Kobe Bryant at 35: Is Age Just a Number for the Black Mamba?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterAugust 23, 2013

Mar 27, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Lakers won 120-117. Mandatory Credit:  Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Want to feel old today? Here's a fun fact for you: Kobe Bryant just turned 35.

Yeah, that Kobe Bryant. The one who the Los Angeles Lakers picked up as a sprightly 17-year-old by way of a trade during the 1996 NBA draft. The one who, alongside Shaquille O'Neal, led the Los Angeles Lakers to three NBA championships before he hit his mid-20s. The one who claimed back-to-back scoring titles, a league MVP and two more rings after forcing the Big Diesel out of L.A. The one who's followed in Shaq's footsteps by giving himself not one (The Black Mamba) but two (Vino) nicknames. 

And now, the one who's officially entered the twilight of his career, with an Achilles injury from which to work his way back and a subpar team to which he'll be returning. As encouraging as it may be to see Kobe already hard at work on an anti-gravity treadmill—just four months after suffering the most devastating setback of his career, no less—there's no telling yet when or at what capacity he'll play again.

To hear Kobe tell it, his recovery from a torn Achilles will be the fastest and most successful ever, he'll return stronger than before and he'll have the Lakers contending for titles again in no time, because of course that's what he's going to say.

Bryant didn't simply arrive at all-time greatness; he got there in large part because he's one of the most competitive people to ever set foot on a basketball court, if not one of the most competitive humans ever to walk the frickin' Earth. He's like a vampire who feeds not on youth or blood, but rather on (perceived) slights and insults.

He also seeks out new and innovative treatments for what ails him like no other.

He's worked extensively with famed trainer Tim Grover and even flew to Dusseldorf, Germany, a couple years ago to undergo an experimental treatment on his arthritic knees. 

As such, there's no real historical precedent out there that could give us a handle on what to expect from Kobe in his comeback—or even what the "average" 35-year-old in the NBA looks like—thanks to new training techniques, dietary regimens and advancements in sports medicine.

These and other developments have served to lengthen careers and improve the performances of those creeping closer to the end. As of 2010, the average NBA career stood at upward of six seasons, according to Weak Side Awareness. That's significantly longer than those of players from the 1960s, the 1970s and even the 1980s, when the average career routinely ended before an individual's fifth season was through.

However, this isn't to say that players are getting better as they play longer. According to Stumbling on Wins (via The Wages of Wins Journal), the typical NBA player suffers through a 146 percent drop in performance between the ages of 34 and 35.

Not that all is lost for Kobe. Back in 2010, Wages of Wins Journal contributor Arturo Galletti revealed that there'd been at least two instances of players peaking at 35.

Beyond the numbers, Bryant has benefited from the upward trend in long-term endurance that modern medicine has enabled in the NBA as much as anyone in his cohort. He suffered through all sorts of knee, ankle and hand problems (among other ailments) prior to his most recent setback but has managed to press on, thanks to none other than SCIENCE!

In spectacular fashion, no less. Hence, it's entirely possible that Kobe will rewrite the basketball history books with his late-career comeback from an injury that tends to end careers. 

Aging Greats

In any case, we should take at least a cursory look back at where Kobe left off and who's done what after officially crossing into his mid-30s.

In 2012-13, Bryant averaged 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 38.6 minutes per game before his Achilles tendon snapped. Those are remarkable numbers for a player at any age, much less a 34-year-old. In fact, according to Basketball-Reference, Kobe stands as the first player over the age of 34 to ever average better than 27 points, five rebounds and six assists over the course of a campaign.

Duplicating that feat will be difficult, to say the least, though there's still hope that Kobe can perform efficiently and productively at his age. Last season also saw Bryant become just the ninth player aged 34 or older to post a Player Efficiency Rating (PER)—which takes into account all relevant box score stats—of at least 23, per Basketball-Reference.

(Note: Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Robinson all posted multiple qualifying seasons after turning 34. For the sake of simplicity, we've included just the best for each one.)

Of those other eight, six (Malone, Kareem, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon) pulled it off at the age of 35 or older. It's possible, then—albeit not all that probable—that Bryant joins that exclusive club in 2013-14. 

As it happens, nearly every great player in whose company Kobe is most often mentioned played, in some capacity, after his 35th birthday.

And by "great player," I'm going to invoke my right of subjectivity here and slot Kobe among the NBA's all-time top 10 of players who persisted into their mid-30s, which, in my estimation, includes (roughly chronologically) Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan. I've also thrown Karl Malone into the mix, if only because he was so darn prolific after the age of 35. 

