Saturday, October 25, 2008

For Love...For Honor...For Kobe

In Bill Simmons' first ever fantasy basketball preview column, unleashed Friday, he ranks Kobe Bryant only number six on his list of most eligible fantasy baller's (Bryant is generally considered a top three pick) - and goes on to explain why it might not be the greatest idea to build your imaginary team around Mamba this year. He goes through a lot of potential hazards: Kobe's considerable milage; his decrease in athletic explosiveness and the lack of a fallback option to combat it, a la MJ with the latter-day power post game/turnaround fallaway; potential on-court chemistry issues (not enough shots to go around, clogged middle); his pinkie. I'm not even going to get into all of those things - I'll save it for another day, another piece. This post is going to be long enough.

Simmons wrote something six months ago that stuck in my craw a little ever since - now, he's mentioned it again, and for my own sanity, my own piece of mind, I must delve deeper into it, and disprove it to the public.

In recent times I have become almost neutral regarding Kobe Bryant the Man. But that feeling of indifference does not extend to my fervent support and defense of Kobe Bryant the Basketball Player. As a diehard Lakers fan, I feel the same way about 24 that Simmons feels about Larry Bird or Michael Wilbon feels about Michael Jordan. So when the Sports Guy attacked Kobe's reputation for utter individual dominance last June by typing that he struggled against bigger defenders, it actually hurt my feelings. Simmons said that these types of defensive players served as Kobe's "kryptonite" flaw - nonsense, as far as I was concerned. Maybe he had his troubles against historically great team defenses, but to state that any type of single defender could have an advantage over him in a strictly player-to-player match-up...I was affected by that.

Still, I just let it simmer - until 'ol Simmy referenced it again in the fantasy hoops column - and well, I've got to get it off my chest. What can I say? It bothers me.


In the initial column, posted between games five and six of last year's NBA Finals, Simmons wrote:

"Boy, Kobe sure seems to have trouble scoring on these Shane Battier/Paul Pierce types, doesn't he? If someone's a little bigger than him, stays between him and the basket and has the reach to contest his jumper, and if that person is flanked by smart defenders who remain aware of what Kobe is doing at all times, it sure seems Kobe has trouble getting the shots he likes. Not to belabor the point because it's a moot discussion at this point, but MJ didn't have a "kryptonite" flaw. He just didn't. Of everyone from the '90s, John Starks probably defended him the best ... and it's not like Starks was shutting him down or anything. He just made MJ work a little harder for the points he was getting anyway. The point is, Jordan did whatever he wanted during a much more physical era, and when he faced great defensive teams -- like the '89 and '90 Pistons or the '93 Knicks -- nobody ever shackled him or knocked him into a scoring funk. Kobe? He looks a little lost offensively against the Celtics. It's true. Same for the 2004 Finals against Tayshaun Prince, another lanky defensive player with a good reach. Just remember to mention this on his NBA tombstone some day."

The Battier reference likely stemmed from an ABC televised game in mid-March between the Lakers and Rockets in Houston, when Battier held Bryant to 24 points on 11-of-33 shooting in a 104-92 Rockets win. And obviously, Pierce did an excellent job on Bryant at times in the championship series last June.

Then, Friday, Simmons wrote of the Lakers that "their best lineup remains Fisher and Vujacic at the guards, Kobe at the 3, and Gasol with Odom or Bynum up front ... which allows opponents to defend Kobe with bigger players and opens the door for more spotty offensive efforts from Kobe like what we witnessed in the 2008 Finals."

And I could no longer stop myself from addressing this maddening assertion.

When I did my research for my statistical analysis, I tried to study game logs ( - the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be) in which Bryant played against teams with great perimeter defenders, or so-called "stoppers," who 1) are listed at at least 6-7 (an inch taller than Kobe is listed at) and 2) I can specifically remember being assigned to guard him on a regular basis.

These are Kobe's career numbers (regular season only) versus the five players whom I felt met my qualifications:

v. Battier: 25 gms, 249-585 FGM-A, 23.5 FGAPG, 42.5 FG%, 29.2 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 3 50-pt gms

v. Prince: 9 gms, 69-158 FGM-A, 17.6 FGAPG, 43.7 FG%, 25.4 PPG, 1 40-pt gm

v. Andrei Kirilenko: 20 gms, 203-423 FGM-A, 21.2 FGAPG, 48.0 FG%, 33.5 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 1 50-pt gm

v. Josh Howard: 17 gms, 176-379 FGM-A, 22.3 FGAPG, 46.2 FG%, 33.7 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 1 50-pt gm, 1 60-pt gm

v. Ron Artest (although Artest is listed at 6-7, he and Kobe appear to be the same height - you know, Kobe used to be listed at 6-7, when he had his afro - whatever, this isn't an exact science, I included him anyway): 20 gms, 162-350 FGM-A, 17.5 FGAPG, 46.3 FG%, 27.8 PPG, 1 40-pt gm

Total: 91 gms, 859-1895 FGM-A, 20.8 FGAPG, 45.3 FG%, 29.3 PPG, 11 40-pt gms, 5 50-pt gms, 1 60-pt gm

Career numbers: 866 gms, 7456-16450 FGM-A, 19.0 FGAPG, 45.3 FG%, 25.0 PPG, 92 40-pt gms, 23 50-pt gms, 4 60-pt gms

What do these numbers show us?

Well, for one, obviously, Battier does a better job on Kobe than any of our variables (I'm a scientist now). After offering little resistance to Kobe his first four seasons in the league (Bryant averaged 25.5 points on 45.7% shooting against Battier in their fourteen matchups from 2002-2005 - including the game in Shane's rookie year where Kobe scored 56 points in three quarters and then sat out the fourth), Battier has become an extremely legitimate Mamba foil: since the 2006 campaign, Battier has held Bryant to 39.9% shooting in eleven contests - 33.1 points on 28.6 shots per game. Only once in those eight games has Bryant shot above 50%.

Then again, Bryant has had games of 53, 53, and 45 against Battier since Battier joined Houston in 2006-07 - albeit on a combined 114 shots and a pedestrian 43.0% shooting.

Overall, it would seem that Battier has taken the mantle from Bruce Bowen as the John Starks to Kobe's MJ - to paraphrase Simmons, he guards him better than anyone else, but it's not like he's shutting him down or anything; he's just making him work harder for the points he's getting regardless.

Against Prince, Bryant doesn't take many shots. On top of that one 40-points game, he has had two 39-point efforts. Other than that, there's nothing to it. Nothing sticks out.

What seems more accurate than Simmons' claim is the notion that Bryant simply ran into two all-time great defenses in those two championship series, and more importantly, two units that predicated all of their potential success on their ability to stop him and him only, and game planned accordingly. And I don't think he was prepared either time. He had thoroughly dominated the postseason last year up until the series with Boston, so even though the Celtics defense had thwarted him in their two regular season matchups, I'm sure he wasn't expecting anything resembling that kind of struggle.

He had also been the dominant player in the 2004 playoffs (although not as brilliant as last year), and he certainly wasn't ready for that Pistons ambush (not to mention the fact that he made things harder on himself by playing so selfishly and effectively playing right into their hands).

Both times, it appeared as though he had walked blindly into a blizzard snowstorm, without the necessary survival skills.

And I know we've been conditioned to think that MJ was literally infallible, but if anybody really thinks MJ just walked all over those great Pistons and Knicks defenses like he did everyone else - well, you need to hit up, check out some box scores.

Anyways, as far as Simmons' idea that bigger defenders are Kobe's Achilles heel - I would conclude that that appears to be a matter of feeling and seeming, rather than actual being.

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