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Monday, May 14th, 2012 at 12:07 pm  |  37 responses

Hunger Games

Finding motivation in places perhaps only MJ knew existed, Kobe Bryant just keeps on shooting (and entertaining).

SLAM 158 is only on sale for another few days, so if you’ve yet to, be sure to pick it up on newsstands ASAP. Below is one of the four (!) cover stories—a Kobe Bryant feature, written by our man Myles Brown. Enjoy.

by Myles Brown | @mdotbrown

It was a balmy March day in Minneapolis, but Kobe Bryant was still ice cold. After consecutive losses to the lowly Wizards and Pistons in which he converted only 17 of a combined 57 attempts, Bryant found the rims in the Target Center to be just as unforgiving. Seven of his first 10 shots missed their mark, and Los Angeles trailed the upstart Timberwolves by a dozen after one quarter.

After the Lakers inevitably clawed their way back into the contest, Bryant had the ball again with five minutes remaining. Posted up 15 feet from the basket, he cleared space from his defender with one arm and caught an entry pass with the other. He faked right for a sliver of space, before spinning left, fading back and firing. No surprise, he made it.

A minute later, Kobe posted up on the opposite block. A swift reverse pivot forced his defender to inch back, leaving the baseline open and Bryant exploded toward the rim for a violent dunk. With that, Los Angeles seized the lead and would not look back. Some timely baskets from the Wolves added some suspense, yet their efforts were denied again by Kobe, who casually sank four free throws to seal a road victory. Home fans and bandwagoners alike left the arena convinced they’d witnessed the inevitable: a man without peer, invoking his will as he pleased.

For a career as embattled as the 33-year-old Bryant’s, it’s strange to consider that he’s never had a rival. Yes, there have been feuds, yet no opponent has continually stood between him and greatness. There was no Bird to his Magic, no Wilt to his Russell, not even a Drexler to his Jordan. There’s just been Kobe, left to battle with his own demons, which may or may not even exist depending on your opinion of the man. Over the past few seasons, though, the cognoscenti have found a new foe to stare Kobe down every night: numbers.

The era of advanced statistics dawned on the basketball world some time ago, and they are now considered invaluable to a franchise’s decision making. Synergy Sports and StatsCube are bookmarked by both fans and media, while terms such as PER and True Shooting Percentage have littered the lexicon. There will always be concerns that such a fluid sport can’t be properly encapsulated by these statistics, but it’s clear that they’re here to stay. It’s also clear that these numbers aren’t always fond of Kobe.

Sports will always have its clichés and superlatives. We can only hope to contain some players. The greatest players are assassins, ice water flowing through their veins, etc and so on. Kobe has benefited from these phrases. They’re breathlessly uttered during every fourth quarter that builds his legend. According to practically every “clutch” statistic available, however, KobeTime exists in name only.

From 2003 to 2008, prime years for the shooting guard, Bryant attempted 56 clutch shots (five minutes or less, neither team leading by more than five). Of course, countless shoe commercials, magazine covers and highlight reels would lead us to believe Kobe made damn near every one of those shots. In actuality, he made 14, just four more than Ricky Davis, who took 28 such shots. Furthermore, according to the data, Bryant hasn’t made a “clutch” shot in the Playoffs since 2008.

Even more damning is his usage rate. Whether by a field-goal attempt, a free-throw attempt or a turnover, a player’s usage rate calculates the percentage of possessions “used” while on the court. Though currently resting at 37.22 (5 points higher than Russell Westbrook, the League’s second-highest rate), earlier this season, Bryant’s usage rate was an unfathomable 39.9, easily the highest of his career or any other player to ever set foot in the NBA.

Granted, a lockout, a new coach and significant roster turnover have led Kobe to assume a yeoman’s workload, but mainstays Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have alternately watched in awe and annoyance as he continues to heave. Their subtle mentions of trust and ball movement may be revealing, or even reminiscent of yesteryear when Kobe’s shot selection was frequently called into question, however now they’re little more than sound bites. The numbers are unbiased and unforgiving, and according to critics, the numbers speak for themselves.