That wasn't the case for all of the greats in question. Russell hung up his Chuck Taylors a few months after his 35th. Robertson and Bird did the same, as did Jordan, though His Airness un-retired to play for the Washington Wizards when he was 38. West was hobbled throughout his age-35 season, which proved to be his last. Magic returned from his four-and-a-half-year, HIV-enforced hiatus when he was 36 but ended his comeback after finishing out the 1995-96 season.

All of this is to say that the post-35 samples of success for a number of NBA legends are small and/or not particularly reflective of the player's overall performance.

A quick note before we jump in: The only statistics for which we were able to derive reliable pre- and post-35 splits for all 10 players were those pertaining to games played and points scored. Most of the 10 players turned 35 at some point between mid-April and late October (i.e. not during the regular season).

Russell and Robertson both fell into the minority. That proved to be injurious to our pursuit, because their birthdays forced yours truly to dig into individual box scores to accurately run the numbers. As precious and immensely helpful a resource as Basketball-Reference is, it doesn't include single-game stats beyond points scored and field goals made and attempted for many contests dating back to the 1950s and the 1960s.

To be sure, this isn't Basketball-Reference's fault. It just so happens that a swath of the old box scores on which the site depends for its stats didn't care to mention how many rebounds and assists players tallied or how many minutes they played on any given night.

Still Scoring After All These Years

As such, the chart below—which shows the pre- and post-35 per-game scoring splits for our 10 legends—is one of the two "complete" ones we were able to put together.

Clearly, age has a way of grating on players' productivity, even that of the great ones. All 10 saw significant declines in average scoring after their 35th birthdays. Wilt's decline was the steepest in terms of both raw points (from 33.1 points to 14 points) and percentage (a 57.7 percent decline). He was followed rather closely in those regards by the Big O, whose average scoring dropped from 26.4 points to 11.6—a falloff of 56.1 percent.

The steadiest? Karl Malone, who lost just 4.2 points off his pre-35 scoring average (26.2) in his later years, for a slide of 16 percent.

That can't be too encouraging for Kobe, and not just because he and The Mailman have had their druthers. The 10 greats in question saw their scoring drop by a collective average of 8.22 points per game after turning 35. For Bryant, that'd mean a dip toward approximately 17 points per game from his career average of 25.5.

But don't expect such a steep drop from the Mamba, assuming he's fit to play at some point this coming season. Unlike his aforementioned historical peers, Bryant won't likely have to worry about the prospect of settling into a drastically reduced role.

Even so, there's about a snowball's chance in you-know-where that Kobe, born scorer or otherwise, continues to produce at the clip he did prior to his latest injury. He's one of four players in NBA history to average at least 27 points at the age of 34. The other three? Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Bernard King.

Alex English currently owns the NBA record for single-season scoring average after the age of 35. "The Blade" poured in 26.5 points a night for the Denver Nuggets during the 1988-89 season, more than half of which took place after his 35th birthday. Here's a look at some of best single-season scoring averages for the league's geriatric legends over the years.

(Note: Malone, Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan each registered multiple seasons after turning 35 in which they scored more than 20 points per game. For the sake of simplicity, I've included the best such scoring season for each.)

All of which is to say that it's tough to imagine Kobe doing at 35 what he did at 34.

Then again, most of Kobe's pantheonic peers had to defer to top-notch teammates late in their careers: Bill Russell to John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem to Magic, Duncan to Tony Parker, Wilt and Jerry West to each other and so on.

Hence, a dip in field-goal frequency for our gaggle of greats.

For the most part, the drops weren't too dramatic. Of the eight considered here (remember, the stats for Russell and Robertson were too scant beyond scoring), seven suffered shooting shortages of less than 33 percent, with Kareem (32.7 percent) holding down the high end.

The outlier? Wilt, whose average field-goal attempts plummeted by more than two-thirds after his 35th birthday. That shouldn't surprise anyone, though, considering that he spent his twilight seasons next to volume scorers like Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.

That doesn't figure to be an issue for Kobe in L.A. this season. Sure, he'd do well to defer to Pau Gasol and Steve Nash more frequently, assuming those two don't succumb to injuries of their own. But when push comes to shove, Bryant should have little trouble jacking up shots whenever and wherever he pleases, as he has for years now.

Also worth considering: Those greats whose shot attempts held steadiest were either Kobe's contemporaries (Tim Duncan, Karl Malone), his comparisons (Jerry West) or both (Michael Jordan).

Minutes and Makes

The bigger concerns for Bryant will be twofold: the time he's afforded to jack up shots, and the rate at which he hits those he takes.

