In the aftermath of the Lakers’ second regular season victory over the Celtics, Kobe Bryant’s poor shooting night in Boston led Henry Abbott of TrueHoop to compare Bryant’s flashy versatility to LeBron’s effective consistency. Glancing at shot charts, Abbott points out that LeBron’s ability to get close to the basket, while not as flashy, is just as successful and impressive against Boston’s vaunted defense.
While Abbott isn’t the one suggesting that one method is better than the other, a theory that has become very prominent is the idea that LeBron’s ability to get layups where Kobe has to settle for jumpshots makes him better — be it overall, or in given situations. This theory does makes a lot of sense. In the NBA, getting into the paint is considered a Good Thing™, and no one does this better than LeBron James. But with the sample size limited to only one game from Bryant and two from James, this remains but a theory. The question, then, is whether this theory holds up in practice. Does LeBron’s ability to get closer to the basket more frequently make him more efficient and effective against the Celtics?
Fortunately, we’re not left to debate theories on this topic, since we have at our disposal a large enough sample size to confidently answer this question. In addition to the two games each has played against Boston this season, each played at least six games against Boston in the 2008 Playoffs (six for Kobe, seven for LeBron). This larger sample size allows us to change the question, bringing it out of the theoretical and into the real world. Instead of “Who is likely to shoot better against Boston?” the question becomes, “Who does shoot better against Boston?”
To answer this question, I’ve chosen to use the Hot Spots feature available on NBA.com. While shot charts are nice, multiple shots taken from similar spots on the floor tend to overlap and appear as one, making it hard to get an accurate count. Hot Spots allows us to see a player’s performance against a given team, and it also allows us to specify a specific time frame. In this case, I looked up the Hot Spots for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James against the Celtics, both for this year and for the 2008 Playoffs. Here’s what I found.
Both the Lakers and the Cavaliers have played two games against the Celtics this season. Here are Bryant’s and James’ Hot Spots from those two games combined (click to view larger):
In these floor charts, the court is divided into four concentric semi-circles, each of which is broken into smaller parts. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I’m going to refer to these as follows:
The first thing to notice is the white percentages that I have placed at the “top” of each semi-circle. These represent the percentage of shots taken from that are of the floor. So, for example, 46% of LeBron James’ shots against the Celtics this year have been from Point Blank. By contrast, only 25% of Kobe Bryant’s shots have been from Point Blank.
In the 2008 Playoffs, James played seven games against the Celtics, and Bryant six. Here are their Hot Spots for those games:
Combining the 2008 Playoffs and the current regular season to date, we get the following averages for each player, over a span of at least eight games each since the 2008 Playoffs:
The most obvious thing that this tells us is what we already know: That James gets to the basket for layups and dunks more frequently than Bryant. But that is not all that the above numbers tell us. They also tell us who is better from each area of the floor, and they allow us to calculate who is more the more efficient scorer against Boston overall.
One interesting thing to notice is that while James takes more Point Blank shots than Bryant, he also takes significantly fewer Short Range shots than Bryant. The significance of this should not be overlooked. While I agree with Abbott that Bryant probably tends to catch and shoot more than Jordan or LeBron, it’s interesting to see in the Hot Spots that he actually still takes a high percentage of shots from close range.
In fact, while LeBron James takes more shots from Point Blank, Kobe Bryant actually takes more shots from Point Blank and Short Range combined — 48% to LeBron’s 47%. Thus, while James does get closer to the basket more often, it is inaccurate to suggest that he takes more inside shots than Bryant. Given that Kobe converts on short range jumpshots at a much higher rate than LeBron, the numbers actually suggest that the difference in effectiveness resulting from penetration is much smaller than it seemed.
While the operating assumption has been that Kobe Bryant takes more outside jumpshots than LeBron James, the numbers actually show the exact opposite. 53% of LeBron James’ shots are either “long two-pointers” (Medium Range) or three-pointers, as compared to 52% for Bryant. In particular, LeBron takes significantly more three-point shots than Kobe Bryant: 25% of James’ shots are 3-pointers, as compared to only 21% for Bryant. Thus, the assumption that Kobe Bryant takes more outside shots than LeBron James is actually incorrect.
While LeBron’s higher conversion rate from close range gives him a slight advantage over Bryant — he shoots .540 on close shots against Boston, while Bryant shoots “only” .500 — his very poor shooting from outside, combined with the sheer volume of outside shots he takes, hurts him overall. From the Medium Range and Long Range areas of the floor, James shoots only .245 against Boston, compared to Bryant’s .336 from the same range.
