Kobe Bryant has spent nearly two decades mesmerizing us with his tenacity, athleticism, and iron will. While he will always be known for his ability to score the basketball and win championships, it might be his knack for playing through pain that has been most impressive. Throughout his hall of fame career he has defied the limitations of the human body and pushed forward through injuries that would have stopped lesser players from lacing up their high tops.
Bryant has played through sprained ankles, tweaked knees, broken fingers, and nearly everything else imaginable without missing a beat. It was as though Kobe could will himself to find a way to get the job done, to adapt and overcome when it seemed to be impossible for him to step onto the court, and in doing so he brought five championships to the city of Los Angeles. He seemed nearly immortal, an incredible display of what sheer determination can allow a human being to accomplish.
But nothing lasts forever, and even Kobe Bryant could only cheat Father Time for so long.
During the 2012-2013 season expectations were high for the Los Angeles Lakers, who had managed to acquire point guard extraordinaire Steve Nash and the childish but talented Dwight Howard to play alongside Bryant and Pau Gasol. The team surprisingly sputtered out of the gate and never found their rhythm. Nash was lost for most of the season due to injury, Howard hadn't yet fully recovered from back surgery, and Gasol dealt with a variety of afflictions.
The one constant that season was Kobe. When the chips were down he found ways to win, even if it meant putting the team (and a disinterested Howard) on his back and dragging them to the playoffs. Just as he had done so many times before, when the Lakers needed him most Kobe was there to answer the call.
This time around though the ending was different. There was no parade down Figueroa or MVP trophy to hoist. Coach Mike D'Antoni had played his star shooting guard an obscene amount of minutes, and with two games left in the season the debt had finally come due on a lifetime of cheating the injury bug. In one nightmarish moment, Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon tore and Lakers fans fell silent.
In a poetic twist, the Achilles injury robbed Kobe of his immortality, just as it did for the famed Greek warrior. Bryant has become increasingly fragile and the immense athletic talent he was blessed with has disappeared at an alarming rate.
The 2013-2014 season saw Bryant play in just six games before succumbing to another injury, this time a tibial plateau fracture in his knee. It was the fewest number of games he has played in his career by far, and disaster struck so quickly after he recovered from his Achilles injury that Kobe was barely a part of that season's Lakers team.
Last season he managed to play in 35 games before again bowing out early, this time due to a torn rotator cuff. To make matters worse, Kobe was tremendously inefficient in the games he did suit up for. Surrounded by a Lakers team made up of cast-offs and journeymen, he was frequently put in the familiar position of being the team's first option on offense, but this time was unable to pull his struggling team to victory. While 35 games is a small sample size, it is safe to say that Kobe Bryant is no longer the player he once was.
At 36 years old and without the lift in his legs to elevate or explode like he used to, Kobe found himself forcing too many fall-away jumpers, which resulted in him posting the worst field goal percentage of his career: a brutal 37 percent. Likewise, his PER plummeted to 17.6, the worst since his rookie year (not counting his 6-game 2013-2014 season). Opposing teams focused their defensive efforts on him, knowing that leaving Wesley Johnson or Jeremy Lin open wouldn't hurt them. The vulture-like fan bases of opposing teams have circled, and they have celebrated the demise of their former conqueror.
However, it's not all doom and gloom for Kobe and the Lakers, and any assumptions that either are dead and buried are premature at best. Both Bryant and the organization are intent on proving their doubters wrong next year, which will offer a final shot at redemption. While the 2014-2015 season may have proved that he no longer has the athletic ability to be a first option on offense, the Black Mamba still showed that he can be a very dangerous basketball player. After all, Kobe did pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list this past season, something that is no easy feat.
Take a look at Kobe's stats over the past few seasons per 36-minutes courtesy of basketballreference.com (with the 6-game 13/14 season thrown out):
Bryant took a lot of heat for his horrific shooting percentage, but across the board his numbers were remarkably consistent in all other areas of the game. The eye test showed that he isn't as explosive as he once was, but he has found ways to remain productive in spite of his waning athleticism.