Playing time figures to be an issue for Kobe. There's no telling yet when he'll return, and even less information to go on when projecting how much he'll play once he does.

Chances are, Kobe would play every minute of every game if he could. He nearly pulled off that feat last season, when he played upward of 47 minutes four times during a six-game stretch between late March and early April. In the seventh, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon.

All indications from people who actually know stuff about medicine are that Kobe's torn Achilles can't be directly attributed to the wear-and-tear tacked on in those few games. However, allowing Bryant to continue to play such heavy minutes once he's back in action in 2013-14 would probably run contrary to doctor's orders. He'll need to work himself back into proper playing shape before he can reasonably be expected to grind out 35 to 40 minutes a night.

Even then, it would behoove Mike D'Antoni and his staff to consider whether such a hefty workload for the Mamba is prudent in the first place. Kobe's clearly not indestructible and, at his age, is bound to tire out if he's asked (or tries) to do too much. If the Lakers are trying to win, they'd do well to preserve Bryant's abilities by carefully watching and meting out his minutes.

He wouldn't be the first superstar to see his minutes reduced at the age of 35. Our other eight greats each saw their playing time cut to varying degrees.

Bird, Jordan and Malone held steadiest, with drops of well under 10 percent. Each of those three were still centrally responsible for the success of their respective squads at that age. Bird was just handing off the reins of the Boston Celtics to Reggie Lewis, whose tragic death Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com recently commemorated with a moving column. M.J. was "The Man" for the Chicago Bulls and later re-emerged as "The Man" with the Washington Wizards, depending on how you feel about Richard Hamilton and Jerry Stackhouse. Meanwhile, The Mailman continued to deliver in his partnership with John Stockton for the Utah Jazz.

Kobe's burden won't be unlike those that these three shouldered. He'll have the added concern of dealing with a devastating injury, just as Bird did with his back toward the end of his career in Boston.

Bryant's connection to Bird, Jordan and Malone in this regard doesn't bode too well for his efficiency, though. Those three, along with Magic, suffered the greatest slippage in field-goal percentage after 35.

As Kirk Goldsberry (now of Grantland) is wont to remind us, field-goal percentage is less an evaluation/indictment of a player's shooting ability and more a reflection of who is shooting and where he's shooting from. For example, Wilt and Kareem both shot better from the field—Chamberlain dramatically so—after turning 35.

But as we covered earlier, those two also shot way less as they aged. If we had spatial data dating back to the '60s, '70s and '80s, we'd probably see that a greater share of the shots taken by the Big Dipper and the Captain post-35 came within closer range of the hoop. Such is the beauty of being as tall as they were: You don't shrink, so you'll always be best off next to the basket.

The same can't be said for the greatest attributes (speed, quickness, athleticism) of perimeter players like Jordan and, well, Kobe. Bryant can't dominate the competition physically or athletically like he used to, and he certainly won't be able to (immediately) upon his return.

Then again, Bryant has done plenty to expand and refine his game over time, just as Jordan once did.

Kobe can still get to the hole from time to time but is now just as capable of doing his damage in the low post and/or via any number of jukes, fakes and other moves that he's added to his repertoire over the years. He no longer has to rely on dominating the competition physically and/or putting himself in harm's way to be productive...which is crucial, considering the increased risk that comes with Kobe attempting to do so at this point in his career.

That being said, if Bryant isn't the threat to attack that he once was, opposing defenses will have an easier time crowding him and forcing him into difficult shots. In that event, look for Kobe's shooting percentages to tail off a bit.

Other Ways to Skin a Leather Ball

Such a slip won't necessarily deter Kobe from excelling at his age and with his health concerns. There's much more to basketball than putting a leather sphere through a net. Chief among those tasks—for you fans of Captain Obvious out there, and aside from man-to-man defense, which Kobe doesn't really play anymore—are rebounding and passing.

Rebounding has never been Bryant's forte, though he's hardly a slouch in this regard. He's averaged 5.3 per game in his career and hasn't turned in fewer than five per game in a season since 1997-98, when he was still serving as the Lakers' super sixth man.

That being said, history suggests that Kobe's rebounding numbers will take a hit.

Clearly, Kobe doesn't have to worry about massive shortfalls like those into which Wilt and Kareem stumbled. Unlike those two, Bryant's never been one to regularly rip down 10 (or even 20) rebounds a night. As such, he won't be one to bring down five, six or even seven rebounds fewer than he used to.

But more time spent on the perimeter will probably yield fewer opportunities for Kobe to crash the glass. In that event, a slip in the range between Jordan (0.6 per game) and West (2.1 per game) seems reasonable. That'd still leave Bryant with anywhere between three and 4.5 rebounds or so a night.

