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Best Versus Boston? : Respect Kobe

Best Versus Boston?

In this article:

The Theory: More layups/dunks = more efficient

The Data: Why theorize when we have the results at our disposal?

The Breakdown: Does LeBron really get that many more close shots?

The Distance: Who takes more long-range shots?

The Result: Does closer = more efficient?

The Regular Season: Bad news for Boston?

The Playoffs: Memory is short

The Extremes: Who’s best was better? Who’s worst was worse?

The Unlikely: Some things aren’t likely to happen again

The Conclusion: Who is really the Best Against Boston?

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.

Hot Spots: Breaking Down the Court

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):

Hot Spots: LeBron and Kobe vs. Celtics, this season

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 smallest, inner-most semi-circle will be called Point Blank.
  • The second smallest semi-circle will be called Short Range.
  • The next semi-circle (the largest one that is still inside the 3-point arc) will be called Medium Range.
  • The largest, outer-most semi-circle will be called Long Range.

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:

Hot Spots: LeBron and Kobe vs. Boston, 2008 Playoffs

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:

LeBron James Kobe Bryant
% Taken FG% % Taken FG%
Low Post 35% .671 23% .535
Short Range 12% .160 25% .467
Mid Range 28% .250 31% .321
3-Point Range 25% .240 21% .359

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.

Short Range

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.

Long Range

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.

Overall

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.

Edit: Reader Brandon has asked about each player’s TS% against Boston in the 2008 Playoffs. Since that seemed like a fair question, and since the Playoffs is often referred to as “what really matters,” I’ve decided to include those numbers here. Against Boston in the Playoffs, Kobe shot .505 TS%, while LeBron shot only .480 TS%.

Regular Season

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.

Playoffs

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:

  • In seven games against Boston, LeBron did not shoot over .500 once.
  • His overall FG% for the series was .355.
  • He struggled offensively in five out of seven games; his only good offensive outings were Game 5 (12-25 for 35 points) and Game 7 (14-29 for 45 points). He was below his season averages in rebounds and assists in both of those games.
  • Through the first four games, he shot 20-78, for a FG% of .256.
  • Including Game 6, he shot .287 in five of the seven games.
  • Meanwhile, he tallied double-digit rebounds and assist only one time each, and neither of those coincided with his two good shooting games.

Meanwhile, here are some notes on Kobe Bryant against Boston in the 2008 Finals:

  • In six games against Boston, Kobe was able to shoot over .500 in one game (12-20 for 36 points in Game 3).
  • His overall FG% for the series was .405 — significantly higher than LeBron’s .355.
  • In his four worst games he shot .341 — drastically better than LeBron’s .256.
  • His shooting percentage was never below .310, while LeBron shot .250 or worse in two different games.
  • He made almost the exact same number of shots as LeBron (53 makes for Kobe, 55 for LeBron), but it took him 24 fewer shots to do it.

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.

Best Games

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.

Worst Games

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.

Other Thoughts

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.

Conclusion

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

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10 Comments so far
  1. jmn says...February 10, 2009 12:29 pm

    Love your articles and how you dissect the stats. I think Kobe is yet slightly a better player than Lebron though by a minute margin. I’m a big Kobe fan but I thought he played a terrible 2nd half (and especially 4th quarter) against Boston. He settled for way too many bad jumpshots when Odom and Gasol were almost scoring at will in the paint. Even those 3′s he made weren’t exactly the best shots to take even though it was spectacular to watch him make them.

    Great job and keep the articles coming!

  2. Respect says...February 10, 2009 3:32 pm

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3896242

    You guys need to check that out. I was shaking my head reading this garbage.

  3. Brandon says...February 10, 2009 5:34 pm

    What were Kobe and LeBron’s true shooting percentages against Boston during the playoffs?
     

  4. Josh Tucker says...February 10, 2009 7:08 pm

    @Brandon,

    Good question. Against Boston in the Playoffs, Kobe shot .505 TS%, while LeBron shot .480 TS%.

