Update - I forgot about Shaquille O'Neal, so I added him in, and I briefly addressed the age vs. experience debate when it comes to Kobe - Saurav
"Kobe Bryant is the greatest 15-year player to ever play the game" - Philadelphia 76ers colour commentator, during the Lakers - Sixers game last Friday. He then went on to clarify that he did not mean that Kobe Bryant was the proverbial G.O.A.T, but that no player had played as well in their 15th season in the League as Kobe Bryant was then (and, by extension, is now). At a glance, this might come across as hyperbole as Kobe's numbers this season seem to be average (for him, anyway) at a glance, but with deeper examination the numbers present a compelling argument.
Before examining how Kobe performs against other All-Time Greats on the downside of their careers, one must first analyse how Kobe is performing compared to his own career peak and arc, to see if he is truly on the downside of his career or still in peak form. Now, averages of 25.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game may not seem like much at first, by Kobe's standards, and may lead one to believe that he is having a subpar season overall, but one must acknowledge that Kobe Bryant is only playing 32.9 minutes per game - his lowest since his sophomore season, 12 years ago.
Thus, a more accurate picture of Kobe's performance this season can be illustrated using his per-36 totals, which is just calculating how his performance would look over 36 minutes using basic calculations. Per-36, Kobe is putting up an impressive 28.1 ppg (second-highest in his career), 5 assists (equal-third highest in his career), and 5.5 rebounds (third-highest in his career), on a True Shooting clip of 54.5%, just 1.2% below his career-average. His steals and blocks are subpar for him, likely a product of him exerting less effort on defense, and his turnovers are slightly up (0.2 above his career per-36 average), but other than that Kobe is having an excellent season by his standards.
Moving into advanced statistics, Kobe's performing well according to every major stat used today. His assist rate, rebound rate and turnover rate are all better than his career averages, and his EFG% and Steal rate are very close to them. Only his block rate has taken a significant turn, which is likely due to age and less effort on the defensive end, as aforementioned. His offensive rating is at 2 points better per 100 possessions than his career average, although his defensive rating is at 1 point worse. As for the infamous and all-knowing John Hollinger's pet statistic? I'll let Josh Tucker take it from here:
Hell, even PER likes Kobe this year! For the first time that I can remember, Kobe has the 2nd-highest PER int he NBA… also for the first time in my personal memory, he ranks above LeBron in PER. LeBron is way down at the 8th spot, nearly 2 full points behind Kobe. Now, I hate PER with a passion, and as far as I’m concerned, it couldn’t be more useless — but when even PER is liking Kobe, I mean… that’s something.
Kobe's PER this season is at 25.1, the fourth-highest of his career, a stat that the majority of you readers will doubtless (wisely, in my opinion) discount, but as Josh says, it means something that even the stat most notoriously well-known for ranking Kobe far lower than popular opinion would have him speaks well of him. Even the somewhat more obscure stat of Win Shares per 48mpg likes Kobe's current season, giving him a .205 score, the fifth-highest of his career.
Kobe Bryant's Usage Rate is, surprisingly, at the second-highest mark of his career (behind 2005-2006) at 34.6, leading the League; but simultaneously, his percentage of points on which he was assisted is at the highest it's been in the last 5 seasons (the furthest hoopdata.com's records on the stat go), at 42.7%, which is probably a career-high mark. This attests to how Kobe has not being relying on isolation plays as much, instead running through the offense and effectively utilising off-ball movement to efficiently score with a minimum of effort.
Also, Kobe's free-throw rate, an indicator of activity that can be related to age, is at the fourth-highest mark of his career, with 8.6 free throws attempted per 40 minutes. Once again back to Josh:
His ability to get to the line, which stat-heads like to say is a key indicator of player decline, has actually improved, as he’s getting more FTAs per game than he did in either of the last two years (I’m not a fan of stat-heads, but when even their perspective supports a strong Kobe, it’s worth noticing).
