Perhaps the only accusation Kobe Bryant hasn’t faced in the course of his 16-year career is that of poor timing. His sense of the dramatic is impeccably purposeful.
Consider that his consecutve 40-point games — 48 against Phoenix and 40 the next night in Utah — came just as LeBron James and the Heat arrived in California. It’s worth noting, also, that in a still young season, James collapsed in epic fashion during consecutive fourth quarters. First, in a loss to Golden State, he failed to tally so much as a point, a rebound or an assist during the fourth quarter. The next night, in a much-anticipated matchup between the Heat and the revamped Clippers, he went 6-for-10 from the line in the fourth quarter and missed twice in the final minute.
This second failure elicited a tweet from @KingJames: “Had some great opportunities lastnight. Have to make them count. Unexceptable (sic)from the Line! Simple as that. Back at it on Friday night”
Compare that to Bryant’s smirking response after his 48-point outburst: “Not bad for the seventh best player in the game, huh?”
Bryant’s genius remains his ability to take everything personally, to manufacture motivation from mere slights, both real and imagined. Someone called him the seventh best? That helps. LeBron’s coming to town? That helps, too.
Bryant is an old 33, especially considering he has played NBA basketball since he was 18. But rather than mellow in his relatively advanced year, he’s still nourished by his own narcissism. That’s not necessarily a great thing for most human beings. But for a player like Kobe Bryant, it has allowed him to deal with the ravages of time.
He’s playing with torn ligaments in his shooting wrist. He receives a pain-killing injection before each game. Nevertheless, he’s averaging 36.6 in his past five. His average in this still young season has now risen above 30. And that, in itself, raises an interesting proposition.
A few weeks ago, the conversation was about Bryant’s divorce and how it might derail the season, both for him and the Los Angeles Lakers. Apparently, that missed the point. I’ve never seen a player with a more conspicuous sense of his own athletic legacy: In Kobe Bryant’s world, nothing interferes with that. And now he stands to become the oldest guy ever to average 30.
You think he doesn’t know that?
You think it hasn’t given him something to, you know, shoot for?
Remember, as the week began, Bryant vowed to end his career as it began. “I shoot,” he told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “You’ve known that for 16 years. I’m not changing my game. If the defense is not doubling, I’m going to score. If I’ve got a good look, I’m going to score.”
Actually, there are times when he will score despite a double-team or without much of a look. But why quibble? His larger point is well taken: “At the end of the day, I’m a scorer first.”
According to STATS LLC, the oldest players to average 30 were: Michael Jordan, 30.4 in 1995-96; Jerry West, 31.4 in 1969-70; Rick Barry, 30.6 in 1974-75; and Allen Iverson, 33 in 2005-06. West and Barry were relatively young men of 31. Iverson was 30. Jordan was the oldest, as that season concluded with him 33 years and 44 days. Kobe, by comparison, will be 33 and 222 days on April 1.
Sure, it’s only a 66-game season. By the same token, however, Bryant has logged more basketball miles than any of those previously mentioned greats. Including the postseason, he has played in 1,323 NBA games, a figure that translates into 48,752 minutes. Jordan played 1,251 in his entire career. Rick Barry’s pro career spanned 14 seasons and 1,125 games, including the postseason. Jerry West? A total of 1,085 NBA games. As for Iverson, he was as gutty a scorer as there ever was, considering his size, but his game fell off precipitously by his 33rd birthday. He was done at 34.
At 33, Kobe doesn’t always look so spry himself. The wrist is a big problem. But he might just have the kind of demonic vanity to deal with that kind of injury. You figure he’d gladly take every injection for a chance to make history.
Second, the lockout didn’t hurt him. His wrist might be in pain. But his legs are fresher than they’ve been for a while. Finally, there’s the matter of the offense. This used to be Phil Jackson’s team, which is to say everything ran through the triangle scheme. But now it’s Bryant’s team. The new coach, Mike Brown, runs a conventional NBA offense with more isolation-type plays.
Will Bryant do it, become the oldest guy to average 30? I don’t know. I just know that, for Kobe Bryant, not to try would be Unexceptable.