The Kobe Bryant Situation is something that has been written ad infinitum here and all over web. The typical story has focused around whether Kobe’s force of will to be great can overcome the inevitable aging process and whether Kobe was selfish for choosing his path at this stage of his career. When sportswriters review Kobe, they primarily do so in absolute terms of “right” and “wrong.” Is Kobe a loser for chucking away on a terrible team when other vets have been more concerned with fielding a competitive team? I don’t find this particular question as a useful or answerable one. Sure, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki might be having more fun but Kobe is making double the cash and maybe he is okay with that.
The real interesting question to me is this: how has Kobe’s play affected our understanding of how good star players can be at age-36? Going into the season, most people had an inkling that Kobe wasn’t going to be the force of nature he was a few years ago. In our preview, we reviewed Kobe and the likelihood that he would be any good at age-36. A quick review of two guards at that age found that only Manu Ginobili was really good, and his minutes were carefully guarded. Kobe, so far, has put up a PER (17.4) in line with the better players of his age (Vince Carter was slightly better by PER, and Paul Pierce, Reggie Miller, and Jeff Hornacek were slightly below in PER). So, Kobe has shown that star two guards can continue to be above average later in career.
How Kobe has hit this PER number though is an interesting story. The numbers show Kobe as a unique stat anomaly. He has managed a usage rate of 35.8%, which is the second highest of his career (he hit 38.7% in 2005-06). The only other older perimeter player who has exceeded this mark was Michael Jordan at age-38 for the 2001-02 Wizards at 36.0% (Dominique Wilkins in 1996-97 his 29.7% for third place on the list). Let’s look at MJ and Kobe side-by-side to see how they did as high usage old guys. Here are their stats on a per-36 minute basis:
-Jordan, 01-02: 23.7 pts, .416 FG%, .189 3FG%, 5.7 FTA, 5.8 rebs, 5.3 asts, 1.5 stls, 0.4 blk, 2.8 tos, 20.7 PER, 3.3 WS (1.2 OWS, 2.1 DWS), 2.3 VORP
-Bryant, 14-15: 24.5 pts, .372 FG%, .275 3FG%, 7.9 FTA, 5.1 rebs, 5.1 asts, 1.5 stls, 0.1 blk, 3.6 tos, 17.4 PER, -0.4 WS (-0.6 OWS, 0.2 DWS), 1.2 VORP
(We estimated Kobe’s WS and VORP as if he played 60 games like Jordan did in 2001-02). Kobe is two years younger and you have to presume that if Jordan had played at 36, his numbers would’ve have been better than Kobe’s (hell, MJ’s 38-year old numbers are better than Kobe’s current ones). The offensive approach of the two players took is also interesting. Bryant appears much more of a gun slinger. MJ barely shot one three-pointer a game while Kobe takes 5.5 at a very poor rate. Kobe also has almost one more turnover a game. Bryant has offset his shooting weaknesses by getting to the free throw line at a high rate (basically in line with his prime), which gives him a higher true shooting percentage than MJ of 2001-02, despite the ugly raw shooting percentages. In terms of finishing, Jordan actually had 20 dunks as a 38-year old, while Kobe has only five dunks in roughly half the games played (Kobe’s previous low in dunks for a full season was 28 in 58 games in 2011-12).
The other component of Kobe’s season that is interesting is that he is playing a ton of minutes. The only other older perimeter players who have played more minutes per game than Kobe’s 35.4 are:
1. Michael Jordan, 2002-03 (age 39): 37.0 mpg
2. John Havlicek, 1976-77 (age 36): 36.9 mpg
3. Reggie Miller, 2001-02 (age 36): 36.6 mpg
4. Jason Kidd, 2009-10 (age 36): 36.0 mpg
5. Dale Ellis, 1996-97 (age 36): 35.9 mpg
As can be seen above, no older perimeter player has played as much as Kobe while also been such a focal point of an offense (Jordan played more minutes at age-39 but cut back his shooting and usage quite a bit from the 2001-02 season we just looked at). The rest of the crew is made up of subsidiary players who played a lot but were spot up shooters and not creators. In short, there appears to be no evidence of a player who maintained Kobe’s rate of usage and logged that many minutes. The Lakers probably should’ve had an inkling of this issue going in to the season but it took some real crappy games by Kobe for them to actually sit him down and finally to start monitoring his minutes. It looks like the grand plan of riding Kobe until the wheels fall off is over. Kobe could still be a useful player next season and beyond if Byron Scott is a bit more careful with him.
Going forward, you would think opponents would note that Bryant hasn’t been able to shoot or finish like he used to. If they stop fouling him, Kobe’s value would collapse based on his current shooting numbers. Yes, not fouling Kobe is obviously easier said than done (Bryant still objectively looks pretty athletic out there, despite all the statistical evidence that he has slipped a lot). Not matter what Kobe does, the Lakers’ season will ultimately be inconsequential but watching old Kobe will give us some serious insight on player aging patterns that, at least, will interest me.