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Rosen: Why Kobe Bryant is Breaking Down

Kobe Bryant has had a glorious career — Five championship rings, 14 times an All-Star, one MVP trophy, 11 selections to the All-NBA First Team, and on and on … But at age 37, and with a total of 46,774 minutes played (10th all-time) in 19 seasons, it’s no wonder that Bryant has recently been plagued by serious injuries.

However, in addition to his workload and his inevitable aging, there are several reasons why his body and his game have broken down. Reasons that forecast more problems for KB in the upcoming campaign.

There have been numerous comparisons between Kobe and Michael Jordan, but there are several that have been overlooked. During MJ’s 17-year career, there were eight seasons in which he played in all of his team-of-the-moment’s 82 games. Because of a leg injury and a belated return from his one of his temporary retirements, there were only two seasons where MJ played less than 70 games. The corresponding numbers for Kobe include four 82-game seasons, and eight when he failed to appear in 70 games.

Why such a glaring difference?

Because during the Bulls-Lakers championship series in 1991, MJ finally saw the value in Phil Jackson’s (and Tex Winter’s) Triangle offense. One of the basic principles being that players move in such a way as to generally avoid physically aggressive defensive pressure. That’s precisely why Jordan spent his 40th birthday playing with the Washington Wizards. This in a 2002-03 season in which he played in 82 games and put up 20.0 points per outing.

Kobe, on the other hand — and despite what he’s said when being quizzed by the media — never really bought into the Triangle. As a result he delighted in driving into crowds of hostile big men, maneuvers that produced hundreds of breathtaking buckets — but also ferocious body contact with guys who tipped the scales at (or near) 300 pounds. The cumulative effect of this constant and unnecessary banging is the primary cause of Kobe’s physical woes. Thus KB’s knee fracture, Achilles tear and shoulder blowout.

Still, according to Dr. X, a passionate hoop-o-phile and a highly respected podiatric surgeon in upstate New York, Kobe’s Achilles injury is the most serious of these.

“We grade every muscle in the body on a scale of one-to-five,” says Dr. X., “a rating that measures strength, flexibility and efficiency. The Achilles is attached to the heel bone and the calf muscles, and it’s a certainty that before tearing this tendon both of Kobe’s calf muscles {the gastrocnemius and the soleus} were grade five. But with any kind of Achilles tear, the muscles involved automatically decrease by at least one grade.”

Dr. X states that this reduction is critical in a professional athlete: “With grade four calf muscles, Kobe can’t push off hard and quick on his afflicted leg, which means that his one-footed changes-of-direction are not as effective as they used to be. Even worse, it’s his left leg that’s involved—the takeoff leg for a right-handed shooter. This compromises the height and quickness of his vertical jump. Plus he now has to favor his right leg when shooting his jumpers, which will, in turn, lead to more misalignments of his muscular and skeletal systems.”

Kobe’s stats after returning in 2014-15 from surgeries on his Achilles surgery and right shoulder seem to support Dr. X’s diagnosis: Career lows in shooting percentage (.373) and free throws per game (6.9).  Moreover, his per-game turnover rate of 3.7 was the second-highest of his career. The fact that Bryant still managed to score 22.3 points per game (his lowest total since he was primarily a bench player in 1998-99) is a testimony to his incredible talent, willpower and virulent competitive nature.

Is it conceivable that, like MJ, Kobe Bryant will be scoring twenty points per game as he passes his 40th year here among us?

Conceivable, yes. Possible, no.

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