Kobe Bryant: Is Lakers' Star Still in His Prime or Have Best Years Come & Gone?

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IJune 15, 2011

DALLAS, TX - MAY 06:  Guard Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during a 98-92 loss against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 6, 2011 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I used to think there would come a day when I could say that an older Kobe Bryant, with all that wear and tear from 15 seasons in the NBA, was still preferable than just about any other player in the league. 

That day has come. Kobe Bean Bryant is not the player he was at 23 or 28. Yet he’s still one of the top five players in all of basketball and could remain so for another three to four years at least.

Bryant appears to have reached that imaginary “bubble,” the time in one’s career when you can clearly see differences from his former days. Like the way a young Kobe attacked the game with pure athleticism and raw skills rarely seen; the mature Kobe who became a multifaceted “assassin” and more of a team player en route to multiple championships; and the emerging Kobe who can do more with diminishing skills than virtually anyone on any roster who is playing the game today.

The question is whether Kobe Bryant is still in his prime, or have his best years passed him by? The answer is not a simple one. There are signs that he has been slowing down, but Bryant is most definitely not “out.”

One could make an argument that Kobe is on the downside by simply observing his minutes. He averaged 33.9 per game this past season, a significant drop of nearly five minutes from the previous year. Phil Jackson sought to keep Kobe fresh and ready for the postseason and limited his time on the court during the regular season.

What’s remarkable, however, is that Kobe still averaged 25.3 points per game, which happens to exactly mirror his career average. Granted, it was his lowest average since the 2003-04 campaign, but in every year since that season Bryant averaged between 36.1 and 40 minutes per contest to achieve those slightly higher numbers. 

In other words, Kobe accomplished more this year in less time on the court. I’m not so sure that spells “career over.”

It is true that Bryant does not have the same athleticism he possessed a decade ago when he seemed able to jump out of the gym at any given time. But he still has enough, as evidenced by a monster jam over the 6’10”, 255-pound Emeka Okafor in Game 5 of the Lakers' first-round playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets.

Bryant was not entirely responsible for the Lakers being swept out of the playoffs by the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. He showed up, averaging 22.8 points per game (his lowest for a playoff series since 2000), and he played 35.4 minutes per game. This is a team game, and the Lakers lost that heartbreak of a series as a unit.

Take a look at one of Kobe’s finest years. In 2005-06, he averaged 35.4 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the floor in 41 minutes. Compare that to this past season, when he shot 45.1 percent in just under 34 minutes and averaged 25.3. He’s taking less shoots, relying on his teammates more, but he's still as efficient (if not more so) as ever.

Bryant realizes that Mother Nature does not stand still, so he’s doing everything he can to stay in the best physical condition and keep his game at a prime level for as long as he can.

He’s played through more pain than most, and he's endured numerous stretches of not being able to bend his finger or get enough lift from a badly bruised ankle or knee.

As the 2010-11 NBA season came to a close this past week in Miami, one could only wonder how Kobe would have fared had the Lakers been able to make their way through to the Finals. 

To sit and watch LeBron James, at 26, fade into the woodwork while his team self-destructed and lost to a better club in Dallas, was watching a superstar who still has yet to learn the art of winning championships. He should be reaching his prime, but James seems to have regressed instead of progressed.

Bryant started his career as a young upstart trying to rattle the collective cages of the L.A. media elite with his special, one-on-one, acrobatic play. He matured into a champion who, like Michael Jordan before him, realized that in order to win multiple titles, he needed to share the basketball and be the leader of a team, not an individual who was out for himself only.

Bryant will be 33 when the new season hopefully restarts in the fall. We all know that the Black Mamba will prepare for the campaign as if it were his last title fight and the opponent was Joe Frazier.

Kobe may have peaked a few years ago, but his apex was so incredibly high that most of us won’t realize he’s come back to Earth until he’s been retired for a few seasons. 

A less-than-100-percent Kobe Bryant at 33 still gets this writer’s approval and vote as a superstar in his prime, far more so than the younger but still title-deficient LeBron James.

When asked to describe how he felt after losing the Finals in six games to Dallas, James these choice words for those who think he lacks the resolve to be a champion:  “All the people that were rooting for me to fail, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today," he told Ken Berger of CBSSports.com.

"They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. 

"They can get a few days, or a few months, or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point." 

Kobe Bryant at 33 or LeBron James at 26?  Who really is the one in his prime?