A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Kobe Bryant: the most overrated defender imaginable

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Kobe Bryant subs out vs the Washington Wizards

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Alright, the 2010-11 NBA All-Defensive Team has been announced, and with Kobe Bryant receives his NBA record 9th 1st Team award by that voting body.

Let me tell you a story, about a player who has strong overall impact, great team success, and a kickass narrative that says he always gives 110% on both ends of the court when it’s quite clear that he let’s his defense slide a large chunk of the time.

I don’t enjoy singling someone out in hater fashion, but it needs to be pointed out how glaring things have become in this case. People are going to look at Kobe as one of the great perimeter defenders of all time because of this metric, and the truth is, it’s based almost entirely on reputation. It’s impossible for me to imagine a player in modern NBA history whose defense has been this overrated.

Alright, I’m going to go back to the +/- statistics. I understand not everyone is sold on them, but just keep what they say in the back of your mind, and understand that I wouldn’t be writing this piece if the evidence wasn’t so obvious.

First, let’s look at the regularized adjusted +/- (RAPM) for this year alone. There is a decent amount of error when looking at this sample size, but it’s a good starting place. Here are the top 20 players according to the amount of love they got in All-Defensive team votes this year, sorted from best to worst by defensive RAPM:

Kobe’s there at the bottom. It is well to note that there are others not terribly far away from him. But also important to note that none of them made All-Defensive 1st team, and only 1 of them made 2nd team. That would be Joakim Noah whose rating might be particularly suspect because of the remarkable resilience the Tom Thibodeau defense in Chicago has shown. Literally, Noah quite possibly looks a lot better by this metric in any other situations.

Okay, on to the bigger chart. What I’ve done is taken the 20 defenders who come to my mind as being celebrated defensively in recent years. I won’t claim that these are THE 20 defenders to look at for such a comparison, but again, it’s at least a great starting place.

You’ll see I include 4 sortings:

First, these 20 players sorted first by most All-Defensive 1st teams, then by 2nd teams. If I’ve left anyone off who has received several of these accolades in the last few years, it was a mistake, and you should let me know.

Second, these 20 players sorted by Ilardi’s APM from ’03-04 to ’08-09 over 6 seasons.

Third, these 20 players sorted by Engelmann’s RAPM from ’05-06 to ’10-11 over 6 seasons.

Fourth, these 20 players sorted by Engelmann’s RAPM from ’07-08 to ’10-11 over 4 seasons.

These last 3 sortings are similar to what I did in my article on Kevin Garnett being the best defender of this era.

Is the trend clear? There have been 3 players who’ve dominated the All-Defensive team for the past decade: Bryant, Garnett, and Tim Duncan. Over any extended period, Garnett dominates the list, Duncan is near the top of the list, and Bryant is pretty much at the bottom.

Being at the bottom is visually striking, but it’s actually not that damning in and of itself. If my knock on Kobe was that he was only the 20th best defender in the league on average, this would not be that horrendous of a knock. After all, big men dominate these kind of lists, maybe he’s still won of the top 5 or so perimeter defenders in the game, no?

No. The more damning thing is that every metric I’ve broken down here has Kobe’s defensive impact as utterly average. -0.8, -0.6, 0.1, 0.1, these are not numbers of someone who is consistently a game changer on defense. The other guys given even half the love Kobe’s gotten over the year, pretty consistently do turn up on these metric doing quite well.

I’ll point out also: it’s not that +/- considers Kobe vastly overrated across the board. If I were to post the analogous charts for Kobe on offense, he’d typically look like a superstar. Both Ilardi & Engelmann’s 6 year metrics rank Kobe as a top 3 offensive player in the game.

This statistic isn’t saying Kobe is extremely overrated in all parts of his game, only his defense shows such shockingly weak values.


Written by Matt Johnson

May 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Don’t beat around the Bush, Matt. Tell us what you really think.

    I can’t remember the last time a player has coasted so long on reputation in annual awards. Bryant’s defensive highlights would be pretty good (he has been able to turn it on), but in terms of overall defensive impact over the course of a season? Meh. Now young Kobe was a different story… if he’d patterned himself a little less after Mike and a little more like Moncrief…

    As an aside, I’d just point out the other player whose defensive accolades don’t seem to have been represented accurately in these awards is Bogut. Not a single All-D selection, despite being consistently a top-four defender by RAPM. He’s an absolutely unfashionable player to the award-meisters.


    May 9, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    • lol

      I suppose Kobe’s coasting has been over a pretty long period of time – hadn’t thought about it like that.

      Man I just thinking about the face we’re talking about a guy whose arguably only a 50th percentile defender in the NBA routinely get recognized as being in the 99th percentile. Crazy.

      Matt Johnson

      May 14, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  2. There are two aspects to the “overrated-ness”, and I don’t know if I’ve seen them clearly laid out in the discussions I’ve seen here or on RealGM:

    1) Big men are a LOT more impactful defensively than wings or PGs. That’s an accepted truism among experienced basketball-heads, but in many discussions this is minimized. Defense itself is marginalized…I’ll routinely see folks say “well, the only thing this guy has over that guy is defense” like it’s a small thing. Then, with a player like Kobe, I’ll see his list of All Defense teams trotted out as evidence that (paraphrase): “even if wings aren’t as impactful generally as big men, they still have SOME defensive impact and Kobe is a defensive outlier among wings which means that the difference between he and a great big man defender is marginal at best”.

