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Monday, November 09, 2015

The Twilight of Kobe Bryant

Unless 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 PM



At Monday, November 09, 2015 3:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's sad to see all these people piling on Kobe but their sadistic cowardice is not in the least bit surprising. These same people think that every one of his five championships is tainted and doesn't truly "count"; Shaq won all three by himself, the Lakers got lucky in 2009 for not having to face the Cavs or Celtics and Gasol should have been Finals MVP in 2010. They view his lone MVP as some kind of lifetime achievement award and mocked him relentlessly for his Finals loss in 2008, the same people who have made countless excuses for Chris Paul's failure to get out of the second round even though he is supposedly way better than Kobe ever was.

The saddest part is that even if Kobe were playing at a high level, they would still find reasons to criticize him; he's stealing the spotlight from his younger teammates, he's trying too hard to pass Kareem on the all-time scoring list, he has no friends/life and he's still playing because he has nothing better to do. Even if he heeded the advice of those advocating the Paul Pierce route he would still be mocked for chasing rings to match Jordan's total and Pierce (6.3 ppg on 35.5% shooting) isn't exactly catapulting the Clippers to a championship.

It gets a bit tiresome to keep pointing out the widespread double standard against Bryant but it is very difficult to let such blatant hypocrisy go unmentioned and I'm glad that Kobe views it as a challenge to overcome.

At Monday, November 09, 2015 9:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on anonymous. Sure, superstars still get hold to a different standard than others players, but even amongst superstars, Kobe is still held to a completely different standard as well. I've never seen anything like it. Westbrook's the whipping boy today, but compared to Kobe, not even close. I don't want it is. He plays for LAL, didn't mesh with media particularly early in his career, and everyone made him out to be the scapegoat for his feud with Shaq. His criminal case piled on all of that, but that was just the icing. But obviously the biggest reason is that he actually threatened to overtake Jordan, and I feel like he's at least right there with Jordan. To even consider him outside any top 10 list all-time is ridiculous. David, I wonder if Kobe was actually guilty of rape, would you write so extensively and so positively about him? None of us will know for sure if he was, but from everything I've read about it, it seems highly unlikely he was guilty.

Nobody wants to give him any credit for even one title, yet I rarely see even haters rate Shaq ahead of him now. Kobe played like an elite, MVP-caliber player during their 3-peat, outplayed Shaq in some series, and was super clutch. Shaq was a dominant beast from 00-02, and even prime Jordan would have to take a backseat to Shaq during that time. Little do most people realize is that Kobe was just 21-23 during that 3-peat. Jordan was 22 in his rookie year.

The Pau nonsense is truly astonishing as well. Too bad we didn't hear Jason Terry or J.J. Barea MVP rants for the 2011 Finals, or not really. But just another example that Kobe hatred influences so many people. Terry outplayed the supposed best player, James, too. I remember the MVP 2008 talk, too. I don't quite understand the Chris Paul love. I think people are finally waking up about him a little, though. He's no longer the best player on his team. He's playing with 2 other AS, has a good coach, and a solid cast around him. What more could he ask for?

I also find it very odd how Duncan continues to get so much credit, especially for his last ring. Sure, SA needed him, just like they needed everyone else on their team, but his role was greatly diminished from his prime years, and he could focus on his role similar to aging Russell rather than being an MVP-type player. Even if we say Duncan was SA's best player in 14, his impact was much less than even 00-02 Kobe. Duncan wasn't even an AS in 14, and he's highly regarded amongst everyone, especially the coaches, who picks the reserves. He was fortunate to make the AS team last year. Even if we give Duncan all this credit for 14 for still being some elite player, his teams(stacked teams) have lost in the 1st round 2x in the past 5 years, and once as a #1 seed. It doesn't quite add up. It's too bad Kobe didn't have the consistent teams like Jordan, Duncan, Magic, James, etc. He could have 9-10 rings. Garbage teams in the middle of his prime from 05-07, and a lot of these aging superstars have picked up late rings in diminished roles. Kobe could've been able to save his body some before tearing his Achilles in 2013. He was still an MVP-caliber player at that time in his 17th season, which is unprecedented.

At Monday, November 09, 2015 11:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I do not believe that Bryant was guilty of rape. The accuser's story was not very credible, she ultimately declined to testify and the case was dismissed. In light of all of the information that came out--which I do not want to rehash more than 10 years later--I question why charges were even filed. Bryant admitted that he committed adultery and was willing to take a lie detector test.

If I thought that Bryant was guilty, I would write about him the same way that I have written about Ray Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a still unsolved double murder and who I believe committed those slayings or at least participated in the murders and knows the full story. Lewis belongs behind bars, not as a celebrated commentator on ESPN.

Bryant was destroyed in the media regarding the incident in Eagle, Colorado, but Ben Roethlisberger twice faced similar allegations and was suspended for four games by the NFL for violating the personal conduct policy but no one talks about his cases anymore. The first Roethlisberger case was not so convincing but I am less certain of his innocence regarding the second one.

At Monday, November 09, 2015 11:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Chris Paul was once the best point guard in the NBA but he was, even at that time, vastly overrated. The comparisons to Bryant were ridiculous. No 6-0 point guard is going to be as valuable as an all-around 6-6 wing who can play the one, two or three. Paul has had a lot of talent around him and never gotten out of the second round.

I would not rank Bryant equal to Jordan but Bryant is the closest player to Jordan since Jordan retired and I think that offends many people even more than the rape allegation. Jordan had bigger hands, a slightly better low post game and better shot selection, though he also benefited mightily by having Pippen run the offense so that he could leak out and get early post position. Bryant always had to be Jordan and Pippen when the Lakers ran the Triangle; he set up the offense and then often had to finish the play as well.

