Many challengers have stepped up throughout history, but Father Time remains undefeated. In regards to basketball, there is a special battle that takes place: Time versus Athleticism. It’s ugly, one-sided and predictable because age and athleticism are relative. This battle, currently being fought by LeBron James – especially evident in his attempt to score over Pau Gasol during crunch time earlier this season – is fascinating. It’s almost always a kick to the face that nobody sees coming, à la Ronda Rousey. For this reason, we shall keep an eye on James; he seems to be slowing down and regressing to regular human being levels of athleticism. For others, it’s sudden and usually means a barrage of injuries or just a total lack of athleticism and all skills connected to it. For Kobe Bryant, it was a combination.
What started as a slow regression at first later became a barrage of injuries, having played just 41 games in the last two seasons of his career. Regardless of his path to defeat, for Father Time has certainly won, here we are. Kobe Bryant is old. The 37-year old Laker guard is especially old in basketball years. Having logged in more than 47,000 minutes in his career and having played in over 1000 games (don’t forget international play for Team USA and the 200+ playoff games, which is over two seasons worth of games additionally added in throughout his 20 seasons), it is no wonder Bryant’s body started to break down. It was almost inevitable; our eyes are on you, LeBron.
Players differ in that some rely heavily on their athleticism, some on skill, and others on both. Typically, those who rely on athleticism fade into the sunset somewhere in their thirties as Father Time takes another win. After that, it’s pointless as players become useless, for the most part. Take a look at Vince Carter and the dip in his production when he started getting old. Shawn Kemp is a great example. It’s almost as if one year he was great, the next he was getting out of shape and irrelevant. And let’s not forget, we are talking about the original Blake Griffin here; he had enough athleticism to distribute to the other 11 guys around him. Ah, yes. Blake, our eyes are on you too.
If you strip away these players’ athleticism, how much real value is left? Strip Derrick Rose of his athleticism and I’d argue he’s nothing. He’s an awful shooter, who doesn’t particularly create for others, who relies strictly on his ability to get to the rim in order to be effective in any way. Oh, and that ability to drive and finish is fully dependent on his athleticism. Take that away and what do you have? That’s Rose’s future once he loses to Father Time. However, this fate isn’t inevitable if you prepare and adapt. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player ever, was destined for this same fate when he entered the league. Jordan couldn’t really shoot the ball well, he didn’t really have a killer post game, but he walked on air. For a good chunk of time, walking on air was more than enough to be great.
However, it was eventually time to face Father Time. Here’s the catch: Jordan didn’t lose when it mattered most. Now, Jordan didn’t win; he’s very washed up. But he didn’t lose while he was still in the league; he stalled and delayed and Father Time couldn’t win until after he retired. Jordan was able to do this by preparing and adapting as time went on. As his athleticism decreased, his skill increased and he became better than ever. By the early 90s, Jordan began hitting threes, and during his second three-peat run, he was connecting with very respectable consistency. He worked for that. He didn’t have that early in his career. During the same stretch late in his career, he had developed a killer arsenal to work on the block that he didn’t have early in his career. He slowly improved by adjusting to his aging body and relying less on explosiveness, speed, and strength, and more on muscle memory and smarts. It’s, essentially, why Jordan never really had a drop off in his career. It’s for that reason that he was still able to average over 20 points per game at the age of 38 and 39 with the Washington Wizards, on over 40% shooting (including 45% shooting his last season). Jordan adapted when most don’t, but Bryant did too.
Kobe Bryant adapted! He tries to emulate Michael Jordan. I’m sure he’s dreamt of being Michael Jordan. It’s in the turnaround jumper; the swagger; the killer instinct; the competitiveness; the head coach (for the important years). Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan is what today’s children are to LeBron James; keep pounding your chest and pushing down the floor, kids. Kobe Bryant is a created character on NBA 2K with all of Jordan’s animations. Hell, he even chews his gum like Michael Jordan. And, like Michael Jordan, Bryant followed in his steps of adaptation. With time, Bryant became a much better scorer and also developed a killer post-game. He started relying less on flushing it on players and more on getting to the line and/or scoring with his back to the basket. He adapted! Hell, he even renamed himself and changed his jersey number during this transition! So we ask the ugly question: Why does Kobe Bryant suck? Blame the Black Mamba.
See, despite Bryant’s skillset adapting, his mindset hasn’t. You can’t just pull up over a defender that is right in your grill anymore, Kobe. It’s 2015, not 2006, and it is not Jalen Rose checking you every night. That’s essentially the problem. The Black Mamba died at the hands of Father Time, but Bryant doesn’t understand that. The Black Mamba could drive any coach nuts. He took awful, contested shots . . . but he made them. He wasn’t the most passive individual in the world . . . but he scored. Fast-forward to present day and the Black Mamba thinks he’s well and alive. Bryant was once a chucker who made those awful shots, now he is a chucker who misses them . . . badly. Do we keep track of air balls? He’s had plenty.
