It seems Kobe Bryant has been around the NBA forever, and he is only 34 years old. During that time, he has played against the greats like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and with and against Shaquille O’Neal.
As a quick refresher course, Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft and then traded to the Lakers for master flopper and “I am no longer irritating” center Vlade Divac. Bryant was the first guard to be drafted out of high school and was quickly paired with O’Neal.
Since he was drafted at age 17, he was given the chance to adjust to the speed and flow of the NBA game by being mostly a reserve during his first couple of seasons. However, Kobe turned his game up a notch to earn a spot on the 1998 All-Star team as the youngest All-Star ever.
As you can see from these highlights during the 1998-99 season, Kobe was a lean and athletic player.
Long-time Lakers fans will appreciate having the chance to hear legendary announcer Chick Hearn call the game in the background. Kobe developed and still uses the trademark fall-away jumper and the quick first step to freeze defenders as he drives to the hoop.
Kobe focused on taking better shots and moving around the court better as he progressed into a star during his third NBA season.
Kobe wanted to be the best player in basketball, as he had and still has the drive to try and knock Michael Jordan off his perch. He had already followed in his footsteps by winning the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and then wanted to match or exceed his six championship rings.
His game improved as his PPG average rose from 19.9 in ’98-‘99 before Jackson arrived to 22.5 PPG in ’99-‘00 and 28.5 PPG in ’00-’01. Kobe's rebound and assist totals also increased during that period as he was becoming a vital part of building a championship team that won the NBA title in Jackson’s first year (2000).
The following season, Bryant improved statistically almost everywhere, averaging (at that time) a career-high 28.5 PPG, which put him at a level on par with O’Neal. Here are some of the highlights of that pivotal season for Bryant:
It was during that 2001 season when Kobe won the second of his five rings. It was probably also the deepest roster that he played with, having O’Neal to go along with Derek Fisher, Mitch Richmond, Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Brian Shaw. With the talent around him, Kobe had an easier time getting to the hoop.
The third straight and final championship of the Shaq era followed the next season, but the Lakers barely escaped an epic matchup with Chris Webber and the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference Finals. This series is remembered fondly by Kings fans as the refs giving the game to the Lakers. Roland Beech, the founder of 82games.com, did a more in-depth breakdown of the officiating.
Trouble followed the next season as the Lakers were bounced by the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals, and then Kobe had the sexual assault incident during the summer. Though the criminal charges were dropped and a civil suit was settled (via USA Today), that incident hurt his public image, and he lost some of his sponsors. Kobe and Shaq’s last run at the finals in 2004 fell flat to the Detroit Pistons.
At the start of the next season, the Lakers became Kobe’s team. There was no longer any other star to get in his way, but he no longer had Phil Jackson coaching the team. The next Jordan-like talent was coming from the younger ranks and his name was LeBron James. Kobe knew how to show him that he was the boss.
Kobe couldn’t handle it all by himself, so after drafting big man Andrew Bynum and trading for PF/C Pau Gasol, the Lakers were back in the championship hunt. Kobe used Pau as a pick-and-roll mate as seen in the clips below:
These two were masters of that game, which helped them win back-to-back championships after losing to the arch-nemesis Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. Kobe is still looking for that sixth championship ring that would match his biggest competition, Michael Jordan.
Since Kobe is now 34 years old, he doesn’t have the hops or agility that he did as a youngster, but he is not slowing down much, either. He has been wise at picking up skills and ways to score points. He still drives to the basket for layups, but he is more efficient with the spot-up jumper and coming in off screens.
Using the advanced stat of win shares, provided by basketball-reference.com, here is how Kobe has contributed to Lakers wins over his career.
As you can see, his big contributions came in the Phil Jackson years of 1999-2004 (10.6, 11.3, 12.7, 14.9 and 10.7 win shares) and when Kobe became the star of the team during 2005-09 (15.3, 13.0, 13.8 and 12.7 win shares). His last four seasons have been good, but not over-the-top like earlier in his career.
This year is a completely different story with the team underachieving. Kobe is still the Lakers' leading scorer, even with the addition of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
Bryant visited former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon a few years ago in order to pick up hints and learn how to play the low post. He has had to morph his games to add that skill to his layups, jumpers, free throws and fadeaways.
Since 2008-09, the Lakers have been a lot more effective when Kobe distributes the ball instead of trying to single-handedly win games.
He is also able to slow the game down more now both on a mental and physical level. The talent is there, he just has to find the right pieces in place to get that final ring. It will be a lot more difficult with younger teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the mega-star team of the Miami Heat vying for the NBA title.
Even so, Kobe still has that fire and will strive for a ring until he walks off the court for the very last time.
Follow me @ScottInTheBay