I have been incredibly impressed by Kobe Bryant’s production this season. He’s leading the league in scoring and shooting career bests from the field, from behind the three point line, and from the free throw stripe. His true shooting percentage is up over .60 for the first time in his career, and he’s got the best effective field goal percentage of his career as well. It’s truly remarkable at an age when most players drop off for Bryant to be showing so strongly.
I sat down to write a “best aging guard of all time” post about Kobe’s start to the 2012-13 season and was a little bit shocked to find that Michael Jordan had virtually the same PER at age 34 as Bryant does. It’s a small advantage to Kobe so far this season, but I still didn’t believe it when I saw how narrow the margin was. It doesn’t make sense at first glance. Kobe is shooting better than Mike from all ranges (a lot better in some cases). Kobe’s not scoring quite as many points, but he’s not far off, and his assists are higher.
Now, PER is a league-adjusted stat, so it likely that some of the difference is just that the league was more of a defensive mire in 1998 than it is today, which is to say that Jordan’s lower shooting proficiency was actually proportionately not so bad. But a closer look at the stats shows one other major advantage in Jordan’s statline – his turnover percentage is dramatically lower than Bryant’s. As of 12/10/12, 2013 Bryant turns the ball over on 13.8% of the possessions he’s on the floor, while 1998 Jordan only turned the ball over 7.7% of the possessions he was on the floor.
This got me to thinking that maybe shooting percentage isn’t the best way to figure out Kobe’s most efficient season. Maybe the season where he did the most while giving the ball away the least is his most efficient.
I ran two searches on the Basketball-Reference.com player season finder page:
Interestingly only two players appear in both searches, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Very interestingly, all of Jordan’s title years are in the latter search, which may indicate that for a high usage guard, keeping the turnovers to a minimum is a critical edge. Or it may just be a symptom of MJ’s particular skillset within the triangle offense. He never once had less than 9% turnover rate outside of the triangle. Jordan’s 1991 season where he had a 60.5 TS% on 32.9 USG% and 8.7% TOV rate is the only season to make both lists.
Kobe shows up one time on each list.
On the 60% TS list his current 2013 season appears.
On the 9% TOV rate list, his career-best scoring season from 2006 appears.
I think a strong argument could be made that Kobe’s most efficient season was also his most productive season in 2006. He had a staggering usage rate of 38.7% and a minimal turnover rate at just 9%. And it’s not as though his assist rate was in the tank. He assisted on 24% of his teammates’ scores while on the court. Considering how lousy that team was – they started Smush, Luke Walton, and Kwame around Kobe and Lamar – Kobe’s ridiculously high usage was definitely a good thing. No, the Lakers didn’t win a lot of games in 2006, and Kobe’s shooting percentages weren’t off the charts like they are in 2013, but he did SO much and gave away so little that I’d say it makes up the difference and was in its own way indicative of tremendous efficiency.
Another way of looking at the efficiency riddle is to examine the impact of role. The difference between 34 year old Jordan’s turnovers and 34 year old Kobe’s turnovers could be explained away to some extent by the fact that Kobe is handling a lot in the playmaker role right now, where Jordan was more of a pure scorer in ’98, so obviously the turnovers would be higher for Bryant. But the counter argument to that is that having the ball more might actually help explain why Kobe is shooting so well. He is deciding when he wants to shoot instead of just finishing plays (Jordan’s highest TS% came in 1989 – the year Doug Collins had him playing point guard the last two months of the season). I don’t bring this up to perpetuate the Jordan – Bryant comparison but to contrast the impact of roles. Kobe in 2006 wasn’t responsible for setting up others and getting the team into their half-court offense. He was responsible for finishing plays. He should have had a relatively low turnover rate. Kobe in 2013 is being asked to run the offense in the absence of a true point guard, and, like many point guards, his turnovers are up but so are his shooting percentages.
My conclusion from the comparison of Bryant at 28 years old and 34 years old is that his older self is more selective and thus shooting better than ever while his younger self was more efficient in a high production role. We should pay more attention to how well a player takes care of the ball when measuring how efficiently he scores with it. A possession ends in one of two ways – with a shot or a turnover. Would you rather have a player miss more shots and give his team more opportunities to offensive rebound or lose more possessions with turnovers, giving the opponent more opportunities? All things are relative, and scale matters, but in this case I would take the volume scorer with the low turnovers who deliberately worked to take the load off his terrible teammates over the more efficient shooter with the higher turnovers who is working to get the ball to his allegedly talented teammates.