Breaking Down the NBA Age Curve and Where Kobe Falls in the Matrix

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterNovember 20, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers is interviewed by Time Warner Cable after scoring game high 31-points against Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on November 16, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What has gotten into Kobe Bryant? He's been uncommonly incredible at an uncommon age. With each passing game, it appears less a fluke than a sea change.

Last year, Kobe Bryant experienced his worst season of the millennium. Kobe cranked out a career low in effective field-goal percentage (a mark that takes three pointers into account) while hoisting an ungodly 23 shots per game. He was not a bad player during this time per say, but he was shooting at a lower efficiency than the rest of his team. Stat geeks like myself were led to ask: Why is Kobe shooting so often if his team is outshooting him? 

Considering Bryant's age, this looked like the beginning of the end for the Mamba. In theory, Kobe was supposed to perform worse this season and even worse the next. That's just how people grow older. It's a linear downslope to the bottom, after the flattened prime. We've seen it before with almost every athlete. 

But, amid all the Lakers chaos in 2012-13, Bryant has started off with some of the most brilliant play of his career. It's restrained, it's brutal. Bryant is cutting down on the long twos, averaging nearly half as many in these first 10 games than all of last season (via HoopData). He's also averaging nearly twice as many shots at the rim.

While taking fewer shots, Kobe is also passing a lot better. Despite handling the ball far less than in past seasons, Kobe is averaging 5.4 dimes per game with a career-high assist percentage of 18.3 (ESPN Insider required). It's all culminated into the complete, elite game we saw against the Rockets on Sunday night. 

Kobe is one of the best mid-range shooters in league history, so a little restraint could go a long way. It's possible that past volume shooting was a mere choice, not an immutable trait. If Bryant consciously chooses to play smarter, the rewards could be immense.

Chances are that he will fall off his torrid 27.48 PER pace, but if he continues at this level, or even near it, it's difficult to find a historical precedent. 

Teammate Steve Nash is a late-bloomer parallel, but Nash began his prime after age 31, three years younger than Bryant is now. The best comparison for Kobe's production at this age is Michael Jordan himself, but age 34 MJ was less efficient than Kobe's current pace. Also, age 34 MJ was playing significantly worse than his former self. 

Reggie Miller? Clyde Drexler? Those historically great 2-guards were merely good at age 34. This is a roundabout way of saying that what Bryant's doing, should it continue, would be unprecedented. Even more astounding is the notion that such an improvement came about from a choice. For Kobe Bryant, less has been a whole lot more.