Kobe and The Knicks: Seamless Fit?

Joshua Marquez is a second year graduate student at the University of San Francisco’s Sport Management Program. He graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from Cal Poly Pomona in 2011 before eventually making his way to Sport Management. His career aspirations are to work as a basketball analyst for an NBA franchise. Email: jdmarquez@dons.usfca.edu Twitter: @JoshDMarquez Website: coming soon

Kobe Bryant has been the stable face of the Lakers franchise for some time now. One might argue, he is as beloved in LA as much as – probably more than – any Hollywood celebrity you can name at the moment.

The personalities of Kobe Bryant and the city he represents, though, couldn’t be far more different. Bryant is the relentless warrior with a blue collar mentality that is willing to get his hands dirty, whereas Los Angeles has always been the safe haven for entertainment.

One would think that these two opposite personalities would not mesh, but ask any Laker fan who their favorite Laker is, and Kobe Bryant will probably be the first person for anyone born during this generation. Interestingly, Kobe has remained relatively the same person throughout his career. The city of Los Angeles has grown to love him so much that it is not uncommon to find people who defend Bryant more than Bryant is willing to defend himself to the naysayers.

However, let us put all these things into perspective. The Los Angeles Lakers have always been associated with Kobe Bryant during his career, but one can make the argument that Kobe Bryant is not necessarily synonymous with the Lakers. To put it simply, Kobe Bryant as a brand or an idea that can exist without his association with the Lakers. While there are the Laker fans who deserve the honorable mention for having followed Kobe since the beginning of his career, there are many basketball fans in place like China who are fans of Kobe Bryant more than they are fans of the Lakers.

That all being said, let us suppose that Kobe’s main priority was still to win another title, which it very well could be. If there was a point in the season where Bryant felt like his goals could not be reached with the Lakers, are we supposed to assume that there won’t be talk of Kobe possibly looking elsewhere to contend in what are probably his last two seasons in the NBA? Is it also not possible for a team looking to contend to see Bryant and think he would not make them a step closer? If we take a look at the West, can we honestly say that the Lakers could make the 8th seed this year and have a deep playoff run, and continue that success into 2015-2016? At this point — even with Steve Nash healthy — that seems unlikely (not impossible, but unlikely).

So if Kobe wants to win another title, he probably has to leave the Lakers.  The only thing really stopping any wheels that may be set in motion is the fact that Kobe has not waived his “no trade clause.” However, for the sake of argument, let us say that he ends up doing the unthinkable. Where might he go?

One possibility is the New York Knicks.  The Knicks employ two people — Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher — who might know Kobe best.  Phil Jackson has been on record saying that no one can equate the desire of Kobe Bryant to be great, not even Michael Jordan. While this may be true to some, it is very interesting to see that the Zen Master is putting this information out there, when he has said before that he believes that Jordan is the “GOAT.” Could it be possible that Phil Jackson is planting the seeds to facilitate Bryant having his last hoorah with the Knicks and Coach Fisher (Bryant’s former teammate)?

It has already been established that Kobe Bryant has enjoyed the most success in his career when Phil Jackson was coaching. With familiar faces like Derek Fisher as head coach, and possibly Rick Fox and Robert Horry as assistant coaches, the idea looks very interesting from that perspective. If Phil Jackson is indeed looking to put the band back together in New York, which frontman fits into this lineup better than Kobe?

If something like this actually did happen, one would think it could only happen if Kobe was persuaded he could win a title in New York.  And while at face value being back together with Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, and possibly other former teammates from his first three-peat, the question remains,“Can The Knicks seriously contend with Kobe Bryant on the squad?”

To answer that question we need to look at some numbers.

Let’s start with the value of Kobe Bryant.   If we take a look at Kobe Bryant’s Wins Produced for his entire career, it is clear to see that his WP48 doesn’t quite hit 0.200 (the level of a superstar). The closest he had to having a WP48 that high was in the 03-04 season, at 0.195.  So although he has been above 0.100 for most seasons (the exceptions were in recent years and at the onset of his career), he probably was never quite as productive as his scoring totals suggested.

He certainly hasn’t been as productive as Michael Jordan or LeBron James.  As another story on boxscore geeks argues, Jordan and James consistently produced above superstar level. Michael Jordan’s lowest WP48 scores came during his injured year and the year he came back from baseball, which were both below 0.150. During Lebron’s career in the NBA, his WP48 has never gone below 0.200, except for his rookie year. Jordan and James have both hovered around and went beyond a WP48 of 0.300, with Jordan even getting close to a WP48 of 0.400 during his fifth year.

So Kobe ain’t Michael and he ain’t LeBron.  But teams have won titles without these players.  In fact — and this is obvious — Kobe has won titles without producing like Michael and LeBron.  And that has happened because Kobe has been able to play with some very productive talents.  So do these talents exist in New York?

The Knicks in 2013-14 did not have a roster of productive players.    The most productive player was Carmelo Anthony.   Melo produced 10.02 wins and posted a WP48 of  0.161.  So Melo was “good”, but not a superstar.   Furthermore, this was the best he has ever played.  Anthony is an elite scorer, with a seemingly unlimited offensive arsenal at his disposal, yet he has only made it to the Conference Finals once in his entire career.  One reason for this outcome is that Melo — like Kobe — isn’t quite as productive as his scoring totals suggest.

In addition to being somewhat overrated, Anthony also doesn’t have much help.   Last season, Tyson Chandler and Pablo Prigioni were productive, but neither played many minutes.  J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, and Tim Hardaway Jr. played more minutes.  But this trio wasn’t very productive.

This next season the Knicks will go forward without Tyson Chandler. To replace his production, the Knicks have added Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert.  Both have been productive through most of their careers.  But even Anthony doesn’t think this team has enough to contend.

But what if Kobe was added to the mix? Let’s assume what probably isn’t possible. Kobe comes back healthy and able to come close to matching his career best production.   Again, at his best, Kobe came close to a WP48 of 0.200.  Combined with Melo’s best WP48 of 0.161, the both of them will account for 0.356 wins on a nightly basis, which is slightly higher than Lebron’s 0.327 last year.

So by himself, LeBron is almost as productive as Kobe and Melo.  And LeBron also has Kevin Love , who had a 0.285 WP48 last year.   And this duo has teammates like Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Andreson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson.  All of these players have been above average performers.

Meanwhile, Kobe and Melo in New York would be playing with Andrea Bargnani.  This former number one pick has been one of the least productive players in the NBA for year.

There is a challenge to forecasting in the NBA.  You have to know minutes and injuries.  Furthermore, the Wins Produced model adjusts for position played (so you need to know this ahead of time) and also includes interaction effects (associated with assists and defensive rebounds). Therefore, one has to be a bit careful when looking at past performance.  When positions change, the value of performance changes.  In addition, when teammates change — and teammate assists and defensive rebounds change — Wins Produced can change a bit.   In other words, one can’t just take last year’s WP48 and assume that is what you will see next year.  To forecast you have to dissemble the model and then put it back together with a player’s new teammates (and if you are not doing all this, you are not forecasting with Wins Produced).

That being said, performance in the NBA tends not to fluctuate as much as what we see in baseball and football.  So a team with LeBron, Love, etc… is likely going to do more than Kobe and Melo.  So although Kobe might be able to make it to the playoffs in the East, he probably can’t win a title with the Knicks in 2014-15.  And that means, if Kobe leaves LA for New York to win a title, he is likely to be disappointed.

Now if he takes his show to Cleveland… well, that will be a different story.   The Cavaliers don’t need Kobe to win a title.  But Kobe probably needs Cleveland!

– Joshua Marquez (with a bit of help from DJ)

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