Posted by Neil Paine on December 8, 2008
I have to say that I'm really enjoying FreeDarko's new book, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. It's one of the most unique basketball books I've ever read, and the artwork is nothing short of, well, macrophenomenal. But the purpose of this post isn't simply to plug FD's book -- though you should really check it out -- rather, it's about the Almanac's chapter on Kobe Bryant. They start it off thusly:
Check the résumé -- it's absolutely impeccable. A 6'6" shooting guard with limitless physical tools, a hell-bent perfectionist, Kobe Bryant works tirelessly to condition his body and enhance his game. He's fearless in the clutch, voraciously competitive, and serious to the point of bleakness.
If the parallels to Michael Jordan weren't clear in the opening paragraph, they go on to characterize Bryant as a man with a similarly obsessive need to win as MJ (except without the mentorship of a Dean Smith to provide balance in his personality), and they list as Kobe's player comparison "a smarter, more neurotic Michael Jordan". Now, certainly FreeDarko is not the first to make the MJ-Kobe juxtaposition, as it was practically tailor-made for Bryant by the media from the first moment he stepped onto an NBA court. But reading that chapter made me think further about the Jordan-Kobe comparison, one which is almost tacit at this point, so ingrained as to be a fundamental assumption of today's NBA landscape. Looking at the stats, exactly how "Jordanesque" is Bryant?
Let's examine the respective progressions of Jordan and Bryant's careers through age 29, using some of the stats in Dean Oliver's seminal book Basketball on Paper. Specifically, we're going to take a look at each player's offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions used), the % of team possessions they use when on the court, and their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 opponent possessions). I'm also going to adjust these numbers for the era in which the players played, with a little help from our old friend the pythagorean expectation.
If you recall, a team's winning % can be approximated by the following formula:
Well, we can also apply this to individual ratings, as a means of calculating offensive and defensive "winning percentages":
OW% = (ORtg14 / (ORtg14 + LgRtg14))
DW% = (LgRtg14 / (LgRtg14 + DRtg14))
With these numbers in hand, you can use simple algebra to rearrange each equation and solve for ORtg and DRtg, which you can then use to "translate" an OW% or DW% to its equivalent ORtg/DRtg in any given season, using the league's rating:
Translated ORtg = (LgRtg * OW%1/14) / ((1-OW%)1/14)
Translated DRtg = ((LgRtg14 - (DW% * LgRtg14))1/14) / (DW%1/14)
In this example, we're going to translate Kobe and MJ's numbers to the environment of the 2007-08 season, when the average team scored 1.075 pts/possession:
Age Player Year Tm trORtg %Poss trDRtg Player Season Tm trORtg %Poss trDRtg ---+-------+-----+----+-------+------+-------+-------+-------+----+-------+------+------- 21 Bryant 2000 LAL 114.1 26.3 101.2 Jordan 1985 CHI 117.4 29.5 106.4 22 Bryant 2001 LAL 116.8 30.6 109.6 Jordan 1986 CHI 109.5 35.8 107.3 23 Bryant 2002 LAL 115.0 30.0 105.8 Jordan 1987 CHI 115.7 35.9 103.5 24 Bryant 2003 LAL 115.6 32.0 106.4 Jordan 1988 CHI 122.3 32.4 100.8 25 Bryant 2004 LAL 117.4 28.5 106.1 Jordan 1989 CHI 122.2 31.9 102.8 26 Bryant 2005 LAL 112.7 31.6 112.9 Jordan 1990 CHI 122.4 32.4 104.9 27 Bryant 2006 LAL 115.0 36.5 106.7 Jordan 1991 CHI 124.9 31.3 101.2 28 Bryant 2007 LAL 116.5 32.6 110.2 Jordan 1992 CHI 120.4 30.2 101.0 29 Bryant 2008 LAL 115.0 30.6 104.8 Jordan 1993 CHI 118.7 32.8 101.9 ---+-------+-----+----+-------+------+-------+-------+-------+----+-------+------+-------
As you can see, out of necessity Jordan was taking on a large offensive responsibility early in his career; as his teammates got better, he slowly eased back on the workload, and his efficiency improved as a result. Kobe's story is the opposite: with great teammates early, he didn't have to do as much, but when Shaq left before the '05 season, Kobe was actually forced to take a larger role in the offense than even Jordan ever had to.
It's more interesting, though, to look at the efficiency levels the players maintained vs. their % of possessions used. The mark of a truly great offensive player is to maintain a high level of efficiency while taking on a large share of the team's offensive responsibility, and even though Kobe's numbers are impressive, Jordan is consistently more efficient than Bryant no matter if he's using more possessions or not. Also, note the translated defensive ratings: aside from their age-21 seasons, MJ is better (sometimes vastly so) at every turn.
In other words -- and this should be obvious -- when we watch Kobe play, we're seeing a far lesser version of Michael Jordan in action. Similar in style and mannerism, maybe, but when we translate the statistics for era, it becomes very clear that Jordan was actually the one "playing chess" while Bryant "plays checkers". This isn't meant to denigrate Kobe Bryant or FreeDarko's characterization of him, of course, but rather to highlight the fact that MJ operated on a different level than perhaps anyone else in NBA history (as we've seen time and again, compare anyone to Jordan and they'll invariably fall short). I've found that the more time passes, the greater the temptation is to focus on current players as "this generation's (insert Hall of Famer here)"... Fortunately, by looking at the numbers we can separating hype from reality and more impartially judge the merit of such comparisons.