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In Defense of Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and All Chuckers of the World

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

There was a time when a guy who could create his own shot and score was respected, revered even, in the NBA world. But now, in this new-fangled age of analytics, where everything is all about “efficiency this” and “efficiency that,” the chucker has lost his luster.

But let me step up and defend the Kobe Bryant‘s of the world for a minute because there are a lot of reasons that evaluating a player like Bryant or Russell Westbrook based strictly on efficiency is straight-up facetious tomfoolery. Even a high-volume shooter is only utilizing about one-third of a teams possessions when he’s on the court, and that affects the two-thirds he doesn’t use. And high-volume shooters — even those who aren’t that efficient — tend to have a positive impact on their team’s offense. Want proof?:

Here’s a look at all the high-usage players in the league, defined by a usage percentage of at least 25 percent. The horizontal line represents the league average for true shooting percentage. Ergo, players above that line, are efficient scorers and the ones below it are “chuckers” or players who use a large chunk of their team’s possessions with below-average results.

What’s interesting, though, is that horizontal axis shows the difference in offensive rating when the player is on or off the court. There’s certainly a correlation between a player’s impact on his team’s offensive rating and his true shooting percentage.

But what’s striking is that even those with a below-average true shooting percentage— and in Michael Carter-Williams‘s case, way below average — the offense is still better with them on the court.

So the question is: If chuckers are so bad for their teams, why are their teams better with the gunslinger on the court? There’s actually a kind of logic to support why this happens.

Double Teams

The first thing to consider is that high-usage players draw double teams. In fact, part of the reason they’re shooting a lower percentage is that they’re usually dealing with multiple defenders and taking tougher shots.

Of course, the rebuttal to that is “then don’t take the tougher shots.” But the rebuttal to the rebuttal is “they don’t always take the tougher shot.”

In fact, a lot of times — even the majority of the time — the highest-usage players pass the ball. Now, that’s not saying they never shoot when they should pass, but it’s about nuance here. More often they pass when they should pass. And by looking at “potential assists” and “points off assists” at NBA.com/Stats, we can derive what a player’s effective field goal percentage is on passes that become shots:

Here the top chart shows every player with 1,000 minutes played, their usage percentage and effective field goal percentage. As indicated by the trendline, there’s a correlation between players who use more possessions and the effectiveness of their teammates off the catch. This supports the idea that players who shoot more draw double teams and create better opportunities for their teammates.

The bottom chart shows that this translates to net offensive rating, as well. League-wide, the effective field goal percentage off passes was 59.0 percent. Overall, 60 percent of the players who had a usage percentage over 25 percent saw their teammates shoot better than that.

And for the most part, the exceptions were either a) the player was a post player (e.g. Brook Lopez) or b) the player had really poor shooters on his team (e.g. Michael Carter-Williams). And for most of the other exceptions, the player in question actually had an above-average true shooting percentage anyway.

Ergo, what the player loses in shots he “threw away,” he more than makes up for in creating opportunities for his teammates. And that brings us to our next point.

Kobe Assists

Kirk Goldsberry wrote for Grantland back in 2012 and introduced the idea of a “Kobe Assist:”

This is where the Kobe Pass — a necessary predecessor to the Kobe Assist — comes into play. I define the Kobe Pass as the missed shot that begets an offensive rebound and thus extends an offensive possession. Of course, offensive rebounds are an important statistic on their own, but sole credit for an offensive rebound is traditionally awarded to the player who acquires the rebound. Little else is considered. We conceptualize them as destinations but ignore their origins. Where do offensive rebounds come from?

Offensive rebounds are constructive offensive events that frequently result in a big basketball player possessing the ball very close to the goal. They are like surreptitious but extremely effective entry passes. In fact, league-wide, 34 percent of the time Kobe Passes result in points right away because the recipient of the Kobe Pass, a.k.a. the offensive rebounder, frequently scores immediately after acquiring the basketball. In such cases, I define the Kobe Assist as an achievement credited to a player or a team missing a basket that in a way leads directly to the kind of field goal generally referred to as a put-back, tip-in, or follow.

Back in March, through some research of my own, I established that this is still true. The chart below shows the 20-point-per-game scorers. The more green a box is, the higher percentage of a player’s missed shots were rebounded by his teammates. The more red a box is, the lower the percentage was:

Notice that players who tend to be of the high-usage, low-make variety (Russell Westbrook, Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rudy Gay, etc.) tend to be in the green. That means that they’re also more likely to see their teammates grab a rebound.

In part, that’s because, as shot creators, they’re luring the defense away by aforementioned double teams or breaking them down. This creates better offensive rebounding opportunities — or Kobe Assists.

And this establishes another, incredibly crucial point: Not all missed field goals are the same.

If you can wrap your head around this — sometimes they’re actually a good thing. If you’re looking at the end result of a play that’s nonsense, but if you’re viewing the end result of a possession getting a basket, it makes perfect sense. Chuckers are more likely to have their shots rebounded by their teammates. And that makes their overall chuckiness more forgivable.

Duplicating Production

Then, there’s the final reason that chuckers merit a little more respect, and that’s that shot-creating is the hardest thing in the NBA to do. That’s the subject of a somewhat controversial tweet that came from the fingers of Zenmaster Phil Jackson last fall: 

There’s a breakdown in logic when it comes to comparing shots of different types. An unassisted pull-up jumper is much harder than a catch-and-shoot three-pointer from the corner. So, it’s less efficient.

In fact, the league average for effective field goal percentage off more than two dribbles is just 43.8. That’s significantly lower than the 59.0 percent we were discussing earlier.

Here are the players who attempted at least 10 shots per game off the dribble and their effective field goal percentage by number of bounces. Notice two things about them. First, see how they’re the same names that have the “chucker” label, by and large. Second, notice that they’re almost universally better off the bounce than average: 

Declaring them “inefficient” is a fake argument. They’re above average in what they do, which is break down defenses and create shots for themselves and others. It’s the hardest most irreplaceable skill in basketball. The basic problem with the notion that anyone can score 35 points if they took 35 shots is that not anyone can just take 35 shots. The day Kyle Korver creates even 25 shots for himself and maintains his efficiency, call me. Until then, it’s a false equivalence:

In fact, there’s a provable connection between players who create their own shots and a decline in efficiency. In the top chart, it shows the correlation between true shooting percentage and the percent of field goals that are assisted. The more a player creates his own shots, the lower his true shooting percentage tends to be.

The bottom chart shows the relationship between usage percentage and percentage of shots which are assisted. To get a higher usage rate, a player must create his own shots, and accordingly, his efficiency goes down. But because of him, his teammates are getting better looks.

And yes, there are veritable basketball demigods walking in our midst — the likes of Stephen Curry who can post amazing percentages off the dribble — but his generational greatness doesn’t negate the contributions of the other shot creators in the league. There’s great. There’s average. There’s above average. There’s good. There’s a whole sliding scale. It’s not a binary Curry/Not Curry one.

Now, all that said, I’m not going to deny that Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook never took a shot they shouldn’t have. But all-in-all, there’s a bit of truth to the notion that “it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.” And the fact that they do makes their teammates better and their offense. The narrative on this one is upside down.

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