Earlier in the week, the internet almost went up in flames when #NBARank announced that Kobe Bryant was ranked as the sixth best player in the NBA. Many scoffed at the outrage that voters — in the interest of full disclosure, you should all know I was part of the voting process — could actually leave the Black Mamba outside of the prestigious quintet of top players in the league.
Even on First Take, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless agreed that Bryant’s omission from the top five was simply outrageous. The Lakers’ star guard coming in sixth behind the likes of LeBron James (first), Kevin Durant (second), Dwight Howard (third), Chris Paul (fourth) and Derrick Rose (fifth) must be outlandish right?
Or is it?
James and Durant’s ranks speak for themselves; both were the best players in the league from start to finish with Howard finding ways to insert and remove himself from the discussion in the minds of many during the course of the season for reasons not entirely related to the hardwood.
That leaves Chris Paul and Derrick Rose.
Although there isn’t really a true consensus amongst fans and NBA analysts , most would agree that these two are the two best point guards in the league. Indeed, between their scoring and playmaking abilities as well as their responsibilities for playoff teams, it’s easy to see how most would come to that conclusion.
But better than Bryant?
It’s worth noting, that Paul and Rose respectively finished two and one spots above Bryant; which isn’t necessarily egregious unless the Mamba is the clear cut better player. Which leads us to the obvious question: is he?
Kobe Bryant is undeniably one of the most creative scorers ever and does things that few players in the history of the league could ever dream of accomplishing given his immense skill set and his huge drive to remaining one of the most properly conditioned players in the league.
Last season, the superstar guard finished second in the race for the scoring title and led the Lakers to the second round of the playoffs where they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Bryant’s play last season was impressive even by his standards, as he was able to provide the Lakers with scoring and playmaking. Because the purple and gold lacked perimeter players capable of handling the ball and creating shots for themselves and others, it put Kobe in the precarious position of being the lone player on the team capable of doing so; and thus it resulted in him having a league high 35.7 usage rate.
More often than not, the onus of getting the Lakers into their offense fell on his shoulders, but there were also times in which he tried to do much and thus took some awfully tough shots and also coughed up the ball.
The end result is that he had the third worst shooting percentage of his career (43 percent field goal shooting) and averaged the third most turnovers ever in his 16 seasons (3.5 turnovers per game) as a professional.
He was a solid rebounder at his position but slipped considerably as a defender. Bryant can be a good and even at times great defensive player in spurts, but his days as a shutdown defender are well behind him.
With that said, all of these details tend to get overlooked because of Kobe Bryant’s reputation for closing games.
Except that last season, one can hardly state that Kobe was the model of excellence for clutch play. Indeed, NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that Bryant was tied with Chris Paul for second last season in total clutch scoring — clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points — but also that he took the most clutch shots (122) out of everyone in the league during the 2011-12 regular season.
In addition, Bryant converted 36.1 percent of his field goals in clutch situations, which tells us that although he was the Lakers’ closer, he wasn’t exactly the best at it. Part of the reason that his shooting percentages in such situations were poor was because a little over half of his attempts came from mid-range (think around the elbow area) with defenders crowding him. Indeed, he shot 22-for-62 from mid-range in clutch situations according to StatsCube.
With that said, Bryant’s performance in his 16th season at age 33 was nothing short of spectacular. He posted a player efficiency ranking (click here to understand what PER is here) figure of 21.9 (17th best in the league) and the Lakers often seemed lost on the court whenever the guard went to the bench.
It goes without saying that Bryant was extremely valuable to the Los Angeles Lakers, but was he a better player last season than Derrick Rose and Chris Paul?
Rose is a terrific young point guard that won MVP trophy in the spring of 2011 on the strength of his talent as well as the Chicago Bulls’ fantastic campaign that year. Last season was one filled with ups and downs for the former league MVP given the time missed due to injury.
Rose missed 27 games during the course of the regular season and was lost for the postseason at the end of Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. Given the amount of time he spent away from the court, it’s quite understandable that many felt as though his being ranked ahead of Bryant was somewhat nonsensical.
