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How much longer will Kobe stay great?
The fact that Kobe Bryant will be 32 years old when the new season commences raises a concern about how long he can operate at a championship-caliber level. For several reasons, the probability is that the peak of his effectiveness will be comparatively short-lived.
Since the only player in NBA history with similar skills was Michael Jordan, some relevant comparisons are useful.
MJ played baseball during the 1993-94 season when he was 30 and 31 for a reason that is not widely known. The Bulls GM, Jerry Krause, drafted Toni Kukoc in the second round of the 1990 draft, knowing that he was committed to playing in Europe for the next few seasons. Meanwhile, Krause boasted that Kukoc would prove to be one of the greatest players in NBA history once he came to Chicago. In fact, Krause privately predicted that Kukoc would be even better than Jordan, and that the Bulls would win multiple championships with Kukoc and without His Airness.
Jordan, of course, took exception to Krause’s braggadocio, which was clearly designed by Krause to promote himself as a genius. Indeed, blame Krause for the ruthless manner with which both Jordan and Scottie Pippen absolutely manhandled Kukoc when they faced Croatia in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
In any case, Jordan only played in 17 regular-season games when he returned to the NBA as a 31-year old, so his stats for that year will be discounted.
Before his initial abbreviated retirement, Jordan had played nine seasons, won three championships and averaged a total of 38.7 minutes per game. This includes the 17 games MJ played in 1985-86 when he broke a foot.
Prior to his own 32nd birthday, Kobe has played in 14 seasons, won five championships, and averaged 36.6 minutes per game. It should be recalled that Bryant essentially played off the bench during his first two seasons in L.A.
However, after Jordan took off three more seasons (1998-2001), he returned to action with Washington and, with his age ranging from 38-40, was understandably not nearly the player he had been. Even so, MJ did manage to play in 60 and then in 82 games during those two seasons, scoring an aggregate 21.2 points per game.
Despite the extended vacation time and also the lesser daylight, Jordan’s court appearances were not nearly as strenuous as Kobe’s. Here’s why:
• The basis of the triangle offense is to take what the defense gives. In other words, to avoid disadvantageous confrontations as much as possible.
• Jordan bought into this philosophy during the Bulls initial championship over the Lakers in 1991, thereby saving his body from being unnecessarily pounded on by heavier and stronger big men.
• Kobe, however, spent most of his earlier Jacksonian-seasons aborting the triangle. His super-macho ego dictated that he challenge even the biggest bigs by stubbornly driving the ball into the paint no matter what physical abuse awaited him there.
• Whereas Jordan’s major injuries were suffered either very early or very late in his career, Kobe’s body parts are just beginning to break down. Witness his current knee surgery and his mangled finger.
• If Jordan could quickly recover from his broken foot at 22, at age 32, Kobe’s full recovery from knee surgery will take longer.
• MJ had the power to easily become more of a post-up scorer whose fadeaway jumpers avoided contact. When Kobe does try to establish himself in the low post, his outlay of energy is considerable.
• One of Jordan’s seasons extended into the Barcelona Olympics, but the Dream Team had such an easy time cruising to the gold medal that he was subjected to minimal physical duress. Also, the practice time for that squad was very abbreviated.
• Conversely, Kobe’s commitment to Team USA has taken up more time over the years. He joined Team USA in the summer of 2006, then competed the following year in the FIBA Americas competition where they qualified for the Beijing Olympics. Plus, in 2008, Kobe had to exert himself to a much greater degree than MJ in several tournament games, particularly in the closely-fought gold medal game versus Spain.
So, even though he’s a magnificently conditioned athlete (perhaps the most fit in the league), it’s hard to imagine Kobe’s scoring over 20 ppg eight years from now. And his probable failure to equal MJ’s longevity can ultimately be traced to Kobe’s youthful egomania.
Laker fans are advised to enjoy Kobe’s brilliance while they can.
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