Kobe Bryant is into defiance.
He has scoffed at aging trends, signed contracts many believed to be undeserved and fought through injuries that typically shelve NBA players for good.
Heading into his 19th season, Bryant would love nothing more than to defy everyone—doubters in particular—again.
Can he put up a statistical season that will shock everyone? Or have we finally reached the point at which Bryant becomes mortal? The 2014-15 season will answer that question definitively, but let's take a crack at guessing how things will shake out in advance.
What History Says
Though we're now well over a year removed from Bryant's Achilles injury, it remains one of the most significant factors in projecting his future performance. The reason is simple: Nobody in Bryant's circumstances has ever suffered such an injury and then regained anything close to his previous form.
Dominique Wilkins is the most oft-cited parallel, but when 'Nique blew out his Achilles in 1992, he was only 32 years old and had played about half of the career minutes Bryant had logged when he ruptured his.
The six games Bryant played in 2013-14 were hardly enough to prove he had recovered.
In terms of explosiveness and athleticism, the smart money is probably on a major reduction in both. Bryant will be 36 before the season starts, and nobody retains all of his bounce at that age. Plus, there were already signs of decline before the Achilles injury.
There's no denying that Bryant's conventional numbers in his last healthy season were eye-popping. Nobody in league history had ever averaged at least 27 points, five rebounds and six assists per game in his 17th NBA season, per Basketball-Reference. In fact, only Bryant, LeBron James and John Havlicek reached those numbers after their 10th campaigns.
But Bryant quit playing defense, clearly saving himself for the other end of the floor. He was inattentive off the ball, slow to react even when engaged and, if you want the gory statistical details, made the Lakers 4.4 points per 100 possessions worse on D when he was on the floor, per 82games.com.
Broader age-regression models also point to a precipitous decline for Bryant.
According to WagesofWins.com: "Players peak around 25. Up until they're around 30, their decline is slow. Once they hit 32, though, their degradation is very swift."
Jamal Salmon of Bloomberg Sports accumulated player efficiency ratings for every shooting guard since 1990, then sorted them by age. His conclusion: At age 34, players at Bryant's position fall off a cliff.
But if we take the data from Salmon's study and juxtapose it with Bryant's career PER numbers, it's clear we're looking at two different species:
Bryant's career is more volatile, and his overall production remains far higher than the average shooting guard's. No shock there. And though we see an enormous decline in Bryant's last season, we can dismiss that as an outlier brought about by a tiny six-game sample.
The rough shape of a bell curve is present in both lines, but it's hard to say confidently that Bryant's decline will mirror that of the average player when the rest of his career has been so, well...not average.
That's the challenge with trying to be rational about Bryant. You can use all the cold math and probability you want, but after all that, you're left looking at a guy who has bucked the aging trend forever. What's the point of conventional wisdom when all Bryant's ever done is defy it?
What They're Saying
Bryant's new coach, Byron Scott, is optimistic, per an appearance on The Jim Rome Show:
I watched him workout here at the facility and he looks really good. He’s in great shape right now. He has two years left on his contract, he’s the one guy, that I think with all the injuries that he’s had over the last year or so, that can play three more years if he wants to and at a very high level. Kobe’s the type of guy that’s still going to average 20some points a game, he’s just that good. I think he still has a lot left in the tank.
He never ceases to amaze me. I definitely think he has stuff left in his tank. He’s not going to be the Kobe of ten years ago because the explosiveness is not there, but he’s very intelligent, one thing he was always really good at is angles and footwork and the ability to create space. I think he is still capable of playing at a pretty high level.
If you read between the lines, neither Scott nor Brown is prepared to say Bryant will be the MVP candidate he once was. Both, though, use the phrase "a lot left in the tank," which is kind of a nice way to say that Bryant is old and nearing the proverbial "E" on his gas gauge, but he can still rev the engine when called upon.
Why, despite so much evidence that players of Bryant's age rarely perform like their younger selves, do Scott and Brown believe Bryant can still play at a high level?
Lakers trainer Gary Vitti knows, and he explained the core belief behind most of the Bryant-related optimism to Mike Trudell of NBA.com:
You said something about not wanting to bet against him, but I would like you to do that, publicly. Not that he needs any more motivation. Kobe Bryant is a brilliant basketball player. Kobe Bryant is a great athlete, but there were actually players that were more athletic than Kobe. So why him? It's in his mind and his heart and soul. He just has something about him that most people don't.
There it is again—that idea that Bryant is somehow different.
We saw evidence of it in those age-regression models, and now we're hearing it from a guy who has worked as closely with Kobe as anyone. Does that mean we should throw out everything we know about aging and decline when it comes to Bryant?
And if we do that, how are we supposed to set reasonable expectations for his upcoming season?
Bryant is different, but only to a point. He's more competitive than most players to whom we'd compare him, and he works as hard as anyone the league has ever seen. So, to some extent, we probably should ignore most of the data derived from average NBA players.
But age and physical decline affect everyone, and that means we should expect to see the Lakers slow their pace, utilize him more in the post and watch his minutes closely. We should expect to see Bryant's free-throw rate drop a bit as his scoring chances come less on drives and more on spot-up shots and low-block touches.
Nobody likes to invoke the Washington Wizards version of Michael Jordan as a comparison, because there was just something so strange about those two seasons. But Bryant has emulated MJ forever, and it shouldn't be a surprise if we see copious turnaround jumpers and a serious emphasis on deliberate, crafty work in the post.
As for numbers, it's hard to guess what Bryant will produce with so many uncertainties surrounding him. Conservatively, we could see around 20 points per game but a decline in overall offensive efficiency—perhaps with a field-goal percentage around 42 or 43 percent.
We could also see Bryant's assist percentage spike as he recognizes his own scoring limitations, though his counting totals might suffer with a minutes restriction and/or rest on the second night of back-to-back sets.
Ultimately, if he can stay healthy, Bryant will be an above-average offensive player, but star-quality production feels like a bridge too far. On defense, we should expect the worst. Declining interest and lateral quickness are not a great combination, and if Kobe hopes to contribute offensively, he won't be expending much energy on D.
Bryant will have plenty of the usual motivators at work this year. He'll want to prove every doubter wrong, validate his hefty contract, crash a playoff party nobody expects the Lakers to attend and satisfy his own competitive urges.
Plus, he needs just 593 points to pass Jordan for third all time on the NBA scoring list. If you think he's unaware of that tidbit, you're dreaming.
For all that, though, it just seems irresponsible to suggest Bryant will play like a superstar.
Maybe this is all a mistake. Maybe tempering expectations for someone like Bryant is foolish. He's exceptional, remember?
If you think about it, though, doesn't the fact that Bryant is playing at all prove he's exceptional? The list of guys projected to start and contribute meaningful minutes at age 36, coming off an Achilles injury and a tibial fracture, is short.
Bryant is the only one on it.
Forget expectations, reasonable or otherwise. Showing up to play at this stage of his career is special enough.