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Kobe Bryant on the tail end of his NBA career: 'I'm 70 in basketball years.'

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Kobe Bryant prepares to pounce. (Getty Images)

There has never been anything in the NBA that resembles Kobe Bryant.

While we’re at it, there’s never been anything in the NBA that resembles Kevin Garnett, or Jermaine O’Neal, or LeBron James, or even Brandon Jennings. The idea that a prep star could jump to the pro ranks is a recent phenomenon, if even that. The NBA allowed high school stars to make themselves draft eligible up until the 2006 selections, but that high-end allowance wasn’t given much consideration until 1995, when Garnett declined to take on the junior college ranks after his grades failed him, and became a top five pick and eventual starter in his rookie year.

The next season, Bryant and O’Neal followed suit. As did several others over the next nine years, until the NBA created an age limit. As a result, the league’s post-Michael Jordan generation featured scads of top players whose career arc could in no way resemble that of MJ’s. Or Magic’s. Or Larry Bird’s. Or even the movements of Moses Malone, who jumped from high school and straight to the ABA.

International play and longer postseason runs are the reason why. Shoe companies and out-of-ideas media shame players into taking part in summertime action, and the NBA chased down the dollars in adding more and more games to the league’s first round series’, creating a year-long extravaganza of ball that also might include exhibition games performed overseas.

As a result, you get a quote from Kobe Bryant – a player that has worked just six games since April of 2013 – like this:

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(Courtesy Sports Illustrated)

(Courtesy Sports Illustrated)

Kobe’s not wrong. Even if you ignore his exacting offseason work schedule and sometimes pathetic attempts at showing off for media, the combination of his aversion to the NCAA, All-Star teammates, international play and long trips into the postseason have resulted in tread that no other player has known.

You can’t compare him to Kevin Garnett, who at age 38 is just three years younger than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement age, as they boast different skill sets and roles. Same with Jermaine O’Neal, LeBron, and Jennings – who aced the NBA’s curfew by playing in Italy for a year after high school. Kobe is absolutely unique in the modern era, which some might differentiate from his own, merely because he’s a badass shooting guard – something the NBA doesn’t seem to boast anymore.

He might not be working as a septuagenarian in basketball terms, but he’s getting up there. Bryant made the second round of the playoffs in his first three NBA seasons, won titles in his next three, while amassing two more rings alongside 220 games and over 8600 playoff minutes along the way. Two gold medals and one FIBA world championship need to be tossed in there, as should be the idea that as an off guard he isn’t allowed the same style of play as taller men are afforded. Even if those tall guys have to chase Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes a night.

Then there’s the Achilles tear, coming off of a fortnight that saw him average nearly 46 minutes a game in a fast-paced offense near the end of a grueling season. He probably would have played 48 minutes in the game following that turn, had he not torn the damn thing. Then toss in that fractured leg from last season. Kobe’s been through some stuff.

That doesn’t make him a role model, of course. Kobe Bryant went through some things in Colorado in 2003 and 2004 that we’re still not sure about, and recently he’s taken to looking up to another flawed and potentially destructive genius in the late Michael Jackson. Sports Illustrated revealed as much:

He is venturing into business, forming Kobe, Inc., last year and takes an anecdote from the late Michael Jackson in trying to measure his success. Jackson was determined to have the best selling album all of time and listened to the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which held the record by the time 1982’s Thriller” came out. 

“I f------ love that story,” Bryant said in his unending determination of being the best of all time. Thriller now holds that record. 

Having the best selling album of all time and acting as “the best of all time” is not the same thing. If you look down the ranks of the best selling LPs of all time, an Eagles greatest hits disc and Hootie and the Blowfish’s first album aren’t too far down the list, but ‘Thriller’ as a whole holds up. It’s so damn good.

Jackson’s approach made sense. The ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack, coming from someone who has actually listened to it and ‘Thriller’ this month, is full of disco and dance hits, but it’s also chock full of ballads and solid studio rock from several somewhat-disparate artists. Jackson actually released an album after ‘Saturday Night Fever’ hit, the classic ‘Off the Wall,’ but a more measured approach (to say nothing of the advent of free music promotion on basic cable TV) made sense. He let producer Quincy Jones hire some seasoned and tasteful studio vets from Toto to provide the backing, he refined his ballad work, and delivered a classic. ‘Thriller,’ man.

Kobe Bryant, though far older in both basketball and actual age, is trying to come through with a similar approach:

“So when I hear pundits and people talk, saying, ‘Well, he won’t be what he was.’ Know what? You’re right. I won’t be. But just because something evolves, it doesn’t make it any less better than it was before,” Bryant said. 

Sport, unlike art, can actually be somewhat accurately gauged. If Kobe scores fewer points (on a bad Lakers team that will badly need points) and plays less efficiently, then … yeah, it will be “less better than it was before.” This doesn’t take away from his effort and certainly won’t take away from his rehabilitation efforts, but it’s not bad punditry to expect a guy who is about to turn 36 to look like an approximation of himself after returning from both an Achilles tear and a gol-darn broken leg.

To say nothing of the 70-years worth of miles that we’ve already talked about.

What we can appreciate, though, is the artistry. How Bryant takes to his winter. How he reforms his game. How he attempts to use that brain and that competitive spirit of his in the return.

If he’s attempting to supersede Michael Jordan in the same way that Michael Jackson topped the Bee Gees, he can possibly top Jordan’s time with a similarly-terrible Wizards squad by at least looking better. Jordan was nearing and then over 40, and his series of flat-lined midrange jumpers and other inefficient tries were tiresome to watch. Kobe isn’t as old, but he also didn’t have the luxury of two retirements and a slowed-down college career as Jordan did. If Bryant can rely more on the clever instead of cunning, then we could have a chart-topper, here.

It’s up to Kobe, though. I hear Quincy Jones is still available, and he wants Bryant to work the post.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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