Bryant is still playing like he's a dominant player; in reality, he’s just a seasoned, YMCA old guy among his peers. That doesn't mean he can't take the kids to school, it just means he has to be smart about it. Those bad shots that Bryant used to make just don’t cut it without the athleticism. The reason he could hit a three from five feet behind the line is because of the strengths in his legs. The reason he could hit that fadeaway from the baseline, over two defenders, for the win was because of his absurd athleticism. He simply cannot do that anymore. His legs aren’t there and it’s evident in many of his misses, for he’s coming up short on a lot those shots. It’s also the main reason why his first step is still second to that of the defenders' guarding him.
Yet, despite this lack of athleticism, he hasn’t changed his mentality and he still takes those awful shots. In fact, he’s shooting an awful 33% from the field and just 20% from downtown, despite averaging the most three point attempts per game (7.0) in his entire career early this season. That has him 4th in the league in attempts, behind only Curry, James Harden (who has also been pretty awful), Eric Gordon and Damian Lillard. This isn’t to say he can’t make threes anymore. Rather, he needs to change the type of threes he takes. He should try to get out of the habit of dribbling into threes or shooting threes from the triple threat position.
Ideally, he should try to develop into a catch-and-shoot three point shooter. But that would be a tough challenge because two-motion shooters aren’t as great off the catch as one-motion shooters (the Curry’s, Korver’s, and Allen’s of the world). In fact, of all players that have taken at least 30 threes this season, he's shooting second-to-last in the league at 22.5% off catch-and-shoot threes. For context, there are 20 players shooting over 45%, including Paul George and George Hill who are both flirting with 60%. Regardless, it would still be an upgrade from 20% if he could become decent. He needs to limit his shot selection to wide open shots off the catch from beyond the arc. Overall, there should be no fadeaways, ever. He should look back at Paul Pierce and how he was able to be effective at the age of 37 last year. All in all, he needs to stop trying to be the Black Mamba and embrace his age. He’s trying to do too much while he’s barely capable of doing a little.
The Black Mamba is holding Kobe Bryant back and thus Kobe Bryant is holding his team back. Financial burdens aside, too often is the ball in his hands as opposed to D’Angelo Russell’s, if D'Angelo Russell is even on the damn floor (can we let the kid play and grow?). Too often do the Lakers dump the ball off to Bryant while the rest of the team remains stationary and watches. Perhaps they’re being awful on purpose for another pick, but it’s hurting the development of Russell and Julius Randle. Some nights they don’t even look like a professional basketball team, especially when Bryant is impersonating the Black Mamba, he checks out, and then Nick Young impersonates the Black Mamba.
It’s quite simple. Bryant needs to play smart; he needs to know his role and capabilities and simply play within them. But I fear that part of the problem is his stubbornness to accept defeat to a certain extent. It’s possible that Bryant is still trying to play like the best because he may still be the best on his team. If that’s the case, he needs to settle down; his teammates are either too young to be really good yet or just awful (Nick Young isn’t the former; fight me). Regardless, I assume it is his stubbornness. It’s probably his inability to accept a smaller role and step down. If he doesn’t want to suck, he should take a look in the mirror and do what’s necessary. If he wants to go out like an awful player who shouldn’t be getting any playing time, he should keep at it. They’re trying to lose, right? That’s the narrative we’re selling, right? Hell, Bryant should be getting over 30 minutes per game then. Oh wait, he is. And if losing is the agenda, Bryant is doing great.
However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like Bryant himself said, he could be averaging 30 and they would still be awful. The problem is that his awful shots or possession-wasting ISOs are opportunities he’s robbing from his younger teammates in need of growth and development. The best way Bryant can help Russell and Randle is by getting out of the way. They may pick up his outstanding work ethic by being around him, but I doubt he’s actually a great teacher and that’s for two reasons. Bryant doesn’t seem to have the patience for teaching and too much of the game came naturally to him. It’s hard to teach stuff that comes naturally, which is why I also assume Jordan wouldn’t be a great teacher.
Of course, this pure speculation on my part but it’s worth noting that Bryant might be best at teaching the proper mentality and dedication, rather than how to hit a fadeaway. Let’s be honest, he didn’t always take high percentage shots. In that regards, prime Bryant was very similar to Steph Curry. Curry takes some of the worst shots in the world . . . but he makes them. Curry can, however, play off the ball as a scorer and take on the role of a catch-and-shoot shooter. Curry will be fine with age. Kobe Bryant was supposed to be fine too, but he hasn’t gotten it through his head that the Black Mamba is dead.