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Kobe Bryant Poised to Be Least Valuable Scoring Champion in NBA History

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 24, 2014

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Don't make the mistake of thinking scoring is everything that matters in the NBA.

Sure, teams win by putting up more points than the opposition, but determining value on the basis of points per game alone is a recipe for disaster. Efficiency matters, as does the manner in which the points were accumulated.

There's a process that typically leads to the ball going in the basket, after all, and it's quite important to make sure those around you are scoring as well.

Beyond that, defense has to come into play, as it's literally half the battle—for most good teams, at least.

A player who throws up gaudy scoring figures night in and night out can be valuable, but he doesn't necessarily have to qualify as such. During the 2014-15 season, Kobe Bryant has essentially been the poster boy for that concept, leading the NBA in scoring but providing little value to the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.

In fact, he's poised to become the least valuable scoring champion in the history of the Association, assuming his numbers remain steady throughout the year and he doesn't suddenly change his playing style.

He also actually has to win the scoring title for that to become a reality, as that's by no means a guarantee.

At this stage of the season, Bryant is 0.4 points per game ahead of Anthony Davis and two clear of LeBron James and the rest of the field. But there's been no indication that Bryant is going to slow down, so let's run with this as a terrific example of why scoring can't be equated with value in every situation.

Thanks to the archives of Basketball-Reference.com, we have data on scoring champions going all the way back to 1952, when Paul Arizin won the title for the Philadelphia Warriors by averaging 25.4 points per game. Since then, only a single winner of the 64 (including Bryant this year) has put up a worse player efficiency rating than the current Lakers 2-guard:

Not exactly a great start for Bryant.

Elvin Hayes is the only scoring champion with a worse score in this category, and that's a bit misleading. Not only was the San Diego Rocket a rookie when he paced the league in points, but he also didn't have the luxury of steals and blocks counting in his favor.

Even as a rookie, Hayes was a rim-protecting force, though that doesn't show up in his numbers here.

The closest comparison to Bryant actually comes from "Pistol" Pete Maravich, who recklessly gunned his way to a scoring title in 1977 while playing hero ball for the sub-.500 New Orleans Jazz.

While the shooting guard still provided his team with some value and contributed in other areas, he played with the same mentality that currently drives Bryant to log so many shots.

PER is by no means a perfect stat, but it does a nice job encapsulating overall value in one number. The league-average mark is always exactly 15, and anything above 20 tends to be a great score.

When a player submits a 30-plus PER, he's putting together one of the best seasons in NBA historyassuming he's playing enough minutes to matter and operating in a large role.

Wilt Chamberlain's 31.8 PER in 1963 remains the gold standard, both for scoring champions and players in general. Of the 64 seasons we're looking at, 26.5 is the average mark throughout the recorded portion of the Association's history.

Another way of looking at value in a single number involves using win shares. That stat shows an approximation of how many wins a player has added to his team as an individual over the course of a season.

Of course, Bryant is at a severe disadvantage here, as he hasn't played anything close to a full campaign. To account for that, we'll prorate his 0.1 win shares to a full 82-game season, giving him 0.6 projected win shares in 2014-15.

How does that stack up?

Yikes. That's not good for Bryant, who is far and away the least valuable scoring champion according to win shares. And that's true if you look at win shares per 48 minutes as well, essentially taking playing time and sheer volume out of the equation.

To put things in further perspective, the average win shares and win shares per 48 minutes for all scoring champions in NBA history are 14.87 and 0.228, respectively.

But that's not all the data we have access to. Since 1974, we have the ability to look at box score data, which leads to offensive box plus/minus (OBPM), box plus/minus (BPM) and value over replacement player (VORP).

Basketball-Reference.com has a good explanation of these stats, though you should read on your own for more detail if you so desire:

BPM is presented intuitively, representing points per 100 possessions for which the player was on the court. For example, a player with a +4.3 BPM is said to have contributed 4.3 more points than an average player over 100 possessions, based on measurable statistical output from game box scores. The calculation makes heavy use of context dependent box score stats like USG%, TS%, STL% and others (as well as the statistical interactions between these components)...Note that there is a separate calculation for the offensive component of a player's BPM, which yields both OBPM (Offensive Box Plus/Minus) and DBPM (Defensive Box Plus/Minus).

Further, BPM is scaled so that -2.0 represents a theoretical "replacement level" - thus, this concept is easily extended to permit calculations of one player's value over that theoretical threshold - that formula is [BPM - (-2.0)] * (% of minutes played), which is VORP, and interpreted as per 100 team possessions.

Essentially, OBPM shows how much more value a player provided over 100 possessions on offense than a league-average contributor. BPM does the same, but for both sides of the ball.

VORP is similar to BPM, but it's calculated against a replacement-level player—someone you could just pick up out of free agency at any point in time.

None of them makes Bryant look good.

You can see that displayed in the following graph, which shows data in all three categories for any scoring champion with a bottom-10 finish. That way, we can compare the future Hall of Famer to all relevant players.

Again, that's not good news for Bryant.

He's the worst of the bunch in all three categories, and he's actually the only scoring champion in NBA history with a negative BPM. That's thanks to the awful defense he's playing, one that has left the Lakers allowing 13.9 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.

To drive home the point, let's not just look at the old days of basketball history. Instead, let's just compare Bryant in all of the aforementioned statistics to the other players populating the top 10 in the scoring race during the 2014-15 season.

Win shares will still be prorated to account for the entire season, thus further underscoring the differences between these players' values.

It's still not a pretty picture for the Laker.

Only Blake Griffin has had comparable levels of limited value for the Los Angeles Clippers. The rest of the candidates blow him out of the water, though Carmelo Anthony hasn't exactly been providing the New York Knicks with too much outside his scoring.

As for Griffin, he's largely in a similar situation to Bryant, although there's plenty more hope he'll turn things around as the year progresses.

The Clippers power forward has regressed significantly in 2014-15, shooting inefficiently, failing to make much of an impact on the boards and struggling on defense during his second year under Doc Rivers.

It's hard to compare players between positions, but the narratives are rather similar for those twoeven if Griffin's youth indicates they'll diverge soon enough.

"Kobe's going to get his shots, he's going to get his attempts, and we know that," Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) after his team beat the Lakers in overtime and Bryant went 10-of-24 from the field for 27 points. "We just wanted to make him work hard for everything that he gets, and work hard on the defensive end so that he doesn't just have a night off at that end and can spend all of his energy just on the offensive side."

That's been the strategy for just about every team thus far, as the vast majority of NBA organizations realize that they aren't going to be beaten by an oft-shooting 2-guard who isn't providing much value in any other area of the game.

Nov 19, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"Being a prolific outside shooter in the NBA requires an almost comical amount of optimism," Benjamin Hoffman recently wrote for The New York Times. "A player has to accept that more than half of his shots will miss but has to retain the confidence to thrust the ball toward the rim every time he has the chance."

Every scorer in NBA history has had to deal with thateven the many of the ones who have done most of their damage right around the basket. But at least most of them have provided value in other areas as well.

What Bryant is doing in 2014-15 is fun. It's thrilling to see a 36-year-old on the heels of two major injuries gunning for scoring titles and doing everything he can to carry a struggling offense.

But don't be fooled into thinking it's valuable.

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