In his 17th professional season, Kobe Bryant continues to mystify the NBA community. Unfortunately, just because he's enjoying such great personal success doesn't mean we'll have the pleasure of watching him for much longer.
At 34 years old, there wasn't an expectation that Bryant would piece together one of his most efficient seasons ever. But, as he always does, Kobe's made us look like fools, as he's greatly exceeded expectations. Were it not for the historically significant seasons that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are putting together, Kobe would be in the thick of the MVP conversation.
Kobe's field-goal percentage (46.8 percent) is the highest it's been since the 2001-02 season and is tied for the second-best of his career. The ageless wonder has also recorded his highest three-point percentage (33.9 percent) since 2008-09, when the Los Angeles Lakers went on to defeat the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
In fact, the season that Bryant is currently putting together will have historical significance when he looks back on his laundry list of career achievements.
Just for the sake of argument, let's look at Bryant's numbers this season compared to Michael Jordan's during the 1997-98 season. Jordan turned 35 during February of 1998, but the majority of that season was played at the age of 34.
Bryant is averaging 27.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. During the 1997-98 season, Jordan posted averages of 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists a night, while he shot 46.5 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from three.
Pretty similar numbers, right?
Not only are Kobe's scoring figures consistent with Jordan's, but his shooting efficiency is slightly better. Consider that Kobe's averaging the third-most assists of his career while maintaining such a robust scoring average, and his numbers are even more impressive.
Given Kobe's immense success this season, what are reasonable expectations for the remainder of his career? Let's take a look.
Kobe's contract runs through the end of the 2013-14 season, so there remains a very real possibility that next season could wind up being the Mamba's last.
Given that he's averaging a gaudy 27.1 points per game this season, a figure that's greater than his 2008-09 and 2010-11 totals, it wouldn't be unrealistic to expect Kobe to average somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 points per game for the remainder of his career.
Taking a look at Kobe's shot chart, it's clear that his game has adapted with age, as he's placed a much stronger emphasis on getting to the rim. For comparison's sake, during the 2010-11 season, Kobe attempted 468 shots at the rim, according to NBA.com. This year, he's already attempted 460 shots from close range.
As is to be expected with more looks from close-range, Kobe's averaging more free-throw attempts per game (7.5) than he did in his last full season (omitting the lockout shortened season of 2011-12). He's nearly certain to pass his 2010-11 total of 583 free-throw attempts, as he currently sits at 495.
Kobe's realization that he needed to get more aggressive around the basket has made him more effective with age, which will undoubtedly allow him to thrive in the year(s) to come.
The biggest improvement in Kobe's game during his twilight years has been in the passing department.
As previously mentioned, Kobe's assist total this season is nearing a career-high (5.8 per game), as he's searched for ways to get his talented supporting cast involved while simultaneously sustaining a high scoring average.
Given that his assist total this season will likely be more than one full assist over his career average of 4.7 dimes per game, it would seem reasonable to expect production in the neighborhood of five assists per game for the remainder of Bryant's career.
The 37.9 minutes per game Kobe's averaging this season are tied for the sixth-fewest in his career.
However, Kobe's playing a minute more than his career average, while he's receiving more minutes than he did during both the 2008-09 and 2010-11 seasons.
As far as league leaders go, Kobe ranks ninth in minutes per game, tied with Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls.
In fact, Kobe is the only player in the top 10 in minutes played who's over the age of 30.
Perseverance has and always will be the name of the game for Kobe, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him average 34 minutes per game or more for the rest of his career.
Forgetting all of the personal statistical achievements for a moment, it's time to focus on championships.
Titles have become the barometer by which a player's success is measured. If you stripped Kobe of all of his statistical accomplishments, he'd still be discussed among the game's elite, as he's a five-time champion.
Whether Bryant can capture that sixth and final championship to even the score with Jordan still remains to be seen, but should the Lakers' roster remain in tact, he'll have a legitimate chance to capture that elusive title in 2013-14.
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