Backpicks GOAT: #14 Kobe Bryant

Key Stats and Trends

  • Offensive box and impact metrics rank just below all-time greats
  • Limited by marginal defensive value, both on film and in the data
  • Lack of post-prime longevity due to injuries

Scouting Report

Kobe, at his zenith, was a scoring dynamo, drilling an array of fading, clutching, double-teamed contortions that the league had never seen. But his maturation took time; he was the youngest player in NBA history when he debuted two months after his 18th birthday.1 In his early years, he developed a smooth pull-up and an arsenal of adroit finishes near the hoop:

Even then, he was comfortable rising up over defenders and operating out of the pinch post, which would later become his sweet spot:

Kobe’s most common attempt was some form of pull-up, and in 2001, he added elevation and quickness to his game, on display here:

Around that time, he weaponized his up-fake, and when combined with his strong athleticism and dexterity, it opened driving windows and acrobatic finishes around the hoop:

In those Frobe years, he started calling on his spin move frequently, and in 2003, extended his range off the dribble to beyond the arc:

He could knock these down with reasonable accuracy, even in the face of elite defense. But this video-game skill seduced him into some bad shots too, particularly in delayed transition and at the end of the shot clock:2

As his career rolled on, Bryant added even more to his arsenal, regularly hitting fadeaways over both shoulders post-Shaq (O’Neal left LA after the 2004 season):

He learned to extract fouls from his jump shots, using swing throughs and a series of fakes to lull in overly eager defenders:

In total, he was probably the greatest contested-shot maker in NBA history, serving up facials like a shot esthetician. His diverse offensive payload produced six of the top-75 scoring rates ever, and while his ability to make tough shots was jaw-dropping, his tendency to take these shots capped his efficiency. In a 2007 ABC telecast, Tim Legler marveled, “Kobe has the highest degree of difficulty shots in the NBA.”3 Which was not a good thing.

According to Synergy, Kobe dialed up an isolation play about one-third of the time from 2008-10, and nearly 40 percent of the time in 2006 and 2007, all ranking at the top of the league.4 Whereas someone like Michael Jordan used quickness to create clean looks, Bryant made a living by whispering shots in his defender’s ear, oblivious to the hand in his face.

In addition to tracking data from my 2010-11 study, I sampled over 1,100 Kobe possessions for this series (from 1999-2009), studying his passing, shooting and defensive tendencies.5 In that sample, he took 129 covered shots from outside 15 feet and converted them at a stellar 44 percent clip.6 While this is resilient, inelastic offense — defenses can’t really take it away — it’s a large reason why he peaked at “only” +3.9 percent relative true shooting (rTS), a notch or two below history’s greatest scorers. He sometimes shot into multiple coverage, upping the degree of difficulty in lieu of passing:

Shots like these, where Kobe bypassed creation to shoot into double-teams, were common throughout his prime. Many skilled offensive players miss creation attempts like this (by shooting into help defense), after all, their “difficult” shots are higher-percentage than everyone else’s difficult shots. From 2001-04 and from 2008-09, Kobe missed just under 3 creations per 100 from shots like these. But in his lone-star years, he was at 5 per 100, an astonishing rate matched only by a young Michael Jordan.7

In my sample, Kobe averaged 0.76 points on these plays (including turnovers). So, bypassing an open 3-pointer, even from punching-bag Smush Parker, would be a massive net negative. (Parker shot 37 percent from behind the arc from 2006-07.) Even a long Lamar Odom 2-pointer — a shot he struggled with — was on par with one of these attempts from Kobe, or perhaps better, given Odom’s options to drive or continue the power play with his strong passing.

