In a few weeks, Kobe Bryant will become the first NBA guard to play in his 20th season, a remarkable accomplishment for any player, much less one counted on in his prime to act as the league’s best player.
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The hope, for his rebuilding Lakers, is that in spite of three consecutive season ending injuries (a torn Achilles, followed by a broken kneecap and then torn rotator cuff), Bryant will be refreshed during what could be his last year with the Lakers. He’s played in just a quarter of all potential regular season games over the last two years, that’s got to aid those weary legs, right? And, at 37, he’s even younger than Michael Jordan was when MJ came back to work up two solid enough seasons for the Washington Wizards in 2001!
Not so fast, Kobe Bean reminds. From a talk with Sam Amick at USA Today:
“This is uncharted territory,” he said. “My 37 (years old) isn’t MJ’s 37 (when he returned after taking two seasons off to play for the Washington Wizards), you know what I mean? Nor is it the same team or the same system that he was playing in. It’s much, much different. There’s really no barometer, no (precedent) for training physically, for recovery. It’s uncharted territory.”
(#actually MJ turned 38 eight months before his first game with the Wizards so …)
As we’ve talked about with LeBron James, Kobe and his preps-to-pros ilk are genuinely working in “uncharted territory.” LeBron will have far, far more miles on his legs at age 37 than Kobe will (presuming he decides to play that long), but even with two and a half years’ worth of injury woes, Kobe still has quite the minutes resume under his belt.
He didn’t start until his third season, but he was a sixth man and All-Star in his second year out of high school, and those seven trips to the Finals mean seven long marches deep into June. Bryant hasn’t played a playoff game in three and a half years, which is rather nutty when you think about it, but he’s played 220 postseason contests at a whopping 39.3 minutes a contest in his career.
Kobe’s go-to playoff shame is legendary – all those airballs against Utah in the Western semis during his rookie year – but Jordan didn’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs until his fourth season in the NBA. Kobe was winning his first title in his fourth season, two months before he turned 22.
Bryant had Shaquille O’Neal’s MVP season to aid in the title run, but that’s not the point. We’re not comparing players, only mileage. The point is that Bryant spent the equivalency of Michael Jordan’s North Carolina years playing an NBA schedule plus major postseason contests, working up an eight-month championship season in 1999-00 at the same age that Jordan introduced himself as an NBA rookie.
MJ then sat out most of his second season with a broken foot, a potential career-ending injury that nevertheless saved some tread on his tires, and he didn’t make it to a Conference final until his fifth season. Beat to hell by three titles and a gold medal run in the early 1990s, he reportedly decided to retire for the first time months before his father was murdered in August, 1993. Jordan’s 1995 return came 21 months after his final game, before he moved on to three more championship runs before retiring again following the 1997-98 season.
Jordan was dragging, it should be noted, toward the end of his second sabbatical in 1997-98. Forced to carry a thin Bulls team that was working with a gimpy Toni Kukoc in the first half of the season, a gimpy Dennis Rodman in the second half of the season, and no Scottie Pippen at all for the first half of the season, Jordan was absolutely winded in his last year with Chicago. He barely played any defense unless called upon to in an isolation situation, and his (league-leading) scoring game consisted of jump shots and drives to the basket that he had no intention on finishing, only looking to get to the free throw line.
Then he sat for 40 months before coming back to average about 23 points and 10.9 combined rebounds/assists for the Wizards in a year that saw him turn 39 around the All-Star break. The Lakers would kill for that sort of production from Kobe this year, but not if it means him dominating the ball as we saw last season and, if we’re honest, his first exhibition game back.
It’s important to point out that this accurate brand of defense from Bryant (who, according to Phil Jackson over an entire decade ago, hasn’t really played defense since that first championship season despite all the All-Defense plaudits) comes at a rather low point for the star.