    That was a good question, so I’ve included an edit to the article to add that fact.

  5. Brittney says...February 10, 2009 8:32 pm

    Josh just keep doing what you do, I just love your work and that’s what ESPN.com is missing, someone who will break the stats down of the 2 stars without any bias towards the other. Just straight up facts. Give me Kobe all the time, defense and offense, Kobe can do it all whereas Lebron is less effective offensively(shooting wise). I swear when and if Lebron develops that jump shot, there will be no hating only appreciation because he will then be an unstoppable force with that body of his and teams won’t be able to defend him, ever. Kobe just so happens to be the total package who can’t receive utter love for his game.

    Respect beat me to it http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3896242 I’m definatly one who thinks Bill Simmons(Sports Guy) is a hater. I only saw highlights of Kobe’s 61 point performance and Lebron’s all around game so I can’t dispute anything he says Kobe does to get his points or how he treated his teammates during that 61 point game. But then again that has always been everyone’s beef with Kobe, oohh he dogs his teammates, it’s all about him, he is not a leader, he doesn’t share the ball and the problem I have with that is that Kobe can’t win with these guys because when he passes the ball, the media claims he had an off night, he didn’t score points for his team, the defense made him give the ball up etc. And then when Kobe is hot from the field and lighting the stat sheet, the media attacks him for being selfish, he didn’t get his team involved, he is not a team player so its like what do they want from Kobe, he does it all and that even ain’t enough. So I don’t care what Bill Simmons says because he is a hater because he doesn’t apperciate the game and he doesn’t give Kobe credit for anything and he finds fault with him on everything. Then Bill goes on to say when Kobe injuries Bynum that Kobe looked like oohh there goes my championship but to me I saw that game and Kobe looked like damn not again and that was my feeling also damn I hope Bynum isn’t lost for the season again, just another point that goes to show Bill gives Kobe no credit and only dogs him as a negative dude who plays ball. Again I’m mad I didn’t see Kobe’s 61 outburst but I can see if Kobe’s teammates are saying bad things after the game about his scoring but I heard and read it differently. His teammates loved it and feed him the ball so where does Bill get his Kobe dominated the ball/hated when one of his teammates took a shot info? Offensively Lebron controls everything for his team whereas Kobe doesn’t thus making their stat production different but it seems everyone on Espn can overlook these facts only to boost Lebron ahead which to me is dumb. Overall I want Kobe and I can’t wait till he holds up another title because what is the media and haters gonna say then?? It’s just ridiculous Josh what you think??

  6. Brittney says...February 10, 2009 9:25 pm

    Josh, Henry must be reading your work because here is his response to your article: http://myespn.go.com/blogs/truehoop/0-38-148/On-Loving-Layups–Which-is-Not-Hating-Kobe-Bryant.html
    But I have no problem with him, I think he’s the few on ESPN.com, who understand the differences between Kobe and Lebron.

  7. John says...February 11, 2009 2:47 pm

    awesome blog. i respect kobe to the fullest and this site is sweet. i found this site on

    http://manspage.blogspot.com
    great check out as well
     
    keep up the good work

  8. Ico says...February 13, 2009 8:31 am

    Excellent, excellent, excellent post. What else can be said?

