13th April 2016
As Kobe Bean Bryant bids farewell to the NBA, you'll likely hear a lot about all of the great accomplishments during his Hall of Fame career. The buzzer beaters, the 81-point game, the rings, the All-NBA teams, the All-Defense teams, the MVP votes. His great achievements literally go on and on. It's why most consider him one of the greatest guards in the history of the game. These accomplishments should be acknowledged, and chances are you've been hearing about them a lot this week.
However, as Kobe says goodbye tonight, I wanted to look at a part of his legacy that has always fascinated me: the way that he has said goodbye in past seasons. Bryant is considered by many to be one of the all-time great postseason performers. The reasons are obvious: He has five rings and two NBA Finals MVPs. He's the third-leading scorer in NBA Postseason history. However, the ultimate test of a superstar player is how they perform with their back against the wall. So I decided to examine Bryant's performance when facing playoff elimination. I did the same for some players with whom he's often compared: Michael Jordan & LeBron James.
First, let me be explicit: By "facing elimination" I mean any playoff game in which a loss would mean the end of his team's season. So these are games in which his team entered with two losses in a best-of-5 series or three losses in a best-of-7 series.
It turns out Bryant faced elimination 19 times in his career. The table below shows his statistics in these 19 games, with links to the box scores for each (by clicking the date). You'll notice that, coincidentally, the first two elimination games of the Black Mamba's career were against the Jazz (the same team he will finish his career against tonight).
It should be noted that in 1997 and 1998, Bryant was a teenager coming off the bench for the Lakers and did not always see consistent minutes. LeBron and MJ were never in the playoffs as teens, so it's probably unfair to include those years in any comparison. That said, here's Vino's averages in the 17 elimination games he played after becoming a starter. We've also listed the averages for Jordan and James in such games (and have even thrown in Allen Iverson, as a control of sorts, for those who think MJ & LeBron set an impossible standard):
The first thing you'll note is that Bryant is the only of the four to have a winning record in these games (though that record falls to 9-10 if you include losses to the Jazz in his first two seasons). However, you'll notice his personal statistics are a cut below the other players on the list, especially Jordan and James. Of the four, Bryant ranks last a scorer, 2nd-worst in shooting efficiency, 2nd-worst in rebounding, and last in assists. Add it all up and Bryant's average Game Score when facing elimination is 14.7. Game Score was created by John Hollinger to give a rough estimate of a player's productivity for a single game. The scale is similar to that of points scored, so 40 is an outstanding performance and 10 is average. Needless to say, a 14.7 average Game Score in contests of this level of import is very pedestrian for a player of Kobe's standing. For further perspective, Bryant's average Game Score for his entire career is 17.4.
Michael Jordan, meanwhile, was predictably outstanding in these games as he averaged about 31 PPG, 8 RPG and 7 APG, with efficient shooting numbers. His Game Score average of 23.3 crushes Bryant's 14.7. LeBron James, contrary to his reputation, has even better numbers than Jordan in these games, ranking as the best scorer, rebounder and shooter of the group. His average Game Score of 23.7 is also the best. Allen Iverson, meanwhile, put up big scoring and assists numbers, but was the least efficient shooter of the group (though his TS% is close to Kobe's). Still, Iverson's 18.3 Game Score average puts him well ahead of Bryant.
In addition to the relative lack of individual success, the other striking thing about Bryant in these games is the magnitude of several of the losses. It's absolutely incredible that a player on so many great teams was also a part of so many season-ending meltdowns. Let's review:
- Game 5 of 1997 Western Conference Semifinals: Jazz 98, Lakers 93 in OT: This game wasn't a blowout, but it's the one that started it all. Bryant, an 18-year old rookie faced elimination for the first time and responded by putting up 14 shot in 29 minutes off the bench (his most FGA off the bench all season). Unfortunately, these attempts included four airballs late in the 4th quarter and in OT, as he tried to lead the Lakers after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out.
- Game 6 of 2003 Western Conference Semifinals: Spurs 110, Lakers 82: This one, obviously, did not need overtime. The Lakers bid for a four-peat came to a crushing end, as the Spurs handed them a 28-point defeat. Bryant scored just 20 points on 19 FGA and committed 7 turnovers
- Game 5 of 2004 NBA Finals: Pistons 100, Lakers 87: The 13-point final margin doesn't really scream "blowout", but the Lakers all-star team entered the 4th-quarter 23 points down and never really made a a game of it against a blue-collar Pistons team. Bryant shot 7-21 from the field as the Lakers were outscored by 19 points in the 45 minutes he was on the floor.
- Game 7 of 2006 Western Conference First Round: Suns 121, Lakers 90: After missing the playoffs in 2005, Bryant's return to the postseason was a 7-game classic in which the Lakers took three of the first four games from the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points on 8-16 shooting, but attempted just 3 shots in the 2nd half.
- Game 6 of 2008 NBA Finals: Celtics 131, Lakers 92: The 2nd-biggest blowout in NBA Finals history, and still the largest in a Finals clinching game.
- Game 7 of 2010 NBA Finals: Lakers 83, Celtics 79: Sure, the Lakers won and Bryant earned NBA Finals MVP, but: 6-for-24.
- Game 4 of 2011 Western Conference Semifinals: Mavericks 122, Lakers 86: The Lakers, coming off of two straight NBA titles, see their season end via sweep. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come that The Triangle was unceremoniously buried by a barrage of (20) Dallas three-pointers. Bryant had more FGA (18) than points (17), and added five turnovers.
- Game 5 of 2012 Western Conference Semifinals: Thunder 106, Lakers 90: This game isn't really a blowout loss, but Mamba deserves credit for coming up big with 42 points on 18-33 shooting in what will go down as his last ever NBA Playoff game.
If you're counting at home, that's four losses by 28+ points when facing playoff elimination. Does Kobe have one more dramatic ending in store for us?
Attached below are tables showing the elimination games of the other players mentioned in this post.