How Kobe’s All-Time Record is Average

Kobe just became the youngest player to score 30,000 points in NBA history. Pardon my Kobe hate, but of the many deserving aspects of Kobe’s career that deserve praise, this is lower for me. The epitome of the Yay Points! syndrome is glorifying a player’s point totals. With that, I thought I’d put look at Kobe’s scoring from a different angle.

Let’s talk hockey goalies. A story told in Stumbling on Wins is that goalies, for the most part, don’t matter. The truth is most block a similar percentage of shots. Wins are more a function of shot totals than goalie skill! And a funny way the authors demonstrated this was as follows. If we were take an average goalie and put them on the New Jersey Devils (home of the all-time wins leader Martin Brodeur) and have them face the same number of shots as Brodeur, how would they do? The answer is they would be second on the all-time wins list, right behind Martin Brodeur!

What’s this got to do with Kobe? Glad you asked! Let’s do a similar experiment. Let’s pretend an average player at each position across roughly the span of Kobe’s career took the same number of shots as Kobe. For simplicity, I’ve assumed the players get to the line at the same rate as the average player at their position (Spoiler alert, this will be important) How would said players fare?

Position Points Total All-Time NBA Rank
Point Guard 27,209 9th
 Shooting Guard 27,762 7th
 Small Forward 28,2501 7th
 Power Forward 28,080 7th
 Center 29,111 6th

Huh! A very interesting trend emerges! If an average player in any of the given positions could have taken as many shots as Kobe, they’d be in the top 10 all-time NBA scoring list! Luckily, Kobe maintains his lead above all of them, just barely in the center’s case.

Now here’s the crazy thing, when we examine Kobe’s shooting from the field, it actually hasn’t been that impressive. The average shooting guard gets an Effective Field Goal Percentage of around 49.0%. For his career, Kobe is sitting at 48.7%! That’s why every position is so close to Kobe in terms of totals. But Kobe does have one major edge. His free throw shooting.

Player Free Throw Attempt / Field Goal Attempt Free Throw Percentage
 Kobe Bryant  39.0% 83.8%
 Average Point Guard 27.5% 80.5%
 Average Shooting Guard 27.8% 80.4%
 Average Small Forward 30.5% 78.1%
 Average Power Forward 31.9% 73.7%
 Average Center 37.8% 68.1%

We see a trend in the NBA. Players further from the hoop tend to get to the line less often relative to the number of shots they take. As players get closer to the hoop though, their free throw shooting percentages tend to go down. Kobe Bryant is an ideal mix though. He shoots very well at the line, while also getting there very often. Thus, the secret of Kobe’s success is his free throws! It’s not his clutch shooting, which is abysmal, or his “killer” shooting from the field, which is roughly average. No, the one thing Kobe has done very well in regards to scoring for his career is to get to the line! To keep Kobe’s Yay Points! legacy intact though, let’s give one last table.

Now I’ve assumed each player would take the same number of shots from the field and shots from the free throw line as Kobe Bryant.

Position Points Total All-Time NBA Rank
Point Guard 29,349 6th
 Shooting Guard 29,847 6th
 Small Forward 29,779 6th
 Power Forward 29,290 6th
 Center 29,293 6th

If a player at each position managed to take the same number of shots from the field and shots from the line as Kobe, all of them would be in 6th place on the all-time scoring list, one rank behind Kobe! Kobe’s 84% free throw shooting keeps him on top (barely). Thus, in regards to Kobe’s legacy, he has very much in common with Martin Brodeur. If an average player had been in Kobe’s shoes, they’d be in roughly the same place.

Summing Up

Let’s not take away from Kobe’s career. To start, Kobe has played 17 seasons in the NBA and depending on how he finishing out this year, will have played above average in 13 or 14 of them. He has been a top 25 player in five of his NBA seasons as well. And yes, he has been a top contributor in both the regular season and playoffs for championship squads. And as I mentioned, his ability to both get to the free throw line and shoot well from there is very impressive.

The problem is many people focus on the wrong aspects of Kobe. It’s easy to overhype his points. Rest assured, regardless of how Kobe’s play is for the rest of this season, when the Lakers ultimately “underperform” (barring another Gasol like trade) we will hear how Kobe still played at a top level, even if he doesn’t. The point we champion around here about any statistic, is to make sure you put it in context. When we examine Kobe’s 30,000 points, what does it actually tell us? In this case, it’s that he’s played a long time in the NBA and taken a lot of shots. And yes this is rare, but in the same circumstances an average player — in regards to point totals — wouldn’t have done much differently.


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