 attempts they are 16-5, better than when only one or the other goes over 18 shots in a game.
Now, here's the fun part. In games in which both players shot over 18 times, Durant's field-goal percentage over the last two years is .517, nearly four percent higher than the .478 he shoots overall.
Westbrook shooting makes Durant better.
Having two players who can score at will makes for a ridiculous defensive proposition. Westbrook's speed makes him virtually impossible to guard one on one as does Durant's shooting percentage.
When Westbrook is shooting, it means guards are forced to give him attention, which means more open shots open for Durant. Ergo, Westbrook's shooting makes Oklahoma City a better team and Kevin Durant a better player.
Does that sound selfish to you?
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