Logic (and father time) tells us that an athlete’s career can usually be diagrammed in an arc shape, where age and ability meet at a certain point (their prime) and each athlete is working at peak performance. Following that run at the top, you’re body starts to decline and you aren’t able to do what you once could, leading to a fall in performance.
Sometimes athletes go out with grace at the top of their sport (Ray Lewis, Ray Bourque, ). They don’t hang around too long and we don’t have to watch them struggle to keep up with guys faster, stronger, or better than them. They time their exit perfectly and there’s no asterisk at the end of their career.
On the other end of the spectrum are the players who can’t say goodbye to the fans, fame, and fortune (Michael Jordan, Brett Favre) and aren’t nearly as elegant in their exit. They either refuse to retire or refuse to stay retired.
Then there’s the Kobe Bryant type. At 34 years old, in his 17th year in the league, and with nearly 60,000 minutes on his legs split between regular season, playoff, and Olympic contests, logic tells you Kobe Bryant should be at the crossroads where he decides to bow out elegantly or battle relevance in the spot light.
Kobe created a third option: have one of your greatest seasons in your career.
Non-NBA fans, and even some casual fans, will take a look at his stats and debate this claim. He scored fewer points a game than last season. His rebounds per game rose just 0.2 points from last year. And he actually had more turnovers per game in comparison to last season. If anything, it looks like Kobe’s following a typical career arc and is continuing his decline.
But the eye-test, among other forms of evidence, tell you this wasn’t a normal Kobe year. In a season that featured a different lineup and rotation on a seemingly game to game basis, the glue that held the group together was Kobe. 76% of the total minutes played by the Lakers featured Kobe on the court. For comparisons sake, LeBron was on the court for 72% of the Heat’s games, Durant and Westbrook at 79% and 72%, respectively. Even back in 2008-09 when the Lakers won the title, Kobe played just 75% of the Lakers’ minutes.
But we’ve only just begun. He was second in the league in fourth quarter scoring, trailing only Durant. After the All-Star break, only Carmelo Anthony had more points than him per game. Despite missing the last two and a half games, he finished tied for fourth in total minutes.
Did I mention this man was in his 17th year?
Kobe’s certainly had better pure scoring seasons, but given his age and the state of his (deteriorating) body, one could argue that this was one of his most impressive. While he wasn’t as prolific a volume scorer, he was a superbly efficient one.
- His 57% true shooting percentage, which takes 2-point, 3-point, and free throws into account, was tied for his highest since the 2006-07 season.
- His 50.4% efficient field goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact that threes are worth more than twos, was his highest of his career.
Overall, he finished the season with a line of 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists on 46.3% shooting is one he’d never put up before, namely because of the amount of assists he had. While he was a supremely efficient scorer, he also incorporated the “Magic Mamba” aspect into his game.
His six assists a game is a career high, with his 469 total assists being just 12 short of his career high, despite missing four games. His 29.7% assist percentage, which shows he assisted on nearly 30% of his teammates shot while on the court, is by far his best rate by over a full percent. Only Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison scored more points per possession with Kobe off the floor than with him on.
And none of this has talked about the clutch moments from Kobe this year, which is often immeasurable.
- He drug the Lakers back in New Orleans after being down 21 points in the second half with 18 points and 4 assist in the 4th.
- He saved the Lakers from an embarrassing loss against the Raptors at home, hitting three 3-pointers in the final minute, including a double-pump, fading away three with 5.5 seconds left.
- His triple-double at home against Dallas all but eliminated the Mavs from the playoff race down the stretch.
- His 47 point, 8 rebound, 5 assist, 4 block, and 3 steal game in Portland has not been done in the last 28 years.
- Over the last seven games, he averaged 45.5 minutes a game, including playing 47+ minutes on four of those occasions. That’s also including the nearly 45 minutes he played prior to his injury against Golden State.
And while mentioning the Golden State game, it may have provided the best image of Kobe and the Lakers this season. Down 107-101 with five minutes to play, Bryant knocked down back to back threes to pull the Lakers even, the second one coming from nearly 30 feet away with a hand in his face. Then his two free throws after his injury, which are now iconic, tied the game once more before his final exit of the season.
Kobe Bryant gave everything he could to the Lakers this season. His 38.6 minutes a game were the most he played per contest since the 2007-08 season. Despite his usage percentage being the lowest it had been since that same season, nearly every other statistical category improved for Bryant this year.
He certainly didn’t deserve to win the MVP award this year, as LeBron James and Kevin Durant had huge years each. But if you take the literal meaning of the award, most VALUABLE player, then not only does Kobe Bryant have a case for the award, but he’s likely the winner.
When Nash went down, Kobe was there.
When Pau went down, Kobe was there.
When Dwight went down, Kobe was there.
When Blake, Hill, or Jamison went down, Kobe was there.
Don’t become spoiled by Kobe Bryant. Sit back and realize what this man accomplished this season and for his career. We won’t see another one like him in the near future, nor possibly ever again.