In this series, I’m taking a look at modern superstars and examining how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways. What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.
I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider the sample size of games missed, injuries to fellow teammates, and the context of the games, so those facts will be noted and considered.
Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Kobe Bryant.
With Shaq (’96-97 to ’03-04)
Kobe entered the league as only the second high schooler in 20 years to make the leap (Kevin Garnett did it the year before). After the Charlotte Hornets made him the 13th overall pick, he was dealt to the Lakers for soon-to-not-be-necessary-due-to-Shaq’s-arrival Vlade Divac. The deal was presumably made because Bryant and his family wanted him to play in a big market; Arn Tellem, his agent in 1996, called playing for the Hornets “an impossibility.” For the next eight years he was paired with Shaquille O’Neal, and the last five of which they played under HOF coach Phil Jackson.
Bryant only started 7 games during his first two years in the league, so any examination of the team’s improvement in that time has almost nothing to do with him, so I won’t do that (although I will note they went 117-47 [.713] during those two years and then dropped to 31-19 [.620] his first year as a full-time starter and major contributor in ’98-99). What has to be done when a team has two big dogs like Shaq and Kobe, however, is look at how the team performed during their eight years together with every combination of missed games between the two. Here are the most straight-forward numbers: the Lakers were 261-101 (.721) when both players played, 32-10 (.762) with Shaq but no Kobe, 23-25 (.479) with Kobe but no Shaq, and 2-6 (.250) when both were hurt.
I know a lot of fans assume those numbers must be swayed in some way by Kobe’s early years with the team and can’t possibly be a true reflection of how he affected the Lakers’ success in that time, so I’ll now provide the numbers for each of their three championship seasons together.
In ’99-00, LA went 0-1 (.000) when both were missing, 1-1 (.500) when Shaq was out but Kobe played, 15-3 (.833) when Kobe was injured or came off the bench (he did so right after returning from his injury) but Shaq played/started, and 51-10 (.836) together.
In ’00-01, LA went 5-3 (.625) when Shaq was out but Kobe played, 11-3 (.786) when Kobe was out but Shaq played, and 40-20 (.667) together.
In ’01-02, LA went 7-8 (.467) when Shaq was out but Kobe played, 2-0 (1.000) when Kobe was out but Shaq played, and 49-16 (.754) together.
Adding everything up for that three year stretch that included three championships, Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson controlling egos and steering the ship, plus a phenomenal supporting cast, the Lakers were 0-1 (.000) with both out, 13-12 (.520) with Shaq out, 28-6 (.823) with Kobe out or getting back into shape as a reserve, and 140-46 (.753) together.
Kobe’s impact on W-L’s: Neither Shaq or Kobe ever missed a playoff game during their eight years together, so all we have to go on is their regular season numbers. Considering Shaq was known for coasting in the regular season and Kobe has gotten the reputation of always having his switch in the “on” position no matter what the stakes, it seems even odder that the Lakers did better without Kobe than they did with him in this time. When you look at their playoff performances together, Shaq rightfully won all three Finals MVP’s during their championships and certainly never had some of the horrendous shooting percentages that Kobe put up during their ’99-00 through '03-04 post-seasons (ex: Bryant shot 41% throughout the '04 playoffs, and 34% in those four Finals losses). There’s not a lot of ways to look at these W-L numbers: Kobe’s impact was slightly negative to the Lakers during his first eight years.