    It’s a pervasive argument, as even those that DO recognize defense and DO recognize that bigs normally play a bigger role have difficulty making quick/efficient come-backs to that line of argument that resonate. So THAT’S why an article like this is extremely powerful, even in the face of many of the names in front of Kobe being bigs…it really hammers home the point that, no matter how many defensive accolades Kobe might have on his shelf with respect to some bigs, his defensive impact was NOWHERE NEAR their’s. And that’s even for the Josh Smith caliber bigs…once you get into the Bogut’s, Duncan’s, or heaven forbid Garnett the difference in their defensive impact becomes comically large. For better or worse, this post should end any discussion that Kobe’s defense can in any way be compared to a great big’s…(though of course I’m too cynical to believe that).

    2) The second aspect, which has been pointed out in comment but could have been presented more strongly in the narrative, is that Kobe doesn’t even stand out among the wings and guards as a defender. Looking at how Kobe compares to a top-20 list is cool, but it gives the impression that he might be just at the bottom of the top-20. But a quick glance through the Ilardi list shows Kobe ranked outside of the top-200 among all defenders (204th) from 2003/4 – 2008/9, and the first Engleman study has him at 522nd among all defenders from 2005 – 2011. I stopped counting in the Ilardi study when I got to 36 PG/SG/SFs rated higher than Kobe defensively and that was only through 90 players overall.

    So in other words, not only isn’t Kobe anywhere near the best big man defenders…he’s not even among the best LITTLE MAN defenders. His defense is decidedly average…being outside of the top-200 (let alone the top-500) during the time period that hits much of his athletic prime is a glaringly huge red mark. Especially for someone whose accolades suggest that he’s arguably the best little man defender in history, and on the short list for best overall all-time.


    May 16, 2011 at 7:27 am

    • It is a good point you make to really hammer in the notion that you can’t just say “well yeah, he’s being compared to other guards, so he still deserves the accolades even if his impact is weak compared to big men”.

      Perimeter players tend to be weak on defensive impact, but nowhere near the point that a 50th percentile guy in the league is one of the best as his position.

      One thing though on the big men superiority over perimeter players. Obviously the gap is quite real, but I was definitely struck by how the gap doesn’t correlate strongly with actual shot blocking, which many consider to be the key reason for the dominance of bis on defense. The +/- seems to indicate it’s perfectly reasonable to think that an Artest could have as much impact on defense as a Duncan (and then of course there’s Garnett off on his own planet).

      Matt Johnson

      May 16, 2011 at 10:21 am

  3. You can pull any advance stat out of your ass that you want to but you have to be pretty dumb if you think you know more about the game than people who are actually coaching or playing. Only on the internet can you have dummies typing a few paragrahs ad thinking it means something.lol


    May 22, 2011 at 1:17 am

    • Seriously, notme1?

      You think it’s possible for an observer to have knowledge of a specific field when he has access to the kind of video and statistical evidence available to someone regarding the NBA? You’re making a classic ad hominem attack here. Deal with the idea, not the person making the comment.

      In his post, Matt is showing that Kobe ranks poorly compared to people who are clearly defensive impact players. It’s an even more powerful argument because it clearly shows that it’s not simply the fact that Kobe is a guard that’s at issue here; Rose, Rondo, Paul, Wade, Iggy, Tony Allen and Deng are among the other perimeter defenders who rank considerably higher than Kobe. Artest, Bowen, Prince and Hinrich ranked above him back when people thought of them as impact defenders, and likewise Kirilenko, Battier and Kidd. Lebron, too.

      It’s not a coincidence that all of these guys have performed better than Kobe in terms of these stats and are also considered to be outstanding defenders. It’d be mistaken to look at a list like that and think that it’s all wrong because it happens not to rate Kobe as well as some think him deserved of ranking. Kobe coasts and cheats and gambles and isn’t the same kind of defender he used to be when he was playing with Shaq (and especially when he was a younger player in general), it’s just the way things are.

      Complaining that Matt isn’t intimately involved with the NBA is a fool-hardy example of the sort of Kobe-ism that he’s laboring against in the first place. Here’s a twist; instead of committing a logical fallacy by attacking the poster and then by appealing to authority, why don’t you find some evidence that DOES support Kobe as a good defender? How about a DRTG that favors him, or something to counter RAPM? How about video evidence that counters the accepted notion that he gambles quite a lot and isn’t a lockdown iso defender?

      ANYTHING besides another tired, empty argument lacking in facts that just screams “But no!!! Kobe’s my hero!!!”

      C’mon, man.


      May 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      • Welcome Tyler!

        I’m really fine with getting a detractor like this on here. Would seem to be a sign of some degree of relevance, eh?

        With that said, I really appreciate your defense of my arguments here both for the intent and the follow through.


        Matt Johnson

        May 25, 2011 at 12:29 am

  4. He’s been overrated defensively since at least 04-05. You don’t even need stats for that. Just watch him on D and it’s so obvious. AFter paying attention for one game, you’ll laugh at the fact that he’s been put on the All-D team.

    Everyone just wants another Jordan, so they fabricate something that’s not really there.


    May 29, 2011 at 8:10 pm

  5. Haters gonna hate. Even if he’s not as good as the bigs, he’s still better than the vast majority of guards once you consider minutes and his huge role on offense. Plus, these lists aren’t from his defensive prime (00-04).


    July 4, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    • It’s not about “haters gonna hate,” it’s about Kobe’s defensive level not being anywhere near worthy of being labeled one of the two best defensive guards in the league at the level he’s been playing at for the past few years. In his defensive prime, he WAS a good defensive guard.

      The thing is, it’s 2011, not 2002. There are more than a half-dozen other guards more suitable for selection, certainly to the 1st Team. There wouldn’t be as much of a stink if he’d been named 2nd Team, but this kind of accolade is supposed to have meaning and his selection this year is pretty much undermining the credibility of the Defensive Team as an even remotely valuable method of evaluation.


      July 4, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  6. Ian Campbell

    July 16, 2011 at 11:17 am

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