Kobe Bryant's Best Playoffs Ever?
[June 15 note: Stats have been updated as of the end of the 2009 Playoffs.]
I have been of the belief that Kobe Bryant is slightly past his peak as a player at age 30. Now, don't get me wrong, Kobe is still an all-time great player and still one of the league's very best players, and still capable of putting together MVP-caliber seasons, and I'm certainly not trying to say he isn't. I'm just trying to say that, compared to himself, he is past his peak as a player mainly because his physical gifts have receded such that he can't quite score at the basket the way he once could, and he relies more on the jump shot, which is more inconsistent by nature. Bryant can still lead a championship team and accomplish things that build a resume as an all-time great, as he's currently doing before our eyes, he's just past his peak.
I offer that preamble mainly to note my surprise upon learning that, statistically, Kobe Bryant is having the best postseason of his career. His 26.8 PER is the highest single-season mark he's ever had in the playoffs, easily besting his 25.0 marks from 2001 and 2008.
Here are Kobe's key playoff numbers from the six seasons in which he's advanced to the NBA Finals:
- 2000: 19.3 PER, 22 g - 39.0 min, 21.1 pts - 4.5 reb - 4.4 ast, .442 FG - .754 FT
- 2001: 25.0 PER, 16 g - 43.4 min, 29.4 pts - 7.3 reb - 6.1 ast, .469 FG - .821 FT
- 2002: 20.5 PER, 19 g - 43.8 min, 26.6 pts - 5.8 reb - 4.6 ast, .434 FG - .759 FT
- 2004: 21.0 PER, 22 g - 44.2 min, 24.5 pts - 4.7 reb - 5.5 ast, .413 FG - .813 FT
- 2008: 25.0 PER, 21 g - 41.1 min, 30.1 pts - 5.7 reb - 5.6 ast, .479 FG - .809 FT
- 2009: 26.8 PER, 23 g - 40.9 min, 30.2 pts - 5.3 reb - 5.5 ast, .457 FG - .883 FT
- Career: 22.0 PER, 175 g - 39.4 min, 25.0 pts - 5.1 reb - 4.7 ast, .447 FG - .811 FT
2008-09 also marks the season in which Kobe has easily had the biggest increase from regular season to postseason PER, jumping a full 2.5 from 24.3 to 26.8. In most seasons, he has actually been down in PER, as his career marks are 23.6 for the regular season and 22.0 for the playoffs.
(Disclaimer: I DO NOT consider PER to be an end-all, be-all statistic for evaluating players. I DO consider PER to be very valuable for what it is: a measure of production based on box-score stats.)
I've always considered 2001 to be Kobe's gold standard in terms of postseason performance. The number which sticks out is the 6.1 ast, a career playoff-high for Bryant. The Lakers shot well above their season three-point percentage in the late rounds of the playoffs that year, and I just seem to recall Kobe expertly pitching out to Fisher, Horry & .co for wide-open looks at will.
What's been different that's made 2009 unique statistically compared to the rest of Kobe's playoff career? Well, the key statistics seem to be assist percentage (estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on on the floor), TO percentage (estimate of turnovers per 100 plays), and free-throw shooting.
Kobe's assist percentage has been 26.0, actually higher than his 25.4 number in 2001, when he had a higher raw number of assists, and second only to his 26.9 last season.
His turnover percentage has been a career-best 8.7 - his 9.8 in 2002 was the only other time he's been below 10 for the postseason.
Bryant is also scoring at a productive clip of 30.2 points per game in the playoffs. He's topped that number a couple times in his career, but in heavier minutes. He's never seen such a large increase in scoring from regular season to postseason as this year (3.4: 26.8 to 30.2), even though his 4.8 jump in minutes per game is not out of line with the rest of his career.
A fair amount of the scoring increase Bryant has achieved can be attributed to his performance at the free-throw line. He is shooting .883 at the stripe, well above his playoff norm. As important, he's been getting to the line 8.6 times a game in the playoffs, ahead of his 6.9 FTA mark in the regular season, and flying in the face of my assertion that he can't get to the basket any longer.
In fact, Kobe's done some of his best work in terms of drawing free throws in the playoffs in the last two seasons, and his best FTA years have generally corresponded to his best PER years. Here are his playoff FTA numbers by year this decade:
Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that the team which held Bryant to his lowest FTA this postseason (Houston, 6.0) is the team which extended L.A. to the longest series.
Certainly, Kobe's passing has been exceptional in the Finals, as he's averaged 7.4 assists (though he also has 3.2 TOs) to go with 32.4 points, and he delivered two huge assists in Game 4 - the gorgeous spin move/drop pass to Gasol which cut the lead to 87-84 in the final minute of regulation, and the kickout to Fisher for his game-winning three in the final minute of OT.
Add the 18 assists Kobe had in L.A.'s final two wins over Denver, and he's averaging 8.3 assists over the Lakers' 6 games from Game 5 of the WCF to Game 4 of the Finals, in which they are 5-1.
Here are Kobe's series-by-series numbers for this year's playoffs:
- UTH: 40.8 min, 27.4 pts - 5.0 reb - 5.6 ast, .466 FG - .897 FT
- HOU: 37.9 min, 27.4 pts - 5.0 reb - 3.7 ast, .453 FG - .833 FT
- DEN: 42.0 min, 34.0 pts - 5.8 reb - 5.8 ast, .481 FG - .931 FT
- ORL: 43.8 min, 32.4 pts - 5.6 reb - 7.4 ast, .430 FG - .841 FT
- TOT: 40.9 min, 30.2 pts - 5.3 reb - 5.5 ast, .457 FG - .883 FT
I have especially marveled at how Bryant has seemed to step up in pivotal games such as these:
- @Uth, Game 4 (series 2-1 LA): 38-6-1 (16-24 FG)
- vHou, Game 2 (series 1-0 HOU): 40-6-3 (16-27 FG)
- vHou, Game 5 (series 2-2): 26-4-3 (10-19 FG; in just 31 min in rout)
- @Den, Game 3 (series 1-1): 41-6-5 (12-24 FG, 15-17 FT)
I'm frustrated that the NBA Hot Spots do not have data loaded in for the 2009 Playoffs, because one thing I'd be curious to know is whether Kobe is hitting a higher percentage of long two-pointers in the playoffs. It feels like Bryant has hit a disproportionately high percentage of contested jumpers - note that in the Utah game listed above, 14 of 16 FG came outside the paint, and in Game 2 vs. Houston, 12 of 16 were out of the paint - but I'd like to know if that is just my perception, or actually reality. Kevin Pelton indicated to me that Kobe's FG% on 2-point jumpers is largely consistent with what it was in the regular season, so perhaps my mind is playing tricks on me.
In any event, there's no mistaking the reality that Kobe Bryant is richly deserving of the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy which he should be hoisting soon, along with his 4th Larry O'Brien trophy, his 1st as the best player on a championship team.
Thanks (as always) to Basketball Reference and ESPN.com for the stats.