Magic Johnson was a guest on HBO’s Real Sports to talk about his part-ownership of the Dodgers and the gigantic check he wrote in order to make that part-ownership reality. But the show also found some time to ask him about the franchise he used to partly-own (and, of course, won five titles playing for) – the Lakers.
Specifically, they wanted to know how Magic put Dwight Howard’s mind at ease about switching coasts. As you might expect, he reminded Howard how valuable being in L.A. is for someone who has entertainment-world aspirations. And he sought to quell any doubts about playing with Kobe by telling Howard just what type of player Kobe is. Unfortunately, in doing that, Magic got things totally wrong:
First: yes, one could wonder how exactly Magic’s supposed to be an objective TV analyst when he’s going on TV and talking about lobbying for the Lakers, but that’s another story. Also, no one probably expects Magic to be objective about the Lakers anyway.
So let’s put that aside and look at why Magic’s wrong here: specifically, the “ultimate closer” thing. It sounds nice – Kobe, the ultimate competitor, the guy you want with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. And Kobe is an undeniably great, great player. But he’s not undeniably the greatest with the game on the line – in fact, the case has been made that, in standard “clutch” situations, Kobe’s actually not that great at all. For another example, look here: when compared against other NBA stars going back to both 2006 and all the way back to 2000, the ultimate closer mustered a below-average clutch shooting percentage. Magic’s stance on Kobe is a convenient myth.
Here’s the thing, though: Howard’s presence might help make Real Clutch Kobe more similar to Imaginary Clutch Kobe. If you look at the numbers in this link again, what stands out about Kobe, besides the mediocre shooting numbers? For one, it’s how damn much he shoots the ball. As of February, Kobe had taken more clutch shots than any comparable peer since 2006, and hundreds more than anyone since 2000. When you shoot more – and opponents know you’re going to shoot more – you miss more.
But: what happens with Howard in the mix? Well, despite his limited offensive game, defenders better account for him, because if the Lakers manage to get him the ball near the basket, Howard’s putting it in. Andrew Bynum was a threat to do the same, of course, but Howard managed to be a 20-plus-point-per-game guy in Orlando without playing with anyone who takes up nearly as much defensive attention as Kobe. Even if he gets almost all of his points finishing down low, he gets more than enough of them that defenses will have to account for him at all times… maybe, just maybe, freeing up Kobe a bit.
And don’t forget, either, that Steve Nash is around now, too. With him running the show, easy baskets should be more plentiful for Howard than ever. Not only that, but Nash can shoot the ball just a bit himself (check out his terrific career shooting percentages, both overall and from three), meaning you better not leave him wide open, either. And that’s not even getting into what Nash’s skill at creating could do to open things up for Kobe, who had to create a higher percentage of those clutch shots for himself than almost anyone else.
So maybe Magic will actually be proven right, at least going forward. Maybe Kobe wasn’t the clutch assassin so many make him out to be before, but now that he’s got (potentially) the best supporting cast of his career around him, at least in theory, he’ll be able to take clutch shots because they’re good, and not just because they’re there. Magic was wrong when he told Howard that Kobe’s the ultimate closer right now, but thanks in part to Howard’s very presence, the company line on Kobe might finally turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.