Quite frankly, all the statistical evidence, both basic and advanced, points to Kobe having a superlative season by even his own lofty standards. Even disregarding statistics, as many prefer to do, there's visual evidence for how well Kobe is playing this year, particularly in several of his third quarters. I touched upon this in the comments section to this post:
So, provided we can come to a consensus that Kobe is currently performing at a level of efficiency that is close to his career peak, a fact only masked by his limited minutes, and putting up brilliant stats in doing so, it seems that Kobe Bryant is not at all on the downside of his career, but indeed still at the peak. How long this peak lasts is yet to be seen, but Kobe Bryant's playstyle, that of the midrange game, lends itself far better to aging than the rim-rattling penetrators that plague SportsCenter, and his fundamental base and skillset is unmatched by any player in the game today, and arguably any player in the history of the League - he has no weaknesses, particularly now that he does not take his team out of the offense as much as he was wont to do in his youth. This, coupled with his lessened minutes, foretells a bright future for Kobe Bryant.
Having established that Kobe Bryant is still performing at a near-peak level on his career arc, it is now time to compare him to other All-Time Greats who had played 15 seasons. To start, we shall try to conjure a list of the twenty greatest players of all time (no small task, to be sure). The order is irrelevant at this point in time (and too contentious a topic to come to a concrete conclusion upon), so I shall just list the 25 greatest in my opinion randomly: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Havlicek, Moses Malone, Elgin Baylor, Robert Parish, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant and David Robinson.
Now, we must thin out the numbers by only looking at the ones who played 15 years or greater. This leaves us with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Havlicek, Moses Malone, Robert Parish and Reggie Miller (excluding active players - we'll get to them later). Two interesting things that popped out at me when checking that - most of those players listed above retired after 14 seasons; and the vast majority of players who played 15 seasons or more were big men - players that relied more on strength and skill than raw athleticism.
The next step is to compare basic stats. By this point Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Reggie Miller and Robert Parish have been cut out because they simply did not contribute enough in their fifteenth season to warrant comparison (if you're really curious, you can click on their names for their Basketball-Reference pages):
Kareem: 83-84, 80 games played, 32.3 minutes per game, 21.5ppg/7.3rpg/2.6apg/1.8bpg on 57.8%fg and 72.3%ft
Hakeem: 98-99, 50 games played, 35.7 minutes per game, 18.9ppg/9.6rpg/1.8apg/2.5bpg on 51.7%fg and 71.4%ft
Julius: 85-86, 74 games played, 33.4 minutes per game, 18.1ppg/5rpg/3.4apg/1.5spg on 48%fg and 78.5%ft
Charles: 98-99, 42 games played, 36.3 minutes per game, 16.1ppg/12.3rpg/4.6apg/1.0spg on 48%fg and 72%ft
Karl: 99-00, 82 games played, 35.9 minutes per game, 25.5ppg/9.5rpg/3.7apg/1.0spg on 51%fg and 80%ft
John Havlicek: 76-77, 79 games played, 36.9 minutes per game, 17.7ppg/4.8rpg/5.1apg/1.1spg on 45%fg and 81.6%ft
Moses: 88-89, 81 games played, 35.5 minutes per game, 20.2ppg/11.8rpg/1.4apg/1.2bpg on 49%fg and 79%ft
Looking at that list, not one perimeter player compares to Kobe. Julius Erving and John Havlicek are still All-Star level players, but nowhere near MVP candidates in their respective 15th seasons; and Stockton, Pippen and Miller were not even at All-Star level by their respective 15th seasons. In terms of big men, Hakeem and Charles had decent seasons but nowhere near MVP-calibre, and Parish wasn't really at All-Star level at that point in his career. Barkley was a beast on the boards and solid all-round, but was also distinctively on the downside of his career.
As for active players, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are both actually not too far off their career averages, whether looking at them in a per-36 perspective or through the lens of advanced statistics; but neither of them are performing above their career average, as Kobe is, indicating that these two are most definitely on the downward curve of their career arc. Kevin Garnett in his 15th season (last year) posted his lowest PER and per-36 numbers since his sophomore year, and was by no means in MVP discussion, whilst Tim Duncan's 15th season is upcoming next year, but his minutes and role have been on a progressively downward spiraling pattern for the last few years. Shaquille O'Neal's 15th season was his 2006-2007 run with the Miami Heat, in which his per-36 numbers weren't too bad, but due to injuries and lack of conditioning he only played 40 games at 28.4 minutes per game, and the Heat that season only won 44 games and did not make it out of the first round.