So what does Kobe think of advanced statistics? Well, after silencing the Wolves, Bryant told us exactly what you’d expect.

“That’s a load of shit.”

Wait, all of it?

“I learned from a man that’s won Championships over and over and over again that he never paid attention to that nonsense. It was all about a feel for the game and the timing of things and the momentum of things that was vastly more important than statistical data.”

Thing is, he’s right. Basketball is a game of snap decisions and every possession requires a player to live in the moment, not in the past or on a spreadsheet. Proponents of advanced stats will counter that the data is merely a reflection of those decisions; that personal improvement or insight into an opponent’s tendencies can be gleaned from them. Bryant’s ethos, however, is strikingly simple: He always believes his next shot is going in.

He’s not the only one who thinks so, either. Kobe annually tops the League’s GM Survey as the most clutch player, and faithful legions of fans will gladly retweet those sentiments. The numbers still loom large, though. How can they be wrong? Does this mean we’re willfully living in denial? Is he? Even the video can’t lie. He earns our respect by making tough shots, but aren’t many of them bad?

That depends on whom you ask. Look at what coaches run in clutch moments—not only the Lakers, but the entire League. There aren’t many fluid or inclusive sets, if only because they’re too easy to disrupt. Instead, we get the hero, dribbling out the clock before attempting the impossible. In their minds, it’s safer. The alpha dog nature of late-game playcalling may rankle critics, but our Pavlovian response to buzzers demands it.

There are no simple answers anymore, only opposing needs and desires. Kobe wants to win. This is inarguable. Kobe also wants to win his way. Problem is, when the Lakers are mentioned as title favorites, the primary reason isn’t Kobe—it’s the frontcourt. At times, though, Kobe seems to struggle with that notion. Bynum and Gasol can occasionally appear pensive, sluggish or unfocused, even with the ball. Besides, deference conflicts with Kobe’s drive to be the best: an admirable ambition that many Laker faithful have accepted, even when it leads him astray. For Kobe, it’s an attitude borne of preternatural ability and competitiveness, yet more importantly, a viewership enamored with legend making.

Which brings us to the mask. Kobe tore ligaments in his wrist during the preseason. Those arthritic fingers of his were still there, the aging knees, too. They’re never going away, so he ignores them, just as he does each new injury. Then he goes on a rampage to prove he’s fine. January’s streak of four straight 40-point games was little more than a yearly checkup. Kobe certainly deserved commendation just for making the All-Star team, but the fact that we shrugged off his broken nose and concussion sustained during the game is a testament to the standard he’s set for himself.

Of course, Bryant passed all tests in accordance with the League’s concussion policy and promptly dropped 30 in three straight victories. Then came those unfortunate visits to Detroit and Washington, followed by five more victories. Greatness has its ebb and flow; greatness in its 16th season will have more than a few off nights. That being said, the Lakers’ winning streak was snapped the next game, as Kobe shot 3-20. Once again, there we were after the buzzer, shaking our heads disapprovingly as though he’d broken curfew and crashed the minivan.

Chastising Kobe is part of the viewing experience. Whether it’s for perceived crimes against the game, his teammates, the public or simply because someone else is more endearing, a red X covers his face in the instruction manual of How to Win Hearts and Minds. Yet his continued success and increasingly convincing disregard for approval reinforce the truth: “Hero ball” may not appease any antiquated sense of the game’s principles, but it’s directly applicable to the bottom line. It’s what we pay to see.

If Michael Jordan taught us anything, it’s that how you win matters as much  as winning itself. He was hell-bent on disproving the notion that a scoring champion couldn’t win a ring. He dared opponents to stop him in the waning seconds, even when they knew what was coming. As the ball settled through the net to the applause of millions, his clenched fist and flexed forearm left no doubt as to the will that coursed through his veins. (The statistically inclined would remind us that Jordan didn’t actually win a Championship until he learned how to share, but if pressed, they’d also admit this supposed change happened more in narrative than in practice.) Michael took on any and every challenge, and we loved him for it. But the moment he left, we began our search for another.

