Through the first 15 games of the 2011-2012 NBA season, Kobe Bryant has a usage rating of 39.7. Usage rating, an estimate of the amount of offense a team runs through one player, is normalized at 100, meaning that nearly 40% of Lakers possessions with Kobe on the floor end with him either taking a shot, drawing a foul, turning the ball over or making an assist.
For some perspective, the next highest usage rating this year is Carmelo Anthony’s 34.7. Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose and LeBron James are all near 27.
Kobe’s 39.7 is the highest single season number on record, although usage rating statistics only go back to 1977-78. This season, Kobe has had more offense run through him than Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird ever had. He’s currently on pace to break the 38.7 record he set in the 2005-06 season.
That year, Kobe was 26-years-old, coming off the only season he’s ever missed the playoffs. He was at the height of his powers, averaging 35/5/5 on 45% shooting while making the All-NBA Defensive Team. Meanwhile, after Lamar Odom, the next six Lakers in terms of minutes played were Smush Parker, Chris Mihm, Brian Cook, Kwame Brown, Devean George and Luke Walton.
Seven years and over 500 regular-season, playoff and Olympic games later, a 33-year-old Kobe is playing with a litany of injuries, most notably a torn ligament in his right wrist that requires pre-game shots to numb the pain in his shooting hand. He’s doing this in the midst of a condensed 66-game schedule that’s been brutal to older players, with teams playing three consecutive nights and stretches of four to five games in seven days.
Kobe is playing with two of the NBA’s most talented seven-footers in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. And while his ability to hit shots from impossible release points has wowed fans league-wide, his 45.6% shooting percentage pales in comparison to Gasol’s 53.6% and Bynum’s 52.4%. His high-degree of difficulty shots obscure the fact that his lack of athleticism means those are the only ones he can consistently get; Bynum, in comparison, can use his 285 pound frame to camp five feet from the basket and loft nearly incontestable jump-hooks from a 7’6 release point.
Is there any rational reason for an injured 33-year-old shooting guard playing with two All-Star caliber post players to take more shots than a prime 26-year-old shooting guard playing with one of the worst supporting casts in recent NBA memory?
Kobe certainly hasn’t been shy about why he’s taking so many. He called his 48-point performance against a mediocre Phoenix Suns team “not bad for the seventh best player in the NBA”, referring to an offseason poll on ESPN.com.
In contrast, the 35-year-old Tim Duncan, 33-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and the 34-year-old Paul Pierce, all secure with their basketball legacies and trying for one more push at a ring, have been spent the first part of the season trying to save their legs. In a game against Sacramento last week, Dirk played only 20 minutes, knowing that padding his statistics in meaningless January contest wouldn’t help the Mavericks reach their goals.
Dirk’s energy rationing has allowed Dallas to integrate five new players into their rotation, as a big part of being comfortable on the court is knowing you will get a certain amount of shots on a nightly basis.
Kobe, on the other hand, seems to think that a player of Bynum's caliber should be content to scurry around the court chasing down his loose balls. Bynum is averaging twice as many turnovers as assists this season, as he seems to be under the not entirely inaccurate impression that if he passes the ball out of the post, he might as well start jogging down the court after Kobe hoists up a fade-away 20 footer through a double team.
But putting up 40 points against teams like the Suns and the Cavaliers will not make people forget that a 37-year-old Jason Kidd neutralized Kobe in the Mavericks embarrassing 4-0 sweep of the Lakers during last season's playoffs. Kidd, who should be known as “the Real Ruben Patterson” after helping hold Kobe to 14 points on 7-of-22 shooting in the Lakers' last-second 73-70 victory over Dallas on Monday, forced Kobe to take all but one of his shots outside of the paint in the first three games of their second-round series.
There’s no questioning the toughness it takes to play through so many injuries while assuming such a large role of the Lakers offense, however, at a certain point, competitive fire can become counter-productive.
Kobe clearly takes pride in his Jordan-esque “will to win”, saying that Derrick Rose and Chris Paul were the only players in the NBA with his competitive edge. But, regardless of whether it’s even possible to objectively measure a subjective character trait across 450 professional basketball players, does it even matter?
Before last season’s playoffs, Dirk’s reputation was that he didn’t have “what it takes” to be a “killer” like Kobe. All intangibles aside, he is six inches taller than Kobe. He doesn’t need Kobe’s acrobatics to get a good look at the basket; he just needs to turn around and shoot the ball over a smaller defender.
A player who averages only two shots more than Jason Terry would certainly allow Bynum to get more touches in the regular season. And while many would point to this mentality as why Dirk has only one championship to Kobe’s five, would that tally be the same if the Mavericks had Shaq and Pau Gasol manning the center position throughout the last decade while the Lakers had Shawn Bradley and Erick Dampier?
After racking up one MVP, two Finals MVP’s, five championships, and nine first-team All-NBA appearances in over 1,300 NBA regular season and playoff games, Kobe is still playing like he has something to prove. What exactly it is that he’s proving is an open question.