Age, experience serve Kobe and Lakers well
Kobe Bryant turns 34 on Thursday and that's as good a time as any to ask:
What does he have left?
And how will he mesh with the new-look (but largely old-bodied, like him) Los Angeles Lakers?
Bryant, who will be entering his 17th season in October, was just 17 when he was drafted, and only 18 when he played his first regular-season game. It's hard to believe he's 34. He seems to be remarkably youthful, and at age 33 he put together one of his best seasons, averaging 27.9 points, the fourth-highest scoring average of his career.
However, while chronologically 34, his body has the miles of 16 hard-fought and highly competitive campaigns, with many postseasons on his shoulders, knees, hands pretty much every body part.
He's had many surgeries, and last summer had a procedure to help him deal with deteriorating knees. It worked well, as he finished second in the league scoring race and helped Team USA win a gold medal at the London Olympics.
But age is a tricky thing, and with the wear and tear Bryant has put on his body, you've got to wonder when it will catch up to him for good.
The Lakers are hoping it isn't soon especially this coming season. They've surrounded Bryant with new teammates who are even older than he is 38-year-old Steve Nash and 36-year-old Antawn Jamison, while Metta World Peace will turn 33 during the season and Pau Gasol is 32.
Those five players have a combined 70 years of NBA experience and even with newly acquired Dwight Howard (only 27 in December, but coming off back surgery) the Lakers will be one of the oldest teams in the league. With Jamison likely joining the starters while Howard is out, the Lakers will put on the court undoubtedly the oldest starting lineup in the league.
So, Lakers fans are you worried? Will there be more pulled muscles than games pulled out late? Will World Peace get even crankier having more old guys around? Should Kobe get another helicopter for his birthday or a walker?
Worry not. The Lakers will be playing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals next June. Unless there's a serious injury to Bryant, or Howard can't recover satisfactorily, this is as close to a lock as you're going to get.
Nash isn't in his prime, but he's one of the best-conditioned professional athletes in the world. He plays soccer to stay in shape and follows a regimented diet that includes no refined sugars. And his basketball skills still are in the top 10 percent of the league.
The same can be said about Jamison, who's been working out virtually since his season ended in April and looked to be in tremendous shape at his introductory news conference last month. He also averaged 17 points for a lousy Cleveland Cavaliers' team last season, getting a lot of his baskets from the outside. And with Nash getting him the ball, the attempts should get even better.
World Peace is a major question mark, and not because of his conditioning. He's generally regarded as one of the best-conditioned players in basketball, and advancing age hasn't hindered that. He's just too goofy for his own good, and you never know when he's going to go crazy and try to behead someone just ask OKC's James Harden.
And a healthy Kobe will be an MVP candidate.
One other factor that will put the Lakers into the Finals is a deep, talented and youthful group of bench players.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak should just be given the Executive of the Year trophy and get it over with. Lacking a true NBA working budget, Jerry West's one-time protege acquired or re-signed Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon, Jordan Hill, Jamison, Devin Ebanks and Earl Clark. Steve Blake is returning as the backup point guard if he can hold on to the job once training camp commences. Blake is the oldest of that group at 32, while Duhon turns 30 on Aug. 31.
None of the other reserves excepting Jamison is over 25. Most of them have proven to be solid NBA players, and will certainly improve by practicing every day against some of the game's greatest stars.
The average age of the Lakers starters with Jamison in for Howard is 34.4 very old in basketball years. Remove Jamison and add Howard, it's still an older lineup at 32.6 years average.
The six key players on the 1998 Chicago Bulls, though Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and Ron Harper averaged 33.3 years of age. The 2011 Dallas Mavericks had Jason Kidd as their starting point guard when they defeated the Miami Heat for the title. He was 38 at the time, the oldest starting PG to ever win a ring. If the Lakers win in 2013, Nash would hold that distinction.
Conversely, the Lakers' road to the Finals will be blocked with Thunder blowing in from Oklahoma City.
Losers to the Heat in the title round, the talented Thunder will be motivated to earn a return trip and another shot at the ultimate goal. And they'll do it with a team that is as young as it is talented.
Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are each 23. Serge Ibaka is 22 and Kendrick Perkins 27. Average age 23.6, which should be enough to worry any team they play.
But a healthy Lakers team is better and obviously is much more experienced. And in June should be fighting for the franchise's 17th NBA championship, which would tie them with the Boston Celtics.