How Much Longer Can Kobe Bryant Carry the Los Angeles Lakers' Torch?

J.M. Poulard@ShyneIVContributor IISeptember 1, 2013

Kobe Bryant’s 17 years of NBA wear and his Achilles injury make it fair to wonder how long he can continue to lead the Los Angeles Lakers.

As shown in the video below, the 35-year-old Bryant has made it known that he plans to play for another three or four years:

He has set an incredible standard throughout his career, but his decline seems imminent.

The Lakers hope to acquire another superstar during the 2014 offseason, which will allow the franchise’s all-time leading scorer to lessen his workload. That would allow him to gracefully retire, perhaps as the greatest Laker ever.

Many have speculated that the player L.A. covets is LeBron James. As a member of the organization, the two-time champion would become the new face of the Lakers and steer the team once again toward championship contention with Bryant riding shotgun.

This tentative plan has Bryant carrying the torch for one last season and then turning over the reins to James. Mind you, this dream scenario will likely never come to fruition.

James has to opt out of his current contract with the Miami Heat and then leave a team with which he has already celebrated two consecutive titles. Furthermore, Miami has the potential to capture more championship glory with its best player entering his prime.

That leaves the Lakers with a few contingency plans, but none bring back a superstar. Consequently, that leaves Bryant carrying the franchise on his back until he calls it quits. That’s a scary proposition given the amount of weight he has already carried on his shoulders throughout his career. 

Doubting Bryant is typically an exercise reserved for fools, but this one time I will be forced to throw my name into that hat.

Perimeter players usually do not produce at a high level in their mid-30s. That feat is typically reserved for big men. If we go back and look at the best seasons from players at least 35 years old, the data will reflect just as much.

Players with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 20 or higher are bunched together as superstars, franchise players or All-Star-level talents. Every now and then, some peculiar names might make the list because they played limited minutes, but for the most part we are looking at the league’s best.

When looking at the list of players aged 35 or older who posted a PER figure of 20 or higher (minimum of 50 games played), we came up with 33 names (seen below):

Of the names listed, here are the perimeter players who made the cut and the number of seasons in which they accomplished the feat:

  • John Stockton (six times)
  • Steve Nash (twice)
  • Elgin Baylor
  • Michael Jordan

Every other player on the list is a big man. This is pertinent given that Bryant will enter the 2013-14 campaign a couple of months removed from his 35th birthday.

It’s worth noting that Elgin Baylor averaged 41 minutes per game, whereas the guards (Michael Jordan, Steve Nash and John Stockton) were all kept under a 35-minute threshold. Because older players recover slowly from the grind of an 82-game schedule, keeping their minutes relatively low helps them consistently perform at high levels.

In his lone season under the direction of Mike D’Antoni, Bryant played 38.6 minutes per game and may end up spending as much time on the court in future seasons despite the fact that he has suggested otherwise.

The five-time champion has consistently defied the odds during his illustrious career, which makes it easy to still expect greatness from him.

Despite the fact that he is recovering from Achilles surgery, I fully expect Bryant’s play in 2013-14 to come within range of his superb 2012-13 season where he averaged 27.3 points and six assists per game on 46.3 percent shooting.

His production might take a slight dip, but he will nonetheless perform like a superstar and carry the Lakers. The real drama will come in the ensuing season, especially if the Purple and Gold strike out in free agency.

Bryant will be battling history; Michael Jordan is the only shooting guard in league history to post a PER above 20 past the age of 35.

Should Bryant maintain his level of play in 2013-14, he will join Jordan in that group. However, expecting the two-time NBA Finals MVP to produce the historical feat in back-to-back seasons is asking a lot.

If there is a swingman who can challenge Father Time to a fight and win a few rounds, it is unquestionably the Lakers lifer. Just keep in mind that he has already done just that, and the scorecard is favoring his opponent.

The 2014 offseason looms as a momentous period of time for the Lakers because it will be their chance to allow Bryant to become the team’s second-best player. In that role, he will be able to extend his career, even with a natural decline in athleticism. 

In the event Los Angeles does not bring in a superstar to pair Bryant with at start of the 2014-15 season, the Lakers will more than likely only go as far as the former league MVP takes them. Sadly, he will no longer be able to lead them anywhere past 2013-14.