Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is the latest example of what happens when you hang around the NBA for too long. In the midst of his 20th season in the pros and looking to put a proper bow on a Hall of Fame tenure, the 37-year-old Bryant is looking like a shell of the man who once dominated the league.
His 32.1 percent mark from the field is the worst of his two decades in the game while his 21.1 percent from three is only “bottomed” by his 2013-14 campaign, when he converted 18.8 percent of his treys in six games before being lost for the year with a knee injury. The Black Mamba’s 16.2 points per game is also the fourth-lowest scoring output of his career.
While those numbers are sad, watching Bryant try to bounce back from his third-straight injury-shortened campaign has been the real tragedy. Unable to get to the lane and elevate like he used to, Kobe is almost strictly a three-point shooter these days. Of his 78 takes this season, 38 have come from behind the arc. Additionally, only three players (Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard) are chucking up more threes on average than Kobe’s eight per game.
Unfortunately, the results have been cringe-worthy.
While Kobe’s struggles have become fodder for the internet, they should also serve as a cautionary tale for what potentially lies ahead for basketball’s next generation of superstars, namely Cleveland Cavaliers icon LeBron James.
For the better part of this decade, James has carried the torch Bryant unofficially inherited from Michael Jordan as the gold standard of his respective era. Like Bryant, James racked up many miles on his NBA odometer, thanks in large part to his lengthy postseason runs each year.
Coming into his 2015-16 campaign, Bryant accrued 55,415 combined minutes in the pros between the regular season and playoffs. Surprisingly, James wasn’t that far behind despite the near seven-year age difference, logging 43,330 combined minutes during his 12 years in the NBA. Excluding his ’15-16 total, Bryant averaged 2,916 minutes per year. That means, assuming this is his last hurrah (and, for his sake, let’s hope it is), Kobe will finish his career playing roughly 58,330 minutes.
As for James, he averages an eye-popping 3,611 minutes annually. At that rate, King James would catch up to Kobe in a little over four seasons. That’s not to say James’ age-35 season will closely resemble Bryant at 37. Serious injuries to his knee, shoulder and Achilles all contributed to Bryant’s sudden date with mortality. However, it’s logical to wonder how long James can fend off Father Time at his current pace.
James came into the new season battling a back injury which required a pain injection that forced him to sit out the rest of the preseason. After playing a then-career-low 36.1 minutes per game last season, James’ on-court time is down to 34.3 minutes this year. During the summer, reports surfaced of the Cavs’ desire to cut LBJ’s minutes. James’ back troubles, while not forcing the four-time MVP to miss any time yet, make that an even bigger priority.
Cleveland’s decision to monitor their star player’s workload in the prime of his career will help both parties in the long run. James will also benefit from the elite talent around him and his innate ability to facilitate. While Bryant logged heavy minutes and assumed a bulk of the scoring responsibilities deep into his mid-30’s, James has shown a willingness to defer to others. His 7,517 career dimes already top Kobe’s lifetime output (7,172) despite playing seven fewer seasons.
“The No. 1 thing I’ve been able to do is stay healthy, relatively, in my career,” James said after becoming the youngest player to join the 25,000 points club in a Nov. 2 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. “I’ve been able to play with two great organizations. This organization and the Miami Heat and also play with incredible teammates and coaching staffs that allow me to be the best player I can be every night. This is one of the benefits of it.”
James continues to play at a high level while Bryant is struggling to find himself. Even though James refuses to believe Bryant’s slump is due to his advanced age, he would be wise to watch Kobe and take notes. While James has been a basketball machine throughout his career, Kobe’s plight is a tragic reminder that even the most divine talents are human.