Kobe Bryant and success as a lone wolf

Watching Kobe’s outrageous 60 points on 22/50 shooting in his final game stirred up all my old antipathy for the withered superstar. Ball-stopping, inefficient volume shooting from mid-range was Kobe’s trademark. Over the course of his long career enough of those shots went in that he’s 3rd all time in scoring and deified by Lakers fans. Kobe is one of the best one-on-one scorers of all time. This is a relatively difficult way to score but it’s how Kobe preferred to play, so much so that he effectively forced Shaq to leave the Lakers so that he could shoulder more of the scoring load and get more of the credit for the team’s success (which speaks to his insecurity). His toughness, defensive ability, athleticism, and skill were elite and beyond question. However, his selfish/inefficient style and active disdain for his teammates flies in the face of what conventional wisdom tells us should be successful.

Kobe fans are understandably quick to counter that Kobe has won 5 championships (the “Count the Ringz!” argument) so his game must be conducive to winning. Kobe-haters like me will then yell about how lucky Kobe was to play with Shaq and Pau in their primes. Kobe did not have much success From 2004-2007 playing as a “lone wolf” gunner without a HOF center on his team. He missed the playoffs once and lost in the 1st round twice between Shaq leaving and Pau joining the team. This stretch occurred when Kobe was ages 25-28, he won his two scoring titles during this stretch, and he won his only MVP award at the tail end of this mini-era (Pau joined the team mid-season in 2008). What I’m saying is that Kobe’s personal prime occurred without superstar help on the roster; we got to see what happens when a team is given the full Kobe Bryant experience and the results were mediocre.

All-star level teammates are almost always necessary for championship-level success, so most people don’t hold it against Kobe how those non-HOF-center seasons went. However it occurred to me that the results from those years might be compared to the years Kobe’s peers had when they were similarly forced to play as a “lone wolf” (which I’ve defined as a season where a player is named an all-star but no one else on his team is named an all-star that season). My hypothesis was that Kobe’s selfish play-style in the vacuum of no-superstar-help probably generated less wins than  the “lone-wolf” seasons of Kobe’s peers with more balanced playstyles like Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, or Lebron James.

So I made a table listing the win percentage various NBA stars had playing as a lone wolf, how many games/seasons they had to play as a lone wolf, and what percentage of the player’s years at an all-star level were spent playing as a lone wolf. Although rife with confounders, I think this table is an interesting look at how effective these different players were when, out of necessity, they had to carry the team.

I set arbitrary cutoffs of at least 2 seasons played as a lone wolf and at least 7 all-star-selections total in order for a player to be included in this table.

Perhaps the most enlightening thing I discovered were the players who cannot be included in this analysis because they never had to play as a lone wolf. Larry Bird (12 ASG’s), Magic Johnson (12 ASG’s), Wilt Chamberlain (13 ASG’s), Bill Russell (12 ASG’s), and Jerry West (14 ASG’s) never had an all-star season in which there was not another all-star on their team. There were fewer teams in the league when Wilt/Bill/Jerry played but for Magic and Larry especially it really drives home how important it is for NBA guys to end up on the right teams in order to be successful. Julius Erving (11 NBA ASG’s, only 1 lone wolf season) and Steve Nash (8 ASG’s, only 1 lone wolf season) were also omitted.

Here’s a link to the sortable table:

So, we see that Kobe Bryant won 55% of his lone wolf games, significantly higher than guys like Carmelo Anthony and Tracy McGrady and significantly lower than Tim Duncan and Lebron James. Admittedly I’m happy with these results because they feed my confirmation bias that Kobe is top 20 all time but not top 5 or even top 10. We can also see that Kobe is relatively fortunate to have only had to play as a lone wolf for 4 of his 15 all-star seasons. Of course Kobe actually had 18 all star selections but the last 3 years he’s been voted in because of fan support and not because he was playing at an all star level. If you include these last 3 years in the calculation Kobe’s win percentage drops to 47% but I don’t think that’s really representative of Kobe’s ability, it would be like counting the Wizards years against MJ (if you count the Wizards years MJ’s win % drops from 61 to 57).

Some other interesting stuff from the table:
-Dirk is a hero for the Mavs , playing 9 lone wolf seasons and winning 65% of the time
-Patrick Ewing was on his own in NYC, playing 10 of his 11 all-star seasons as a lone wolf
-It seems like if you can only have one all-star on your team you want it to be a big man, guys like Duncan, David Robinson, Dirk, Karl Malone, Kareem, and Olajuwon won >60% of their lone wolf games while guys like Dwyane Wade, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, and Carmelo Anthony won <50% as lone wolves.
-Vince Carter did better as a lone wolf than peers Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Tracy McGrady, interesting since he is generally considered an inferior player to all those guys




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