By virtues of his singular talent and his incredible performances this season at the tender age of 34, Kobe Bryant has unquestionably established himself as the best player on the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the NBA's all-time greats.
And yet, his performances this year seem to be for naught.
The Lakers are three games under .500, despite the fact that the Black Mamba is leading the league in scoring at 30.5 points per game on 48.1 percent field goal shooting.
Thus, there seems to be a growing sentiment that Bryant has been the problem in the equation and that he’s essentially shot his teams in and out of ball games, which has led to the team’s poor record.
Although there may be some truth to the fact that Kobe has occasionally been an overzealous shooter during the 2012-13 regular season, the 17-year veteran has not only performed admirably for his proud franchise, but—because of his team's inability to close out games—his play has actually been underrated in some respects.
Some will be quick to disagree with that last point, citing that Bryant has only converted 14-of-40 field goal attempts (35 percent) in the clutch (clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of a game in which the margin is five points or fewer), and that he’s consequently been a detriment to his team in late-game scenarios.
It’s a point worth conceding, but it fails to paint a completely adequate picture of Bryant’s play in the fourth quarter.
Indeed, NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that the former league MVP is averaging nine points on 48.4 percent field goal shooting in the fourth quarter of games this season. This suggests that he’s been efficient in the final period of games, scoring a fair amount of points and converting a high percentage of his shots.
But if we dig a little deeper, we’ll notice that the Lakers have wasted several of Bryant’s best nights.
In the contest against the Denver Nuggets last night, for instance, Bryant was all over the place, scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Lakers afloat, but more importantly he hit a multitude of shots that do not qualify as clutch in terms of statistical tracking but that were important to keeping the game within reach.
The eye test reveals that this may in fact be one of Kobe’s best skills, but it tends to largely go unnoticed.
Whenever teams are in the midst of a run to potentially put games away against the Lakers, the four-time NBA All-Star MVP finds ways to stem the tide and keep his team within striking distance, thanks to a barrage of seemingly impossible shots.
He did it earlier in the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers and most recently against the Denver Nuggets. Initially, this trend proved to be somewhat difficult to track statistically, but the folks over at NBA.com actually have enough data to allow us to look into this.
A margin of six-to-10 points isn’t big by any stretch of the imagination, but a deficit within that range can be hard for teams to overcome, especially later in the game. But it is in precisely these situations that Bryant shines brightest.
In games in which the Lakers are facing a deficit of six-to-10 points, the five-time world champion is averaging 10.3 points per game on 51.4 percent field goal shooting and 50 percent three-point shooting, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool. That’s just a fancy way of saying that Kobe is often a run-breaker.
When opponents get dangerously close to pulling away, the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer finds ways to score and cut into the deficit.
For all of Kobe’s run-stopping offensive outbursts, the Los Angeles Lakers still have a losing record. Their less-than-stellar defense is the main culprit—more precisely, their defense in the clutch.
Indeed, projected over 48 minutes, the Lakers yield 100.5 points in the clutch, the fifth-worst mark in the NBA, just a spot above the Phoenix Suns, per NBA.com.
Whether it’s because of their failure to rotate properly defensively, or simply an inability to box out players and allow them to crash the boards, the Lakers just aren’t closing out defensive possessions with the game on the line, which has resulted in a plethora of close losses.
Bryant has done his best to try and change the fortunes of the team, but the truth is his defense, as well as that of his teammates, just hasn’t been good enough to allow the purple and gold to win games on the strength of Kobe’s offensive prowess. Thus, a lot of the Mamba’s best situational scoring is quite simply wasted and forgotten because it occurred in defeat.
The path to victory with the Lakers clearly revolves around Bryant. But for once, it’s not his late game heroics on offense that is needed to rescue Mike D’Antoni but instead his play on the defensive end of the court.
The basketball gods have a twisted sense of humor I tell you.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.