As I mentioned earlier, the basic assumption is that getting into the paint for layups and dunks is a Good Thing™, leading us to the conclusion that LeBron James must be more effective against the Celtics, by virtue of his superior ability to get to the basket against them. While that makes sense in theory, the real question is whether this pans out in practice, his ability to get more layups and dunks resulting in better efficiency.
One of the primary reasons for which inside shots are so highly valued is their significantly higher conversion rate. As we can see from the numbers above, both Bryant and James convert at a higher rate from close shots than they do from outside. But what effect does this have on each player’s overall efficiency against Boston? First, let’s look at Field Goal Percentage, which can tell us whether James’ ability to get to the basket actually translates to a higher overall shooting percentage against Boston.
This is where things get interesting, as we discover that LeBron’s ability to get to the basket more frequently than Kobe actually has not resulted in a higher overall shooting percentage. In nine games against Boston, LeBron has shot only .384 overall from the field. By contrast, Bryant has shot .415 in eight games against Boston. While these numbers are quite low for both players, James’ drop in field goal percentage is significantly larger than Bryant’s.
Another reason given for preferring James’ ability to get into the paint is that it allows him to draw more fouls than Bryant. This is certainly true: In eight games against Boston, Bryant has averaged only 6.6 FTAs per game, while in nine games, James has averaged 11.9 FTAs.
However, this gets at the larger issue, which is overall efficiency. FG% does not take free throw shooting into account, and as such, it is a poor measure of a player’s overall shooting efficiency. However, rather than attempting to subjectively weigh FG% against free throws taken, we can simply use John Hollinger’s True Shooting Percentage, which exactly measures overall shooting efficiency — taking into account both free throw shooting and 3-point shooting.
Essentially, TS% tells us the amount of points a player scores per shot, including shots that result in two free throws (and therefore are not counted in the box score). What do we find when comparing LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in eight-plus games against the Celtics? Interestingly, we find that the two are nearly identical in overall shooting efficiency against Boston so far.
In nine games against Boston, LeBron James’ overall TS% is .519. In eight games against the Celtics, Kobe Bryant’s TS% is .502. Thus, in terms of overall shooting efficiency, the difference between the two is less than 2%. (Note: To understand how negligible the difference is between the two, consider that prior to Thursday’s game between the Lakers and Celtics, their True Shooting Percentages were within 3/10ths of a percentage (0.3%) of each other. These numbers are so close that one good or bad game from either can change who comes out with the slight edge.)
For LeBron James, it is indeed the high percentage of layups and dunks that he takes, combined with the extra free throws he earns, that compensates for his very poor shooting in all other areas of the court, boosting his TS%. For Kobe Bryant, it is his good shooting from Short Range and, particularly, Long Range that boosts his TS%, compensating for the fact that he gets fewer layups and dunks, and converts them at a lower rate. The end result is that Bryant and James perform with virtually identical overall offensive efficiency against Boston.
To Boston’s credit, these TS% numbers are notably low for both players.
Note: It’s worth pointing out that, while LeBron’s has performed above his average at the free throw line against Boston, Kobe’s free throw shooting percentage against Boston is low for him, mainly as a result of Game 3 of the Finals, in which Bryant shot went 11-18 from the line. Had he converted at his usual rate, the two players’ TS% would have been within half a percent of each other.
It’s interesting to notice that both players have performed better during the 2008-09 regular season than they did in the 2008 Playoffs. Both have gotten to Point Blank range more often this year, and both have converted at a higher rate once they got there. On the other hand, both have taken fewer Short Range jumpshots this year, perhaps because they’ve been more able to get all the way to the basket.
This does not bode well for Boston, as it plays strongly to LeBron James’ strengths, and opens up the floor for Kobe Bryant. It is likely that this is a reflection of the continued improvement of Both L.A. and Cleveland, while Boston has remained where they were, or perhaps even lost a step, depending on who you ask.
One of the things that caused me to go back and look at the results from a larger sample size against Boston was a recollection of how poorly LeBron James played against Boston in the Playoffs. Make no mistake, Kobe Bryant had his share of offensive struggles against Boston as well. But against Boston, James set records for consecutive and consistent poor performances by a player of his caliber, and one of the primary ways in which Boston was so successful in defending him was to keep him out of the paint. With that in recent memory, I was surprised to see LeBron’s ability to get to the hoop against Boston taken for granted.
