The perils of time provide basketball players with an unbeatable opponent.
No matter how talented the player, unless his trainer has access to an elixir from the fountain of youth, that player will eventually be forced to submit to the fact that he can’t run, jump, and cut as quickly as he once could, that the knots in his body take twice as long to unwind, and that the wear and tear of being a professional athlete does wear away joints and does tear away cartilage.
All the NBA greats succumb to Father Time in the end—the only question is, when?
Some players age gracefully, countering their diminishing skill set with years of wisdom.
Other players simply drop off the map.
For the most part, players who take care of their bodies, came into the league at a later age or spent time early in their careers on the bench and were fortunate to be teammates with great players who took pressure off everyone else are the players who get the most out of their NBA careers and play well into their 30's.
Also, should a player suffer injuries, freak season-ending injuries allow players to rest and recover, while nagging, chronic injuries drain away at the body.
This is why someone like Grant Hill, who will be 37 at the start of next season, still has game left, while other players deteriorate, like Penny Hardaway, who suffered a severe knee injury and attempted to come back too soon, crippling his knee for the rest of his career.
While Kobe Bryant prepares for his quest to win a fourth championship ring, some people look ahead to seasons after. Gone are Bryant’s mini-afro and No. 8 uniform from his salad days with the Lakers; the more mature edition sports a closer cut and the No. 24.
His game has taken a matured turn as well.
While he still has occasional relapses where he tries to force too many difficult shots, where he doesn’t trust his offense, and where he chides his teammates, the petulant Kobe that helped derail the Lakers' mini-dynasty of the early decade has evolved into a superstar with the wisdom to match his talents.
In the past, because of his desperation to show off his greatness, Kobe would force drives, shots, and passes, sometimes playing into what his opponents wanted him to do.
This Kobe has learned to sometimes take what a defense has given him and punish them for it, whether it be with beautiful passes in the triangle, by allowing teammates to exploit their own mismatches, or by acting as a decoy who draws defensive pressure and drives or passes to opponents' soft spots on the court.
Kobe does it because he knows that simply being a volume scorer isn’t going to create a championship offense, and if and when the Lakers need him to deliver, he knows he’s the most reliable point-maker in the game.
It isn’t a coincidence that as Kobe’s tamed his ego and trusted his teammates more, they’ve returned the favor by playing smart basketball and assisting Kobe on back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals.
That trust, wisdom, and ability to ease off the gas pedal won’t just do wonders for the Lakers’ championship hopes—they’ll do wonders for Kobe’s future.
Most superstars in the league perform at their peak capacity for just over a decade before a gradual decline sets in. Fans have seen it in Shaquille O’ Neal, Tim Duncan, and Jason Kidd, for example.
While each of those players still turned in terrific 2008-09 seasons, Kidd is no longer as adept at breaking down defenses in the halfcourt and has reinvented himself as a three-point shooter, Duncan has started to feel the wear and tear of injuries weighing him down, and Shaq is nowhere close to the dominating force he was half a decade ago.
When the playoffs end, Kobe will have completed 13 NBA seasons, more than a career for most superstars. Consider the guards and wings in recent history whose game compares most favorably to Kobe.
Michael Jordan played 15 years in the NBA, but two of those years came in an ill-fated comeback tour in which Jordan was still a talented scorer, but his athletic gifts paled to the limitless ways of dominating a game he possessed earlier in his career.
Larry Bird spent 13 seasons as a pro, three of the last four injury-plagued ones as ailments to his feet and back hampered his twilight years.
Mitch Richmond played 14 NBA seasons, but his last four years marked a substantial drop in productivity, with zero seasons averaging 20 points per game after 10 straight years of accomplishing the feat.
Clyde Drexler had a similar story, as he recorded his five lowest shooting percentages in five of the last six seasons of his 15-year career.
Kobe does have a number of factors going for him at his increased age that separate him from the above crop.
For starters, Kobe is playing alongside a relatively young star teammate in Pau Gasol, who can shoulder the burden of an offense, unlike Jordan, Richmond, Bird, Johnson, and Drexler who were either the main guy or played alongside older teammates in their later days.
A player like Gasol should save energy for Bryant going into his later years, as Bryant can pick and choose spots to take over games, allowing Gasol, at times, to initiate the offense.
Also, because the triangle offense is an offense that invites passing and cutting away from defensive pressure, the system should keep Kobe out of the teeth of defenses as he ages.
People underestimate how many easy looks were created for Jordan in the triangle. Instead of having to constantly beat double teams over and over, the offense would either feed Jordan layup opportunities or wide-open shots for other teammates.
Also, because Kobe came into the league as an 18-year-old, he’s still much younger than other superstars who attended college. It seems like Kobe’s been around forever, and he’s been a superstar for an entire decade, but he’s only 30 years old. Contrast this with Drexler, who’s 13th NBA season came when he was 33.
Furthermore, Kobe was primarily a second option early in his career, behind Shaq. This absolved him of some of the physical and, more importantly, mental strain of being a team’s leader the duration of his career.
On the flip side, though, despite being so young, Kobe also has a lot of playoff miles on his legs. He’ll have six Finals’ appearances on his ledger, plus 10 playoff runs of nine games or more. He’s played two extra seasons worth of games because of his playoff appearances; two extra triathlons after 13 marathons.
While there is no doubt that because of Kobe’s basketball IQ, his fundamentally sound mechanics, his other-worldly talents, and his ability to keep himself in super-human shape he will continue to be a fantastic player, but he’s rapidly approaching the threshold where his talent and health will begin to decline, and his ability to snap his finger and dominate ballgames will gradually disappear.
When that happens, will Kobe walk away and retire? Will he adapt, or will he fail to cope with his fading skill-set?
While those questions are nearly impossible to answer at the point in time, there is no doubt that having skills that would allow Kobe to function in more secondary roles would extend his career.
Because Kobe’s such a fantastic passer, he doesn’t need to score to affect a possession. Simply being a threat will manipulate defenses into machinations intent on slowing him down, subsequently taking pressure off his teammates.
Those passes to teammates will keep Kobe from being pummeled by multiple bigs when attempting to finish in traffic, and there are only so many jumps in a person’s knee and absorbed hits in a person’s upper body before it begins to wear down.
Also, as Kobe’s athleticism begins to decline, he can take solace in the fact that he has the premier standstill or pull-up jump shot in the game. When a player’s talent begins to erode, both his ability to explode at the hoop and his inclination to take as much of a beating in the paint follows suit.
Fortunately for Kobe, even when his body begins to go, he’s mastered the mechanics of shooting, which will a boon to him later in his career.
Most importantly, Kobe has the resourcefulness to learn new tricks over the second half of his playing career. Jordan developed and used a post-up fadeaway jump shot more and more as he got older. Kidd learned to shoot threes accurately.
Even Shaq has improved his free throw shooting!
The biggest question presiding over Kobe’s future, however, lies in Kobe himself. For a player with Kobe’s ego and intense competitive drive, a loss to Father Time may be an unacceptable one. Which is why, rather than tarnishing his legend as a superstar, he may retire before his game goes into decline—much like how Jordan retired after his jumper over Bryon Russell in 1998.
In that case, fans may never see Kobe’s eventual loss to the perils of time. It would be one instance where Kobe avoided a loss not even Jordan could escape from.
The perils of time provide basketball players with an unbeatable opponent.