In the midst of the NBA conference finals – contested between four small market teams – a big mouth from a big market decided to speak up. Kobe Bryant announced this week that he is disappointed with the Lakers attempt to rebuild a title contender around his talents, and now he wants a trade. No, wait… now he doesn’t want a trade. Okay, we don’t know what he wants, but we do know he’s unhappy.
The problem may be that Kobe was just a bit spoiled by how easy the NBA was earlier in his career. Kobe entered the league in 1996 out of high school. With Shaquille O’Neal as his teammate, the Lakers won 70% of their regular season contests — and three titles — in Kobe’s first eight seasons. In the summer of 2004, though, the team trade Shaq to the Miami Heat. As detailed in The Wages of Wins (specifically in the chapters entitled “Shaq and Kobe” and “Who’s The Best?”), in 2004-05 the Lakers only won 34 contests. This was the worst performance by the Lakers since 1993-94, and the second worst performance by this franchise since 1974-75. The 1993-94 season came in the post-Magic/pre-Shaq era (1991-95) while the 74-75 campaign was the year before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to LA. The Lakers had historically been led to victory by major stars, and the failure of this team to win with Kobe suggested that maybe he wasn’t one of those “major stars.”
After 2004-05, though, the Lakers with Kobe did improve, suggesting that Kobe might indeed be a “major star” that can lead the Lakers back to glory. Unfortunately, although the team improved, the team hardly found regular season or post-season glory. The regular season success is detailed in the following table.
The Lakers won 45 games in 2005-06. Of these, 14.3 could be linked to the performance of Kobe. This past season the team won 42 contests. Again, Kobe led the way with 15.3. In both seasons the Lakers won more than half their contests, still no one believed the Lakers were among the very best in the NBA.
Although the Lakers have been bounced two consecutive seasons in the first round, there is actually not much that separates this team from teams like the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets. In fact, there are two specific reasons why the Lakers were unable to cross the 50 win threshold that seems to separate the contenders from the pretenders in the NBA.
The Injury Excuse
It is often said that injuries are no excuse. Of course, injuries are “the excuse.” Clothes do not win games. People win games. If you change the people in the clothes, you change the outcome of the games.
The three most productive players on the Lakers in 2006-07 were Kobe, Lamar Odom, and Luke Walton. Odom and Walton, though, missed 48 games combined. What if these players were each able to play all 82 games?
Let’s start with Odom. It’s possible that Odom’s injury problems caused his Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] to decline from a stellar 0.210 in 2005-06 to a respectable (although not stellar) 0.158 in 2006-07. If Odom played all 82 games and produced as he did in 2005-06, the Lakers would have won an estimated 6.5 additional games this past year.
And then there is Walton. If he was available the full season, the Lakers could have captured about 2.2 more wins. So when we erase the injuries to Odom and Walton we see a Lakers team that goes from 41.2 Wins Produced to 49.9.
Getting a Point
Beyond the injury problem is the production the Lakers received from the point guard spot. Of the 49 point guards who played at least 1,000 minutes this past season, only Speedy Claxton and Sebastian Telfair offered a lower WP48 than Smush Parker. Unlike Claxton and Telfair, though, Parker started virtually every game for the Lakers this past season. It was not until the very end of the season that the Lakers finally decided that his anemic production was not helping the team win games.
Parker was a slightly above average player the previous season. If he could have maintained this performance, or if the Lakers simply found another average point guard (average WP48 is 0.100), the Lakers could have won four or five additional contests.
If you combine the injury problems with the decline in Parker’s productivity, you see the Lakers could have won about twelve more games this year. This mark would have rivaled the Rockets for the fourth best record in the West. In other words, had Odom and Walton played the entire season and Parker not fallen so far so fast, it’s possible that the Lakers could have been at least the fifth seed. And if the Lakers, like the Jazz, defeated the Rockets in the first round (and eliminated the Warriors in the second), then Bryant this week would have been in the conference finals. Of course, he would have probably been losing. But at least he wouldn’t be in the papers demanding, or not demanding, a trade.
Driven to Win or Deserving to Win
There are a few more observations I wish to make on this episode, including Peter Vescey’s report that the Lakers might consider trading for Jermaine O’Neal (a bad idea) and Bryant’s suggestion that Jerry West could “fix” the Lakers (although what West did in Memphis this past year was not impressive). But I wish to limit myself to about 1,000 words, so all I have room for is this last observation.
There is a difference between being “driven to win” and a feeling that you “deserve to win.”
Kobe is not a tennis player. He’s a basketball player. And despite LeBron’s efforts last night, one player does not win a basketball game. Teams win basketball games.
As a basketball player, Kobe can control how well he plays. And when we look at his career, we see he plays very well. But as we saw with Kevin Garnett (who is much more productive than Kobe), one great player cannot win consistently by himself.
My sense is that it’s okay for Bryant to drive himself to be the best player possible. But his demand to have better teammates strikes me as less than consistent with being a good teammate. Productive teammates are relatively scarce in the NBA. And Kobe can demand such teammates all he wants, but such demands are not going to change the short supply of quality players.