Among the most necessary attributes of the NBA’s true greats is longevity. A relative flash in the pan of brilliance a la Tracy McGrady or player that enjoyed sustained effectiveness but a fleeting peak like Dwyane Wade are considered steps below the game’s historical elite despite multiple individual seasons that are close to unmatched. Their utmost best was arguably better than Kobe Bryant’s, but the Los Angeles Lakers legend played levels closer to his pinnacle for far longer than McGrady and Wade did theirs. That matters, and as Bryant steps firmly into the twilight of his career, don’t think he doesn’t know it.
In the cover story of this week’s Sports Illustrated written by Chris Ballard, Kobe admits that his game has changed as a result of age. But the 35 year-old – whose birthday is this Saturday – also insists that just because he’s a different player than he was in the past doesn’t mean he’s any less effective.
“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.
Classic Kobe. Nobody self-motivates like Bryant, and he’s using the expected effects of Father Time as fuel to push himself to old heights. We’d be foolish to doubt that he’ll reach them.
The likelihood he does, though, seems slim to say the least. Of the underrated seasons in Kobe’s storied career was the lost Lakers season of 2012-2013. Though championship hopes gleaned from the offseason acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash proved wishful from the beginning, Bryant’s amazing evolution propelled him to a year-long performance that stacks up well against any of his prime.
At 33 years-old and in the 17th season of his career, Kobe made wholesale changes to his offensive game. The hordes of difficult long jumpers for which he’d become so famous – and frankly, infamous – were replaced by attacks to the paint and an uptick from beyond the arc. Bryant learned the value of efficiency, upping his free throw rate nearly six points compared to the previous season and setting a career-high in three-point tries per field goal attempt.
The results were as encouraging as they were unexpected given such a paramount shift in philosophy: the third-best true shooting percentage of his career; the best effective field goal percentage of his career; and the most win shares he’d compiled since 2008-2009. Other than Bryant’s sheer will and determination, no factor lends more credence to his current boast than his play in 2012-2013.
But that was longer ago than mere time makes it seem. Kobe has suffered two major injuries since then, tearing his achilles while fighting to lead his team to the playoffs in April 2013 and breaking his tibia last December. And the only thing we’re confident could keep Bryant from resuming his newfound effectiveness of 2012-2013? The nagging influence of those injuries.
The harsh reality for Kobe and basketball fans everywhere is that his time as a superstar force has likely passed. If there’s anyone who can defy those long odds, though, it’s certainly Bryant. And after he missed all but six games last season, we’re just thrilled to be able to watch him try in 2014-2015.
What do you think?
Follow Jack on Twitter at @ArmstrongWinter.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.