He may be 36 years old and coming off a season fraught with injury, but Kobe Bryant's superhuman credentials remain as credible as ever.
Even as his Los Angeles Lakers look to rebound from a 27-55 record, Bryant is attempting a comeback of his own after playing just six games last season.
Chances are the results will be impressive. They usually are when Bryant's involved.
But the anticipatory chatter is already cementing a reputation that probably didn't need any help.
Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard recently spoke with "longtime physical therapist for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers" Judy Seto, and the fallout only serves to further enhance an iconic legacy that—in the eyes of many—ranks as the true heir to Michael Jordan.
Regarding Bryant's threshold for pain, Seto contended that, "It's the highest that I've ever seen. He channels his focus so well in terms of just the task at hand. But also when he's had pain, he can block that out. I mean, I think a good example is when he tore his Achilles, he made those free throws. He blocked it out and focused."
Those free throws were a reminder that for all of Bryant's talent and titles, it may be his fortitude that truly sets him apart.
"He's remarkable," then-Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said at the time, per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin. "For him to hit the fouls shots is remarkable. It just didn't end. You have a greater appreciation to what he wills himself to do."
It was a historic moment, but there's little doubt Bryant hopes to avoid repeating it. Going forward, he's focusing on staying healthy and making the most of his career's few remaining years.
So it should come as no surprise that the 16-time All-Star is doing his homework.
Ballard separately reports that, "In preparing for this season, Bryant told friends that the player he is analyzing, as an example of adjusting your game as you get older, is fellow 36-year-old Paul Pierce. This is part of his goal to become 'more efficient' on the court."
The notion that Bryant has anything to learn from Pierce may sound self-evidently absurd.
But he's no Kobe.
And after averaging a career-low 13.5 points last season, Pierce hardly seems like an appropriate role model for Bryant, who—during the 2012-13 campaign—tallied 27.3 points per contest. Pierce has never averaged more than 26.8 points in a season, and that was all the way back in 2005-06.
Still, one would assume Bryant knows best. He's an unrivaled student of the game, so if he believes Pierce can teach him something, perhaps there's something to it.
To his credit, Pierce has missed just 19 games combined over the course of the last four season. That's a strong track record that indicates he's taken good care of his body and subjected himself to minimal wear and tear late into his career.
It helps that he's averaged fewer than 35 minutes per game in each of those seasons and as few as just 28 minutes per contest a season ago.
By comparison, Bryant averaged at least 38.5 minutes in both 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Though he almost certainly has the motor to sustain that kind of pace, there's something to be said for more modest playing time—perhaps even sitting some games out. Selling Bryant on such a proposal may not be easy, but it's probably the first thing he should take away from Pierce's enduring health.
The Kansas product has also remained effective largely on account of methodical footwork, up-and-under moves and fall-away jumpers—the kind of savviness that obviates a need for elite athleticism and otherwise reduces the risk of collision or dangerous landings.
As NBCSports.com's Kurt Helin recently put it, "Pierce's gets to the elbows and once there unleashes an old-man-at-the-YMCA game on his opponents, getting off an array of crafty shots that seem to always find the bottom of the net. He’s evolved that part of his game over the years."
CBSSports.com's James Herbert used similar language, writing, "The crafty Pierce has adapted about as well as anyone. He has an arsenal of little head-fakes and ball-fakes, and he knows how to get his shot off, even if he can't create as much space as he used to."
The common theme?
Pierce is ridiculously "crafty."
And for that matter, so is Bryant. Even when his athleticism was still without peer, he conjured MJ with dizzying moves on the wing, from the elbow and in the post. Always a deep threat and lethal slasher, it's been Bryant's smooth in-between game that makes him virtually impossible to stop.
To that end, it's probably fair to assume watching video of Pierce won't translate into some kind of dramatic renaissance in Bryant's game.
It's the little things that will make the difference, nuanced tendencies that may add a few options to Bryant's already robust bag of tricks.
Pierce's game could be especially instructive in light of the fact that he was never quite as athletic as Bryant. In turn, his techniques reason to be of value for a one-time acrobat suddenly faced with the increasing demands of gravity.
"There are certain things that my body can't do that I used to be able to do," Bryant told Ballard. "And you have to be able to deal with those. First you have to be able to figure out what those are. Last year when I came back, I was trying to figure out what changed. And that's a very hard conversation to have."
Bryant added, "I'll be sharper. Much sharper. Much more efficient in areas. I'll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple years ago. But very, very methodical, very, very purposeful."
Maybe he'll get there with a little help from Paul Pierce.
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