How the NBA Has Changed Around Kobe Bryant—And How Kobe Hasn't

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 19, 2015

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Kobe Bryant has been the unmoving eye of the NBA hurricane for 19 seasons—its stubborn, static center orbited violently by a maelstrom of change.

There are lots of ways to illustrate how much the NBA has evolved during Bryant's two-decade tenure. Player turnover, trends in style of play, rule changes that morphed the game into something different entirely—all of these highlight Bryant as a solitary figure from another era.

Another option: simply looking at the names of the league's elite in Bryant's rookie year.

The All-Stars during the 1996-97 season all hail from a bygone era. In fact, a handful—Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice and John Stockton—have since seen their sons on NBA rosters.

1996-97 NBA All-Stars
EastRetired SinceWestRetired Since
Anfernee Hardaway2008John Stockton2003
Michael Jordan2003Gary Payton2007
Scottie Pippen2004Shawn Kemp2003
Grant Hill2013Karl Malone2004
Dikembe Mutombo2009Hakeem Olajuwon2002
Glen Rice2004Latrell Sprewell2005
Vin Baker2006Mitch Richmond2002
Christian Laettner2005Detlef Schrempf2001
Terrell Brandon2002Tom Gugliotta2005
Tim Hardaway2003Kevin Garnett??
Chris Webber2008Eddie Jones2008
Joe Dumars1999Chris Gatling2002
Basketball-Reference.com

Kevin Garnett was an All-Star in 1997 as a sophomore, and he's the only player from that game who remains active today. He's also the only active player from a draft class before Bryant's; nobody else from Kobe's legendary 1996-97 class is still playing.

Here's a broader snapshot of what the NBA looked like when Bryant first joined it—compared to what it looked like last year:

NBA Leaders Then and Now
PlayerStatCategoryStatPlayer
Michael Jordan29.6Points28.1Russell Westbrook
Dennis Rodman16.1Rebounds15.0DeAndre Jordan
Mark Jackson11.4Assists10.2Chris Paul
Mookie Blaylock2.7Steals2.3Kawhi Leonard
Shawn Bradley3.4Blocks2.9Anthony Davis
Karl Malone28.9PER30.8Anthony Davis
Mario Elie66.2TS%69.9Kyle Korver
Michael Jordan18.3Win Shares16.4James Harden
Basketball-Reference.com

More perspective: When Bryant entered the NBA, the league's all-time scoring list was littered with all-time, old-timey greats. The NBA's top scorers through the 1995-96 campaign:

And here's the league's overall leaderboard now:

Maybe it's not surprising that more than half the names have shuffled since Bryant joined the league. Gone are John Havlicek, Alex English and Jerry West from the new leaderboard, bumped down by surges from Bryant-era stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, along with era-bridgers like Shaquille O'Neal.

It's not just the points (or who's scored them) that tell the story of Bryant as a man out of time. It's the way they've been scored.

Bryant Bucking Trends

The three-point shot is the newest of new-age weapons. Though it's been around since the 1979-80 season, and though it enjoyed an artificial popularity spike at the beginning of Bryant's career (thanks to the league moving the line in nearly two feet), the three-pointer is exploding.

It now comprises a larger percentage of NBA offense than ever before, and the trend line suggests the climb is far from over.

And though Bryant's current game leans more heavily on the three than it did for most of his career, his habits have rarely lined up with the league at large. He's his own man, shooting more threes in spurts, then backing off dramatically—seemingly on a whim.

It's difficult to graphically show defiant individualism, but Bryant's three-point frequency set against the league's comes pretty close.

It's almost like he has accepted the value of the long ball, but simultaneously decided he'll only use it when he feels like it. He's firing away from deep on his terms.

Then there's the mid-range jumper, which has gradually and consistently fallen out of favor over the past few seasons. Some teams, like the Houston Rockets, have been more extreme in their abandonment of the inefficient long two-pointer. But the overall league norms reflect a broader disregard for jumpers that only yield a pair of points.

The available data only goes back to the 2000-01 season, but it's more than enough to illustrate one of the most striking instances of stubbornness in Bryant's game. The two lines below show what percentage of total field-goal attempts came from 16-23 feet over the past 14 seasons; Bryant is yellow, and the entire NBA is red.

There's Bryant again, taking a violently erratic path forward, totally out of step with what the rest of the league is doing. In 2014-15, just 17.5 percent of NBA field goals came from 16-23 feet, down substantially from the 23.2 percent figure of 2000-01.

But Bryant, after some twists and turns, took 29.2 percent of his shots from that distance—hardly different from his 30.3 percent figure 14 seasons ago.

His mid-range jumper, borrowed stylistically from Michael Jordan and the age of disdain for the three-pointer (just look at it—it's obvious), remains as big a part of his game as ever.

The various trends that have developed during Bryant's career are partly a reaction to the league's smartest minds figuring out how to play better statistical basketball—intelligent redesign, you could call it. But they're also the result of rule changes.

The Game Done Changed

CHICAGO, UNITED STATES:  Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant(L) and Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan(R) talk during a free-throw attempt during the fourth quarter 17 December at the United Center in Chicago. Bryant, who is 19 and bypassed college baske
VINCENT LAFORET/Getty Images

Since Bryant entered the league in 1996, the NBA has moved the three-point line back to its original distance (in the 1997-98 season), gradually outlawed hand-checking (through rule changes in 1997, 1999 and 2004) and dramatically altered the restrictions on zone defense (2001).

No longer afraid of illegal defense calls, roaming defenders now feint toward post-up threats, leave their assignments entirely and shift position in concert with their teammates. As a result, the types of shots teams seek out are different. Slinging it into the block and standing around is a worse option now, because it's no longer obvious where the double will come from, and when it does, it can be a soft one, or even a trick.

Big men are hoisting more threes than ever. Isolation play has fallen out of favor. Pull-up jumpers are now roundly recognized as poor percentage plays.

Yet there's Kobe taking 10.4 pull-up shots per game in 2014-15, ranking second in the league behind the possibly-in-need-of-an-exorcism version of Russell Westbrook we saw last year, according to NBA.com. And there he is again using 5.5 isolation possessions per game, fourth-most in the league, despite shooting 34.8 percent and ranking in the 57th percentile on such plays.

He's held steady, playing his game his way. And for the vast majority of his career to this point, he's been good enough to get away with it (#Ringzzzzz). Last year, as the Lakers floundered and Bryant raged against efficiency norms for 35 games before his season-ending shoulder injury, he caught increasing flak.

However, he continues responding to this flak with the same unshakable defiance that helped him fire up those shots in the first place.

The fact that Bryant has stood apart from the trends so markedly is both heroic and tragic.

Uncompromising individualism is funny that way; we laud it as a virtue while understanding that it's a trait inherent in dying breeds.

When Bryant begins his 20th season, ideologically unchanged from the player who entered the league in 1996, the hurricane of NBA change will continue to whirl around him. But he won't be swept up. He'll stand resolute, assured and unbending.

Sort of like the statue they'll erect in his honor outside Staples Center.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes.

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