That leaves Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Moses Malone for comparison. Interesting is that Kareem and Moses were both skill-based Centers, the least athletically-influenced position in the League and the one friendliest to aging barring injuries, and whilst Karl Malone started his career as an athletic superstar, he later reinvented his game, adding numerous skills and a midrange jump shot.
Now it's time to take a look at the roles of these three, and at their team success in their 15th season:
In Kareem's 15th season, the Lakers were at the very least a team shared between him and Magic Johnson, and lost to the Celtics in the Finals in 7.
In Karl Malone's 15th season, he was part of a duo with John Stockton that lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
In Moses Malone's 15th season, he was paired up with Dominique Wilkins on an Atlanta team that only went .500 and were knocked out in the first round of the Playoffs.
For comparison, Kobe Bryant is the undisputed man on a Lakers team that are the two-time defending champions and on track to win 59 games this season, is the leading vote-getter for the All-Star game and a strong MVP candidate. He is third in the League in scoring and PER. In terms of advanced statistics, the only player who competes with Kobe Bryant is Karl Malone, who was also the number-one option on his team at the time. Currently, there is little to seperate Kobe and Karl from each other in their fifteen seasons, and the only way Kobe can truly break out of this tie is either by leading the Lakers to an NBA title and/or garnering a Regular Season MVP, Finals MVP or both.
Therefore, using basic statistical measures, we can contend that Kobe Bryant is one of the two best 15-year players of all time. Interesting enough, his partner, Karl Malone, is second on the NBA All-Time scoring list at 36,928 points (4.7 thousand ahead of Jordan and over 10 thousand ahead of Kobe), having played another three productive years before joining the Lakers in the disaster of '04 and getting severely injured. Considering that Malone spent four years in college and was 22 when he came in to the League, this can only bode well for Kobe, who is only 32 compared to Malone's 36 in their respective 15th year.
On the issue of age, many would argue Kobe's 15th season is only so much better than many other players 15th seasons due to his age - having come straight out of high school, Kobe Bryant is younger than virtually every other All-Time great in his 15th season. In fact, the only other prep-to-pro players who have played 15 seasons in the modern era are Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal (both of whom were significantly less impactful than Kobe in their 15th seasons). However, this issue of age may well be overplayed. Many greats only played one or two years of college ball, making the age difference minimal. Of even greater import than that is the debate between whether natural age or 'basketball years' wears down on the body more. Kobe Bryant has played an average of over 90 games per season when he has been healthy, including playoffs; which is as many games as is played in three years of college. This does not even factor in the extra practises and time spent in the gym when in the pros, amounts that are generally significantly higher than in college due to increased time resulting from not having classes. Therefore, although Kobe started younger, his body would have gone through just as much wear-and-tear as the majority of the older players he is being compared against.
Now, we simply cannot leave this piece off without a Kobe - Jordan comparison, so let's make this quick. As Michael Jordan was considerably older than Kobe on the tail-end of his basketball career due to 3 years of college and multiple 'retirements', Jordan never played a fifteenth season (yes, the Wizards years never existed, stop asking questions), so comparing the two in the manner of this article is tough. What we can attempt to perform is a situational comparison. Kobe is currently gunning for his sixth championship, second three-peat, with Coach Phil Jackson, which would coincide with Jordan's 97-98 campaign. Jordan was 34 by then, two years older than Kobe now, but had taken a two-year hiatus from the NBA, making them equal in terms on 'basketball years', if Jordan's college years are counted. In terms of NBA seasons, it's Kobe's 15 compared to Jordan's 13. It's a fair comparison to make. Let's take a look at the basic stats:
Jordan 97-98: 82 games played @ 38.8 minutes per game. 28.7ppg/5.8rpg/3.5apg on 46.5%fg, 23.8%3pt and 78.4%ft
Kobe 10-11: 29/29 games played @ 32.9 minutes per game. 25.7ppg/5rpg/4.6apg on 44.9%fg, 32.5%3pt and 84.3%ft
Instantly, the disparity in minutes per game jumps out at us, so let's adjust for that and look at the per-36 base statistics:
Jordan 97-98 per-36: 26.7ppg/5.4rpg/3.2apg/1.6spg/0.5bpg on 53.3%TS
Kobe 10-11 per-36: 28.1ppg/5.5rpg/5.0apg/1.4spg/0.2bpg on 55.7%TS
Those are very interesting numbers, indeed. Kobe looks like the winner to me, but let's not end it there. Let's delve a bit further and look at the advanced statistics, the ones the detractors of Bryant love and cherish so much.