Kobe counterbalanced these issues with underrated passing and creation, although he fell short of the elites in each category. He had a feel for kickouts and skip passes early on, and was fairly good at exposing a double-team. In the clip below, he finds a nice diagonal pass that leads to a wide open shot for sharp-shooter Glen Rice:

His court vision was well above average, and he was at his strongest when he could map the floor, either from a set play or by surveying the action:

And he always knew how to punish interior defenders who stepped into his path:

However, Kobe rarely converted elite, high-leverage passes. His on-ball role and modern spacing afforded him numerous passing opportunities, and he was good at finding the more straightforward ones (shown above), but he lacked the anticipation required for consistent, Grade A passes:

Overall, Kobe’s rate of “good” passes in my sample was around 3 per 100. For comparison, Jordan was at 1.5 2 per 100 and an all-timer like Nash over 8 per 100.8

Defensively, Bryant is an interesting case study. In his two best years on tape (1999 and 2000) he frequently guarded scoring threats or point guards. While he was not a great lockdown defender, he used size and positioning advantageously, turning in a number of efficacious possessions like this:9

He occasionally provided rim help too, blocking attempts like this from time to time:

Kobe’s block rates peaked at just under 2 percent in ’99 and ’00, in the top-100 all-time among basketball reference’s “guards”, although more seemed to be on-ball than in help like this. His post defense was quite good; he bodied up opponents and kept them off their favorite spots:

However, starting in 2001, he struggled to stay in front of penetrators. At times, his feet were heavy, and that heel-clicking defensive stride made him vulnerable to vanilla drives. In the fist clip below, he at least mitigates his breakdown with a quick, high-IQ switch:

Every defender is blown by like this from time to time, but this problem pops on film with Bryant. From ’01-04, this happened 2.2 times per 100 possessions, which would fall in the 2nd percentile. For the remaining years I tracked between ’99 and ’09, he was under 1.0 per 100, only in the 33rd percentile, still disappointing considering how often he covered the opponent’s weakest scoring threat. During my 2010-11 tracking, he was at 1.8 per 100, landing him in the 5th percentile of that study.

He had excellent hands, stripping players on-ball or in help situations, forcing additional turnovers on double-teams, like this:

He had a good feel for where to position himself off the ball and where to roam, sometimes jumping passing lanes or providing quick help:

But his help D wasn’t airtight — even in that last sequence, he rotated past the cutter (Doug Christie, No. 13) into no man’s land. From time to time, he’d lose track of his marks or gamble aimlessly:

As he progressed into the heart of his career, he moved less on defense, playing a more conservational, stationary style, antithetical to John Stockton’s ping-ponging team defense. After his sprightly Frobe years, his paint defense wavered too; in this 1997-2015 study by Justin Willard, Bryant finished in the bottom decile in the percentage of his blocks that were within five feet of the hoop. Instead of deterring these high-value shots or taking charges, he often swiped at or ran past slashers in the lane like this:

As Kobe matured, he would gear-up for selective possessions, showing polished footwork and cagey angles. But these ostentatious stands weren’t always effective — after a beautiful sequence, he’s needlessly screened out of the play here 40 feet from the hoop:10

While he could play strong man D for stretches, hiding on the weakest player or committing key errors limited his defensive impact during the heart of his prime. This was offset slightly by Kobe’s strong defensive rebounding, which ranked above the 82nd percentile among non-bigs for 10 seasons.

Putting it all together: His defense faded in 2001 as his offense exploded, his scoring grew in 2003 with a better first step and expanded range, but his footwork and contested shot-making came at the expense of his passing and shot selection in ’06 and ’07, stabilizing in 2008 (his likely peak). His defense was solid but unspectacular from 2003-09 before eroding in the ensuing years. And by 2012, his offense bordered on “gunning,” taking more shots than in any season outside of 2006 at merely league average efficiency. Injuries caught up to him in his final few season.

Impact Evaluation

During his early prime, Kobe played a huge, but secondary role on the Laker three-peat teams. After Shaquille O’Neal left, Bryant’s box and impact metrics improved across the board, and from there he seamlessly captained fantastic playoff offenses on elite teams. His more granular non-box metrics were generally strong, pushing some of the all-time best. But he was held back by his second-tier scoring efficiency and low-impact defense examined in the scouting report.

Kobe joined LA as a teenage project, waiting in the wings on an offensively-slanted roster that orbited around Shaq’s post dominance. In his third season (’99), Bryant ascended to a sidekick position, but the Lakers regressed to a 52-win pace while reshuffling the roster. In 2000, with O’Neal rounding into peak form, LA began a brief run of dominance behind the Kobe-Shaq duo.

