Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

The New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas has the obituary. Since he came into the nation’s consciousness as Charlotte’s first-round pick out of high school in the 1996 NBA draft, Kobe Bryant has been recognized as one of the most driven athletes in sports history. We’ve heard and read stories, including many in the last few hours, that serve as oral and written testaments to Bryant’s commitment to his ambitious focus to follow and surpass the legacy of Michael Jordan as the modern game’s single best player. Even as Bryant disclaimed attention to the comparison, everyone knew that’s what he wanted. In that regard, enjoy a visual testament to Bryant’s hard work and attention to detail.

In her brief but full remembrance, Thomas addresses Bryant’s legacy, explaining that, after retirement, he

didn’t withdraw from the game, either. He mentored other players—women as well as men. In the public imagination, the battle for the best player in history may be between [LeBron] James and Michael Jordan, but Bryant was the one that many players actually idolized. He had four daughters, and he understood that they were part of his legacy, too. Gianna, the second, was a talented basketball player, and . . . Bryant acknowledged that he saw something of himself in her. (She was “insanely, insanely competitive—like, mean,” he said.) They attended several Lakers games this season, and a video of them together at a Nets game went viral. In it, Bryant appears to be intensely explaining something to Gianna, and she, pursing her lips like a typical teen-ager, laughs and takes it in.

Families that play together (periodically) win together: NBA champions edition

Following the San Antonio Spurs’ dominant win over the Miami Heat in the NBA finals, FiveThirtyEight decided to examine whether the popular narrative about the winners and losers– that the Spurs played a more complete, team-oriented style of basketball the Heat, increasingly reliant on their solitary superstar, could not combat– was borne out in the numbers. They did this by comparing the relative usage rates (USG%) of the teams’ lineups. Plotting the difference in USG% between each team’s “top” player, the one who “used” the most possessions to either shoot, be fouled, or commit a turnover, and each successive player, should show how well the team spread the ball around. A team that did a good job of sharing the ball should plot a flatter line than a team that did not. FiveThirtyEight’s chart supported the popular narrative: San Antonio’s line was flatter than Miami’s, and the league average, while Miami’s line topped both.

As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, this isn’t how NBA championships are supposed to be won. As much as the Heat’s assemblage of its “big three” was seen as groundbreaking, it fit the narrative that grew out of Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (and certainly existed before Phil Jackson coached both of those teams to multiple championships) that the NBA was a star-driven league, and the way to win championships was to have a superstar. The Heat simply presented as an extreme version of that reality, with little in the way of supporting cast members.

FiveThirtyEight only compared this year’s teams, but the article made me wonder how the last NBA champions who deviated from the star-heavy model– the Detroit Pistons team that won it all exactly ten years ago amidst a solid run– compared statistically to this year’s Spurs.

I tallied the numbers using Basketball-Reference‘s team playoff data, sorted by USG%. Before doing so, though, I made an executive decision to omit data from players who appeared in fewer than ten playoff games that year, which swept out Austin Daye (one game for the 2014 Spurs) and Darko Milicic (eight games for the 2004 Pistons). The resulting plot lines for each team are essentially equally flat:

nbachampusagechartFor perspective, keep in mind where the Spurs’ line– red on my chart, black on the one above– is situated relative to the rest of the (2014) league. It seems these Spurs and those Pistons were on the same page when it came to playing team-oriented basketball. Meanwhile, Miami is discussing adding Carmelo Anthony for next season. Anthony has been in the top ten in the league for USG% in nine of the past ten years.

LeBron James is the best professional basketball player ever

It might not seem like it, but, as discussed on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike this morning, LeBron James’ current season is the best season a professional player has ever had. John Hollinger, also of ESPN, created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) metric for basketball players. In (his) general terms, “the PER sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” It’s an advanced metric, and really, it’s a doubly advanced metric because it’s derivative of other advanced metrics. If you want it, the nitty gritty is here, but what PER allows us to do is compare individual players with their contemporaries and with those from other eras on equal footing.

The following is a list of the top individual full-season performances, based on PER, in the history of the NBA and ABA:

Rank    Player PER Season Tm
1. Wilt Chamberlain 31.84 1962-63 SFW
2. Wilt Chamberlain 31.76 1961-62 PHW
3. Michael Jordan 31.71 1987-88 CHI
4. LeBron James 31.67 2008-09 CLE
5. Wilt Chamberlain 31.64 1963-64 SFW
6. Michael Jordan 31.63 1990-91 CHI
7. Michael Jordan 31.19 1989-90 CHI
8. Michael Jordan 31.14 1988-89 CHI
9. LeBron James 31.10 2009-10 CLE
10. David Robinson 30.66 1993-94 SAS

The full list from Basketball-Reference is here.

James already has two of the ten best seasons, and he’s the only active player in that group. (His teammate, Dwayne Wade, is the next active player listed, at 13.) If the current season ended today, though, James would post a PER of 32.8, by far the highest mark ever recorded.

