Much of the discussion surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers this season has been the poor play of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers’ legend has quite clearly had a miserable year, shooting career low percentages at a high volume. Over the last six games he has played, however, Bryant has had a marked improvement in his overall play. The shooting guard is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and contributing elsewhere as well. So what is behind Kobe’s sudden change of play? Let’s dig into some numbers to attempt to figure it out.
Over his last six games, Bryant has shot a phenomenal 48.9 percent from the field, including a solid 36.4 percent mark from behind the three point line. In that time Bryant is actually scoring more while taking two fewer shots per game (fewer than 15 per game). That is a solid number to be around, letting Bryant keep defenses honest without hijacking the offense. However, taking only two fewer shots in this stretch pretty clearly is not the only reason for an improved shooting percentage, though it probably has at least a slight contribution. Similarly, Bryant is playing only one fewer minute per game in that stretch, not enough to have a significant impact on his shooting.
One of the main changes in Bryant’s game has been the locations from where he’s shot the ball. In these past six games, Bryant has attempted 62.4 percent of his attempts from within the three point line, a fairly significant change from a 57.5 percent distribution over the course of the year. Bryant, who has never been a fantastic three point shooter in his career pretty clearly made it a point of emphasis to chuck threes early in the season. That experiment did not work, as evidenced by his poor shooting splits. In this short stretch, he has balanced the three point shooting more effectively, still taking them at a high rate (which can be a positive if he is hitting them at a decent rate) but not going overboard.
Another development that has contributed to Bryant’s improved shooting has been his search for better shots. Bryant’s season numbers have him shooting an absurd 11 percent of his attempts against very tight defense (meaning the defender was between zero to two feet from Kobe) and 50 percent of his attempts against tight defense (defender within two to four feet). Both of those are incredibly high shot distributions in situations where success is limited; Bryant has had a 34.9 percent and 38.5 percent effective field goal percentage, respectively, on those attempts. In the last six games, however, Bryant has reduced those numbers by a decent amount. 6.8 percent of Bryant’s attempts have come against very tight defense while 42 percent have come against tight defense. The latter number is still too high, despite Bryant somehow holding a 54.1 effective field goal percentage in that stretch. Nevertheless, the change is a promising one that has seemingly led to some success.
The changes that have occurred in Bryant’s game have come so suddenly and drastically. Some of it has been his own conscious decision to change up his game, as evidenced by his lower shot attempts. Some of it has come as a result of a slight change in the offensive structure of the team. That including running more pick and rolls with the ball in the hands of their young guards, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell, and letting them create shot opportunities for themselves and for others. That has led to more open shots for Bryant, as well as opportunities where he catches the ball with an off-balance defender closing out, allowing him to drive to the rim to get an even better look – displayed in full on the dunk heard ‘round the world.
Bryant will almost surely regress. The shooting percentage he is currently putting up is not sustainable at his age. But it is not completely improbable that with better decision making and having now found his legs, Bryant could maintain some level of increased competence and ability. While Bryant’s poor play has been detrimental to the team in the first quarter of the season, the new and improved Bryant could do the exact opposite. Having a proven scorer who is no longer a liability on both ends of the floor can go a long way in easing the pressure on the Lakers’ young players. That depends, of course, on how the Lakers choose to play their aging legend – as the focal point of the offense and a safety valve, or as an integral part of the actual flow of the offense, playing within the action created by the playmakers on the floor. The best option is clear, but it has not always been the option this team has chosen.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com