A year after bashing ESPN for its perpetually-pointless player ranking of No. 40, saying the site was made up of “a bunch of idiots,” Bryant went on to play terrible basketball before bowing out due to that torn rotator cuff. He was ranked this year at No. 93, which seems rather optimistic. Again these lists are stupid (speaking as someone who was forced to write them at other sites; and ESPN is not entirely made up of “a bunch of idiots”), but Kobe even cracking the top 100 seems like a wild overestimation. Mostly due to the “uncharted territory” he discussed with USA Today.
The Lakers, in going young, retaining a loss-encouraging coach like Byron Scott, and running Kobe and his massive contract out there for show, are willingly punting 2015-16, much as they did last season. They’ll be better this year, deals for and with Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass will help, but the playoffs seem like a tough nut to crack in the West. Even if Bryant has a comeback for the ages.
And after this season? Well, Baxter Holmes at ESPN talked to a few people about that:
"They've got to get rid of Kobe," a scout said.
"You let him walk," an agent said.
"Get rid of Kobe by whatever means necessary," an executive said.
Of the 24 league insiders -- team executives, agents, scouts, etc. -- ESPN spoke with for this story, only one said the Lakers should definitely bring Kobe back if he decides to extend his career past his current contract.
"They've created a monster there," one executive said, "and it's hard to get out of it until he actually goes away."
Kobe Bryant did get his 20-5-5 line last season, but he also shot 37 percent from the field, dominated the ball, and his extended metrics were amongst the worst in the NBA at his or any other position. He shot a lot, and he was really, truly bad in spite of those nice box score lines.
If Kobe pulls off a tamer (and healthy) 2015-16, there is little reason to expect that he won’t be waiting outside the team’s front office next July, tapping his toes and awaiting another contract to sign. We’ll have to get through 2015-16 first, though.
The last desperate argument that Kobe and his backers have is to point to the makeup of the 2014-15 roster, filled with impermanence and woe.
With Julius Randle going down with a season-ending injury in the first game of a campaign that was weirdly nationally-televised, Bryant (to him, at least, and the devoted) had no choice but to chuck away on a team full of veterans who would be (and eventually were) gone during the offseason. There was no young talent to toss it to until guard Jordan Clarkson emerged, and that didn’t happen until Bryant’s season ended due to the shoulder injury.
This year, the hope goes, Bryant will gladly impart wisdom and even the ball (!) to Clarkson, rookie guard D’Angelo Russell, and the returning Randle. That he’ll prove himself worthy of a rebuilding effort, full of perspective rather than full of aging brio, and that this would be enough to convince the basketball side of the Lakers to bring him back in 2016.
The issue here is there really is no basketball side to the Lakers, at this point.
Mitch Kupchak ostensibly runs the show, but with Jim Buss as the supposed “basketball” head Kupchak will never have final say over his roster. That’s true of any general manager’s relationship with his team owner, but this team owner in question employs a cash cow in Bryant, and the Buss family is the lone NBA ownership group that views its team as the family business.
One shouldn’t doubt for a second the lure Bryant would flaunt moving forward for the Buss family as a moneymaker, even in his diminished state after this season. Hell, Kobe was diminished and coming off of an Achilles tear at age 35 and the team made him the NBA’s highest-paid player. Until the Lakers prove otherwise – “basketball” don’t matter.
Basketball matters to Kobe Bryant, but he’s long kept an eye on the business end of things. He was the lone holdout in voting against the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement, correctly noting that he could approach Michael Jordan-levels of salary as a free agent even with just one career start to his name heading into the 1998-99 lockout.
Kobe’s made ungodly sums of money in his career, he was the highest-paid player in the NBA last year during a terrible season, and he’ll be the highest-paid player this year, but that won’t and shouldn’t matter to us. You think he’s going to walk away from the game just as the generation that came after him is set for a massive payday that seems more in line with the generation that came before him? A payday that, despite Kobe’s millions, seemed to elude his era?
“Uncharted territory,” in so many ways.
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