O’Neal’s injuries during those years give us a peak into Kobe’s performance as a primary hub. From 2001-03, Shaq missed 32 games and an otherwise healthy Lakers played at a 43-win pace (0.7 SRS), down from a 56-win clip with O’Neal (5.4 SRS).11 Kobe’s missed time did not have a mirror effect: Bryant missed 25 games from 2000-01 where Shaq and Fisher suited up, and LA played at a 56-win pace (5.4 SRS) without Kobe, down from a 61-win clip (7.3 SRS) with him.

In 2004, the Lakers added gray-beards Karl Malone and Gary Payton, but their “super team” experiment was underwhelming, barely outperforming the healthy ’03 team. Malone morphed into a Robert Horry successor, adding defensive value, extra passing and outside shooting. (He also missed half the season due to injury.) Payton, on the other hand, struggled to bring defensive punch or fit in the triangle offense. In 41 games together, the quartet posted a ho-hum +3.3 relative offensive rating (rORtg), nearly identical to LA’s 2005 full-strength offense.

All told, from ’01 to ’04, Kobe played 46 games without O’Neal;12 Bryant averaged 29.3 points per 75 on +1.4 percent rTS with 9.3 creations per 100, incredibly similar to his 2009 stat line of 28.4 points per 75, +1.7 percent rTS and 9.1 creations per 100, both a shade below his peak numbers. The Lakers played at a 45-win pace during those games (1.4 SRS) with an average offensive rating (+0.4 relative efficiency), portending the post-Shaq years.

While Kobe’s volume scoring was spectacular, it fell short of the upper echelon. There have been 139 seasons above 27 points per 75 since 1978, and all nine of Kobe’s fall in the bottom half in efficiency. Attempts to quantify the worth of this scoring-efficiency combination find it valuable, but outside the top 10 percent of seasons.13 Here’s what his prime scoring years look like historically:

Bryant’s strong playmaking and creation are overlooked by the above plot; only 54 players have posted seasons with at least 27 points per 75 and 8 creations per 100. Among those seasons, Kobe’s most efficient ranks 29th, snuggled next to 1996 Michael Jordan.14 Kobe’s Big 4 offensive categories compare favorably to most elite players, but as you can see below, he lags behind the modern titans in efficiency and creation, a byproduct of the imperfect decision-making that’s evident on tape:

Of that group, Kobe edges only Michael Jordan in passing, but he has a smaller shape than MJ. He also fails to surpass most of these megastars in secondary attributes like spacing or offensive rebounding (he tops Curry and Nash there). But he gains something back in the playoffs, where Bryant holds his shape incredibly well, likely a result of his robust skill set:

After Shaq’s departure, Kobe’s Lakers remained competent offensively, although they lacked defensive punch. Despite a downgrade in offensive talent, Bryant still played two of those years with Phil Jackson (although with more freedom to abandon the triangle offense), a secondary talent who could pass and create well in Lamar Odom, and a few competent outside shooters. The results were more than adequate, as LA posted a relative offensive efficiency (rORtg) above +2.0 in every season with Bryant as the hub, and in 2006 played at a noteworthy 50-win pace with him in the lineup. However, there are no indicators that he salvaged some inept team either: He missed 20 games from ’05-07 and LA played at a 35-win pace without him, while adjusted plus-minus ballparks those Kobe-less teams at an average of 33 wins. (They played at a 44-win pace at full-strength during those three seasons.)

In 2008, the Lakers leveled-up, balancing the roster around Kobe: Derek Fisher returned to provide outside shooting and defense while Andrew Bynum emerged as an All-Star rim protector before injuries derailed his season. LA played at a stunning 58-win pace (5.9 SRS) in 30 full-strength games before the All-Star break, improving the defense to match the offense. In 20 games without Bynum, they maintained a 53-win pace, only to acquire Pau Gasol and explode to a 66-win clip (9.7 SRS) the rest of the way. Bryant’s improved shot selection and playmaking prowess propelled the improved Lakers to a +5.5 rORtg, their best since 1998. They would produce similar results the following year, and from 2007-11 posted a five-year playoff offense of +5.7, the 19th-best mark in history.

