Is Kobe Bryant Still Getting Better?

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Kobe Bryant, I am the rock of ages. Crash upon me and be broken!

In that ESPN interview with Dr. Ramsey and Hubie Brown that Paul linked to yesterday, Dr. Jack was asked if he thought Kobe was motivated to eclipse Jordan in NBA Championships and make a run at the title of Greatest Of All Time. Dr. Jack didn’t really rise to the bait on that one, but he did say that he thought Kobe’s game was getting better with age. I’m not sure anyone could prove that statement, but I find myself enjoying Kobe’s game more as the seasons pass as well. No one can deny that Bryant is one of the hardest working players in basketball and that he comes back after every off-season with a new weapon in his arsenal.

As a litmus test of where Kobe is as a “veteran” player, let’s look at some statistics. Most players tend to put up their best stats between ages 24 and 27 (Bryant was hurt through some of those years, but his best statistical season was at age 27). I thought it would be interesting to see how Kobe stacks up against players historically over the age of 26 to gauge whether he is in fact aging better than most.

Top 15 Players Age 27-31 by PER

1. Michael Jordan – 29.2
2. Shaquille O’Neal – 29.0
3. David Robinson – 28.4
4. Wilt Chamberlain – 27.9
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 27.1
6. Kevin Garnett – 26.9
7. Larry Bird – 26.1
8. Magic Johnson – 25.8
9. Charles Barkley – 25.5
10. Tim Duncan – 25.4
11. Dirk Nowitzki – 25.2
12. Hakeem Olajuwon – 25.1
13. Kobe Bryant – 25.0

Note that this list is sorted by PER with 2 qualifying factors: 1st the cumulative 5 year age range of 27-31 and second a win share over 50 for that time span (average of 10 WS per year necessary to be included on the list). Considering that this list includes every player in NBA history, and Kobe made it top 13, that’s quite a feat. Now look at the list when we only show guards:

1. Michael Jordan
2. Magic Johnson
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Oscar Robertson
5. Jerry West

When you find yourself in the middle of a Jordan, Magic, Oscar, West statistical sandwich, you know you’re doing something right. At first blush we seem to have negated the old precept that big man tend to age better than little men. It’s almost even split between centers and guards on the overall list (11 centers vs. 10 guards). But then there are really twice as many guards as centers eligible, so what we’re really seeing in a 1:1 comparison is that a much higher proportion of elite centers remain elite past the age of 27 then is true of elite guards. Or maybe that there are simply a higher proportion of elite centers to begin with – probably both are true.

The point is, Kobe turns out to be one of those guards whose value is right up there with the great centers and forwards of all time. Moreover that list is a little skewed by Jordan, who really only played 3 seasons in that age range (his Win Shares were so high they still averaged out to better than 10 per 5 year breakdown), and could be omitted for not playing enough games. But Michael was a great older guard, so he really belongs, and so does Kobe.

And I think it matter when a player is great as a veteran. Veteran teams tend to be more likely to win. Veteran teams tend to play better defense. I expect those findings are related. Veterans also tend to be remembered. Does anybody think we’ll remember McGrady as a great player? From the ages of 21-24 McGrady was a monster. He put up 3 10+ Win Share seasons and 3 25+ PER seasons. Anybody even remember that now? In 5 years some statistician will be putting together a list and wondering who this guard in Orlando was that posted the only 30 PER season not by Shaq to fall between the great runs of Michael Jordan and LeBron and then disappeared off the face of spreadsheet forever.

It’s important to still be accomplishing things statistically and in the playoffs in your latter years, or even a great performer like the Human Highlight Reel, falls out of contention as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Kobe’s ring count and popularity will keep him safe from that fate, but it’s nice to see that his statistical progression deserves the honor as well.

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2 Responses to “Is Kobe Bryant Still Getting Better?”

  1. pmadavi Says:

    Thing is, Kobe’s stats would be much better if not for injuries these past two years. Before he started racking them up, he was shooting extremely well. 50% November, and 48% in December. His potential output at this level is pretty tremendous. Chances of him meeting that potential are slim due to age and wear.

  2. jpalumbo Says:

    Yeah, but Magic’s stats would be better if he didn’t hang out with Aresnio Hall. And Jordan’s stats would be better if he hadn’t been busy not playing basketball while he was 30. And West and Oscar would have had better stats if their shoes weren’t made of rawhide, canvas, and vulcanized rubber.

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