In a vacuum, I think all of us can agree that what Kobe Bryant’s doing in his 17th NBA season is mostly ridiculous. With a handful of games remaining this season, Bryant has amassed 1,456 games (playoffs and regular season) and spent 53,897 minutes on the court. To list off his accomplishments, both statistical and of the award variety, would be like reading through a ledger that includes every sin any of us committed. It would go on and on and we’d fall asleep out of monotonous exhaustion and boredom and then we’d wake up and the voice would still be droning on.
For me, and I assume, for many of us, one of the most impressive aspects of Kobe’s long, long run has been remarkable consistency of it. So many games and years later and the man is still performing at a level that exceeds his career averages (his career averages are admittedly tipped by his first three years in the league). His game is as identifiable as any player’s in the league. Just when we think he’s lost a step and is on the decline (2011 appeared this way), he bounces back with Orthonkine therapy and back-to-back 27ppg, +20PER seasons—at ages 33 and 34.
Being the lightning rod he is, Kobe’s accomplishments come hand-in-hand with overreaction from the pro-Kobe and con-Kobe camps which are both bolstered by millions of basketball fans who sit at computers or on smartphones pounding away at the keys and venting through Kobe-based superlative arguments. The objective or indifferent fans marvel at Kobe’s resilience and shot-making ability while shaking their heads at the head-scratchingly bad shots or lackluster defense that we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing.
But as I started this post, I’ll reiterate: In a vacuum … I’m not interested in opening up or hashing out or re-hashing debates that have no ending. After Kobe’s game yesterday, a 14-point loss to the Clippers that gave them a 4-0 sweep in the Battle for Los Angeles; a game in which Kobe played 47 minutes (Mike D’Antoni’s never been shy about running guys into the ground and most elite athletes need someone to force them to rest, so the Kobe/D’Antoni combination is mostly a poor match when it comes to the long-term consideration of Kobe’s physical health), I found myself asking: Who does this? Who plays 47 minutes at 34-years-old? Who’s 34 and putting up 25 points and 10 assists? So I did what I do, I had to answer this question for myself and the answer was interesting enough to share it with you:
I took Kobe’s season-to-date stats (as of 4/8/12) and plugged them into Basketball-Refrerence.com and took a look at how this season compares historically at a couple different levels. First off, I just focused on players who have averaged at least 38 minutes/game at age 34 or older. I don’t know what my hunch was going into this, but as I think more about it, it makes sense that only a few times in league history has circumstance demanded a player of this age pour so much of himself into the game and only so many times has the player actually been able to hold up to the rigorous demands of an NBA schedule for so many minutes every night:
It’s an interesting list. Of the 15 seasons included there, only three players went on to win titles (Jordan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in 1972). With the exception of Lenny Wilkins’ Cavs in 1973 and Anthony Mason’s Bucks in 2002, each player did make the playoffs, although it’s worth noting that several teams were low-seeded playoff teams that needed every ounce of production available from their best players—similar to the Lakers dependency on Bryant this year.
To take it a step further in terms of production at age 34 or older with 38 minutes or more played each night, I layered in points, PER and Usage%. Only a single other player compares favorably to Kobe in these measures:
MJ edged Kobe in PER (25.2 vs. 22.7) and usage rates (33.7% vs. 31.8%), but in both cases, these teams relied on these shooting guards for so so much production. The results were drastically different and the purpose of this post isn’t to delve into that aspect of these post-34 seasons, but to explore the rarity of what an aging Kobe Bryant’s doing this season which is about as rarefied company as you can come across. As an aside, these explorations often reveal some unexpected random piece of information and in this case it’s Karl Malone’s 2001-02 season where he averaged 38mpg as 38-year-old power forward and had a usage rate of 28.8%. For perspective, that 28.8 would rank 8th overall this season and place him ahead of James Harden—and he was 38.
Someday we’ll say goodbye to Kobe, but it appears it’ll be a lot later than a whole gang of people thought…
Kobe’s circumstances are also different, because he’s playing on such a bad team. If all time greats had been often playing on bad teams this late in their careers, they may needed to push a bit more on minutes. As well, none of those other players, many of whom had knee/joint issues late in their careers, had the benefit of the blood platelet treatment that Kobe underwent, and which he credits with helping to revitalize him. That’s simply modern technology that has given Kobe an advantage against Father Time. Had greats from the past been able to take advantage of such modern marvels, their numbers would have increased as well.
I agree with all that. The circumstance is one of the biggest pieces of it. Aging focal point + struggling team = scenario that necessitates big minutes. I referenced the D’Antoni impact as well. He’s notorious for playing short benches layering the minutes on his guys.
The technology piece is and will always be a big part of any athlete’s accomplishments, but it’s worth noting that no other present-day player who’s over 34 has kept it going at such a high level despite improvements in technology and healthcare.
Circumstance is important, but many of these guys still played heavy minutes on good to great teams, and I’m betting Kobe had played the most minutes over his entire career than anyone else on the list, but not sure about that. Amazing for any and all of these guys to do have done this, in this own rights. Good disclaimer with your last paragraph above about technology. Some guys are just more pain tolerant than others. I’m betting Kobe finds a way no matter what.
I guess I’m not getting why usage and PER are included here. I think Kobe isn’t even top 10 in PER, shows how dumb that stat is. Actually, PER is probably one of the better advanced stats, but still very limited. As long as we don’t use it like a science, but rather like a generalization, then that’s ok. Also, it doesn’t translate among seasons, it’s only for that particular season, so to compare seasons with it is mostly pointless.
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Come on now. Karl Malone’s 1998 compares quite favorably to Kobe as well.
Malone had a 28 PER on 27 PPG, the most Win Shares in the league and a Usage Rate of 31.8.
To ignore or omit that season — which happened in parallel with Jordan’s Final Dance with the Bulls — is pretty ridiculous. The need to over-inflate certain players’ legacy’s while trampling others’, directly or indirectly, is why NBA History and Stats Analysis has such a poor rep compared to the MLB.
Malone’s work at 36 is pretty impressive as well.
Karl Malone’s 1998 compares fantastically with Kobe as does his 2000. There wasn’t any intentional ignoring or omitting of that season or any other Malone season. The filters applied included only players who averaged at least 38minutes/game. Malone averaged 37.4mpg in 1998 and 35.9 in 2000. I’ll be the first to acknowledge Malone’s 1998 season was easily on par with Kobe’s 2013, but it didn’t meet the same criteria I looked at.
I do appreciate you reading and taking the time to leave a comment, but you can rest assured there was no direct or indirect intent to leave Malone (or any other player) off of this list. If a player was under 38mpg, he simply didn’t qualify for the completely arbitrary baseline I used.