The Los Angeles Lakers began the season by winning 13 of their first 15 games.
Then they lost four straight games by a combined 21 points and suddenly the sky was falling, the world was ending and everyone was looking for someone on the team to blame.
Kobe Bryant and his high number of field goal attempts in the Laker losses made for an easy scapegoat; conventional wisdom was that Bryant's selfishness and inability to trust his extraordinarily talented teammates would handicap the Lakers as they made another championship run, going for a three-peat.
For once, conventional wisdom is not completely off base, but it is not exactly accurate, either.
Before I go into the results of the correlations I ran, it should be noted Bryant is handling the high number of possessions he is using pretty well.
His 35.9 usage percentage currently leads the NBA and is not a usage percentage height he has reached since 2005-06, but the Lakers should not have too many complaints with how Bryant is using those possessions because he is playing as efficiently as he has shown himself capable of being.
After a down season last year, when his 21.9 PER and offensive rating of 109 points produced per 100 possessions were his worst since 1999-00, his fourth year in the NBA; this season, Bryant has bounced back in a big way.
His 25.0 PER is better than his career 23.5 PER and his best since the 2006-07 season.
Bryant's offensive rating of 112 points produced per 100 possessions is identical to his career number in that category, and the only reason it is not any higher is because Bryant is struggling mightily from the three-point line; his .471 effective field goal percentage this season is his lowest since 2001-02 and below his career .509 effective field goal percentage from the three-point line.
As the season progresses, Bryant should see an improvement in both his three-point shooting and his overall true shooting percentage and offensive rating.
On the other hand, there is evidence that suggests both Bryant and the Lakers would benefit if he showed restraint in the number of shots he hoists up.
There is a -.329 correlation—pretty strong since there are so many different variables that go into a basketball game—between Bryant's field goal attempts and the Lakers' offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions), meaning there is an inverse relationship between the number of shots Bryant takes and how efficiently the Lakers play on offense.
The more field goals that Kobe Bryant attempts, the worse the Lakers' offensive rating becomes has been this season.
The same inverse relationship exists in even stronger fashion with a -.442 correlation between Bryant's field goal attempts and his true shooting percentage so the more shots he has attempted, the worse his subsequent true shooting percentage has been.
Even with the strong negative correlations, though, the Lakers have not been affected greatly. Their 113.1 points per 100 possessions is still first in the NBA, so it is hard to blame Bryant too much.
Also, remember that correlation does not mean causation, so Bryant's high number of field goal attempts does not necessarily cause the Lakers or himself to be less efficient offensively; there is simply a link.
Kobe Bryant's perceived selfishness is also a very complicated topic.
Yes, it is true that Bryant does seem to take an inordinately high number of field goal attempts in the Lakers' losses; in the seven losses the team has experienced, Bryant took 25.4 field goal attempts per game compared to only 18.8 field goal attempts per game in the Lakers' 17 victories.
The difference is a statistically significant one, but to say that the higher number of attempts is the cause of the Lakers' losses is to take a simplistic view.
While Bryant's true shooting percentage is considerably lower in losses than wins (.511 true shooting percentage to .565 true shooting percentage), he makes up for it in one important area.
In the losses where Bryant is supposedly being too selfish with the ball, he raises his assist percentage to impressive levels. Bryant's assist percentage during losses has been 33.4 percent, on the verge of being statistically significantly superior to his 22.6 assist percentage.
Throw in the fact Bryant also has decreased his turnover percentage from 11.6 in wins to 9.7 in losses and it becomes more than obvious that even when he is not shooting well, Bryant is still helping the team tremendously.
Those differences between his assist and turnover percentages demonstrate that instead of becoming more selfish in the Lakers' losses, Bryant is actually working incredibly hard to get his teammates involved in the offense as he becomes the team's primary distributor.
Otherwise, he would not be able to have such a high percentage of assists on his teammate's field goals when he is on the floor. His increased assist percentage in losses should put to bed any more selfish claims since that seems to be the opposite of selfishness.
When the Lakers do lose, they do so largely because they have poor shooting efforts and their assist rate falls, while their opponents shoot the ball much better and have a higher assist rate.
In their losses, the Lakers have a .517 true shooting percentage and 15.5 assist rate, lower than their .570 true shooting percentage and 18.2 assist rate in victories.
The relationship between their shooting and their assist rate is a common sense one; it is impossible to get an assist if your teammate misses the shot.
Their opponents experience the opposite effect; they have a .571 true shooting percentage and 18.8 assist rate when they beat the Lakers and a .497 true shooting percentage and 15.9 assist rate when they lose to the Lakers. They also have a lower turnover rate when they win (9.5 to 11.5), which makes the increase in their assist rate that much more valuable.
It is important to remember that even when the Lakers do lose, they do not do so in the same fashion as they win. When they win, they outscore their opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions and when they lost, they are only outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions.
A team like the Los Angeles Lakers that completely dominates their competition in victories and loses by smaller margins than they win by is an elite one.
Even elite teams are going to struggle now and then, but the Lakers are still of a championship-caliber and if they do lose in the postseason before winning their third straight championship, it will most likely not be because of any selfishness by Kobe Bryant.
It will be because the team failed to shoot well in four of seven games.