Perception is a valid and important check on the things statistics tell us. I feel like there are a million things one could write about James and perception, expectations, image, and legacy, all of which would get at the fact that the title of this post is something I’d guess most people reject as an initial, gut reaction but also something we all expected we would read, write, or say at some point. There are myriad potential lessons here. One is that these advanced metrics are a way of witnessing history in the moment, something that’s difficult to do based upon perception alone. Another is that, darn it, I hate LeBron and sabermetrics are for idiot-nerds. A third raises questions about the value we place on winning championships as a component of individual players’ legacies. A fourth is that Patrick Ewing, whose best season comes in at #117 on the big list, might not be the Dan Marino of the 1980s and 1990s NBA, and Kobe Bryant, whose best season so far comes in at #51, isn’t quite the heir to His Airness’ throne, or even Shaq’s big seat. And on and on.

Brian Phillips on Kobe Bryant and outer space

In terms of watchability, the Lakers are a miserable team this year, even by NBA standards, and the pre-season rap that the (well, more than) once-great team was little more than an aging-but-relevant superstar loner, a largely unsupportive (and largely unrecognizable) supporting cast, and a coach not named Phil Jackson has borne out. Even the team’s most famous fan thinks these Lakers are a snooze-fest.

But what about Kobe this year? First, he was visibly upset about the dismissal of Lamar Odom. More recently, he was visibly ignorant of Jeremy Lin. Slightly more recently, he was the victim of Jeremy Lin’s best career NBA performance. The uniform he’s wearing this year is too big. He seems to lack context, even for himself. What’s his story this year?

Kobe has arguably reached the end of his prime, and while it’s fascinating to watch him hoop with somebody’s swooning great aunt, you can’t help but feel like the moment deserves higher stakes. Kobe’s relentlessness has always been his most celebrated quality, but this season, he’s starting to remind me of one of those space probes that somehow keep feeding back data even after they’ve gone out twice as far as the zone where they were supposed to break down. You know these stories — no one at NASA can believe it, every day they come into work expecting the line to be dead, but somehow, the beeps and blorps keep coming through. Maybe half the transmissions get lost these days, or break up around the moons of Jupiter, but somehow, this piece of isolated metal keeps functioning on a cold fringe of the solar system that no human eyes have seen.

That’s Kobe, right? While the rest of the Lakers look increasingly anxious and time-bound, he just keeps gliding farther out, like some kind of experiment to see whether never having a single feeling can make you immortal. He’s barely preserving radio contact with anyone else at this point, but basketball scientists who’ve seen fragments of his diagnostic readouts report that the numbers are heartening. It’s bizarre. He’s simultaneously the main character in the Lakers’ drama and someone who seems to have nothing to do with the narrative logic of the post-Phil team. Whatever the Mike Brown era is, he’s got no point of contact with it. Even Gasol and Bynum, his best supporting players, essentially just concentrate on not interfering with his flight path. Everyone stays out of his way, which is easy, because “his way” is a couple of billion miles from the rest of the Lakers.

So writes Brian Phillips for Grantland, in a piece arguing that the Lakers have nothing to lose by adding Gilbert Arenas right now.

I’m not sure what I think about Agent Zero these days, I do know that I think Phillips pretty much nailed it with that description. 2012 Kobe is playing like carry-the-team-on-my-back Kobe, except that he doesn’t seem too concerned about whether he’s actually dragging the team along behind him. Spike Lee’s Kobe Doin’ Work was about the 2008 playoffs, but the title might more aptly describe this season, where Kobe’s blue collar isn’t so much the value and virtue-laden, American proverbial blue collar as it is an indication that he’s merely punching the clock.

Monday child (slight return)

Saturday night’s primetime college basketball matchups saw both visiting teams come away with victories. In the early game, Michigan State beat Ohio State, ending the Buckeyes’ thirty-nine game home winning streak with a comfortable ten-point victory. In the late game, Vanderbilt erased a thirteen-point halftime deficit but were unable to close in the final minutes, losing to #1 Kentucky 69-63. (More on this game later.)

We’ve so far resisted the seemingly linfinite opportunities to write about New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin– he isn’t even my favorite Lin brother— but his 38-point effort against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers deserves mention.

Finally, while MSU ended OSU’s home win streak, the cross-state Detroit Red Wings came from behind to beat the Flyers in Hockeytown for their twentieth consecutive home win, which tied the record set by the 1929-30 Bruins and matched by Philadelphia’s 1976 crew.

Kobe Bryant and PEDs

The Orange County Register reports:

These days, over Bryant’s right wrist also rests a fat postgame ice wrap roughly the size of rookie guard Andrew Goudelock, Bryant trying in vain to minimize swelling after acting on the court as if there isn’t a torn ligament in there.

Bryant has been taking a numbing injection to that wrist before every game in hopes of performing normally. Yes, it’s that bad.

He does not want to publicize all the details of his wrist, which is usable only because the bones were not moved permanently out of alignment without the ligament to hold them in place. But it’s now clear just how problematic the wrist is, and it’s fair to wonder where all this will take Bryant.

Bryant walked out of Staples Center on Tuesday night with something that looked like an oven mitten over his right hand and wrist. He wears an immobilizing brace over the wrist when off the court, meaning take-for-granted parts of life such as texting on his phone or zipping his fly become rather challenging.

I’m not sure if the fly-zipping example was a reference to the alleged infidelities that allegedly led to his recent, actual divorce proceedings, and I also am not here to offer any speculation on what’s going on with the German doctor who treated Bryant and Alex Rodriguez.

My question has to do with the wrist injections, referenced above, that “numb the pain and allow Bryant to perform normal tasks, such as ball handling and shooting“: why isn’t this injected substance a performance-enhancing drug?

Keep reading…