The middle three years (’04-05 to ’06-07)
After the growing feud between Shaq and Kobe reached a head in the 2004 Finals that they lost to Detroit, Shaq signed with the Heat in the offseason, Phil Jackson retired after reportedly telling GM Mitch Kupchak “I won’t coach this team next year if [Bryant] is still here. He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid" (and writing an entire book describing how impossible it was working with Kobe), Gary Payton and Karl Malone were gone after so-so seasons and bad playoffs, and crunch-time maestro Derek Fisher got out of town so he wasn’t left with the wreckage. That wreckage was a Lakers squad that sported Kobe Bryant but none of the other key factors to their recent success (Devean George did remain from the three-peat). The team, however, picked up Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Chucky Atkins. That means LA’s #2 through #4 players were a 15-10 PF who provided extreme defensive versatility and great passing out of the post, a 16-6 SF who also averaged a team-high 1.4 steals per game, and a 14 ppg PG with a good 4.4 to 1.8 Assist-Turnover rate (2.44 ratio) who shot 39% from deep on 5.5 attempts per game. It wasn’t the same as having Shaq, PJ, and Fisher, but not a bad supporting trio. With Kobe playing that season, they went 28-38 (.424), and without him they went 6-10 (.375). We have to look at the final month of the season to get a clearer picture of how this team operated, however. Going into their March 18 contest with the Pacers, the Lakers were 32-32 and right in the thick of making the playoffs. Odom went down with a left shoulder injury that night and the team finished a disastrous 2-16 the rest of the way, including 2-14 (.125) with Kobe in the lineup. It’s hard to argue that Kobe was more important to the ’04-05 team than Odom considering how bad they got without the one compared to the other.
Phil Jackson returned to the Lakers’ sideline in ’05-06 ($$$), the Pacific Division got much easier as the Suns’ and Kings’ records both took a big tumble that year, and Lamar Odom stuck around (who now lead the team in rebounds and assists). The rest of the lineup certainly looked worse on paper, although the forever-panned Smush Parker provided almost identical shooting percentages to Kobe plus much better A-TO and steal rates, plus all the other big men (Chris Mihm, Brian Cook, and Kwame Brown) shot at or over 50% for the year, with Cook also hitting 43% from deep while the other two both posted Rebound Percentages above 14.0, making the Lakers one of only three teams to have multiple players rebounding at that rate for the year. All that being said, the Lakers went 45-35 (.563) with Kobe and 0-2 (.000) without, but I’ll add that they also lost their only two games without Odom as well.
In ’06-07, Phil Jackson was obviously still there, Lamar Odom remained great in all facets of the game, Luke Walton’s cerebral play did enough to earn him a huge contract, Smush Parker was about the same as the year before (plus he now averaged more steals than Bryant even though he played 10 less minutes per), Kwame Brown was now shooting a phenomenal 59% from the field, and youngster Andrew Bynum played in every game and recorded 10 double-doubles. Again, not the best supporting cast, but we see plenty of teams with much much worse every year. The Lakers went 39-38 (.506) with Kobe in the lineup and 3-2 (.600) without. Again taking a look at Odom’s numbers, the team was 30-26 (.536) with him and 12-14 (.462) without, including losing 5 straight in March during the only 5 games he missed after January.
Kobe’s impact on W-L’s: I went into a little detail with these three rosters simply because the story over time has been that Kobe carried 4 carcasses around the court with him for three years, but it’s just not true; he had more to work with and a better coaching situation than Jason Kidd ever experienced in his prime. Overall, Kobe’s influence on LA’s W-L records wasn't very noticeable (111-111 with him, 9-14 without --- I know fans will want to jump on this as proof of his influence, so I'll point out that 14 of those contests were against teams at or above .500, meaning the expected W-L record for a .500 club against that lineup is 9-14), and he certainly wasn’t able to keep the team afloat when Lamar Odom was injured. In fact, a much stronger case can be made that Odom was the one carrying the franchise during this time based on the Lakers’ W-L records with and without him. The numbers indicate that Kobe’s impact was minimal.
With Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum/Lamar Odom (’07-08 to ’10-11)
Three things happened during the ’07-08 season that helped define a new era of Lakers basketball and which ultimately took a 42-win team and instantly turned them into a 57-25 contender. First, Derek Fisher returned. Second, Andrew Bynum’s career took off. He played 28 minutes per game and even started 25 times through January 13, averaging 13 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.1 blocks, while shooting an unreal 64%. The Lakers, with a legit big-bodied center who brought it at both ends while playing next to Lamar Odom, were 25-11 at that point (1-0 without Bynum). He went down for the season that night, and suddenly LA was playing like they did during that three year stretch of mediocrity, going 5-5 over the next 10 contests. Third, at that point the team completed one of the most laughably one-sided trades in league history, picking up All-Star big man Pau Gasol from Memphis. With two talented big men again manning the paint, the Lakers went on a 15-3 tear, including a season-high 10-game win streak. Gasol hurt his ankle two minutes into his 19th game as a Laker and was gone for ten consecutive games, and again the club went 5-5. He returned in April, and LA finished strong, going 7-1 the rest of the way before making it all the way to the Finals. Although Bryant played all 82 games that year so we can’t see how the team did with and without him, we do see that the team was 46-15 (.754) with either a Gasol-Odom or Bynum-Odom frontcourt, but only 11-10 (.524) without at least two first-rate bigs in the paint, despite Kobe’s best efforts.
Kobe again played the full 82 the next season, but now they had Gasol for 81 games, Bynum for 50, and Odom for 78. They created, without question, the strongest trio of frontcourt players on one team since the Celtics of the 80’s. Similar to the team’s records the year before when they had at least two of them playing at once, LA finished 65-17 (.793).
In ’09-10, Kobe missed 9 contests, giving us more data for how the Lakers performed without him. Unfortunately we can’t even consider 4 of those missed games, since they were at the very end of the season after LA had already wrapped up homecourt advantage through the Western Conference playoffs, plus Bynum sat those games as well. With no motivation, no Bynum, and limited minutes for several other starters, the Lakers went 2-2 in those games – but again, they give us no information about Kobe’s impact on the club. The other missed games do. He was absent during the Lakers’ toughest 5-game stretch of the year, when they played at Portland (who finished over .600 and hadn’t lost to LA at home in 5 years), San Antonio (who finished over .600), at Utah (who finished over .600 and were on a 9-game win streak), Golden State, and Boston (who finished over .600 and went to the Finals) that February. The results were a 17-point win, 12-point win, 15-point win, 10-point win, and 1-point loss, respectively. They actually played their best ball of the year during their toughest stretch, all without Kobe. Ultimately, when Kobe played that year, they were 51-22 (.699), and without him during games that counted they were 4-1 (.800).
In ’10-11, Kobe was one of six Lakers to play in all 82, including Gasol and Odom. The club went 57-25 (.695), a record that lines up with those over the past three seasons when they had at least two of their big three frontcourt players in the game.
Kobe’s impact on W-L’s: Kobe only missed games in this era in ’09-10, so there isn’t much to go on in terms of calculating his impact to the team’s W-L record. When he missed an extremely difficult 5-game stretch that season, the Lakers responded beautifully with Shannon Brown starting in his place, rattling off a surprisingly easy 4-1 record. The only dips the team took during this four-year period occurred in ’07-’08, and those correlated with the absences of Bynum and Gasol. There is nothing to indicate that the success of the Lakers over the past four years was dependent on Bryant. In fact, it seems pretty clear it depended heavily on the health of their frontcourt. Kobe’s impact was somewhere right around none, with more evidence to suggest it was slightly negative than slightly positive.
Kobe has played in three distinct Laker eras, and the W-L numbers tell us the same thing for each one: he did not make a positive impact on his team. I provided more contextual information than I have for the other players so that skeptics can’t blow these numbers off as out of context. The basic thing you have to notice is that his squads have never done disproportionately poor without him—in fact they’ve often gotten better—yet they’re always right around .500 when they don’t have a dominant frontcourt manned either by Shaq or multiple talented bigs as was the case years later, even with Kobe and everything else being the same. Considering his efficiency stats have been subpar throughout his entire career (particularly shooting and passing/ballhandling), and he’s been well known to attempt difficult shots and steal attempts with little regard for his team’s strengths or systems, this conclusion shouldn’t be as large of a shock as many people might assume.