It has been a long time. We, at Sports: by Stats, have been incredibly busy with our day jobs. Nonetheless, we are back for the playoffs, and in full force. Not to spoil things, however, expect a new medium of discussion to launch prior to Saturday’s games. Nevertheless, on to the purpose of this article.
Kobe is done. After last night’s game he is no longer a player in the National Basketball Association. In a season where Golden State and San Antonio have been historically great teams, the East has finally become competitive and talented, LeBron broke a litany of records, and Russell Westbrook has been a triple-double machine, Kobe’s retirement is perhaps the biggest story.
Before analyzing the game, I feel it important to post a portion of my article regarding Kobe from February 10, 2016.
As constant readers of the blog will know, I am a rather large fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers. This stems from being born in Cleveland, Ohio and meeting LeBron James during his senior year of high school. Nevertheless, I have always considered myself an NBA fan over a Cavs fan. Hence why tonight’s game against Kobe Bryant is so important, and more than anything, meaningful to me.
When I was a young child, and started watching the NBA, rooting for the Cavs was a fool’s errand. Unless your kid is a narcissist, Shawn Kemp and Lamond Murray don’t generate much excitement. Fortunately for me, Phil Jackson’s Lakers had exhilaration abounds. Consequently, from 1999-2004 (when Shaq left the Lakers) I was a Lakers fan. And while I slowly moved to becoming a Cavs fan, the Lakers – even over the past few miserable seasons – have always had a place in my heart.
Worth noting, my mom totally joined the bandwagon. I vividly remember her taking me to my first NBA game in 2001 when the Lakers beat the Cavs by roughly two possessions. I can’t say we were disappointed. I did wear a Cavs shirt, however, I had my Shaq jersey on over it.
Overall, when I first started watching basketball I was on “team-Shaq.” It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching Kobe play – I absolutely did – but that Shaq’s game was simpler, more physically dominant, and easier to understand. As I’ve aged and developed a more nuanced understanding of the sport, though, I’ve realized what makes Kobe so legendary. In many ways, Kobe’s game is like a fine wine compared to Shaq’s Dogfish 120.
Now, with my history as a Kobe fan presented, let’s first briefly reviewing the game. The Lakers beat the Jazz 101-96. The Lakers rallied from behind and held the Jazz scoreless the last 2:36 of gametime. Overall, it was frankly meaningless. The Lakers are having what is arguably their worst season in franchise history. Meanwhile, Utah learned roughly twenty minutes before the game began that they were disqualified from playoff contention. Nothing to see here.
I’m joking, of course. For as meaningless as this game was on the surface, it was Kobe’s last game, and it was classic mamba. He scored sixty points on fifty shots, had a 60.5% usage rate, and a 54% true shooting percentage. More importantly, during the last 6:18 of the game, Kobe scored or assisted on every Lakers’ basket, allowing them to make a successful comeback. This was classic mamba, and he went out playing like he has the past twenty years, inefficient, ball dominant, and clutch.
Clutch. That’s a really interesting phrase. Kobe has defined clutch his entire career. People utilize holistic stats to show that, throughout his career, he has not been as reliable in late game situations as touted. I am here to tell you that is hogwash. Comparing Kobe Bryant’s 2008-09 playoffs with other great guards/wings that have won Finals MVP is telling. With three minutes or less remaining, in playoff clutch situations, Kobe has the highest net rating – yes, even higher than Michael Jordan or LeBron – in these situations. Let’s look below:
Figure 1 Stats via NBA.Com's Stats Page
In the most meaningful games, Kobe Bryant is the best clutch wing of the past two decades. Last night’s game is a sign of that. During yesterday’s pre-game, Shaquille O’Neal claimed that Kobe is “the greatest Laker ever.” I have not lived long-enough to substantiate that claim. But, no question, Kobe Bryant is the greatest player of his generation and greatest Laker of my lifetime.
Now, many analysts contend that Kobe’s numbers are inflated from playing with great players, and further, suggest Kobe was not making meaningful baskets during these clutch movements. One common game that is pointed to is Game 7 against the Celtics in 2010. He had twenty-three points on twenty-four shots. It was incredibly inefficient. Yet, he had fifteen rebounds, played stifling defense, and made clutch free throws as well as the game winning assist to Ron Artest. Thus, what made Kobe so clutch was not just his shooting, but his holistic play throughout games. Kobe Bryant was not just a shooter, not just a scorer, not just a five-time member of the NBA all-defensive first, but was a fifteen-time member of all-NBA teams. He was special.
Moving on to where the Lakers should go from here, it is not all gloomy. True, much of the Lakers’ future is dependent on tiny pieces of plastic. If the lottery does not go well they will end up with no draft pick. Essentially, the Lakers need to land in the top-three picks, if they do not, the Sixers will obtain the Lakers’ first rounder this season.
Nevertheless, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson all look like promising young players. They have all improved as the year has gone on. It remains to be seen how the three can grow together without Kobe’s shadow, and that is something we hope to see next season. What the Lakers must focus on now, though, is finding players that are currently in their athletic prime. Currently, they have Lou Williams, Nick Young (who, according to a source, will almost assuredly be traded), D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Anthony Brown on contract for next season. More than likely they will re-sign Clarkson as well.
Assuming Nick Young is traded, that means they have six players, and nine empty spots. Not to mention a vacancy at the head coaching position. The Lakers need to be careful about filling these openings, and should focus on bring in mid-career players that can grow with the team’s youth. If I were their General Manager, my top target would be DeMar DeRozan (as I have written about previously), but truthfully anyone that can help should be courted.
Kobe’s retirement will consequently be followed by another two seasons of mediocre basketball in the yellow side of Los Angeles. Here is to hoping the youth develop fast and the Lakers can taste playoffs once again sometime soon. The team should model their future off of a Kobe quote: “I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success. Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.”