Given the way Kobe Bryant has performed at 34 years old, there’s a sentiment being formed that he is playing the best basketball of any player in the history of the game at his age. That’s factually incorrect.
Bryant has been sensational by his own lofty standards this season. He is the third leading scorer in the league and playing with an efficiency reserved for players in the prime of their careers.
The former league MVP has simply been indefensible. No team, scheme or individual has sufficed to contain him this year because of the tools at his disposal. His ball-handling is among the best in the league and the same is true about his shooting ability.
Because of these top-shelf skills, Bryant is second in total clutch (defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points or less) scoring so far this season per NBA.com.
Impressive feats all around, but stating that Bryant is enjoying the best season of any 34-year-old in league history would be erroneous.
Indeed, other players have enjoyed campaigns that are either on par or arguably better than the five-time world champions.
For instance, John Stockton was every bit as productive during the 1996-97 season. At age 34, the Utah Jazz point guard averaged a remarkable 14.4 points and 10.5 assists per game on a staggering 54.8 percent field-goal shooting.
Stockton accomplished this on a Jazz team that won 64 games and made the NBA Finals.
In addition, during that very same season, the 34-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon was a stud. The starting center for the Houston Rockets produced an impressive 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game on 51 percent shooting from the floor.
The Rockets won 57 games during the 1996-97 campaign and the Houston big man was voted to the All-NBA first team.
Olajuwon and Stockton had impressive seasons in the late stages of their careers and also saw their teams sit atop the Western Conference standings.
Bryant, on the other hand, has been a terrific performer this season from an individual perspective, but his play hasn’t quite elevated that of his teammates. Consequently, there’s an actual possibility the Los Angeles Lakers might miss the postseason.
Nonetheless, Bryant’s productivity at age 34 in comparison to Olajuwon and Stockton might be construed as being on equal footing. The same could be said about a few other athletes who played the sport at the same level despite their numerous years of service in the league.
But there’s also another group of guys who simply exceeded Bryant’s production and accomplishments at the same advanced age.
During the 1970-71 season, Wilt Chamberlain was a monster. The Big Dipper started at center for a Los Angeles Lakers team that won 48 games and eventually lost against Lew Alcindor’s (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Milwaukee Bucks in the Western Conference Finals.
That Bucks team went on to win the title during that very same postseason. The Lakers were soundly defeated, but Chamberlain performed admirably.
During the course of this season, the Laker center averaged 20.7 points, 18.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 54.5 percent field-goal shooting. The two-time world champion was 34 years old.
Chamberlain’s output that season is impressive but hardly the lone occurrence in which a superstar played as such so late in their career.
Karl Malone enjoyed similar type of success during the 1997-98 regular season.
With Malone on board, the Utah Jazz won 62 games and fought valiantly against the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. The Jazz lost in six hard-fought games, but the 1997 league MVP was a brutalizing force who gave his team an opportunity at a title.
Malone was unquestionably one of the best players in the league that season. He was named to the All-NBA first team as well as the All-Defensive first team. He tortured opponents with his mid-range jumper and his one-legged layups at the rim.
Very few opponents showed enough bravery when faced with Malone coming at them underneath the basket. He was a bruising player who inflicted punishment on opponents with his knees and elbows.
At age 34, Malone was producing 27 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game on 53 percent field-goal shooting. For the sake of context, Shaquille O’Neal manufactured a similar output during the very same year.
Mind you, O’Neal was nine years younger.
It goes without saying, Malone’s year is tough to surpass. Not impossible though.
The 1997-98 campaign also coincides with Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. His status as the greatest of all time had already been largely secured amongst most basketball aficionados.
And yet, at age 34 the most famous player in the history of North Carolina university still had something left in the tank. In his final season in Chicago, Jordan went out with a huge bang.
Despite the numerous miles accumulated on his body, he still dominated the court from the shooting guard position. That task alone is nearly impossible for any perimeter player, let alone one playing near his mid-30s.
With Jordan leading the way, the Bulls won 62 games and made it through a grueling Eastern Conference postseason run. Chicago represented the east in the NBA Finals, where Karl Malone’s Jazz held home-court advantage.
Regardless of the obstacles presented before him, the Bulls’ superstar proved triumphant on the biggest platform in professional basketball.
In Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Jordan delivered one last time. With the Jazz clinging to a one-point lead at home down the stretch, the former Tar Heel stole the ball from Malone and set the stage for arguably the most famous shot in league history.
Jordan brought the ball up court and stood in the middle of the floor as the clock ticked away. He drove right and carefully nudged Bryon Russell with his left hand. He did this while executing a right-to-left-hand crossover.
With Russell out of the picture, Jordan elevated for a beautiful jumper that touched nothing but net.
The jumper resulted in another finals victory as well as the reputation of the game’s greatest closer.
Jordan finished that season averaging 28.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on 46.5 percent field-goal shooting.
As impressive as the statistical output is, it gets better.
Jordan was crowned on three separate occasions that season as the league’s king. He earned the All-Star Game MVP, league MVP and Finals MVP by the end of the 1997-98 campaign.
Bryant’s play in 2013 has been nothing short of amazing. His performances have mirrored that of some of the greatest legends the league has ever seen, a testament to his superb talent.
But in truth, the Lakers' all-time leading scorer isn’t quite on par with Jordan at age 34.
And honestly that fine. Because, well, no one is.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist. You can find him on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.
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