Basketball is a spatial game. Unlike the increasingly realistic images that NBA 2K12 provides us, basketball is a game that is played in three dimensions: rough, physical, harmonious, balanced, and chaotic. Sometimes we, as fans, get too accustomed to the manufactured chemistry that video games synthesize for us. If we want to put five LeBron James’ on the same team, in a virtual reality, it could be translated to success. But in the reality that is the NBA, overlapping skill sets are often a recipe for disaster.
When the Heat formed their super team in the summer of 2010, many speculated that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would find a life of coexistence more turbulent than they had originally thought. Their style of play was too similar, many argued, and unfortunately, there’s only one basketball to go around. And those fears weren’t unfounded. It wasn’t until both LeBron and Wade made adjustments to their individual games that their collective goal of winning a championship was satisfied.
In today’s NBA, the superstars are the players with the ball in their hands. And while it is unfortunate that the towering big men of today’s game often go unnoticed, the reality is that guards run today’s game. And fortunately for the Lakers, they have two of the very best in the game: Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. The question remains however: Will the fact that both Nash and Bryant need the ball in their hands dictate an overlapping of skill sets?
Spatial Analytics and Comfort Zones:
Dr. Kirk Goldsberry, a Harvard professor and geographic analyst, offered some very insightful arguments at last year’s Sloan Sports Conference about the use of space in basketball and how we define out best shooters. He defined two terms; “Spread” and “Range”, that should come into play when we decide who are the game’s best shooters, not merely field goal percentage.
- Spread, according to Dr. Goldsberry’s definition, is “the overall size of a player’s shooting territory. League leaders in FG% generally have a small Spread value since they tend to only shoot near the basket. For example, since centers generally thrive in limited areas near the hoop they tend to have lower Spread values than shooting guards.”
- Range, within that spread metric, “accounts for spatial influences on shooting effectiveness. It is essentially a count of the number of shooting cells in which a player averages more than 1 PPA.”
In essence, spread is qualified as the area of court space that a player feels comfortable shooting from. In the NBA, no one feels more comfortable shooting from more places on the floor than Kobe Bryant. Range, on the other hand, is how good a player is at converting on those shot attempts from those different areas on the court. Where did Kobe place? Third. Steve Nash? Good ole’ numero uno. If you’re searching for the best shooters in the NBA according to who makes the most shots from the most places, here is the short answer: Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant. Way to represent, class of ’96.
These charts demonstrate that these four shooters, the four best in the NBA, are capable of being efficient from multiple spots on the floor. If any two players are capable of adapting to each other’s games, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are at the top of the list. They don’t have to face the limitations that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James experienced. Here are some graphs, designed by Dr. Goldsberry, that illustrate the proficiency of the Lakers’ prolific guards.
After observing these statistics, one can see that Kobe Bryant excels particularly in three areas on the court, near both elbows and on the left block. While it is clear that Kobe is comfortable shooting from many areas on the court, those three areas are strong points for Bryant. Steve Nash, on the other hand, is much more comfortable further out. He leads the league from that top left spot on the court. And another notable Laker, Pau Gasol, hits a very good percentage of his shots from the right low post.
If fans are concerned about Nash and Bryant stepping on each other’s toes, they won’t have much reason to worry. Nash is most effective beyond the arc or near it, and Kobe’s sweet spots are completely midrange, in the areas surrounding the free throw line. One can imagine that with Pau operating in the high post as a screener, Kobe will be able to find easier shots in his sweet spots, without Nash cluttering the space.
If the Lakers are able to find a more suitable shooter at the small forward position (sorry World Peace), they will be deadly indeed. Whereas Sessions’ skill sets overlapped an already clogged paint area, Steve Nash’s versatile shooting abilities allow current Lakers such as Kobe and Pau to operate where they are most comfortable.