By: Jamal Salmon
News that Mike D’Antoni will now be assigning Kobe Bryant the top perimeter defensive assignments each night brought Bryant’s defense back to centerstage in Lakerland. For the past few seasons, Kobe Bryant’s defense has been a spot of contention between analytics and general consensus. Running a Family Feud-style survey of basketball fans and asking for the NBA’s top defenders would absolutely see Kobe Bryant make the list. A career 12-time All-NBA defender, including 9 first team All-NBA defensive team appearances, Kobe has cemented his legacy as a premier perimeter defender. Many advanced stats, however suggest the Bryant’s defense throughout his career has been vastly overstated. Others ask, how can anyone question Kobe’s defense when he does things like this? Questions like these require a ‘Stats-Eye view’, or a synthesizing of both advanced stats and film observation to better address the issue at hand.
For this particular question, a Stats-Eye view shows that while simple observation oversells Kobe on defense, current advanced stats and how they are calculated undersell Bryant as well. Today, I”ll highlight evidence that Kobe’s defense is oversold by simple observation and next week, I’ll show the evidence that Kobe is undersold by advanced statistics.
One very useful way to measure a player’s defensive impact to see how his team performs defensively when he is on the court versus when he is off the court. While in small samples this data can easily be misinterpreted, the results are extremely difficult to argue with using full season data, especially considering the significant amount personnel change each offseason. Over the past 5 seasons, Kobe Bryant has registered a negative differential in every single season, with a total differential of -8.5 points allowed per 48 minutes. For comparison, Memphis shooting guard Tony Allen, who is often considered the best wing defender in the game, has posted a +6.6 total differential in points allowed per 48 minutes.
What makes it even harder to understand Kobe’s middling defensive stats is that he possesses all the tools to be a premier defender (great basketball IQ, quick feet, quick hands) and sometimes uses them to NBA guards look like high school guards. Other times, however, he does this…
Or, worse, this….
While last week’s matchup with San Antonio was an exhibition in minimal effort and utter defensive unawareness in its entirety, there’s one play that takes the cake. Leading 103-95 in the fourth quarter, the Spurs ran a simple baseline triple screen for Tony Parker. In this instance, Kobe (marked by arrow) is guarding the last screener, Stephen Jackson and, with Steve Nash trailing the Parker, has the responsibility of cutting off the curl if Parker decides to do so.
When Parker does in fact curl off of Stephen Jackson’s screen, Kobe is actually extremely close to where he needs to be to cut off Parker’s drive (marked by the X). While Jackson is a good shooter, Parker is the immediate danger and if he swings it to Jackson, Nash can at least close out to create a contested 3 point attempt.
Instead, Kobe ignores his help responsibilities, actually moves further from the X, and leaves Parker with this easy floater.
Video of the entire disaster follows if Lakers fans can stomach it:
The in vogue advanced defensive stats and recent game film suggest that Kobe Bryant is far from an elite defender. His overall effect on his team’s defense, ranging from marginal-to-negative, is clearly not game-changing as his public image holds. Despite this, there is still an argument to be made that Kobe is better than an average defender and can be extremely important to a defense. Check StatsInsights.com next week for how Kobe’s defense is undersold by the stats community.