LOS ANGELES CA - FEBRUARY 03: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to his defense during a stop in play against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at Staples Center on February 3 2011 in Los Angeles California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Is Kobe Bryant more selfish than basically every guard in the NBA? Check our Black Hole Atlas to find out.
To call a basketball player a "black hole" is to defile said player's character. Basketball, like soccer, is a game of collaboration and synergy. No one wants to play with a ballhog on the blacktop, or watch an NBA player go dribble-dribble-dribble shoot. It's boring and effective.
In the NBA, the definition stretches to include any player considered to shoot too much without spreading the love. It's a bit less of a pejorative, if only because at the NBA level the stars score with so much panache. If you don't spread the ball in rec league play, the game turns into a series of clanked jumpers and out-of-control layups. In the NBA? It's flying dunks and, well, clanked jumpers. But you get the point. The amateur game is rarely beautiful when the teams don't operate as a symphony. An NBA game can be a masterpiece even in the absence of cooperation, thanks to the immutable gifts of the players involved.
But being a black hole is still to be avoided; Zach Randolph has never shaken the reputation. Rob Mahoney argues that Z-Bo's off-court issues have plagued him most, but don't dismiss the impact his rep as a self-absorbed offensive player has had. It's far easier to overlook the talents of second-tier soloist when that performer never reaches outside the bondage of comfort. Z-Bo and other "black holes" do the same thing again and again: dribble, dribble, shoot. LaMarcus Aldridge? Pump fake, hesitate, shoot. Kobe Bryant? Dribble, jab step, shoot.
Ah, but Kobe is so much more. He's a star in the loudest sense of the word. Kobe's never had a problem making the solo game interesting and entertaining. No one will forget the night he waged war on Morris Peterson, and he has dozens of performances like that. Bryant's like a slasher flick with an ambiguous ending, and it's hard to turn away. If Kobe Bryant's a black hole, or perhaps the personification of what a black hole should be defined as ... well, then we're all in good shape.
But is he truly a black hole? Kobe has averaged 4.7 assists per game over his career, and has eight seasons above five assists per game. That's a lot of assists! He's actually, if you'll believe it, No. 52 in assists all-time, closing in on Walt Frazier, Sleepy Floyd and Kenny Anderson. But the shots! So many shots! He's No. 14 all-time in field goal attempts, closing in on Moses Malone and ahead of George Gervin, Elgin Baylor, Allen Iverson and Oscar Robertson. It's simply gunnertastic.
In the interest of devising a way to judge Kobe's inclination to share as compared to his contemporaries, I assembled a table charting assists per shot attempt (which includes free throws, using the standard 0.44 FTAs=1 FGA adjustment) on the x axis and usage rate on the y axis. This would serve to give us a sense of which players shot much, much more than they register an assist, and of those players which handle the ball the most (theoretically giving them greater opportunities to change their ways and spread the love). Then I slapped the scatterplot on top of outer space, and added a sun and a black hole. Guards who play 30 minutes per game make up the galaxy. As always, I created the scatterplot without looking at names -- I don't create graphs around my biases. I try to be as fair as is possible in this sort of thing.
It was, then, a happy accident that Kobe landed where he did. (Click to enlarge.)
Among high-usage guards, only Dwyane Wade and Kevin Martin have lower assist-per-shot figures than Kobe. Think about it this way: no guard in the NBA shoots more frequently than Kobe, and still the vast majority of guards tally assists more frequently than he does. Were Kobe a less frequently used player, a relatively low assist-to-shot ratio would be understood. If you're only allotted 10 touches a game, you may want to maximize how many of those are shots. Kobe gets in excess of 30 possessions in most games. And even with all those opportunities, he sees fit to shoot most of the time ... despite the presence of great finishers like Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.
He's more of a black hole than Monta Ellis, Tyreke Evans and Jamal Crawford. Think about that. Kobe passes less frequently given his shot levels than Jamal Crawford. That doesn't make Kobe any less valuable to his team, or a lesser player than anyone on the chart -- Wade, I'd argue, is more valuable than all but a few of players further from the black hole than he. And that's perhaps where the idea of a player as a black hole is most misunderstood: it cannot be used plainly as pejorative. A player is not bad or overrated or a jerkface because he doesn't pass much. It's not a value judgment, it's a style judgment, a classification.
It is, however, in Kobe's case a fair judgment. If any guard in the NBA is a black hole, it's Kobe.