Since Bryant’s entire career fell within the Databall era, we have complete adjusted plus-minus (APM) figures on him. Consistent with the game film and other metrics, his defense often grades out around neutral, sometimes slightly negative and sometimes slightly positive. This is exactly what we’d expect given his small defensive role as a guard prone to breakdowns, who occasionally provided good help and selective defensive stops. After 2002, it’s difficult to value his defense as anything more than a slight positive.

However, APM considers Kobe one of the game’s best offensive players; his five-year average of scaled offensive APM ranks eighth, nestled behind Chris Paul and ahead of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. Nine of Bryant’s 11 seasons from 2001-11 fall in the 98th percentile or better in offensive APM, enough to post five of the top-150 overall APM scores between 2006 and 2010. All told, he left the footprint of an offensive superstar who fell a hair short of the all-time greats.

His team results correlated positively with his presence, — among players on this list, he finished 18th in these game-level studies —  and he scales well for a medium-efficiency volume scorer, as evidenced by his massive role on multiple high-end lineups. His team offenses were also successful in the playoffs, consistent with his own resilience against stingier defenses. Because of all this, he has a top-10 offensive peak and a top-20 overall peak in my estimation, but lacks the longevity to pass the higher peaks in front of him. (While his longevity might appear strong, it’s not outstanding for his era.)

He could easily have placed 12th here, but for him to overtake Bird at No. 11, I’d need to boost his valuations up with the best offensive apexes in history, a position I couldn’t defend. Bumping his defense up just a notch may be slightly more plausible, but I have hard time moving much higher on his offense. As is, Kobe’s quite comfortably lumped in the 12 to 15 range, and by a whisker, lands behind Malone and Oscar at No. 14.

  1. Jermaine O’Neal became the youngest a few weeks later. Andrew Bynum now holds the distinction.
  2. Many of his questionable shot attempts were launched as the shot clock dwindled, leaving the impression that his percentages suffered because he took more of these than normal, when they instead suffered because he couldn’t turn these into quality looks. Many players still generate efficient shots at the end of a possession.
  3. From March 18, 2007.
  4. From 2006-09, Kobe averaged right around a point per play on isolation per Synergy, which is excellent for isolation, but isolation is also the least efficient kind of offense.
  5. Over the years I’ve tracked Kobe more than any other player, over 4,200 possessions.
  6. From 2006-10, he converted all shots from 16-23 feet at about 42 percent, per basketball-reference.
  7. Based on my sampling, LeBron was near 4 of these shots per 100 during his first Cleveland stint. Hakeem struggled with this too and took about 3 per 100. Shaq was under 2 per 100 during his prime, and many of his looks were crashing into double-teams near the rim.
  8. This doesn’t mean Kobe was “twice” the passer that MJ was, as different eras dictated different passing opportunities. For instance, Jordan missed 1.5 layup passes per 100, Kobe missed about 1 per 100. So Jordan’s “good to missed” ratio was 1:1, but Kobe’s was 3:1. Nash’s was 8:1.
  9. When I say “space between his feet” in this clip, I mean space between his strides. He does improve this footwork later. Also, a nod to Ron Harper’s off-ball work here. Harper was an excellent defender and a large player in LA’s enormous defensive turnaround in 2000.
  10. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Kobe guarding a green Russell Westbrook for stretches during Game 5 and 6 in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Westbrook struggled, but not necessarily because of Bryant. Kobe was still blown-by frequently and posted a negative defensive score using my tracking-based defensive metric — slightly worse than his entire 2010 postseason — and was switched off of Russell down the stretch of Game 6 due to fouling/containment issues.
  11. This excludes Derek Fisher in 2001, who played only 20 games that season.
  12. This includes six games Shaq missed with Malone in ’04 and and six he missed with Fox in ’03.
  13. Kobe’s best Efficere result — Jacob Goldstein’s attempt at calculating a volume-efficiency net value — is 1.8 points above average, which is 3.3 points away from the second-best score ever and falls in the 90th percentile.
  14. Eleven players have eclipsed Bryant’s efficiency during a 27 point / 8 creation season: LeBron James (eight times), Kevin Durant (five), Jordan (four), James Harden (three), Steph Curry (two) and one from Dwyane Wade, Gilbert Arenas, Isaiah Thomas (of Boston), Kawhi Leonard, Larry Bird and Tracy McGrady.

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