The Lakers have had a rough season so far, but Kobe's improved game is worthy of a fist pump.
The Los Angeles Lakers may be floundering, but Kobe Bryant has done nothing but improve this season—most notably by taking better shots, picking his spots and embracing the pick-and-roll.
Bryant has been one of the most polarizing players in the league for a long time now, and for good reason. As incredible as Kobe's game has been, he's always had some flaws as well.
But the Mamba is a tireless worker. This season, his 17th in the NBA, has been yet another stepping stone to perfecting his game.
Note: All stats current as of December 30, 2012
Kobe has spent a lot of time at the rim this season.
It's no surprise that Kobe Bryant is leading the league in scoring at over 30 points per game. For him, dropping 30 is like breathing—it comes naturally.
However, how Kobe has been scoring his points this season has been remarkable.
Kobe has been so off-the-charts efficient this season that you could make a case that this has been his best offensive season to date. And it's mostly due to a few simple tweaks in shot location.
For pretty much forever, Kobe has been king of the long two-pointer. He loves 'em. Last season, he put up a remarkable 7.7 shots per game from 16 to 23 feet, making just 41 percent of them (per HoopData.com). Kobe took 23 shots per game last season, which means that approximately one-third of his shots were from 16 to 23 feet.
That would be great if, you know, the long two wasn't the least efficient shot in the game.
There's a reason that Bryant only shot 43 percent last year (his worst shooting percentage since the 1997-98 season): his love of long distance jumpers.
This season, however, Kobe has decided to shelve the deep twos in favor of two different types of shots—three-pointers and shots at the rim. In essence, he's traded the worst shot in basketball for what are usually the two best shots in basketball.
Now, Kobe's taking almost five shots per game at the rim and nearly six three-pointers per game.
Unsurprisingly, he's absolutely killing it from both areas, shooting 37 percent from three and a remarkable 70 percent at the rim (per HoopData.com). He's also up to almost nine free-throw attempts per game, the most he's taken since 2007-08 and a remarkable number considering his age.
Kobe's determination not to settle for contested fadeaway jumpers has led to an effective field-goal percentage (which weighs the fact that three-pointers are more valuable than two-pointers) of 53 percent, a career best.
To put that in perspective, his eFG percent last season (46.2) was a career worst (per Basketball Reference).
The bad shots haven't been entirely cleansed from Kobe's system and probably never will be. He takes a few “I'm Kobe freaking Bryant” shots every game, but on the whole, his shot selection has vastly improved.
As previously mentioned, this might just be Kobe's most efficient offensive season ever. Pretty impressive for a 34-year-old who's already put together some of the best offensive seasons the league has ever seen.
Kobe's picking his spots now more than ever.
This could be controversial.
Bryant's defense has been less than stellar for a few years now. While he is a near-lock for an All-Defense team every year, it's primarily a reputation pick.
Don't get me wrong, Kobe's still more than capable of great defense if he's locked in. However, those moments are becoming increasingly rare—his off-ball defense has gotten pretty shoddy.
For what it's worth, Synergy Sports Technology pegs him as the 43rd best overall defender in the league this season, so he's definitely improved from last season's 166th overall (via Hardwood Paroxysm's Clint Peterson). However, defensive stats are pretty hard to calculate, and the good old fashioned eye test says that Kobe isn't often a lockdown defender anymore.
Considering that defense has been the Los Angeles Lakers' Achilles heel this season, it's hard to call Kobe's slightly better defensive performance a real improvement. The way that he's learned to save his energy and pick his spots, though, is absolutely a sign of growth from No. 24.
Let's make a Michael Jordan analogy: Over the course of his last three championship seasons, Michael learned that he couldn't go 100 percent on both ends of the court for an entire game. His body wouldn't let him.
So what he did was pick his spots. He would relax defensively for much of the game and save his energy for game-deciding spurts, during which he was a two-way juggernaut. It saved his body not only in those particular games, but over the course of entire seasons.
Jordan got away with it because he had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (two of the greatest defenders ever) backing him up. Kobe only has an aging Metta World Peace and a banged-up Dwight Howard to lean on, so he gets scrutinized far more. We've seen flashes of Kobe being his old disruptive self, but when he can't maintain that defensive level, he's considered lazy.
No doubt he's guilty of a few defensive lapses due to laziness or sheer frustration about the way that this season has gone, but Bryant is one of the hardest-working players the league has ever seen. He's also fiercely proud, sometimes to a fault. He is not a lazy player.
He is, however, an older player and one who can't go 100 percent for 38 minutes a game. Especially not while trying to do everything offensively for an injury-plagued team.
It's going to be hard to paint this energy-saving strategy in a positive light until Howard is fully healthy and can protect Kobe defensively, but when he is, it could do wonders for the Lakers.
Not only will Kobe be able to focus on his offense full-time and become a dominant two-way force for short spurts, he should have a lot more in the tank for a potential playoff run—assuming the Lakers make it that far.
Kobe looked visibly exhausted in last year's playoffs, even early in games. It was clear that he just didn't have much left at that point in the season. The Lakers will need him at 100 percent for the playoffs, and if he keeps picking his spots this season, they just might get it.
Kobe is no longer a strictly isolation player.
Kobe Bryant is an isolation player. Everybody knows that.
Here's how it goes: Bryant gets an off-ball catch and faces the basket. Jab step. Jab step. Shot fake. Jab step. Fadeaway.
Sometimes there are a few dribbles or spin moves thrown in for good measure, but Kobe generally scores by isolating a defender and hitting him with a superb arsenal of footwork and fakes.
That still holds true this year—over 25 percent of Kobe's plays come in isolation situations, and he ranks 15th in the league on those possessions (.97 points per possession via Synergy Sports Technology).
But Kobe has also showcased a new offensive weapon this year and it's been a revelation: the pick-and-roll.
It's not like Kobe has a reputation for being a poor pick-and-roll player, it's just not really something that his game has ever stressed. His preference for one-on-one basketball didn't allow for pick-and-roll breaks.
This year, that number has almost doubled. Pick-and-rolls make up 23.1 percent of Kobe's possessions and he is producing at an elite level. When he's the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, Kobe is averaging 1.02 points per possession—the third-highest rate in the league (via Synergy Sports Technology).
That's an even better rate than pick-and-roll masters like Chris Paul and even Steve Nash can boast (though in Nash's case it's a very small sample size). This new addition to Kobe's game gives the Los Angeles Lakers some intriguing options to play around with.
Obviously, Nash will be running the offense for the majority of the Lakers possessions, but Kobe's pick-and-roll proficiency gives them a deadly alternate method of attack.
A Kobe-run pick-and-roll involving Howard rolling to the basket and Nash lurking behind the three-point line is borderline unfair. The Lakers will have to work out a few kinks, but if they do, watch out.