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An Ode To Kobe Bryant, In Two Charts

O Kobe! My Kobe! On Sunday night, after publishing a retirement poem that no one was waiting for, Bryant went 4 for 20, including a ghastly air ball in crunch time. It was yet another ugly loss for the Los Angeles Lakers and yet another data point suggesting that Bryant is toast. Sunday’s verse fit nicely in the sad ballad of the gray mamba — a morose composition marked by terrible shot selection, poor lift on a rickety jumper and a stubborn commitment to taking too many shots. But that’s not what Kobe has always been.

Bryant is a shell of his former self, and he knows it. “My body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” he wrote in the poem. His numbers suggest the same: This season, Bryant has been the worst volume shooter in the NBA. So far this year, 57 players have attempted at least 200 shots from the field; within that group, the 37-year-old Bryant ranks dead last in effective field goal percentage.

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If shot charts could talk, this one would apologize:


That’s one of the saddest charts I’ve ever made. On the one hand, it’s unsurprising to see aging scorers start to slip; on the other, it’s always alarming to see someone as iconic as Bryant slip so far so fast.

Over the next few months, recency bias may be very unkind to Bryant. But his NBA career started the same autumn that Bill Clinton was elected to his second term in office. Kristaps Porzingis was 1-year-old and Karl-Anthony Towns hadn’t even had a birthday when Kobe made his debut. If those guys play as long as Bryant, they will retire in 2035.

Still, as bleak as this year has been, this is not the Kobe Bryant we will remember.

During the preseason, I went to Staples Center to interview Chris Paul. We were talking about his all-world ability to knock down elbow jumpers, when he suddenly had a flashback: “Do you remember Lakers versus Phoenix, a playoff game in 2006? Kobe. There was a jump ball. I think the game was tied up. Lakers won the tip. Kobe got it. And he just sort of dribbled. Dribbled. Dribbled. And he got over to the right elbow. And he just shot it.”

“Kobe never even looked at the rim,” Paul continued. “It’s like he was getting to a spot. Looking at that play, it’s like there was an ‘X’ somewhere on the court and Kobe was like, ‘Once I get to it, I’m like, boom.’ ”

That shot to beat the Suns happened almost a decade ago. From a scoring standpoint, that season — 2005-06 — might be Bryant’s finest hour. He averaged 35.4 points per game. Only three scoring champs in NBA history have averaged 35 points per game: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Bryant.


If shot charts could talk, this one would talk all kinds of smack. When he was on the floor, Bryant used a ridiculous 38.7 percent of the Lakers possessions in the 2005-06 season but still somehow managed to perform pretty efficiently. That’s the Kobe to remember, the one who created, took and sunk any shot he wanted. The one who thumbed his nose at the very idea of a usage-efficiency curve. The one who was one of the most truly versatile scoring threats the NBA had ever seen.

Kirk Goldsberry is a former staff writer at FiveThirtyEight and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

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