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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Assessing Kobe Bryant as a Lion in Winter

Kobe Bryant's 31 point, 12 assist, 11 rebound stat line in the L.A. Lakers' 129-122 overtime victory over the East-leading Toronto Raptors on Sunday night would be special for any player at any time--but those numbers have added meaning for Bryant; he not only notched his 20th career triple double but he became the oldest player in NBA history to drop 30-10-10 in a game and he became the first player in pro basketball history to accumulate at least 30,000 career points and at least 6000 career assists. Earlier this season, Bryant became just the fifth different player in the past 30 years who posted at least 39 points and at least nine rebounds in a game at the age of 36 or older (Michael Jordan accomplished this three times, Karl Malone did it twice and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal did it once each).

Bryant is on pace to become the oldest scoring champion in pro basketball history--and he is doing this while some of the most prolific scorers in the league are in their prime years, including LeBron James (27.5 ppg career scoring average, third in pro basketball history) and Carmelo Anthony (25.2 ppg career scoring average, 11th in pro basketball history). Bryant is also tenth in minutes per game (35.9 mpg) this season and he is averaging more steals per game than top notch defenders LeBron James and Luol Deng.

Bryant is attempting a career-high nine free throws a game and on a per minute basis his rebounds, assists and turnovers are all right around his career norms. He is still a very skilled player and he is remarkably effective considering his age, his mileage and his recent injury history. Despite all the positive things that Bryant is doing, the statistics that are attracting the most media attention are his career-low shooting percentages from the field (.392) and the free throw line (.783), plus his 23.1 field goal attempts per game. Bryant is being criticized for shooting so frequently and so poorly. Those are valid concerns but it is important to remember that he is less than 20 games into what--presumably and hopefully--will be his first full season since the 2012-13 campaign after suffering a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture. Bryant is a 36 year old, 19 veteran who has essentially been out of action for nearly two years after overcoming potentially career-ending injuries but instead of being praised for his work ethic and his all-around skill set, much of the commentary around Bryant focuses on the size of his contract and how he is supposedly destroying the franchise that he helped lead to five championships since 2000. There are plenty of franchises that would like to be "destroyed" the way that Bryant has "destroyed" the Lakers--and the Lakers did not exactly tear up the league during Bryant's absence last season.

Like most older player who have dealt with injuries, Bryant will struggle to match the field goal percentage that he posted during his prime years--but the same media members who are killing Bryant just a few games into his comeback put James Harden on the All-NBA First Team last season despite Harden's .405 field goal percentage and abysmal defense. If Harden is supposedly a top five player in the league while shooting poorly and playing defense like a turnstile then how can it be true that Bryant--aging, coming off of two major injuries and surrounded by a conspicuous lack of talent--is as bad as his very vocal critics suggest?

We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant that carried Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to consecutive postseason  appearances and nearly beat the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the 2006 playoffs. We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant who led the Lakers to back to back championships after the first time that he supposedly destroyed the Lakers by allegedly chasing away Shaquille O'Neal. Those Kobe Bryants had younger, healthier legs and could carry a team not just for a game but for a month, a playoff series, an entire season. However, this Kobe Bryant is capping off a great career by showing that even an older player whose wheels have been damaged can still use guile, skills and toughness to compete with the best players in the world's best basketball league. He is not shortchanging the Lakers, himself or the fans and he should be praised for the approach that he is taking and the determination that he is demonstrating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 AM

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