Kobe has faithfully followed this model for good or ill. Yet Jordan often took those shots as a matter of necessity; Scottie  Pippen was a timeless talent, but he wasn’t 7-1 or 300 pounds. It’s more difficult for Kobe to plead hardship with an All-Star at center for most of his career. On those nights Bryant performs poorly yet still emerges victorious, many of us are all too tempted to dismiss him with the refrain of, “He can’t do it alone.” Regardless of whether this is true, or even logical, he has still accepted the challenge. Whether we admit it or not, we wanted him to.

Any given night, if he shoots and fails, his role as villain and pariah remains intact. If he succeeds, we might see something we’ll never witness again. If he feeds the post and the Lakers still lose, it’s time to shoot again. No other player has been alternately mocked and praised over the course of their career. No other player has such a singular mindset. This probably isn’t coincidence.

So let’s forget his numbers. They’ll never fully shift the narrative, dull his image or reshape his legacy. They may indeed hold the keys to victory, but they also miss the point. The platitudes of teamwork, dedication and sacrifice are for children; what we really want is to be entertained. We thirst for iconic performances; signature moments of athletic excellence that make our eyes bulge and time stand still. Passing may be the right thing to do, but as LeBron can attest, it’s not always what we want to see. Kobe’s way isn’t always the best way, but win or lose, it is the most fun.

In that sense, while Kobe may be indulging himself, he’s also indulging us.

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  • http://cnbc.com JTaylor21

    There’s a difference between the myth and the man.

  • http://gmail.com z

    excellent article. Requires a little bit of genuine introspection on the part of the reader/viewer

  • jay cutler

    Tremendous article. A few Kobe lovers will be here frothing at the lips because you included some criticism but keep your head up. You included an uncommon balance in perspective by noting that the tallied statistics simply disconfirm the apotheosized myth of Mr Bryant. He’s great, but people desperately want to believe he’s God on the basketball court.

  • http://slamonline.com nbk

    This is really good Myles.

  • Jesse

    My only argument about having the 7 footers and how that is “easier” to defer to is a simple “yes and no.” Yes, during the game it is easier to post a guy up over and over and let him punish the other team. On the flip side, it’s also easy to throw doubles and triples at a post guy over and over because most post guys are incapable of getting their own shots. In the final seconds, which much of this “clutch” talk is all about, it’s much easier for a wing to get his own shot than it is for a post player. Plus, many of these great post players are poor free throw shooters. For the final 15 seconds or so, in my opinion, a team would have a better chance of getting a great shot off with two dynamic wing players, like Pip and Jordan, than with a talented wing and a big center. That’s not true for the entire game, but it’s true for a final shot type set up.

  • DRon

    Drexler was as much a rival of Jordan as Pierce is to Kobe.

  • http://www.google.com/imgres?q=brian+scalabrine&um=1&hl=en&sa=N&biw=712&bih=572&tbm=isch&tbnid=paNXJ6FIB-hVJM:&imgrefurl=http://www.2ksports.ca/2012/04/30/brian-scalabr LakeShow

    Wow, great read. Thank you Myles.

  • bdogg

    i would say drexler and harper…later in jordan’s career as per his 2nd 3-peat thou much younger i would say a young penny and ghill but for the most part drexler..harper when he was a cav early in his career but for the most part drexler as best 2-guard. a little reggie and due to match ups in the playoffs starks to and extend but not in terms of best shooting guard in the league.
    as per kobe it was initially tmac as who is the best wing…kobe or tmac…kobe clearing took the mantle…i would say ray allen to an extent ..maybe you throw in AI but clearing kobe was chasing the ghost of the GOAT!

  • Paul

    “From 2003 to 2008, prime years for the shooting guard, Bryant attempted 56 clutch shots (five minutes or less, neither team leading by more than five). Of course, countless shoe commercials, magazine covers and highlight reels would lead us to believe Kobe made damn near every one of those shots. In actuality, he made 14, just four more than Ricky Davis, who took 28 such shots. Furthermore, according to the data, Bryant hasn’t made a “clutch” shot in the Playoffs since 2008.” That is inaccurate data, I just checked. Where are you pulling this out from?

