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On statistics, fear and rethinking our respect for Kobe Bryant's playing career

I grew up a Boston Celtics fan. We were raised to loathe the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant was roughly my age. He made his first All-Star appearance my senior year in high school. He won three straight championships while I was still searching for a purpose in college. Jealousy can turn into hate, you know.

We in Boston were indoctrinated to frame Kobe’s rise in ways to fit our narrative, not his. He was a bad Michael Jordan impression. Shaquille O’Neal carried him. He was selfish. A bad teammate. A chucker. The 2008 NBA Finals only confirmed our biases. Paul Pierce was my guy. We could explain away 2009 and 2010. Kevin Garnett was injured, then Kendrick Perkins. Besides, Kobe was 6-for-24 in Game 7.

I started covering the NBA at the start of the 2010-11 season. The Celtics and Lakers were still among the favorites, somewhere behind LeBron James’ superteam in Miami. When the Lakers came through Boston, I would camp out by Kobe’s locker after each game. He was a fascinating subject, commanding a media scrum like nobody I have seen since. I imagine this was what it was like to cover MJ, only with less access.

I came to respect Kobe, if only because he was so captivating. I came to realize that the hate I felt was in fact fear. It was frightening facing Kobe. That turned to respect. I always had a hard time reconciling that with the 2003 rape accusation and subsequent apology. I still do. I feel for his wife and surviving children. The death of Gianna Bryant at her father’s side has hit me in ways that are haunting and profoundly sad.

Sportswriting in the wake of death is an odd existence. You work in a playground, and then this — reality. You publish retrospectives and follow with stories told through the eyes of those he impacted most, mostly setting aside your own history with the subject, because who cares how you feel? Tell his story, not yours.

But this one is for me. I like telling stories and combing through statistics, and telling stories through statistics is cathartic in a way I can’t quite explain. I have never been able to find the balance between what the stats will tell you — that Kobe was relatively inefficient, at least by comparison to other all-time greats, and likely a little overrated as a result — and the fear you felt rooting against Kobe. It is time to fix that.

It is time for me to rethink his career in a way that syncs those two diametrically opposed views. To meld data with the eye test. To remove as much bias as possible and make statistical sense of why so many of this generation’s players want to emulate Kobe’s brand of basketball beyond a mythical Mamba Mentality.

Kobe Bryant's career cannot be explained solely through advanced analytics. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

To do this I wanted to look at Kobe through the lens of James Harden, because Rockets general manager Daryl Morey began this season by saying both, “It’s just factual that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan,” and, “You could argue for him as the best offensive player of all time.” Presumably, Kobe is further down Morey’s rankings. But this can’t be. I have seen both, and you can’t tell me Harden was a better offensive player than Kobe. Yet, statistics say the opposite, and it isn’t even close. Why is that?

It is important to contextualize their most ludicrous scoring seasons. In 2005-06, when he scored 35.4 points per game, Bryant played in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, a read-and-react system that lends itself to more ball movement, a clogged paint, a slower pace and inefficient shot locations, even if he often bent it to his will. Last season, when Harden averaged 36.1 points per game, he played in a spread pick-and-roll offense designed to maximize his offensive skillset, whether it be isolation 3-point attempts, unimpeded drives to the rim or kickouts and lobs when the defense collapses onto him as he navigates in between.

Bryant’s usage rate of 38.7 — the percentage of his team’s possessions that he finished with either a shot, a free throw or a turnover — was the highest ever recorded in 2006. It now ranks third behind Westbrook’s 2017 MVP campaign (41.7) and Harden last season (40.5), according to Basketball-Reference, and players are increasingly approaching that figure. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic are both on pace this season to become the sixth and seventh players ever to record a usage rate greater than 37 percent.

Harden has averaged that over the past four seasons.

The shot charts for James Harden and Kobe Bryant are almost exact opposites. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Morey’s was among the front offices that first embraced advanced analytics, bending his team’s offense to improve shooting percentages through better shot locations. (The Lakers, as it turns out, have been among the last teams to adopt a modernized approach.) That we did not recognize a decade earlier just how much more efficient 3-pointers are than twos is a wonder, but Morey has taken it to extremes, all but removing midrange jump shots in favor of the increased statistical production from beyond the arc or at the rim.

Bryant attempted 6.5 3-pointers per game in 2005-06. Harden doubled that last season. Maybe the question should not be a matter of whether Bryant took too many shots, but of where they came from.

Harden took 96 percent of his shots from either the paint or from distance last season. If all we did was redistribute Kobe’s 2005-06 shot selection to mirror Harden’s last season from the five basic zones in the NBA database (restricted area, paint, midrange, above-the-break threes and corner threes) — keeping the Lakers legend’s shooting percentages the same from each location — Kobe would have taken 651 more 3-pointers and 884 fewer midrange shots. Statistically speaking, he would have averaged 37.9 points per game on a 53.7 effective field-goal percentage. Harden’s 36.1 points per game came with a 54.1 eFG%.

This does not even account for Harden’s higher usage rate, the difference in pace (the 2018-19 Rockets averaged 12 more possessions per game than the 2005-06 Lakers), the increase in free throws Bryant would have seen with 30 percent more attempts at the rim, or the rule changes and interpretations that have increasingly favored offensive players over the past 15 years. To say nothing of the fact that Harden was playing in the space provided by either three shooters and a rolling Clint Capela or four shooters.

The Lakers started Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown in 2005-06, and Bryant attempted half his shots in the midrange. His teammates averaged 13 3-point attempts per game. Harden’s took 33 a night last year.

Now, can you imagine what Bryant would have been capable of were he given carte blanche to create in a spread pick-and-roll offense with Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul roaming the perimeter? Is 40 points and eight assists per game out of the question? Are you doubting Kobe? We may have an answer had the Lakers built a similar offense around Kobe when Mike D’Antoni was coaching them in 2012-13.

Now, maybe Kobe’s shooting percentages would have been worse with more 3-point attempts, maybe he would not have been able to get clean shots the way Harden can (doubtful), or maybe he would never have listened to a Daryl Morey telling him to avoid the midrange. But things might have been different had Kobe been raised in an NBA that embraced the gunner, had he channeled his focus to fit the modern era.

And maybe the increase in usage would have resulted in an equivalent decrease in defensive effort.

There is every chance that such a strategy could have also cost Kobe rings — that the monotony of a spread offense would have left teammates even less engaged, generated fewer second chances, resulted in a greater game-to-game variance and been just plain easier to game plan against in the playoffs. There are reasons why Harden’s Rockets have fallen short of the Finals, why those 2005-06 Lakers were not very good and why Kobe’s titles came with a usage rate no greater than 32.3. Imagine, though, what might have been were Bryant only steered to more efficient shot locations? A sixth ring, perhaps? Frightening to think.

You can bend stats to tell most stories. Maybe that is what I’m doing here. But screw it. I know what I felt.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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