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Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 11/7/05


If, like me, you're a believer in analytical analysis and a fan of football, you've probably heard by now of FootballOutsiders.com. Along with my humble host's site, TwoMinuteWarning.com, FO has brought the statistical revolution to football.

Somewhat ironically, however, one of my favorite FO features has nothing to do with stats. Michael David Smith, borrowing from the game tape analysis coaches have used for decades, picks a game a week and focuses on a single player, single matchup or single unit in "Every Play Counts." Because the role of quarterbacks and running backs is usually so obvious and the statistics available to rate these players are useful, Smith stays away from these groups and instead focuses on non-skill positions at which statistical analysis is limited at best.

With Smith's blessing, I'm attempting to bring this same line of analysis to the NBA. In basketball, there are no "non-skill positions," but there is a distinction between offense and defense. The offensive statistics tracked by the NBA generally give us enough evidence to explain why players and teams are successful. The same is not true at the defensive end of the court. While steals and blocks are useful indicators - and perhaps even underrated because of the age-old lament that they do not adequately describe defensive performance - they fail to pick up most of why players and teams succeed or fail on D.

There are many ways to add information defensively, and most of them have come from this Web site. Player counterpart data, which is found on player pages, gives a rough idea of a player's individual defense. Dan Rosenbaum's defensive statistics are the most unbiased way of measuring how a player defends. In my opinion, however, the best way to rate a player defensively is to chart his or her defensive statistics - the inverse of the offensive player they are guarding's offensive statistics. This method, invented by Dean Oliver and detailed in Basketball On Paper, was used for an entire year in the WNBA, and I was one of the charters. Friend of the site Kevin Broom tracked defensive stats for the Washington Wizards last year, then turned that effort into an SI.com column. This year's advanced charting effort undertaken by this site will also collect these statistics.

I'm not looking to do anything this broad, but with a single player in a single game, I'll not only chart defensive statistics but also explain the "why" and "how" by studying the player defensively. A key to understanding defense is to start with how the team is scheming and what the player is asked to do. Without talking to coaches, this is difficult, but I'll do the best based on my observation.

(I should pause briefly to note I will in this series occasionally be looking at offense. How Rip Hamilton uses screens, for example, is a likely topic.)

For my first study, I chose to look at Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Bryant has a strong defensive reputation, including three selections to the All-Defense First Team. I've never quite bought into this reputation, however, and last year the Lakers were a better defensive team with Bryant on the bench. His counterpart PER, however, was quite good.

I TiVo'd Bryant's season opener against the Denver Nuggets. While this game will be remembered for Bryant's game-winning jumper in overtime, I will be focusing on his defense. Throughout most of the game, Bryant matched up with his Denver counterparts, starter Voshon Lenard and backup Greg Buckner.

Bryant is beaten for a Lenard score on the very first play of the game, but it isn't his fault. The Lakers double-team an Andre Miller-Carmelo Anthony pick-and-roll, and Kwame Brown recovers poorly. Bryant switches on to Anthony to cut his roll off, but Brown gets back slowly and then doubles Anthony, leaving Lenard open at the left elbow. Bryant has a good runout and contests the shot, but Lenard buries it anyway.

On Denver's next possession, Bryant overplays a pass to Lenard on the right wing beyond the 3-point line, deflecting it out of bounds. It's a high-risk, high-reward play that does little here.

On the Nuggets' third possession, Bryant earns a foul 25 feet away from the basket by aggressively bodying up Lenard. It's a foolish foul, but perhaps Bryant trying to set a physical tone against the shorter Lenard. Afterwards, the two jaw a little. A night later, Bryant will draw a technical foul after he bloodies Raja Bell's lip in a scuffle. Interesting.

Continuing an eventful first two minutes, the Nuggets screen for Lenard coming from the paint to the top of the key. Bryant is slow to react and goes under the pick and Lenard buries the jumper, giving him four early points.

A couple of plays later, Bryant again goes for the overplay on a pass to Lenard. This time he takes a greater risk by going inside. He misses the ball, giving Lenard a relatively uncontested look at a 3, which he misses.

The following Denver possession, Bryant anticipates a screen from Marcus Camby, at the elbow, for Lenard, on the right wing. He sits on Lenard's left shoulder (the direction in which the screen is coming). Lenard does exactly what a player should do in this situation, cutting to the basket for a feed from Miller. The Nuggets execute perfectly and Lenard hits a reverse layup with little interference from Bryant. Even after watching this play a couple of times, I'm still not sure how Bryant got beat so easily, though it does appear Lenard gave a subtle push-off to start his move. So far, the thing I'm most impressed with is Lenard's veteran savvy. He's 3-for-4 from the field for six points and all four looks have been good ones.

Give credit to Miller or Interim Nuggets Coach Scott Brooks (replacing a suspended George Karl); on the next possession, Denver runs the exact same play. Bryant has to hedge because of the threat of the backdoor cut. He actually does a tremendous job of fighting through Camby's screen and is in good position defensively, but a hot Lenard nails the 20-footer from just right of the key, giving him eight of his team's first 10 points.

Bryant's first All-Defense-caliber play comes with a little over six minutes left in the period. After missing a jumper, he heads back on D, then cheats up to plant in front of Miller, receiving an outlet pass. Miller travels while attempting to sidestep Bryant. Frankly, Miller should have just rammed into Bryant, who did not give him the requisite one step defenders are supposed to allow a player receiving a pass, but it was still a great forced turnover that won't show up in the box.

