Kobe Bryant only played in six games last season. This year, though, he gives the appearance of being back. After 14 games he is currently leading the NBA in points per game.
Unfortunately, his scoring totals might be misleading. Currently Kobe is also leading the NBA in field goal attempts and missed field goals per game. For the season he is launching 24.0 shots from the field per game, and missing nearly 15 of these. Next in the field goal attempts rankings is Carmelo Anthony, and he is taking and missing about five fewer shots per game.
All this chucking might lead some to ask: "Is Kobe shooting too much?" Eric Freeman — of Yahoo Sports — did ask this question. And Freeman concluded that "This issue doesn't have an obvious answer — yes, Kobe shoots a lot, but the Lakers have so few efficient offensive players that it's hard to point to one guy as sinking their chances."
Perhaps the answer isn't "obvious" to everyone. But if we look at the data, it appears an "obvious" answer does emerge.
Let's begin with the Lakers roster in 2014-15. Kobe has shot at least twice as much as any of his teammates this season. And the leading scorer after Kobe is Jordan Hill, who only averages 13.9 points per game. So this might suggest that Lakers have few options.
However, when we turn to shooting efficiency, we see the majority of the players on the Lakers are more efficient than Kobe. Efficiency can be measured by looking at True Shooting Percentage (a measure that takes into account efficiency from the field and the line). Currently, Kobe has a mark of 48.2%, which is well below average (an average shooting guard in the NBA has a mark of 53.6%). There are also currently eight players on the Lakers who have bested Kobe's mark.
So what would happen if Kobe shot less? Kobe — with a career True Shooting Percentage of 55.4% — has never shot this poorly in his career. His career average is still topped by five other players on the Lakers this year. But Kobe's career mark is above average for an NBA shooting guard. And if he could return to his career average, the number of shots he is taking wouldn't be such an issue.
But since Kobe is older and coming off a major injury, it is possible that the Kobe we see today is the Kobe we are going to see going forward. If that is the case, should someone else on this team be shooting more? Some might argue that if Kobe's shots were taken by one of his teammates, the shooting efficiency of that teammate might decline considerably. For example, Ed Davis has a True Shooting Percentage of 60.4% while averaging 5.9 shots per game. Davis has never averaged more than six shots per game in his career. So if Davis was suddenly asked to take five more shots per game -- given his limited offensive skills -- it is possible he won't be able to keep hitting shots at the same efficiency level we currently observe.
But a reduction in Kobe's shot attempts does not mean that one individual player has to shoot substantially more. Again, there are several teammates who shoot more efficiently than Kobe. What if the Lakers asked Kobe to take five fewer shots per game and these shots were re-allocated so that no teammate had to take more than one additional shot per contest?
Although having one player take five more shots per game might change their shooting efficiency (or it might not), having a player take just one more shot per game can't really impact their overall shooting efficiency. And since there are eight players who shoot more efficiently than Kobe, such a re-allocation would mean....
- the Lakers would have fewer shots from Kobe (who is currently very inefficient)
- and more shots from others who are above average with respect to efficiency.
And all that means the Lakers would score more points on their current shot attempts and therefore would win more games.
But there would be a downside. If Kobe took five fewer shots from the field — and his shooting efficiency didn't change — his points per game would decline from 26.7 points per game to about 22.5 points per game. If that happened, Kobe would no longer be in the top five in scoring in the league.
Past studies have shown that scoring drives perceptions of performance in the NBA. Scoring is the primary determinant of free agent salaries, the voting for post-season awards, and where a player is selected in the NBA draft. Simply put, the more a player scores the better people tend to think a player is playing.
And that means if Kobe takes fewer shots, people will tend to think he is not as good. Yes, given Kobe's current shooting efficiency they should have already reached this conclusion. But shooting efficiency doesn't have that big of an impact on the evaluation of NBA performance.
Given the nature of player evaluation, expect Kobe — even if it hurts the Lakers chance to win games — to keep firing away. And also expect people who still see Kobe as an elite scorer to keep thinking that it isn't obvious that a player who misses this many shots should shoot less.