In the 1996 draft, two future MVP players entered the league. Kobe Bryant was a promising high school recruit drafted in the lottery. He only went as low as 13th because he made it clear he only wanted to play for Los Angeles. Steve Nash was a fringe player selected by the Suns. Both players would go on to define their franchises, but in different ways. Kobe would be the staple of the Lakers. Through good times and bad, Kobe was there scoring points. Nash would bounce around until becoming an MVP player on the Suns.
To start their careers, Nash didn’t look like he’d become much while Kobe definitely showed promise. By the time their careers were fleshed out though, Steve Nash was one of the greatest players to grace the game. Kobe Bryant was, well, an all-time player but not an elite player at the level of Nash.
Now, when I say this, people fight back quickly. They forget that Kobe’s rings came with giant Shaq and Pau Gasol sized strings attached. They ignore that most of Kobe’s shooting is average and his clutch ability, despite its massive reputation, is virtually non-existent. They don’t realize that Steve Nash is one of the most efficient players to ever shoot the ball and that Kobe is often the textbook definition of a chucker. But, the reality is it’s easy to see why it’s so hard to tell that Nash is much better than Kobe. The difference is in the details, and, as they say, the devil’s in the details.
Compared to Average
Something baseball has understood for a while is the importance of comparing a player to their respective position. The Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric does just this. First basemen are compared to first basemen, shortstops to shortstops, etc. In basketball, this is equally important. The Wins Produced formula does this. Many of the older conventional metrics (PER, Win Shares) don’t.
Let’s add a little more perspective. Basketball is a game of possessions. A possession starts when a team gets the ball. This happens either by a steal, rebound, or inbounding the ball after the other team makes a basket. A possession ends when a team takes a shot, turns the ball over, or a foul happens. The average game has around two hundred possessions (these are evenly split amongst the teams, so roughly a hundred possessions per game per team). Even without timeouts and commercial breaks, the average NBA game is close to an hour in length. That means; an astute fan has to keep track of lots of possessions over a long period and somehow be able to make a judgment on that.
With that in mind, let’s unravel Kobe and Nash.
Let’s examine Kobe Bryant’s game to an average shooting guard. Above is how Kobe’s per-game numbers in the major stats compare with an average shooting guard. As an example, during Kobe’s career an average shooting guard took 3.6 three-point attempts (P3A) per 48 minutes. Kobe Bryant, however, took 5.2 three-pointers per 48 minutes. Kobe Bryant played roughly 36.6 minutes a game. So if we take the difference between what an average player would have done in 36.6 minutes and what Kobe did, we get the difference: Kobe took 1.2 more three-point attempts per game. One last note, in regards to Personal Fouls and Turnovers I have swapped the value. As in, if a player gets more turnovers than average, I show it negative, not positive on the scale.
Kobe’s shooting stats are the most obvious ones, and even those are a small part of the game. Kobe took almost five more shots a game than an average shooting guard. That’s only 5% of the Lakers offense and less than three percent of the total game! His free throws, which are where he truly excelled, boil down to two trips to the line a game. This is not to denigrate Kobe. It’s more to point out, even the most significant difference in his game amount to a few possessions.
In fact, areas Kobe did excel are not scoring. He’s actually been pretty good at passing. He’s an excellent rebounder. He doesn’t foul. Yet, even looking at these, it’s hard to notice. Kobe dished the ball out 1.1 more times a game than the standard guard. He got 1.2 more rebounds. This is part of why Kobe was a good player. Yet, can you tell me you noticed in a given game that extra rebound Kobe got in the second quarter on a routine play is why he’s a good player? In fact, barring Kobe’s shooting stats, the difference in most of Kobe’s game can be counted on one finger. One or fewer possessions a game decided that Kobe played well or didn’t. I’m willing to bet most fans didn’t notice.
Nash is more subtle than Kobe. Most of his stats were within two of an average guard. Nash played fewer minutes per game; so this does impact that. Nash’s major contribution came in two areas. His assists were absurd. Additionally, his three point shooting was great, both in attempts and makes.
In regards to offense, Nash essentially took the same number of shots and free throws as compared to an average point guard. Except, Nash took a higher rate of three-pointers and passed a ton. Kobe, by contrast, took more twos. The rest of Nash’s stats follwed the same trend. He was better in some areas – defensive rebounds and personal fouls. He was worse in others – he didn’t get a ton of steals and turns the ball over. But, none of these even hit one a game. It takes analyzing many games of stats to see the difference. And, it’s worth noting, Nash slowly improved most of his stats over his career. It’s tough to notice, but it’s mattered a ton.
Kobe vs. Nash
Let’s get to the showdown. If we compare Nash to Kobe, how does he stack up. If we take the level Nash exceeds (or misses) the average point guard and then subtract the level Kobe exceeds or misses the average shooting guard, how does it look?
Only one area cracks four a game, and that’s two-point shot attempts. We’ll get back there shortly. Nash “crushes” Kobe in two spots. First, he made 0.4 more three-pointers a game relative to his position. This is particularly impressive as he only took 0.1 more three-pointer attempts than he’d be expected to versus Kobe. He also got 1.4 more assists per game than Kobe. Remember, this is giving Kobe the benefit of being a shooting guard and not even being expected to pass as much. Nash also beats Kobe in regards to turnovers. Barring personal fouls, Kobe is better than Nash at the rest of the game. Of course, the difference doesn’t match the value of Nash’s assists and threes. Let’s examine Nash’s three-point shooting a bit more.
The biggest difference between Nash and Kobe is shot attempts. Kobe’s shot level far exceeds Nash. But does this matter? A test I use is net points. If we compare the points from a shot and factor in the shot attempts, we can see how many points a shot nets. We can then compare how well our player shoots vs. an average player. This lets us know how much their shooting is helping or hurting their team.
The good news is both Kobe and Nash helped their team by shooting. The issue is how. Kobe’s two pointers and three pointers were actually negative relative to an average shooting guard. He simply did not shoot that efficiently. However, he is amazing in regards to free throws. He both gets to the line more than average and shoots better once there.
Nash though, is a killer. A majority of Nash’s damage came from three. That said, he was still efficient from two. Finally, while he didn’t get to the line often, his efficiency there still keeps him better than the average point guard. In the end, Nash has been around 35% better at scoring — in regards to helping his team — as compared to Kobe. As a reminder, this is factoring in their different positions and difference in minutes per game.
It’s easy to notice large changes. When a player goes from scoring ten points to scoring twenty points, we notice. But it’s really hard to notice little changes. Yet, these little changes are what can turn a good player into an all-time great. A small tweak in turnovers or shooting efficiency is virtually undetectable in a single game. But over an 82 game season or a twenty-year career it can amount to a huge difference. And Steve Nash is the epitome of this. When we compare him to Kobe, a lot of their stats are close. Nash’s assists, turnovers, and three-pointer attempts put him over against Kobe. But on a per game level, this is almost impossible to notice. Their shooting efficiency gets even worse. Nash’s two-point shooting has been around three percent better than Kobe’s. Even his amazing three-point shooting only amounts to around half a three point shot a game! But this efficiency is what separates the good from the great.
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were drafted with different expectations. The were given different roles. And over the past twenty years they’ve provided an amazing natural experiment. They’ve shown how hard it is to notice small differences between great players. Over his career, the small differences in Nash’s game have made him a much better player than Kobe. But without looking closely, most people would never guess this. And, as we repeatedly see, most people won’t look this closely. But for those of us that do dig deep into the stats, it’s easy to say Nash is one of the most amazing players ever to play.