Throughout the course of his career, Kobe Bryant's critics' biggest issue has been his inefficient shooting. But the way he's started this season, even the most ardent critic has nothing to complain about. What has changed, and why has he become so much more efficient this year?
So far this season, Bryant's field goal percentage is a whopping .597. That's not his effective field-goal percentage, which is a hefty .664 or his true shooting percentage, which is a flat-out cartoonish .710. It's his plain old field-goal percentage.
I mention this because his flat field-goal percentage is not only the highest of his career, but it's higher than his effective field-goal percentage or true-shooting percentage has ever been.
Bleacher Report's own Ethan Norof tweeted a telling stat regarding Bryant:
Kobe's first four games this season: 107 points on 67 shots. First four games last season: 111 points on 81 shots. #Lakers
— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) November 5, 2012
While we're still early in the season and there is bound to be some regression to the mean, there are early-season signs that Bryant's bump in efficiency is not just a "hot streak," and there is more to the situation.
For example, it is only the 10th time in his career that he's shot .500 or better in four consecutive games when he attempted at least 10 shots, and it's the first time he's ever opened a season doing so. His career-high streak is five.
Furthermore, it's only the fifth time where he did so attempting fewer than 25.
The early pattern is established. He's making a higher percentage of his shots and taking less of them. In fact, the 16.8 attempts per game are his lowest since 1998-99.
In some ways, it's not all that improbable that Bryant would have such a big boost. The issue with Bryant has never been with what he could do. It's what he couldn't do, or more accurately stated, knowing when he couldn't do what he couldn't do.
In other words, the issue has never been the good shots Bryant took; it was the bad ones that caused the problems. The main reason for the bump in his efficiency isn't that a larger percentage of his shots are suddenly going in. It's that a lower number of them are going up.
Or, hearken to Norof's stat, he scored 111 points on 81 attempts last year; this year, he just didn't take 14 additional bad shots that led to only four points.
It's not what Bryant is doing differently this year; what's different is what he's not doing.
Of course, numbers don't mean everything, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth a thousand pictures. (Actually, technically, if it's long enough, it is a thousand pictures, but I digress.)
Here's some video evidence (which would then be worth a thousand, thousand words) that Kobe is approaching the game differently this year—a few plays from the early part of the Lakers game against Detroit.
First, watch as Bryant feeds the ball inside to Pau Gasol, only to have Gasol pass the ball back out to him. Note the space that Bryant has where he would normally step up and take the jumper. This time, though, he feeds the ball back into Gasol, who has the easy mid-range jump shot.
Again, here we see Bryant drive into the paint. This is exactly the kind of play where we've seen him take bad shots countless times. But instead of forcing a bad shot, he catches the open Steve Blake, who misses the wide-open three. However, we can't put that on Kobe. The important thing is that he was looking to pass.
Finally, here we see Kobe take the ball at the top of the key, but rather than hold onto the ball and go into an isolation play like he would have in previous seasons, he keeps his eyes up court and sees Gasol is wide open for an easy two at the rim.
The reason Bryant is different this year is because he's approaching the offense differently. He's not looking to create his own offense first; he's looking to create it for his teammates. What's important to note about the three plays above isn't merely that they all happened, but that they all happened in the first half of the first quarter.
The Princeton offense was Bryant's baby. He went to Mike Brown with the idea of running it. Granted, he did so before the Lakers had acquired Steve Nash or Dwight Howard, but it was still his brainchild, and the Lakers still decided to run it.
It's a logical conclusion that the reason that he's committed to making the Princeton work is that his name is attached to it.
He knows that in order to make it work, he needs to get his teammates involved, and accordingly, he has become more selective with his shot, since he's not looking for his own offense first.
Many analysts (present company included) may have been overly critical of the Princeton in its early stages. But if it results in a more efficient Kobe Bryant once everyone starts to gel, the Lakers' 0-3 start will be nothing but a distant memory by mid-December.