The Twilight of Kobe BryantUnless you are a sadist or a hater, this kind of article is not fun to write or read. It is as poignant as it is inevitable, because Father Time is undefeated and he will always be undefeated; even if you take Father Time to the final moments of the 15th round, Father Time always wins. The seemingly ageless George Blanda eventually retired, the seemingly peerless Michael Jordan played past the point where he was no longer the best (or the 10th best) player in the NBA and former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand won the title in multiple formats against multiple challengers before inevitably succumbing to the youth and talent of Magnus Carlsen.
Now, Kobe Bryant--who has spent his career overcoming obstacles and injuries, including playing left-handed when he had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and walking off of the court with only a slight limp after tearing his Achillles--is deep into the 15th round versus Father Time. Before we look at Bryant's statistics or the Lakers' record, it is worth remembering that Bryant is a shooting guard playing his 20th season in the NBA. This is uncharted territory. Only three pro basketball players have played 21 seasons and each of them--the retired Robert Parish and Kevin Willis, plus the (barely) active Kevin Garnett--were big men playing very small roles in that 21st campaign: Parish (who had not been a double figure scorer since season 18) averaged 3.7 ppg in 43 games, Willis had retired for a year before coming back for season 21 to score 12 points in five games and Garnett (who has not been a double figure scorer since season 18) has scored 10 points in five games so far this season.
Furthermore, in the past three years, Bryant has ruptured his Achilles--a career-altering if not career-ending injury for many players, including Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins--fractured his kneecap and torn the rotator cuff in his right (shooting) shoulder. During the preseason, he suffered a calf bruise. He is 37 years old but he is an old 37 because he came to the NBA straight out of high school and has made many deep playoff runs, including seven trips to the NBA Finals. It is remarkable that Bryant can still get up and down the court in an NBA game and that he can get off 20 or more field goal attempts in an NBA game. Any negative comments about Bryant's efficiency should be prefaced by wonderment that he is still able to play at all.
No, Kobe Bryant is not the player that he used to be in his prime or even the player that he was three years ago before the Achilles injury when--as a 34 year old in his 17th season--he made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting after ranking third in the league in scoring (27.3 ppg) and second in the league in minutes (38.6 mpg). Bryant is averaging 16.5 ppg (tied for the team lead) while shooting .320 from the field (including .208 from the three point line). He is shooting way too many three pointers (eight attempts per game, easily a career-high) and his usually first-rate floor game has declined (his per minute rebounds, assists and steals are all well below his career norms and he has yet to block a shot in six games). The Lakers are 1-5 and look terrible, with no offensive rhythm and no defensive effort.
Some members of the media are making a big deal about Bryant shooting 6-19 from the field yesterday as the Lakers lost what will probably be Bryant's final appearance in Madison Square Garden. That is not the performance that will define Bryant's MSG career; six years ago, Bryant set the MSG scoring record of 61 points (since broken by Carmelo Anthony) despite playing with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand. Bryant shot 19-31 from the field and 20-20 from the free throw line in a 126-117 Lakers win that day. Ali is defined by his bouts with Frazier, not his losses to Holmes and Berbick.
NBA Radio commentator Brian Scalabrine thinks that Bryant should be more like Paul Pierce and accept a role as a bench player. With all due respect to future Hall of Famer Pierce, he is not in the same league as Bryant in terms of playing skill, toughness or leadership. Pierce had a stacked team with two other Hall of Famers plus an elite (at least at the time) point guard and he won one championship; Bryant won five championships in addition to leading some horrible teams to the playoffs. Bryant never flinched or made excuses in the face of injury; Pierce dramatically left a 2008 NBA Finals game in a wheelchair only to come back on the court a few minutes later. Bryant not only led the Lakers to multiple championships and brought out the best in teammates ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker) but he also was the difference maker as Team USA reclaimed its proper gold medal status in the 2008 Olympics.
No, as Frank Isola correctly responded to Scalabrine, Bryant is in a different category than Pierce and has a different mindset.
Bryant does not have to take a Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett playing role in order to be a good mentor for the Lakers' younger players. Bryant has always led by example with his work ethic, his toughness and his high basketball IQ. Bryant does not belong on the Lakers' bench because the Lakers stink and they do not have anyone who can play small forward or shooting guard better than he does. Let's keep this real: Kobe Bryant is not holding back the L.A. Lakers. This team may not reach .500 even if Bryant recaptures some semblance of his old form and right now it is headed for no more than 25 wins without Bryant playing at an All-NBA level. It is not like the Lakers have a surplus of talented players who are being held back based on Bryant taking X amount of minutes and shot attempts.
Bryant recently mentioned that he is held to a higher standard than his peers and that he embraces that challenge. Bryant is right that if any other player in the NBA has a bad shooting game it is just a bad shooting game but that if Bryant has a bad shooting game then it is portrayed as a big deal.
It cannot be emphasized enough that Bryant is a 37 year old shooting guard who is in his 20th NBA season. He is coming back from multiple injuries sustained in the past three years and he suffered a setback during the preseason when he bruised his calf. Everyone, including Bryant, understands that he is not the player that he used to be--but we are just six games into this season. If Bryant's calf heals and if he does not suffer any other injuries, then his shooting percentage will inch back to a respectable level and he will make a positive impact for the Lakers. In a basketball sense, he is not finished; he still has his footwork, he is still in shape. He can still play, albeit not at his former level.
However, it looks increasingly likely that Bryant will never be fully healthy again. He is getting injured more and more frequently and even the minor injuries are exacting a greater toll than they did before.
This is the 15th round of Bryant's bout versus Father Time. He has battled Father Time as hard and as long as anyone but the end of the 15th round is near. This is not about Bryant embracing a different role. Bryant is who he is and he will finish his career, this season, as a starting player occupying a large role. Instead of nitpicking every shot taken during the final playing days of one of the sport's all-time greats, we should applaud the spirit and guts that Bryant is demonstrating in defiance of the Father Time who not only defeats all athletes but who eventually defeats us all. I wonder if the critics who bash Bryant now will face the 15th round of their lives as well as Bryant is facing the 15th round of his playing life.
It is not my place--or anyone else's place--to tell Bryant what he should do as long as there is at least one NBA team willing to pay his salary. Bryant has earned the right to finish his career on his terms. It will not be pretty or fun to watch at times but I hope that he can summon up the health and wherewithal to author a few more classic games before riding off into the sunset. Almost every great player says that he will not stick around past the point of being the best player in the sport--Julius Erving planned to retire in his early 30s but was an All-Star in his final year at 37, Michael Jordan vowed to not stick around until he was "just" an All-Star like Erving but played until he was "just" an All-Star at 39 and Bryant is now on a similar arc. The love of the game is too strong and the internal pride is too great for such players to retire until they reach that 15th round with Father Time. Erving had the most graceful exit of the three. He announced his retirement early in his 16th season, he enjoyed a marvelous and unprecedented "Farewell Tour," he was still a very good player (16.8 ppg, .471 FG%) and he was a key contributor for a playoff team. He became just the third player in pro basketball history to score 30,000 career points and a late two-game flourish (38 points and 24 points in his final two regular season games) enabled him to keep intact his streak of scoring at least 1000 points in every season of his career.
Erving and Jordan played past the point of being the best player in the world but they both had some very good games in their final seasons; it does not seem to be Bryant's style or plan to announce his retirement in advance or have a formal farewell tour but here is hoping that Bryant uncorks some 40 point outings in the next few months before calling it a career.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 PM