Can Kobe Bryant Return as Elite NBA Star at 35 Years Old?

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Can Kobe Bryant Return as Elite NBA Star at 35 Years Old?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant had defied Father Time and managed to remain among the NBA's elite players despite being 34 years old, and then he tore his Achilles tendon against the Golden State Warriors and everything changed.

What a difference a year makes.

Before Bryant's injury against the Warriors on the eve of the 2013 NBA playoffs, it was easy to believe that Bryant could play another 2-3 years at an elite level, but now it's anybody's guess as to what kind of player Bryant will be when he returns.

What we do know about Bryant's type of injury should tell us he will never be the same.

Bryant's torn tendon will eventually heal completely, but the explosive first step, the burst to the rim and the quick footwork off the dribble will likely be diminished, if not gone.

And while Bryant had clearly lost a step anyway, there were still times when he had memorable moments.

Unfortunately there is a strong chance that images like the one above are a thing of the past.

Need proof? Just ask Chauncey Billups.

Billups never had Bryant's athleticism but he was no slouch in that department, and one of the things that made him so good was his size, strength and ability to get to the rim off the dribble.

At one point Billups was considered one of the premier point guards in the NBA, and even though his physical skills had begun to diminish when he injured his Achilles in February of 2012, Billups was still an impact player.

Billups has only played in 22 NBA contests since that point and every one of his numbers have suffered except his free-throw shooting.

Sure, Billups may still be good for a stray three-pointer here or there, but his true value at this point in his career is providing direction to the Detroit Pistons' young players.

Billups will never again be "Mr. Big Shot", but thankfully for Lakers fans, the comparisons between Billups and Bryant ends with their injuries.

Bryant's work ethic is legendary, and the doubt surrounding the manner of his return is probably fueling his motivation even more. Most people assume Bryant will return sooner than the usual 6-9 month recovery period from his type of injury, and Bryant will likely seek to establish that he is still an elite player.

Still, there is a point when expectations meet reality and Lakers fans should be prepared for the cold truths that will manifest once Bryant does hit the court for the first time.

Bryant very well may prove that he is still one of the NBA's elite shooting guards, but that doesn't mean he will still be recognized as an elite player.

Before Houston Rockets guard James Harden stamped his arrival last season as an elite NBA shooting guard there was Bryant, Dwyane Wade and everybody else.

Next season the league's elite shooting guards will include Harden, Wade, maybe Bryant and everybody else.

I'm pretty sure that Bryant can regain his status among the NBA's elite 2-guards, but considering the competition, how much does that really mean?

In order to be truly elite in the NBA your name should be in the argument as one of the league's top five players.

Is it possible for Bryant's name to be added to that discussion? Maybe for delusional fans.

Bryant will never be better than he was last season, which in turns means it will be nearly impossible for him or Lakers fans to argue he will still be an elite NBA player once he returns.

Harden is the NBA's best shooting guard now, and by default, Wade comes in at a physically broken and battered No. 2, with soon-to-be Indiana 2-guard Paul George breathing down his neck.

How many people would consider Wade, Harden or George to be among the NBA's top five players?

There may be a few fringe fans and analysts who would rate any of the three that high, but at any rate, Bryant will begin the season behind them all.

And despite Bryant's best efforts, what are the chances that he will ever be better than Harden, George and maybe Wade ever again?

Will Kobe Bryant be an elite player next season?

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In an effort to be optimistic, there is a chance that Bryant's will and determination can guide him to the realm of elite NBA players once again. 

But the example offered by Billups and the fact that Bryant will be 35 years old when he makes his return should at least temper any expectations that Bryant will occupy the same air as LeBron James and the guy who left the Lakers to join Harden in Houston next season. 

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