  • http://slamonline.com nbk

    he meant a legitimate rival. Not just some good player that he went against. When Jordan met Drexler in the finals in 92 people were legitimately questioning who the best 2 in the league was (really shouldn’t have been, but people were). Jordan was the unquestioned top SG every year before Washington after that series, he never had another rival.
    .
    Kobe had Iverson though. Even though Iverson was as much a PG as SG, he was Kobe’s competition as the best in the league. McGrady was a similar talent on a non-contender. Ray Allen had one big scoring season, but he never was in the best overall conversation.

  • Heals

    DRon, not sure which way you’re going with that (can guess though). Funny I don’t remember Clyde being named Finals MVP in series in which his team beat MJ’s. Of course PP34 isn’t on Kob’s level, but don’t brush it off like Mamba’s shht don’t stink. Do you JT21; CP3, KG, TD, etc. all search those same places. As did Bird, Magic, Isiah, etc. before them. Kobe and MJ are not the dynamic duo of finding motivation/wanting to win, this myth needs to stop being perpetuated in the fashion it is (and has been)…

  • KB

    die-hard kobe fan here – what a great article!!

    took a topic that’s been dealt with before, but tackled it with a different perspective that i hadn’t read elsewhere.

    loved it

  • rand33p

    according to some “stats” he hasn’t hit a clutch playoff shot since 2008? haha What about the shots against phoenix in the conference finals? among others..

  • rand33p

    nbk – kobe has had rivals AT THE TIME… not in hindsight .. dudes couldn’t hang with him.. same way Jordan had no real true rival (the way Bird had Magic etc.) … but that doesn’t mean anything anyway lol

  • http://slamonline.com nbk

    Do you people not know what Myles meant by Rivals? You can’t call someone he he never played a rival. That doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Kobe played Iverson in the finals. And he played Reggie in the finals. He never had even one memorable series against Ray Allen as his teams main guy. McGrady was not the same player, and wasn’t even playing in the series against Bryant. You could make an argument for Paul Pierce, but Pierce didn’t guard Kobe, and Kobe didn’t guard Pierce. And they didn’t really “duel” – so there really isn’t an argument for them as “rivals” — Jordan and Drexler went into the 92 series as “rivals,” that whole entire season was a debate as to who the “best SG in the league was” (again, it shouldn’t have been that way, but it was). The Finals was marketed as Jordan vs Drexler, not the Bulls vs the Blazers. And Myles does acknowledge that Jordan/Drexler wasn’t much of a rivalry anyway, “not even a Drexler to his Jordan.” – See the “not even” – that means it wasn’t really much of a rivalry, even though some considered it one.

  • http://www.joshponeill.com Josh

    Fantastic article. Honest and insightful. Love it.

  • Heals

    To add onto nbk’s sentiments, a big part of it is media coverage and the ability of fans to access all team’s games. In their day MJ and Clyde were more comparative than Kob’s counterparts because of how we watched the game, how they played the game, how the game was covered and where the game was going. Some folks need to fire up a copy of Bulls vs Blazers (92′?)…

  • Travis

    This article is wrong. By that I mean there are literally factual errors.
    This paragraph for instance;

    From 2003 to 2008, prime years for the shooting guard, Bryant attempted 56 clutch shots (five minutes or less, neither team leading by more than five). Of course, countless shoe commercials, magazine covers and highlight reels would lead us to believe Kobe made damn near every one of those shots. In actuality, he made 14, just four more than Ricky Davis, who took 28 such shots. Furthermore, according to the data, Bryant hasn’t made a “clutch” shot in the Playoffs since 2008.

    You’re really going to tell me Kobe hasn’t hit a shot while his team was up or down five with 5 minutes left in the past three seasons? Because that’s what the article is telling everyone.

    I’m going to assume you’re mixing to sets of ‘clutch’ data. The values in the beginning of the paragraph, up or down 5 with less than 5 minutes left and then the values of the recent piece of crap done by Henry Abbott at ESPN, lead within 2, less than 24 seconds left.

    Using the data, up or down 5 with less than 5 minutes less, Kobe hit a shot Saturday that would fall under that criteria.