James is bigger than Bryant and maybe even faster. The physical measurables favor James--but Bryant is just a better, more fundamentally sound basketball player at both ends of the court: better footwork, better shooting touch and much tougher mentally. I would take prime Bryant over prime James every day and twice on Sunday because the reality is that in a big series--like the NBA Finals--I don't know which James will show up. You might get the James who scores 40 points or you might get the James who gets outplayed by Jason Terry. Jason Terry is not outplaying prime Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals. Bryant might miss shots but he would never stop competing. James quits or freezes or something goes haywire too often in the big moments. James is one of the greatest players of all-time but if my life is on the line based on the outcome of one playoff series I want Bryant fighting for my life, not James. We saw that in the 2008 Olympics as well, which is the closest we will ever get to seeing both of those guys in or near their primes at the same time. When the going got tough, the ball was in Bryant's hands and he delivered.

It would have been something if Bryant had carried the Lakers to a playoff run in 2013 and then retired near the top of the game. No one could realistically say anything against him as a player at that point. However, he is not wired that way and he will keep coming back until his body completely fails him, much like Jordan limping up and down the court with one good leg. Jordan and Bryant both said that they would not go out like Doc but the reality is that Doc went out with dignity; Doc was an All-Star in good health who accepted a lesser but still significant role and he left the game on his terms when everyone could see that he could still play and could probably still average an efficient 20 ppg in the right circumstances. Jordan stuck around a little too long and Bryant is heading in that direction as well but as a basketball purist all you can do is admire their guts and determination and wince when the haters start firing shots at players who once could silence critics by dropping 50 and winning rings.

At Tuesday, November 10, 2015 12:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Also, since people are so fond of calling Bryant a bad teammate and a bad person compared to O'Neal, it is worth noting that O'Neal--by his own admission--repeatedly cheated on his now ex-wife, he has affiliations with gang-related individuals (one of whom accused O'Neal of kidnapping him to force him to give up a sex tape of O'Neal, though that case against O'Neal was dismissed), he had to turn in his sheriff's badge after his stupid, vulgar rap against Bryant and he is being sued for assault based on an incident that happened during his employment at TNT. If anyone else had O'Neal's track record he would be a hated pariah but for some reason he is considered loveable. I admit that Shaqtin' a Fool is funny but let's be honest: that is a segment put together by the producers and O'Neal likely has not seen the plays until they actually air. His name is on the segment because he is famous.

I have no problem with someone saying that Bryant is a driven but flawed human being, provided that the same standard is applied to other driven but flawed human beings. Meanwhile, I do not believe that Bryant committed a crime. Violent sex offenders tend to be repeat offenders. Look at Bill Cosby and Darren Sharper. Perhaps look at Roethlisberger, who has been accused of sexual violence more than once. The Bryant case was very unusual because Sheriff Joe Hoy jumped the gun and arrested Bryant before the prosecutor had even decided to file charges, creating an unnecessary public spectacle that did not promote the cause of justice. By the time all of the physical evidence was processed, the accuser's case did not look so good but it would have been difficult for the prosecutor to just back down at that point, so the case dragged out before the accuser eventually decided to not pursue the matter.

It is important to get the facts straight about these issues but I don't want this thread to turn into a revisiting of the whole Eagle, Colorado saga.

At Tuesday, November 10, 2015 12:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, that all makes sense. I knew about some of these other players a little bit, not entirely all of what you mentioned. Didn't want to talk about Kobe's Colorado case that much, but it's worth noting that is a reason many people at least say that dislike Kobe, whether true or not. I knew someone who said that was why he hated Kobe because of Colorado, but he couldn't care less about someone like convicted murderer Rae Carruth. Didn't realize all that about Shaq probably mainly because the media doesn't really report it to the extent like they do with Kobe, though Shaqtin' a Fool is pretty good. It's unfortunate these players have had criminal problems or have cheated on their wives, but it shouldn't affect our views of them.

Jordan may have a very slight edge on Bryant, even if we take all the bias that favors Jordan. Though, the league was the most watered down during most of the time when his teams were winning. The nba was expanding and we hadn't see much, if any, foreign players. Jordan was more athletic than Kobe, but less skilled, and less versatile as an offensive and defensive player. Kobe could fit more roles on each side of the ball. This doesn't mean he was necessarily better than Jordan because of that, but it's worth noting. Jordan probably had a better prime, but Kobe was better in early career and twilight career. Kobe was still an elite player in his 17th season, while Jordan only played 15 seasons and wasn't in his 14th and 15th seasons. Though Jordan did retire 2x, so maybe he could've been still elite in his 17th season, but that's a moot point since it didn't happen. Looks like the Achilles triggered the end for Kobe. That's a freak injury, though. I'd bet he's still be playing very well at least an AS level if he was able to play fewer minutes and hadn't had that injury, but we'll never know.

It's also worth noting some things about some other perceived great leaders. Jordan basically ran out #3 pick Dennis Hopson out of the league, and punched Kerr/Perdue. CHI only lost 2 less games in 94 after he retired for the first time with Armstrong/Grant making their lone AS appearance in 94 as well. Duncan wouldn't even talk to Parker in his rookie season, and led team USA to a bronze medal in 04, getting little lucky even doing that. While the world had caught up quite a bit since Barcelona, this shouldn't happen. They lost 3x total, and had several other close losses to weaker opponents. Nash is considered the greatest teammate ever by some, even though he never made the finals while playing with great talent on multiple teams. Paul, another supposed great teammate/leader has never made it past the 2nd.


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