Kobe's Years on the Court
On Saturday, Aug. 23, Kobe Bryant turned 36 years old.
The third youngest* to ever play in the NBA as an 18-year-old in 1996, Bryant's about to enter his 19th season as one of the oldest. The list of active players with more grey hair includes only Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Andre Miller, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Pablo Prigioni, Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry and Paul Pierce.
*Former teammate Andrew Bynum and Jermaine O'Neal are No.'s 1 and 2.
Bryant's played more combined regular season and playoff minutes not just than all of them, but than all but four players in the history of the NBA. He's been attacking the basket, lofting jumpers and getting into defensive stances for 54,208 combined minutes behind averages of 36.6 regular season and 39.3 playoff minutes per game. Bryant had only missed the playoffs once (2005) prior to tearing his Achilles just days before the 2013 postseason, and the six games he played in 2013-14 due to recovery from that injury plus a knee fracture in December were by far his fewest. In fact, he'd never missed more than 17 games (2003-04) in a season before the 76 last year.
It's no coincidence that two of the other greatest players of his generation, Garnett (54,193 minutes) and Duncan (52,507), are the only other active players on the list. Having your coach call your number that often is itself a testament to greatness – all ten players on the list are either in the Hall of Fame, or absolute first-ballot locks. KG entered the NBA as the 5th pick the year before Bryant in 1995, and Duncan the year after as the top pick in 1997.
What remains to be seen is how many minutes Bryant, reportedly healthy and working out voraciously all summer, can and will play in 2014-15.
I threw out the number of 30 per game to Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, who's been with Bryant for his entire career.
"That's a nice number," Vitti responded. "There’s a term called the point of diminishing returns, and that’s what we have to figure out. We'll reach a point with Kobe where, if you play him any more than X minutes, is there a diminishing return on that investment. Part two is, well, there are diminishing returns but Kobe is still better than the guy off the bench. Kobe at 60 percent is better than player X on the bench at 100 percent, so you have to fight that urge to keep playing him to an extent because you're increasing his chance of injury. That has to be figured out."
If Kobe does average around 30 minutes per game, it would take him about 40 games to surpass the Big Dipper, Wilt Chamberlain, for 4th on the all-time list. Chamberlain, who like Kobe was born in Philadelphia, would have turned 78 on Aug. 21, two days before Bryant's day of birth. And by the way, as Bryant tells the story, Wilt once asked his grandmother to prom at their high school. She said no, incidentally, already committed to Bryant's to-be grandfather.
Jason Kidd, now the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, would be next on the list, his 56,199 minutes catchable in about 66 games of 30 minutes per contest. Karl Malone, however, has amassed 9,285 minutes more than Bryant, which would take 309 games of 30 minutes per, over three more seasons plus a bunch of playoff games.
Bryant's contract expires after the 2015-16 season … but hey, let's see how he feels in a couple of years. It's never been a great idea to bet against the Black Mamba.