It's not Bryant's fault, but I have to remark on a horrible defensive play on a Nuggets inbound with 4:43 left in the first. The Lakers switch a pick in the paint, but Lamar Odom reacts at a snail's pace, forcing Devean George (guarding Anthony, the inbounder) to go out high on Lenard. Bryant steps up to defend the inbounder, leaving Eduardo Najera open for a dunk. Bryant should have stayed more on Najera, since Anthony wasn't a threat while out of bounds, but Odom's reaction blew this play up.

At the 3:20 mark, Bryant heads to the bench, his quarter over. He'll return to start the second, now matched on non-scorer Buckner. He doesn't show up in a play until less than five minutes are left in the half. In transition, Bryant pick up Miller but gives a rather half-hearted effort, allowing Miller to dribble into the lane. The Lakers help defense picks Bryant up, as rookie Andrew Bynum blocks the shot.

That's it for the first half. Bryant picks up a pair of offensive fouls on charges, giving him three for the game and sending him to the bench.

Early in the second half, Bryant gets badly beaten by Lenard. The Nuggets iso Lenard at the top of the key against Bryant, who overplays and goes for a steal on a spin move. Lenard gets a good look at a jumper just to the right of the free-throw line and nails it.

Just before the midway point of the third quarter, Bryant is called for his fourth personal foul while battling Lenard away from the ball. I can't say exactly what happened since the ball (and thus the camera) was still at halfcourt. Phil Jackson makes the risky decision to keep his superstar in the game.

Bryant leaves for good for the quarter with 4:37 left, but on the series before it there's a play that shows why he's got those All-Defense honors. He misses a shot from the left elbow and his defender (Lenard) leaks out. After challenging the outlet pass, Bryant hustles downcourt. Though Smush Parker did a poor job of staying back to defend the break, he does force Lenard into a reverse, which Bryant uses his athleticism to swat away. It's a great combination of hustle and pure ability.

Bryant returns for the fourth quarter, again matched up at both ends with Buckner. It feels like he's turned up his defensive intensity, and his help defense is much improved. In the first five minutes of the period, he helps force a Miller miss, gets good position for a defensive rebound and turns away a Miller fast break as the only defender back and set.

Other than shooting situations, Lenard won't see the court again in regulation, with the Nuggets opting for Buckner's defense over Lenard's offense. I'm not focusing on when the Lakers have the ball, but Buckner's D is subjectively very impressive (as is his reputation). While I certainly understand having Buckner in the game, I'm surprised the Nuggets let Bryant rest as much on defense as they do in the fourth quarter. Buckner almost never touches the ball and rarely even runs Bryant through screens.

In overtime, Lenard returns when Anthony fouls out, but the Lakers keep Bryant on Buckner. Earlier, Buckner gets a key offensive rebound when Bryant does a poor job of boxing out. The matchup changes when the Nuggets begin platooning Buckner on offense and defense. Bryant is matched up with Miller on a possession with a minute and a half left. Giving help on a screen-roll at the top of the key, Bryant strays too far from Miller, who is able to go baseline and draw a foul hitting both free throws.

With just under a minute left in OT, Bryant turns the ball over, but he atones for his mistake on defense, hustling back to block Marcus Camby's layup attempt in transition. What really impresses me is that he does it with his left, or off hand.

Bryant is back on Lenard with 37 seconds left as the Nuggets take possession, but is not tested. On the Lakers' subsequent possession, with the game tied at 97, Bryant hits the go-ahead jumper with 0.6 seconds left. But it would not be the game-winner were it not for Bryant's defense. With a chance to win, the Nuggets draw up a play for Lenard, defended by Bryant. Starting in the paint, Lenard comes off of a Kenyon Martin screen around the free-throw line and catches the ball beyond the 3-point line to the left of the top of the key. Usually, teams will switch all screens with so little time left on the clock, but the Lakers do not. Bryant fights through the screen, racing out at Lenard and getting within about six inches of his hand as Lenard releases the shot. It looks good, but rims out as Bryant goes to one knee to celebrate.

Before I draw any conclusions from what I saw, let me repeat Smith's standard caveat: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.

Bryant's final defensive line was fairly poor - 5-8.5 shooting (credit can be split between two players in Oliver's defensive system) with one forced turnover.

My subjective impression was much more mixed. Throughout the game, I was impressed by Bryant's combination of size and agility. It allows him to make spectacular plays like his pair of blocks, but also has the more subtle effect of allowing him to cheat off of his man and still recover effectively. Bryant is also an intelligent player who knows how to use his God-given skills.

At the same time, there's a reason this feature is called "Every Play Counts." Defense is about more than making one or two big plays. Bryant's risk-taking can be harmful for his team. I also feel he coasted a bit on defense, especially in terms of coming down in transition D, when he often would hang back and take the trailer. This in particular could be how Phil Jackson wants Bryant to play, and it's also true that if Bryant has to take a play or two off, you want him to do it on defense.

What I saw certainly doesn't make Bryant a bad defender, but - based on this limited sample size - he looked nothing like an All-Defensive team member. Bryant wasn't even the best defender at his position on the court in this game, that being Denver's Buckner. Psychologists speak of the "halo effect," which theorizes that when someone is good at one thing, we overestimate their ability at others. I think there's an element of this at play in Bryant making the All-Defense team. On pure defensive value, I don't think Bryant can stand with specialists like Bruce Bowen or Trenton Hassell.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA.
He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com

Also see Kevin's previous columns for 82games.com:
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason


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