If you’ve been paying attention you’ll have noticed that Kobe Bryant, now in his 15th NBA season, is rapidly blasting up the ladder of leading scorers in league history. He past Jerry West for 14th All-Time and then Reggie Miller and Alex English to make the top 12. He eclipsed the Celtic all-time leader John Havlicek, Hawk’s all-time leader Dominique Wilkins, and Royals / Kings all-time leader, Oscar Robertson. Kobe now sits in sole possession of the 9th overall scoring position, and there’s a good chance he will moved past Hakeem Olajuwon for the number 8 spot before the All-Star game.
If you’re not impressed, you should be. That is a hell of a feat for a 32 year old. What does it mean for Bryant’s eventual legacy? Not as much as his five titles and two Finals MVPs (and counting), but it certainly doesn’t hurt. At his current pace, he probably won’t break into the top 5 this year, but next season at the absolute latest he should surpass his old teammate, the MDE Shaquille O’Neal. Hallowed ground waits beyond that seat. Kareem. Karl. Michael. Wilt. Kobe Bryant, the 18 year old upstart Laker with the checkered history who so many young fans adore and so many old fans dismiss, will have ascended the mountain and become part of it.
It is an interesting time in a great player’s career when he is achieving his great accumulative accomplishments while his body betrays him. Sure many “experts” will hold that Kobe is still the best player in the league, but the numbers belie that belief. While Bryant’s efficiency remains fairly consistent, his production dips. His minutes are down, which may account for why his efficiency is as high as it is.
And to be brutally honest, that efficiency is nothing otherworldly. His field goal percentage is below 45% and his three point shooting is 31%, both substandard. What has held very well is his enormous per-minute production and his ability to get himself to the free throw line. It is clear what’s happening to Bryant. Whether due to the knee injury or the basketball mileage on his body, 1256 combined regular season and playoff games, Kobe’s lift is severely reduced. It shows on his drives to the rim where he’s not looking to go over or around defenders anymore but rather to go through them and draw contact. Not a bad strategy for such a good free throw shooter, but it demonstrates how much his spring has diminished. Even more obvious is how flat his jumper is. His three point shooting deserted him last season while he had the knee injury, but it is even worse now. It’s not for lack of trying either. His attempts from three are up even though his minutes are way down.
It is an interesting dichotomy, the player accepted as the best in the game fading even as he builds his legend. I am reminded of Michael Jordan’s last season as a Bull. Check the numbers. Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, and David Robinson surpassed MJ in PER and he no longer led the league in WS or WS per minute. Of course we all knew Jordan was the best player even if we weren’t sure how. He would find a way to be the best when it mattered. And he did. We were right, but if we’d been paying attention to the numbers, we might not have made the right assumptions. The legend eclipsed the reality.
Maybe it’s the guaranteed days off between games in the playoffs, or the individual’s ability to press a little harder when the finish line is in sight. Maybe it’s the fact that defenses are tighter, and players with skillsets that make them more efficient against the field aren’t able to push through as well when their pet plays are removed from them. Whatever the reason, Kobe’s showing in his career accomplishments and his playoff victories, that even at 33 minutes per game with a bum wheel and a full career worth of games played piled on his shoulders, that he might be the legend that we should believe in, even it defies reality.
Let’s all hope the numbers are right this time. I’d rather see any team in the NBA win the title. Go Green.