Did Kobe Bryant’s defense really matter?

As the Lakers wrapped up a comfortable 104-88 win over the Bucks last night, a straightforward narrative quickly formed. Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register tweeted, “Kobe guarded Brandon Jennings most of the night. Jennings: 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting, one assist,” and Jennings himself admitted that Kobe played “[p]robably the best defense anybody’s played on me since I’ve been in the league.”

That Bryant had a fantastic game is not in dispute. 31 points on 19 shots is solid and in line with his efficient play on offense this season. But dishing six assists with just one turnover? That’s very impressive. And Bryant did indeed hound Jennings up and down the floor with tremendous energy. But the idea that it was Bryant who “held” Jennings to 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting (plus 1-of-7 from the arc) doesn’t tell the whole story.

To begin with, the Bucks as a whole simply aren’t very impressive offensively. According to NBA.com, their offensive rating is the fifth-worst in the league. They also boast the fifth-worst true shooting percentage in the league, yet play at the fifth-highest pace. This is due in large part to Monta Ellis and Jennings, players with 28% and 24% usage percentages respectively who rank sixth and ninth leaguewide in field goals attempted.

Jennings is going to take a lot of shots. Given that the Bucks overall are not very good offensively, and knowing that the Lakers as a whole played with a lot of energy and effort on the defensive end, the question becomes: did Kobe Bryant in particular make Jennings take bad shots or did he just not hit the shots he got?

When we head to the tape, it’s hard to make that case. Here are all four of Jennings’ field goal attempts from the first quarter:

On Jennings’ first shot of the game, Ilyasova’s pick frees him up from Bryant’s defense and gets him a fairly open look that fails to go down. On the possession that leads to Jennings’ second attempt, Bryant plays good defense (in concert with Artest) on Jennings, who responds by swinging the ball to an open Ilyasova on the arc. The shot misses, Sanders grabs the rebounds and dishes it to a streaking Jennings. Bryant is caught at the elbow on this play, not sure whether Ellis is getting the ball in the corner or if it’s going to Jennings. The result is an open lane for Jennings, whose layup is troubled by Howard and rolls off the side. 0-for-2 so far.

In the third possession here, Ilyasova’s pick in the backcourt allows Jennings to shed Bryant early and then he simply outruns him down the floor for an easy lay-in. Coming off of an Ilyasova rebound, Jennings’ fourth and final shot attempt of the first quarter is a wide-open 3-pointer that he bricks. After one quarter, Jennings has gone 1-for-4, but I have a hard time directly attributing any of those misses to Bryant’s work on him.

In the second quarter, Jennings had just one attempt, although it’s an awful one:

Kobe plays a part in this, especially because he troubles the shot Jennings eventually takes, but Jennings also gets stuck with the ball at the end of a characteristically dysfunctional Bucks possessions. Good defense was played on this possession, but it was played by the Lakers as a whole, not by Bryant on Jennings specifically.

As the third quarter begins, the Bucks are down 10 and Jennings’ desire to shoot them back into it starts to manifest itself:

His first shot, a stepback 3-pointer that actually earns him a 4-point play, is where the trouble starts. Bryant’s defense is actually demonstrably bad here: Jennings stepbacks aren’t bad news for the Lakers, but the foul is. But the success Jennings earns emboldens him, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Once again, an Ilyasova pick stops Bryant cold just 15 seconds later and Nash waves at Jennings as he drives the lane for a long floater that drops. Less than a minute later, Jennings gets the ball again, gets a switch off Bryant and onto Artest and throws up an ill-advised heat check 3-pointer that misses. His only advantage is the switch, and that’s not much.

His next shot is a gimme dunk on a breakaway. Then we see another good trap on Jennings—this time by Bryant and Earl Clark along the sideline—that forces him to give it up. But after a poor shot by Ellis with the shot clock winding down, the Bucks get the rebound and Jennings hoists up an open 3-pointer that misses. His last shot of the quarter is a layup he blows and Bryant isn’t even anywhere near the play.

In the fourth, the Laker lead has been pushed out to 11:

Now Jennings has entered full chucker mode. His first shot is a terrible fallaway jumper off one foot that, naturally, misses. His next is a wide open 3-pointer that he bricks. He then shakes Kobe with a stepback and tries to get the same kind of 4-point-play call he got in the third but he doesn’t make the shot and doesn’t get the call. Kobe, and the Lakers, will take that shot. Unfortunately for the Bucks, so will Jennings.

I believe Kobe played overall good defense on Jennings. You can see it in the way he picked him up full court and met his energy with energy. He worked well with teammates like Artest and Clark to double Jennings and force him to give it up. But you can’t simply point to Jennings’ shooting numbers as evidence of Bryant’s defensive prowess.

Jennings is a volume shooter. He started the game cold, sat for all but 3:21 of the second quarter, heated up a bit in the third, pushed his luck, then started hoisting shots as the game spiralled out of the Bucks’ control. The result was a FG% of 29%, with a woeful 3PT% of 14%. But on the season, Jennings’ numbers are 40.5% and 36% in those categories, respectively. If he had shot 40% last night, that would have meant going 6-for-14 instead of 4-for-14, and shooting 36% from 3 would have meant making 2 or 3 of 7 instead of just 1 (technically, 2.52). The one 3-pointer he made was the stepback that led to a 4-point play. The one he missed over Artest was reasonably well-defended. Of the five remaining misses—all of which were wide open or mostly open — he would have only had to make two to be right at his season averages.

Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that Jennings was being forced to take shots he was uncomfortable with. (The question of whether the shots Jennings is comfortable with are actually good shots is another matter.) On the left below is Jennings’ shot distribution for the year and on the right is his shot distribution against the Lakers last night:

For the season, the two areas he shoots from most often are the area directly around the rim and from the right wing beyond the 3-point line. These two areas account for 42% of his shots on the year. Last night, 57.2% of his shots came from those same areas. He was getting shots where he likes to get them. But if you look at where he’s making his shots this season, you can see that he’s not shooting particularly well from where he’s taking most of his shots:

He’s finishing around the rim at almost 12% below the league average, yet taking 30% of his shots there.

What all this points to is that it probably wasn’t Bryant’s individual defensive effort that stymied Jennings’ shooting last night but more Jennings not making the shots he likes to take, coupled with an overall Lakers defensive effort that made points hard to come by all over the court. And Bryant certainly played a role there. Weirdly, it doesn’t even seem like Jennings’ assertion that Kobe played great defense on him is an argument against this read. As a player who relies on shooting a lot and being confident in that shot — not unlike Bryant himself — it seems altogether fitting that Jennings prefer to think he was stopped by one of the best players in the league, and not by himself.

Related posts:

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  3. Is Kobe’s Sun Setting in LA?
  4. How Kobe scores: you have to hand it to him
  5. Why the Laker offense works without Kobe Bryant
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