Jordan 97-98: 25.2 PER, .238 WS/48, 114ORtg, 100DRtg, 47.3%EFG, 8.5% rebound rate, 18% assist rate, 7.7% turnover rate on 33.7% usage.
Kobe 10-11: 25.1 PER, .205 WS/48, 114ORtg, 104DRtg, 48.5%EFG, 8.5% rebound rate, 25.4% assist rate, 10.9 turnover rate on 34.6% usage.
The advanced statistics still give a slight edge to Jordan. I don't know how Win Shares works and I won't pretend to (maybe Jordan had a higher Win Share simply because his team won more?), but I do know that there is a school of thought that believes Hollinger's PER places too much emphasis on steals and blocks; a factor that I would have to agree with considering Kobe edges Jordan in every other statistic on a per-minute basis, often by a significant margin. Another thing that is shown is that the Defensive Rating statistic states that Jordan was a better defender than Bryant, which I think we can all agree on a day-to-day basis is true. While Jordan by then was probably the third-best defender on his own team, Bryant's defense much of this season has been pathetically lazy - although some of the difference in Defensive Rating is likely due to the Bulls of the 98-99 season being a better overall defensive team than the 2010-11 Lakers. Of course, the highlight of Jordan's 98 season was obviously the Championship, and it is yet to be seen whether the Lakers will match that.
Another obvious element is that while Jordan was better defensively, Kobe is a far more effective and efficient offensive option, scoring better and more efficiently, and assisting at a far higher rate (albeit with more turnovers than Jordan). Kobe also gets to the line slightly more, 8.7 as opposed to Jordan's 8.2, and converts at a far higher rate. This is doubtless helped by Kobe's seemingly nightly three-shot fouls borne of catching a defender off-guard beyond the arc; something that would rarely happen for Jordan as he was not near good enough of a three-point shooter to be played as closely as Bryant behind the arc.
Kobe's peak simply cannot compete with Jordan's peak, as Jordan's peak was the most dominant period by any player in the modern era, almost without contest, but it is already becoming evident that in the aspect of longetivity Kobe exceeds Jordan. It is possible that Kobe continues to play another three seasons at this current level, and then another two or three as a player with a somewhat reduced role, but still putting up an excellent 19/4/4 in around or under 30 minutes per game on a hopefully contending team. If Kobe does that, and finishes off his career with 6 or 7 rings (especially if one or two of them are won against this 'superteam', the likes of which Jordan never had to face), then the discussion of Kobe vs. Jordan over their careers becomes very, very interesting indeed. Jordan's career averages well outplay Kobe's, but Kobe's totals would be ahead of Jordan's in virtually every major category.
Now, partially because it is always important to look towards the future and partially because I do not want to end this piece on a Kobe-Jordan comparison as that would serve as a beacon for trollish comments, and I don't want to up bluexfalcon and SoCalGal's workloads (they're already overworked enough as is with the damn spambots); I shall leave you with my thoughts on Kobe's place in the annals of the game, based on how he compares to the current generation:
I do not see any player in the League today that can challenge that. With so much reliance on athleticism instead of the fundamentals that Kobe Bryant has built his game on, I do not see one player that could continue to be the Man on a Championship team or an MVP contender (maybe even favourite) in their fifteenth season in the League. There are certain stars that could age well due to their shooting stroke, such as, say, Kevin Durant, but shooting stroke alone would not have anyone in the MVP discussion.
With the way in which he modifies his game, maintains his fitness, and uses his intelligence, it seems very likely that Kobe will go down as having the greatest tail end of his career of any player of all time, and depending on how long this tail end lasts, that may well propel him into a favourable position for Greatest of All Time.
All statistics are from basketball-reference.com, with the exception of Kobe's % assisted, which is from hoopdata.com