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Today, I noticed an interesting fact about this year's Los Angeles Lakers team. All of their guards (even some forwards) shot above their three-point shooting career averages. This intrigued me as a researcher and a basketball fan. I had to ask, what caused such an improvement in a year where the Lakers did not make any meaningful off-season acquisitions and spent earlier parts of the season wondering if their star player, Kobe Bryant, would be traded?
When looking at the data, I only have two explanations. The first, Kobe Bryant's points per game are slightly down this season at 28 pts per game (almost 4 pts per game less from last season, and a whooping 7.4 pts per game down from 2005.) His shooting percentage is down as well, even if his three point
shooting average isn't. His assists per game as well are slightly below last season's average. So how could the Lakers play so well? Simple, the Lakers are a team this season. Kobe Bryant isn't taking those forced shots over triple teams. He is moving the ball which creates high percentage shots for others.
This is great news for the Lakers, but it does not explain the sudden 3-pt shooting improvement (Bryant still attempted 1051 shots in 51 games this season.)
The second explanation is the improved play of second year center Andrew Bynum. He is averaging a double-double (double digit statistics in two categories e.g. points, rebonds, blocks,... etc.)Bynum commands double teams in the post, which opens up shooters on the wings. Unfortunately, he averages only 1.7 assists per game, which almost equals his turnovers per game average. So, these two factors do indeed help a team's shooting, but they cannot explain the fact that every-single-guard improved his 3-pt shooting this season. I am not sure you get how much better the Lakers are shooting this season. Let's take Derek Fisher, a solid guard who shoots enough 3-pt shots to make it statistically significant. Fisher has a career average of 35% from three point range. This season he has attempted 150 3-pt shots. Based on his average he should have made about 52 3-pointers. This season however, he made 62. That's 10 more 3-pointers than he would have made on average!
As you can see, numbers couldn't tell the story, so I had to dig deeper. Later that night, I found the answer: Craig Hodge. No, he is not on the 15-man roster. In fact, he hasn't played in the NBA since 1992, the year he won an NBA championship with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Craig Hodge was cut after the 1991-1992 season coming off back-to-back NBA championships, three consecutive NBA All-Star 3pt shooting champion titles, and leading the NBA in 3-pt shooting percentage for two seasons. So, I am not surprised that the Lakers hired Hodge as a shooting coach, and subsequently, their shooting percentage improved drastically. What does surprise me however is: how did such a sharpshooter end up out of the NBA at 32, without any serious injuries, drug violations, or off-court trouble? To give you a better perspective, Hodge is one of two players who have won three consecutive NBA All-Star 3-pt shooting contests. The second of the two is Larry Bird, an NBA Hall of Famer.
To answer my previous question, one has to define off-court trouble. Every year the NBA champions visit the white house to be congratulated by the President of the United States. During his 1992 visit, Hodge handed President Bush Sr. a handwritten letter expressing his discontent with the administration's treatment of African-American communities. Shortly after that, not only was Hodge out of the NBA, but he never got a single tryout invitation from any NBA team ever since. Now, conspiracy theories are extremely hard to prove, just ask those that believe a government would terrorize their own people to stay in power. It might be hard to make a case that Hodge fell out of the NBA's favor for speaking up for his community with the Commander in Chief (Hodge did sue the NBA in 1996 and lost.) What won't be as difficult is to point to is his influence on the Lakers' 3-pt shooting for the seasons to come.
To read more on the Hodge case, please read Ira Berkow's Still Searching for the Truth The New York Times, February 18th, 1996. You can access the article here (Free NYTimes.com registration requiered)
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