  9. Anonymous says...February 13, 2009 9:29 pm

    Hey Josh,
    First off, it’s a joy to see you post. 
    1. I’d love to see an actual response to Simmons from you-just putting a link and calling it “garbage” without explaining why is just hating, and this site is better than that. AND DON’T PUT IT IN THE COMMENTS! You can make a post without needing 4 charts and a chapter-marking sidebar on each one, you crazy web-designing fool, you. 
    2. 66% of your articles since you started writing post-hiatus have been almost directly dealing with LeBron James comparisons. 
    3. I think the key finding here is the “short-range shot” data, because it’s something that pans out from observation and the stats- LeBron is 28-96 from that range this season, and he’s never been much better in his career, while Kobe’s got that little go-to jumper from that area-Dwyer pointed this out in a BtBS after the Lakers@Cavs game-all of LeBron’s shots from that area are flying one-handed attempted layups over defenders instead of getting his balance and calmly putting in a little bunny jumper, like #24 does so frequently. LeBron does like to distribute from that position, but an in-between game when the second defender cuts off the penetration is a gaping hole in LeBron’s game that, unfortunately, is only really exploited by the top-level defenses you see in the playoffs. 
    4. Keep in mind that this is a cyclical argument which only results really solve: if LeBron misses his last 6 shots because he gets cut off trying to get to the basket and runs into a waiting wall, everyone laments that he doesn’t have a reliable shot from 18-25 feet out. As it was, Kobe misses from 18-25, so everyone laments he doesn’t get to the rim. 
    5. You call the difference between .517 and .502 is “negligable,” but then Kobe shot .505 in the playoffs while LeBron shot “only” .480. So the difference between important and not 1% 
    6. In the playoffs, where the lion’s share of this data is coming from, Kobe’s Lakers were, post-Gasol, one of the best offensive teams of all time, while the Cavs were an offensively challenged squad. Not only was the offense working in getting him better shots, but his low shooting percentage was hurting the team more, as he was taking a shot away from a teammate who would have a much better chance of making a basket than one of LeBron’s teammates. 
    7. If LeBron’s TS% against Boston was .480 and his TS% after two regular season games is .517, then he’s had(relatively) fantastic success against them in this regular season, with an offense around him that is significantly upgraded and changes the equation. 
    8. What’s the thesis on this piece? That Kobe Bryant scores more efficiently against Boston? That Kobe Bryant plays better against Boston? That Kobe Bryant is a better player? Because you seem to be taking scoring efficency data and labeling games as “better” or “worse” based on it, which sort of flies in the face of 95% of the logic generally employed on this site. A tunnel-visioned individual statistical survey to decide worth is extremely out of character for this site and puts you in at odds with a lot of your prior positions. 
    9. What I ultimately take away from this data is that neither Kobe or LeBron has been effective against Boston, and so it’s hard for me to see the success either of them has had as a feather in either’s cap in regards to a comparison. For LeBron, the diagnosis is fairly straight-forward, and you can see from the chart his short-range shot attempts, which for LeBron represent failed drives, have all but disappeared this season. That LeBron has shot the ball miserably from outside against Boston (well below his general 40% eFG), and still enjoys a nearly identical TS% to Kobe would seem to be a testament to his style of play and shows how the ability to get to the basket can help to cover bad shooting nights, which happen to absolutely every player. This point’s a bit nebulous because this piece’s thesis and conclusion are as well-a response to what you were going for would help.
    10. Can I get some thoughts on this? Hope you’re well. 

  10. Anonymous says...February 18, 2009 7:39 am

    If I could share my thoughts to anonymous on “this” (the link)… I dunno, there is something about basketball that transcends stats. Jeff Van Gundy of ESPN put it perfectly. He said, “I don’t care if he’s (Kobe Bryant) 5-33 since 2004, with less than 2 secs left. I am putting the ball in his hands.” I’d do the same. It’s also good to consider that some of Kobe’s game-winning misses came from poor inbound plays (I think Josh can do a little more research on this one). E.g. That poor inbounds pass from Luke Walton vs Cavs back in 2006. Lastly, the definiton of clutch or game winning shot will always be subjective anyway. Some will restrict it to less than a minute, while someone like David Friedman (whose bias for Kobe is sometimes evident, but is nonetheless an excellent analyst) will define clutch as something like being able to take over at certain intervals in the 4th quarter just when the game is still “up for grabs”. As for 82games.com, I suppose they should consider free-throw % in the “clutch” as well because Im pretty sure LeBron’s clutch % is gonna go down if they consider that – which should be rightfully considered by the way. Peace


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