It also has to be noted that Kobe has long been the type of player to put the team on his back, and adjusting to not being able to do that anymore will take time. Old habits are hard to break. Consequently he took a lot of shots this past season that he just isn't able to consistently make anymore, oftentimes because teammates threw him the ball late in the clock and forced him to do something with it. That "something" typically ended up being contested fall-away jumpers, which is a recipe for efficiency death.
That's not to say that Kobe is blameless for his shooting performance, but it's very likely that with a (hopefully) more competent squad around him next season he can be more selective with his shots, and as a result his shooting percentage should inch back up a little.
This season also showed us an intriguing possibility for what the future could look like for Kobe Bryant. As the season wore on Kobe took to distributing the ball more and more, culminating in a 17-assist performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While his athleticism may be slowly fading away as the injuries pile up, the one advantage that Bryant has over nearly every player (and most coaches) in the league is his basketball IQ. From long before he came into the NBA Kobe Bryant has been a student of the game, learning new moves, plays, and even subtle nuances to give himself an edge over his competition.
While he has primarily used this mountain of knowledge to help him put the ball in the basket, he also has an incredible understanding of where everyone is (or should be) on the court at all times and reads angles amazingly well. As a result he is an incredibly underrated passer. In an alternate dimension somewhere there is a Kobe Bryant who patterned his game off of Magic Johnson instead of Michael Jordan, and that version of Bryant is probably just as successful as our own.
Dare I say, Magic-like?
With his legs not allowing him to score at will anymore Kobe will need to use his intelligence more than ever, and the Lakers will be looking to add talent to their squad this summer both in the draft and in free agency. With better players around him and less athletic ability to pull off the "lone gunslinger" act, Kobe may be forced into a pass-first role for the first time in his career. That may not be a bad thing: In an admittedly minuscule sample size, the Lakers went 4-1 last season in games in which Bryant had nine or more assists.
Ideally, keeping the ball moving would also help prevent defenses from keying on him, which means that when Kobe does shoot he would be taking more make-able shots. It's the mother of all ironies, but Bryant, the man known most for shooting the basketball, could very well now be most effective as a passer.
While re-wiring his DNA from scorer into an assist machine would be an incredible challenge and unlikely to ever fully come to fruition, putting more of a focus on finding open teammates could conceivably put a little more sand in Kobe's hour glass.
Perhaps more important than how Kobe plays out the 2015-2016 season is when he plays it. Unquestionably both Mike D'Antoni in 2012-2013 and Byron Scott last season contributed to his injury woes by playing him a massive amount of minutes for any player, let alone an aging guard with lots of miles on him. The Lakers and Scott may have to accept a strict minutes limitation on their star player, in addition to the possibility of having him sit out on the second night of back-to-back games in order to give his body a chance to recover, which is something the grueling NBA schedule offers little of.
With next season likely to be the last of Kobe Bryant's illustrious NBA career, it's going to be more important that he is able to play in game 82 than game 1. Kobe's career has been a coming-of-age journey that has brought Lakers fans along for the nearly two-decade ride. They have watched him grow from the 18-year-old kid who took Brandy to the prom to the grizzled veteran he is today. They were there as he grew out the 'fro and ascended to stardom, taking big shots and coming through in the clutch. When he was accused of sexual assault in 2003 fans stood by him, and again in 2004 when the rift between him and Shaquille O'Neal became unmanageable.
Even when all looked lost and Bryant was surrounded by the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, Lakers fans stuck with their prodigy. They celebrated with him as he won the MVP and added five championship banners to the Staples Center rafters, and cried for him as the injuries took their toll. Now, heading into what will almost surely be his final season in the Golden Armor, Lakers fans will be mesmerized by their hero one last time.
He may not be the player he once was, and most nights he is going to show his age. Jumpers will fall short, he will be a step slower, and his elevation will be diminished. But there will be moments -- flashes of brilliance, really -- that will take us back and remind us just how damn good Kobe Bean Bryant is at the game of basketball, even in the twilight of his career.
Through it all, Kobe Bryant has consistently fought to become the very best player that he could be, to squeeze every last drop of talent from himself, no matter what sacrifices were required of him. This season he is going to give Lakers fans everything one last time, and I sincerely hope that when that final buzzer sounds Kobe is on the court to receive one last standing ovation.
--Follow this author @16ringsNBA