Kobe Bryant's two-year, $48.5 million extension has plenty of people scratching their heads. He's an aging superstar coming off a career-threatening Achilles injury. Though his contract is slightly discounted from his previous deal, he's still the highest-paid player in the league. The deal locks up the Lakers' cap maneuverability, stopping them from landing two marquee free agents at the end of this season.
The best general managers understand that contracts pay for future performance. Bryant, in no uncertain terms, is in decline. Is he still one of the league's best 2-guards? Absolutely. But that's due in part to the dwindling supply of shooting guards and a great emphasis on do-it-all small forwards with greater size and athleticism.
Still, at age 34 last season, Kobe put up on his most efficient statistical seasons in years. His 1.05 points per possession (minimum 100 possessions) on post-ups ranked first in the league, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). His 1.144 points per possession on plays off screens (minimum 50 possessions) ranked fourth.
He's always been a precise and intelligent passer when the mood strikes. He rebounds his position. He might not have the legs to play defense for 48 minutes, but he can lock up his man for spurts of a few possessions at a time.
His Achilles injury last season threw all of that into question. Would Bryant be able to return to his previous form? How would his game change due to the injury?
But that's the thing about Kobe Bryant: His game is always evolving. It's the mark of a great player, willing to adapt with age and style your repertoire to your limitations. At the beginning of his career, Bryant was all about athleticism and ball-handling. Clearly, the former has disappeared with time. Now, his game is crafty and deliberate.
And that's why Kobe, out of every NBA player, is the most likely to return to form after a serious injury. Throw away his already legendary work ethic and drive to win. This is about Kobe Bryant as a basketball player and his style of play that has already shifted to convenience his diminished athleticism.
With Bryant, much of the battle occurs before he touches the ball. Most players aren't willing to work to catch the ball; they'll let the defender dictate where the isolation begins. Because Kobe doesn't quite have the explosion to capitalize from the three-point arc, he earns himself a few feet by being creative before the pass.
Here, Kobe backdoor cuts on Marvin Williams as the ball is entered into the right wing. This serves two purposes: The first is to catch Williams sleeping. If he doesn't react in time, Kobe has a dunk. The secondary and more likely purpose is to drag Williams into the paint and shift his weight the wrong way. This way, when Kobe cuts back to the outside, Williams is on his back and at the mercy of where Kobe chooses to catch the ball.
With Williams at his mercy, Kobe can halt his momentum and throw his hips back toward the hoop. Williams, in order not to commit a foul, must comply with Kobe's positioning. If he runs into him in any way, the referee will immediately blow the whistle.
And now Kobe can go to work. The difference is only a few feet, but it's enough to make Williams more concerned with the dribble drive. From the three-point line, Bryant will likely need an extra dribble to reach the hoop. This gives both Williams and the help defense time to recover and defend the rim. But with those few steps farther in, Kobe's jabs to set up his jumper become that much more threatening.
In this example, Kobe sets up his off-ball movement by bringing his defender well below the Dwight Howard screen. A common mistake on this type of "floppy" action—when guards drop to the baseline and pop out off screens from bigs—is guards not taking their defenders far enough away from the screen.
Without the initial separation, a defender is less likely to run into the screen. The shorter distance allows him to more easily sense the screen while he's stationary and therefore be more aware of his surroundings. When running at full speed and trailing an offensive player, he's less able to veer away from a stationary big and will probably get clipped by a screen.
Kobe does a good job of this here:
He also understands the angle of the screen, with Howard facing the baseline. This usually calls for a curl, which Kobe does. And finally, he greets the ball. His defender doesn't try to shoot the gap, which is when an offensive player typically fades to a corner. Reading the motion of his defender, Kobe curls and attacks the ball, adding further separation and time to attack, closing out the defender in motion as opposed to a set one.
There's also Kobe's natural talent, which has little to do with pure athleticism and speed. In particular, his balance. What allows him to make such wild shots—fadeaways, runners through contact, etc.— is his ability to keep his shoulders square and back straight.
Check out this finish through contact with Jeremy Lin. After euro-stepping to the rim, he bodies Lin at an awkward angle. Still, Kobe hangs in the air and is in this position just before release:
As long as Kobe continues to be as strong as he is, this will not disappear with age.
Kobe's greatest asset is his ability to hit a defender with multiple moves and fakes on any given possession. No longer able to blow by defenders with speed, he uses his savvy to get defenders on his hip or catch them flat-footed. Similar to Paul Pierce, Kobe understands angles and how to gain a slight edge.
Against Chandler Parsons here, Kobe gets stuck at the top of the perimeter. Instead of panicking and leaning in for a shot, he stops, gathers and hits Parsons with a jab left. He then leans in, pushing Parsons back on his heels before fading away.
Part of Kobe's reputation is earning foul calls by getting defenders to jump. As he puts his shoulder into Parsons' chest, Parsons senses a pump fake coming and stays down. This is good defense, but it allows Kobe to get his shot off against the much taller player.
Every player declines with age. Kobe certainly has, and he will never be the player he once was. But his game is built for longevity, and the skills he uses to excel have little to do with the first things to go with age.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, they're paying a hefty price. Granted, he's won them five NBA titles and is the team's biggest (and only) financial draw, so in some sense, they're paying a royalty price for his services.
But if there's one thing we've learned about Kobe over the years, it's that we can never count him out. Don't be surprised if he comes back with a vengeance or if he's added yet another move to his already huge offensive repertoire.