  • http://slamonline.com Myles Brown

    Sigh.

  • http://www.kb24.com The Seed

    Article is all right, Kobe has five rings, but his way of winning has not worked. Kobe has been named the player of the Decade by every major magazine and SI and others. Kobe has done what no other player has. He has been in the league 16 years and still is consider the clutches and every GM wants him taking the last shot. Kobe has done it, his way and it has worked. BOOK IT!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.l.brewer3 BlackPhantom

    One of the best articles I’ve read about Kobe….hell, probably the best.

  • http://www.kb24.com The Seed

    ^^^You need to read more articles about Kobe, calling him not clutch from 2003-2008 is not even true. . Kobe’s way isn’t always the best way, but win or lose, it is the most fun, but he has five rings. Man I need to write for Slam.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.l.brewer3 BlackPhantom

    He didn’t say he wasn’t clutch, he just provided statistics that would obviously make you ASSUME he’s saying that 03-08 Kobe wasn’t clutch, Seed.

  • Heals

    “Man I need to write for SLAM,” sigh…

  • Mark

    Great piece.

    I’d just point out that Kobe’s never won a playoff series without Shaq or Pau. Forget winning a championship, dude can’t win a playoff series without an elite big man.

  • Jerome

    This article was written near the end of the season. Probably needed to be pitched in February. Great fundamentals and follow through Myles. They know not what they criticize. Same could be said for Kobe, i guess.

  • Justin G.

    nbk, I don’t think anyone was legitimately questioning who was the better 2 guard between Jordan and Drexler. People were saying their stats were similar but nobody was actually saying Drexler was better. NBC liked to do that a lot when searching out a storyline for a series. All that did was make Jordan go off for 35 in the first half while sitting out the first six minutes of the second quarter. The only other small issue I’d have is the whole “rivals” thing. Whether two guys guard each other is irrelevant. Magic didn’t guard Bird and vice versa but they were most assuredly rivals.

  • Zabbah

    Nice read. I mean it, I’m a Kobe hater and I enjoyed this insight into the man. There are a lot of ppl here getting pissed over the number of clutch shots Kobe took during 2003-2008. I’m too lazy to fact check it but could someone post a link that either proves it’s right or wrong so we can end this debate?

  • Sammy

    I loved it thanks Myles.

  • Conoro

    Neither could Jordan until Pippen. It’s called having a secondary basketball talent.

  • http://www.triplejunearthed.com/dacre Dacre

    Beautifully constructed Myles. This is like a gourmet meal on paper (well virtual paper…?). The layers, the structure and the depth. Every sentence and thought in it’s place.

    Sports in general and basketball specifically offer us the height of riches and the depths of despair. We live vicariously through the successes and failures of our chosen teams/favourite players and impugned nemesis’.
    The addition of statistics to support or undo the value we place on said player and teams (according to need) adds further weight to this parallel universe we enter.

    This article encapsulated this for me Myles. Reading pieces like this is why I love basketball.

  • http://inmotion jon

    just 56 shots with 5 minutes left in games (with a score within 5 points) over 6 years? 82 games in a season, not counting playoffs. Are you serious? Kobe takes more (of these) shots than this in a year. How many NBA games are within 5 points in the last 5 minutes? Kobe’s usage rate is always over 30%, and in the last 5 minutes of close games? It must be pushing 50%. How many times do you remember him passing in the last 5 minutes in those years? These numbers are SERIOUSLY flawed. There’s no way it’s not at LEAST ten times this amount.

  • white mamba

    the most over rated player of all time. winning with arguably the most dominating center of all time, playing second banana. and playing with the best front court in the nba all the time. not to mention his team being the most expensive roster wise which means the team is very stacked.

  • http://slamonline.com raylan

    This is really good! Hope to read more articles from Myles.

  • jay

    Max Airington FTW!

  • DerekG

    @ Mark…we can look at it as neither Shaq nor Pau won without Kobe too and Shaq had Penny before injuries!

  • DerekG

    White MAMBA calling out Kobe! LMAO!!!!

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