To review, here are some notes on LeBron James against Boston in the 2008 Playoffs:
Meanwhile, here are some notes on Kobe Bryant against Boston in the 2008 Finals:
LeBron James’ ability to get to the basket is something very few teams can stop, or even significantly hinder. The Celtics, however, have shown that they are that rare team which is an exception to the rule. Given that, it becomes clear that mid- and long-range shooting are of vital importance against the Celtics, which is why Kobe Bryant has been every bit as successful on an individual level as James, if not more so.
LeBron James’ two best games, as mentioned above, were Game 5 and Game 7. Nonetheless, he was unable to shoot above .500 in either one of them.
In Game 5, he shot 12-25 (.480 FG%) and scored 35 points, along with five assists, three rebounds, one steal, and one block. The result was a seven-point loss in Boston. In Game 7, he shot 14-29 (.483 FG%) and scored 45 points, along with six assists, five rebounds, and two steals. Again, the result was a five-point loss in Boston.
In both games, one could argue that James’ sub-.500 shooting percentage didn’t justify the number of shots he took and the extent to which he dominated the ball. Certainly, that would have been a popular criticism had Kobe taken that many shots while shooting only 48% from the field.
Meanwhile, Kobe’s two best games, in terms of FG%, were Games 2 and 3.
In Game 3, he shot 12-20 (.600 FG%) and scored 36 points, adding seven rebounds, two steals, and an assist while leading the Lakers to a six-point win in L.A. In Game 2, he shot 11-23 (.478 FG%) and scored 30 points, adding eight assists, four rebounds, and three steals while falling just short of a 19-point comeback in Boston.
Bryant’s two best shooting games were superior to James’, scoring more efficiently and adding high rebounds and assists, while leading the Lakers to a win in one and a near-comeback in the other.
LeBron James’ two worst games, in terms of FG%, were Games 1 and 2.
In Game 1, he shot just 2-18 (.111 FG%) for 12 points, and missed all six of his three-pointers. Though he added nine assists and nine rebounds, he also had a dismal 10 turnovers, as he led the Cavaliers to a four-point loss in Boston. In Game 2, he shot 6-24 (.250 FG%) for 21 points, and while he had six assists and five rebounds, he again finished with a very high seven turnovers for the game. The result was another loss in Boston, this time by 16 points.
Kobe Bryant’s two worst games, in terms of FG%, were Games 4 and 6.
In Game 4, he shot 6-19 (.316 FG%) for 17 points. However, he did have 10 assists, four rebounds, and four steals, while only turning the ball over twice. The result, nonetheless, was a 24-point comeback win by Boston. In Game 6, Bryant shot 7-22 (.318 FG%) for 22 points, taking 9 three pointers as the Celtics blew the Lakers out to end the series and win the championship.
Some of the things we’ve seen in the 17 games Bryant and James have played against the Celtics are unlikely to be repeated. James, for example, is unlikely to tally 17 turnovers in two straight games again. He is also unlikely to shoot just 2-18 again.
Likewise, Bryant is highly unlikely all six of his final shots again, even if he does continue to take only jumpers late in the game. In fact, if those two teams played that game 10 times, it’s safe to say that in nine of them, Bryant would have hit several of those shots, preventing the game from ever being as close as it was.
Given all of the above, it’s clear that the idea of LeBron James having more success against the Celtics because of his superior ability to drive to the basket is a popular theory that simply doesn’t pan out in practice.
While it is true that James gets to the basket for dunks and layups more than Bryant, it is also true that he takes more outside shots than Bryant, while hitting far fewer of them.
His poor shooting in every area outside of point blank range (i.e., dunks and layups) — and Boston’s ability to force him to take a lot of those types of shots — drastically reduce his overall efficiency and effectiveness against the Celtics. In fact, in nine games against Boston he has shot a dismal 30-131, equal to .229 FG%, on everything outside of dunks and layups.
Meanwhile, his worst games in the Playoffs were significantly worse than Bryant’s worst games, and Bryant’s best games were better than James’.
Given all of this, as well as their nearly identical True Shooting Percentage, which is the truest indicator of shooting efficiency, two things should now be very apparent: First, that Boston makes it harder for LeBron to get to the basket the way he usually does, thereby minimizing his strengths; and second, that because he is such a poor shooter outside of the low post, the theoretical advantage he has in getting to the basket more frequently than Bryant does not pan out in practice.
Filed Under 3-Point Shooting, Boston Celtics, Defense, Free Throw Shooting, Kobe Bryant, Lakers, LeBron James, Mid-Range Jumpshot, Playoffs, Statistics, poor shooting, turnovers, weaknesses | 10 Comments