As for his passing, Bryant's long been a superb distributor, contrary to the myriad memes concerning Kobe's reluctance to give up the rock. He played the role of point guard well during the second half of the 2012-13 season, when he averaged 7.5 assists per game between late January and the time his foot gave out on him.

Relegation to a more sedentary, deferential role could work for Kobe, as it did for at least two Hall of Famers.

Of the eight players considered, only Magic's assist average dropped by more than two after his 35th birthday. In Johnson's case, that downturn was more the result of sharing the court with another point guard (Nick Van Exel) and a pass-happy big man (Vlade Divac)—and a nearly five-year hiatus from the Association—than it was the byproduct of Father Time.

For some (Wilt, West and Duncan), the post-35 assist "slump" was/has been negligible. For Bird and Malone, age brought with it an even greater willingness to pass. Those two both saw jumps in their assist numbers after turning 35.

This isn't to suggest that Kobe's going to be a completely different player when he returns or that Bryant will morph into Magic (again). Rather, it's to point out that, if there's any part of Kobe's game that might escape inevitable decay, it's his passing.

Staying in the Game

None of this talk about what kinds of numbers Kobe may or may not put up when he gets back matters unless he, you know, gets back on the court and stays there for a while. That hasn't always been so simple for 35-year-olds.

There are the old-timers (Russell, Robertson) who called it quits after taking their teams (close) to the top. Russell retired after leading the C's to the title in 1969. Robertson bowed out after he and Kareem led the Milwaukee Bucks within one win of another championship in 1974.

There are the prolific legends (West, Bird, Magic) who were all but forced into retirement by their own bodies. There are the big guys (Wilt, Duncan) who hung on in reduced roles and those (Kareem, Malone) whose commitments to fitness allowed them to fashion entire careers after the age of 35.

And then there's Michael Jordan, who tried retirement not once, but twice, before finally settling into it, however precariously, upon his third try.

Figuring out where Kobe fits in is a chore unto itself. Will he go out on his own terms like Russell and the Big O did? Will he succumb to the limits of his own mortality, as The Logo, The Legend and Magic did? Will he slip comfortably into a secondary role like those inhabited by Chamberlain and Duncan? Or will the meticulous way in which Kobe takes care of his body allow him to thrive well into his late 30s—and possibly into his 40s—as such an approach did for The Captain (with yoga) and The Mailman (with weightlifting)?

On average, those 10 greats played 159 games apiece after turning 35. Assuming Kobe isn't ready for opening night, that'd have him playing into the 2015-16 season

And perhaps longer, if Bryant's constant exploration of the outer limits of modern medicine is any guide. Remember, this is the guy who flew all the way to Germany to try out an experimental blood-spinning treatment that wasn't (and largely still isn't) legal in the U.S.

It's this advancement in medical science and the understanding of the human body, along with much more forgiving conditions for NBA players as they travel from city to city, that make predicting the product of Kobe's twilight—or even writing off a late burst of improvement entirely—so difficult. Bryant doesn't have to worry about the cramped quarters of commercial flights, charter buses and shared hotel rooms like all players did once upon a time. Nor can he so much as step one way or another without a medical professional of some sort evaluating every detail of his condition and issuing advice accordingly.

In that case, it's within reason to think that Kobe, even coming off arguably the most debilitating injury in basketball, can and will fare better statistically than the average decay suffered by his forebears would suggest.

(Note: Don't be scared of the math here! All I did was subtract from each of Kobe's career averages a portion based on the average decline by category of the greats mentioned herein. For example, to come up with Kobe's post-35 scoring average, I took his career scoring average and shaved off 31.9 percent of it, since those other 10 legends lost an average of 31.9 percent of their per-game scoring after they turned 35.)  

But asking Kobe to get better, at his age and in his condition, is a bit much. "Vino" may be Bryant's nickname of choice because he, like it, "gets better with age," but doing so at this point would be unprecedented. No Hall-of-Famer in Kobe's corner of the NBA's pantheon has ever done it

Kobe, though, would appear to have plenty of fuel left in his reserves and even more desire to burn that fuel in pursuit of a sixth ring. Moreover, he has the sort of support from all angles—from trainers to doctors to dietitians and beyond—to help him squeeze the most mileage out of whatever he has left.

There may be more to age than just numbers, and history does anything but suggest that NBA players get better after turning 35, much less with a surgically repaired Achilles to keep in mind.

But if there's anyone with the drive, the determination and the resources to defy the odds and blaze a new trail in his sport, it's Kobe Bryant. 


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