It's not sexy, and it's not exciting, but it's real. Things are changing in how we talk about sports. What's happening is that a lot things that used to be left to rumor, reputation and folklore are now being discussed with actual evidence.
People who want to challenge assumptions now come armed with data.
One of the NBA's most cherished assumptions of the last decade or so has been the idea that Kobe Bryant is the best crunch time player in hoops. But as more and more data emerged on who plays well in crunch time -- from 82games, from Elias, from ESPN Stats and Information, from the NBA's new StatsCube -- Bryant just didn't top the list.
He wins any contest centered around number of makes, or better yet, highlights. Just about every survey ever conducted of players, GMs and other NBA insiders insists he is alone at the top of the list.
That reality, though -- Bryant's landslide victory in every such contest -- is the exact thing that makes this myth so ripe for busting. (People sometimes ask why I don't point out LeBron James' flaws in crunch time. The reason is because his crunch time reputation is about in line with the data, somewhere around "pretty good." Not much to learn there.)
Bryant, however, in making all those highlights and cementing his reputation is, I suggest, doing really difficult and impressive things that don't have a great effect on his team. (I have written plenty about this.)
It may be time for us to rejigger what a great crunch-time performer looks like -- shooting over the double team, it appears, is best avoided, no matter who you are.
The key point is that the Lakers' team offense has been amazing for 15 years -- Bryant's entire career. But over that same period, the end of very close games, with Bryant launching the many tough shots that made his reputation, the team's offense has been just about as good as most NBA teams. Precisely when Bryant is doing the most for the Lakers -- when the triangle breaks down and he goes into hero mode -- the evidence suggests the Lakers become not more extraordinary, but more average.
In last night's triple overtime win over the Suns, both camps -- the people who say Bryant is clearly the best, and the people who say he's a selfish gunner -- came away saying "I told you so." It's not hard to see how these two camps have evolved.
First, the basics: Bryant finished with 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. Watch the highlights and you'll see him not just hitting big shots, but also getting big assists. Heroic, to be sure.
But from the play-by-play, here's what he did with the game on the line Tuesday night. With just under five minutes to play in regulation, he hit a jumper to put the Lakers up by seven. (By no measure does a seven-point lead with five minutes to go even count as crunch time. The game's not close enough. But it was about to get close.) Here's what Bryant did next, with stars by the positive contributions:
4:30 missed 20 footer
3:44 assist to Lamar Odom*
3:00 bad pass turnover
2:26 missed seven-foot jumper
1:16 made 19-foot jumper*
0:10 missed nine-foot jumper
4:33 missed 20-foot jumper
3:29 missed nine-foot jumper
3:20 missed 13-footer
2:04 assist to Odom*
1:27 assist to Artest*
0:14 missed 3
4:28 offensive rebound*
4:00 two made free throws*
3:42 defensive rebound*
3:42 turnover (Grant Hill steal)
3:18 defensive rebound*
3:08 20-foot jumper*
1:47 one of two free throws*
0:36 shot blocked by Marcin Gortat
4:03 offensive rebound*
4:03 putback attempt, miss
3:26 missed 22-foot jumper
2:30 draws a foul on Hill*
2:18 draws a foul on Hill, who fouls out*
2:09 made 3*
0:44 18-foot miss
0:14 made 11-footer*
Everyone goes home remembering the 3 at the end of the third overtime, and most importantly the make to win the game with 14 seconds left in a classic.
The box score and the highlights confirm a tremendous performance. The analysis can end there, and Bryant is the best crunch-time performer in the game.
But if we're crowning kings of crunch time, in some way we have to account for 11 missed shots in the the most important chunk of the game. Not to mention: four made shots, three of four free throws, five rebounds, three assists, two turnovers and fouling out Hill. How to weigh all that?
A great player, on a great team, who won yet another game with a big bucket. But also a player who was lucky enough to be able to fire away near the end of regulation and the first two overtimes and miss them all. A player who went about eight minutes, encapsulating the first overtime, without hitting a field goal. A player who had the ball in his hands most of the time as his heavily favored home team turned a seven-point lead into a cliffhanger.
And that brings us to the ultimate point of all this. It's not about Bryant. It's not about the Lakers. It's not even about basketball.
It's about assumptions. They're not good enough anymore. Not in a world of nearly limitless evidence.
Yes, Bryant is a hell of a player, and he blatantly brings something special to crunch time. But if you want to convince anyone that he's by far the best, you're going to have to explain all those teammates left open, and all those misses, and his shot selection, which are entirely in keeping with evidence gathered from his entire career.
Highlights of his makes -- with the misses edited out -- aren't enough to win the argument anymore.