There’s certainly an argument to be made on that front, but Rose’s performance when he was healthy was still impressive in its own right.
The former Memphis Tiger reduced his field goal attempts, scoring and turnovers in favor of getting his teammates more involved in the game. His assists took a small boost, but his field goal percentage declined — for the third straight season — to a career worst 43.5 percent. This was partly due to his jumper betraying him from 10 to 15 feet in comparison to last season.
However, Rose was still a stud player last season despite the health concerns. He was still explosive and finished around the basket much like in previous seasons and his ever improved floater made it as such that he converted a higher percentage of his shots from three to nine feet away from the rim.
Combine that with his clever ball handling and well there were times last season at which the Bulls’ point guard was unstoppable.
In addition, although his defense has improved in recent seasons, he is still somewhat average on that front, and more should be expected from him going forward provided that he makes it all the way back from his ACL tear.
Where Bryant probably should be rated higher than Rose is in his late game performances. Although we previously discussed that Kobe was fairly average last season in the clutch, Rose was far worse.
His inability to suit up for most of the season meant that he got fewer repetitions than other superstars in the league, and this is quite visible statistically. The Memphis product attempted 50 shots from the field in clutch situations and converted a mere 30 percent of them. His turnovers and assists mind you were pretty much on par with Kobe’s figures if we project Rose’s numbers over the course of an entire season.
Thus, in this case Bryant’s superior offensive arsenal in crunch time should give him the edge by a hair given how close both players were last season; although Rose had the superior PER.
As it pertains to Chris Paul though, he was seemingly in a class all on his own as a guard last season.
The Wake Forest product did it all for the Los Angeles Clippers last season.
The former Demon Deacon assumed control of the Clippers from the start to the end of the regular season (and playoffs) by establishing himself as a scorer, set-up man, playmaker, defensive player and crunch time assassin.
Few teams were able to solve the Clippers’ pick-and-roll oriented offense because Paul manipulated defenses to the point of confusion. He drew fouls from hedging defenders or simply blew past them and got into the lane where he found shooters on the outside, big men on the inside via lob or bounce passes, pulled up for the jumper or floater or simply made it all the way to the basket for a lay-up.
During the 2011-12 campaign, Paul was the league’s premier maestro, getting players involved and allowing them to be part of the offense for the first 43-45 minutes of the game, and then taking over down the stretch and becoming arguably the league’s best closer.
What made Paul such a dangerous scoring option late in ball games was his ability to diversify the spots from which he took shots. Whereas Bryant operated mostly from the elbows, Paul was all over the court, never allowing opposing teams to get an accurate idea from where he would strike next.
NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that Paul shot 42.4 percent from the field in clutch situations — better than Durant’s 39.2 percent — while StatsCube gave us the breakdown of his shot locations:
- 74 percent field goal shooting from the restricted area in the paint (14-for-19 from the field).
- 38 percent field goal shooting inside the paint but not in the restricted area (9-for-24 from the field).
- 44 percent field goal shooting from mid-range (14-for-32 from the field)
- 24 percent field goal shooting from above the break, which are non-corner 3-pointers (5-for-21 from the field)
- 0 percent field goal shooting on corner 3-pointers (0-for-1 from the field).
Paul’s even shot distribution in the clutch made it extremely tough for defenders to key in on his moves and thus allowed him to strike when needed for the Clippers.
Combine that with his stellar individual defense — he did however struggle against extremely quick point guards as Derrick Rose can vouch for — as well as his help defense and his league leading 2.5 steals, well then it’s easy to make the case that CP3 was in fact the best guard in the league last season; and that’s before we take into account his career low 2.1 turnovers per game and his 47.8 percent field goal shooting.
Simply put, Chris Paul did all last season, and he it did quite well all the while remaining incredibly efficient as evidenced by his PER figure of 27, which was second best in the NBA.
Sum it all up, and Kobe Bryant being ranked the sixth best player in the league is somewhat questionable, but it’s not as blasphemous as most people would have you believe. The players ahead of him all enjoyed terrific seasons and may have in fact been better by a hair.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
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