Well, it’s now official… Kobe Bryant is going to retire. It was probably not that surprising to many in the NBA family or basketball fans. But when the team struggles as it has this year (a 2-14 record, surpassed only in futility by the 76ers winless start to the year) and Kobe mirrors his team’s struggles with a low (for him) 15.5 points per game average and a career-low shooting percentage of .305, the retirement announcement was not unexpected.
As Kobe closes out his 20-year career, all with the Lakers, what will his performance on the court look like? Will he be able to get out of the funky shooting slump that has characterized the early parts of his last season? And can he be a major contributor as this young Lakers team tries to find its identity?
Great players and great athletes, in general, have not always ended their careers on a high note. Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas, and even watching Peyton Manning these last few games, are just a few examples.
Let’s take a look at how well some of the NBA’s greatest players have performed in their last season.
Top 20 Career Scorers
Kobe ranks third on the NBA all-time career scoring list. He is one of 20 players who have amassed 25,000 or more career points. Six of the 20 on the list are still active in the league: Kobe, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and LeBron James.
Of the other 14 players on the list, 10 of those players had their lowest scoring average in their final season. In fact, only two of the Top 20 scorers averaged 20 or more points in their last season in the league: Jerry West (20.3) and Michael Jordan (20.0). Here’s the final season scoring average of the 14 retired players in the Top 20: West (20.3), Jordan (20.0), John Havlicek (16.1), Reggie Miller (14.8), Karl Malone (13.2), Wilt Chamberlain (13.2), Oscar Robertson (12.7), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10.1), Alex English (9.7), Shaquille O’Neal (9.2), Hakeem Olajuwon (7.1), Elvin Hayes (5.0), Dominique Wilkins (5.0), Moses Malone (2.9).
Of the six active players on the Top 20 scoring list, five of the six are showing signs of diminished scoring prowess. Duncan (10.0), Garnett (3.0) and Pierce (4.5) each have their lowest points per game average of their careers this season; Kobe’s 15.5 ppg is fifth lowest in his 20-year career, and Nowitzki’s 17.1 ppg is second lowest of his career. Only James (25.6) is enjoying an average scoring season. Of course, James is only approaching his 31st birthday while the other five players mentioned are all 37 years old or older.
Best Scoring Average in Last Season
According to research on Basketball-Reference.com, there have been 11 players who averaged 20 or more points in their final season in the league. Leading the way is Bob Pettit, who averaged 22.5 ppg in his final season in the NBA. Pettit averaged 26.4 ppg in his 11-year career; the 22.5 ppg in his final season was the second-lowest average of his career.
Following are the players who averaged 20 or more points per game in their final season.
Player, Season, Points Per Game
Bob Pettit*, 1964-65, 22.5
Drazen Petrovic*, 1992-93, 22.3
Paul Arizin*, 1961-62, 21.9
Alex Groza, 1950-51, 21.7
Reggie Lewis, 1992-93, 20.8
Jamal Mashburn, 2003-04, 20.8
Rudy LaRusso, 1968-69, 20.7
Jerry West*, 1973-74, 20.3
Larry Bird*, 1991-92, 20.2
George Yardley*, 1959-60, 20.2
Michael Jordan*, 2002-03, 20.0
* Hall of Famer
Hall of Famers last season
In addition to the seven Hall of Famers noted in the list above, there have been nine other Hall of Famers who averaged 16 or more points in their final season: Chet Walker (19.2), Clyde Drexler (18.4), Dave DeBusschere (18.1), Maurice Stokes (16.9), Julius Erving (16.8), Sam Jones (16.3), George Gervin (16.2), John Havlicek (16.1) and Bill Sharman (16.0).
Where will Kobe finish on any of the above lists? Chances are the team will not have much success in terms of wins in his final season. Therefore, if Kobe can regain some of the magic from his career and find his shooting touch, there is a possibility that he could find his way onto one of these lists.