Kobe Myths – Playoff Edition

Posted on June 23, 2008 by


Last October I posted Kobe Myths, a column that compared the regular season performances of Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Michael Jordan.  This column presented evidence – and this should not be a surprise – that Kobe is nowhere near as productive as MJ.  In addition – and this might be a surprise – Kobe and Paul Pierce are fairly similar in terms of overall productivity (with Pierce having the slight edge).

As I noted on Sunday, it is time to update this story with an examination of the NBA playoffs.  Specifically, is Kobe “like Mike” in the NBA’s second season?

Before we get to that question, let me repeat one of my favorite stories from The Wages of Wins.  Erick Eschker and I wrote a short article for the Journal of Economic Issues (published in 2005).  This article specifically examined whether or not players could systematically play better in the playoffs.  As we detail in Chapter Eight of The Wages of Wins, Eschker and I were unable to find players who “stepped it up” in the post-season.  In fact, on average NBA players see their Win Score per 48 minutes [WS48 – not to be confused with WP48] decline by 1.26. 

Now 1.26 is the average decline.  What if we look specifically at Kobe, Pierce, and MJ? That examination is posted in Tables One and Two.

Tables One and Two: Comparing Kobe, Pierce, and MJ in the Playoffs

Table One compares the average performance of each player -across a host of statistics – in both the regular season and playoffs.  When we look at Kobe, we see that except for turnovers and blocked shots, Kobe declines in every statistical category in the playoffs.  And his overall WS48 decline surpasses the 1.26 drop-off we generally see in NBA players.  In sum, Kobe is not a prime-time player.  In the post-season, he tends to decline quite a bit.  

What about Pierce?  Pierce actually hits the boards better in the playoffs, which somewhat offsets his decline in shooting efficiency.  “Somewhat offsets” is the key phrase.  Overall, we still see a decline in WS48, it’s just not as big a drop-off as we tend to see.

The last player reported in Table One is Jordan.  When we look at Jordan’s post-season performances we see how silly it is to compare Kobe (or Pierce) to MJ.  Jordan was truly an amazing player in the playoffs.  Of course, what is even more amazing is what MJ did in the regular season.  Yes, as detailed in The Wages of Wins, even MJ tended to get worse in the playoffs (although he still offered much more than Kobe or Pierce).

In Table Two (beneath Table One above), we see each player’s performance from year-to-year.   Kobe has now been to the playoffs eleven times.  Nine of these trips saw his productivity – in terms of WS48 – decline. 

Like Kobe, Pierce and MJ also were only better in the post-season twice. Pierce, though, has only been to the playoffs five times.  So his batting average -relative to Kobe and MJ – is quite good.  Interestingly, Pierce’s playoff performance this year – when he was named Finals MVP — was substantially worse than his corresponding regular season productivity.

Okay, what do all these numbers tell us?

  • Kobe is not “like Mike”. We can clearly see this when we look at what each player did in the regular season and playoffs.
  • Kobe and Pierce offer similar levels of productivity in the regular season.
  • In the playoffs, Pierce has been much better than Kobe in his career.
  • Although Pierce offers more than Kobe in the playoffs, Pierce — like Kobe — is still not “like Mike”.

One should note that one reason Pierce offers more is that he has spent more time at small forward.  Again, small forwards tend to do more rebounding than shooting guards, so it’s not surprising to see small forwards post higher Win Scores.  Even when we adjust for position played, though, Pierce still comes out ahead of Kobe.

Let me close by noting that this doesn’t make Pierce the “best” player in the game today (a label often given to Kobe).  In fact, Pierce is not even the best player on his own team.  As mentioned many times, Kevin Garnett has been the best player in the NBA for a number of years.  And although Chris Paul surpassed KG in 2007-08, Garnett still offers much more than either “The Truth” or Kobe.

– DJ

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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.