A little dishing on sports

Kobe Bryant and the Law of 14

There are a lot of good reasons to devote a post to Kobe Bryant at this point in time.  He’s the best player on the defending NBA champion.  He just overcame a horrendous shooting performance to nail a buzzer beater that defeated his team’s greatest rival in the highest profile game of the week.  He recently became the highest scoring player in his franchise’s history – mind you, not just any franchise, but the mighty Lakers.  And he did all this in a body that could serve as the model for the new version of the game Operation.  That Kobe Bryant is now in the pantheon of all-time great NBA players is no longer in question.  I choose to write about Kobe Bryant at this moment for two reasons.  First, he is the newest member of my NBA All-Stockholm Syndrome Team.  Other members:

G — Nate “Tiny” Archibald – Note: he made the team in his pre-Celtic days

G – Walter Davis

F – Tim Duncan

C – Hakeem Olajuwon

The second reason I write about Kobe is because it’s his 14th season in the NBA and history suggests that Kobe’s time as super-duperstar is about over.  I know what you’re thinking.  The calculus is different for Kobe.  He entered the league at seventeen – his legs are so much younger.  I will concede that we are in almost uncharted territory in predicting the start of Kobe’s decline, but I am on the side of expecting things to turn sooner rather than later, for a couple of reasons.

No wing player has ever spent more than 14 seasons among the game’s elite.

Who are the greatest guards in NBA history?

Michael Jordan.  Took a sabbatical in the middle of his prime and returned for 4 and ½  seasons, retiring as a champion after 13 and ½ seasons.  He did return and was a star, though not a super-duper star before retiring for the final time.  I think.

Magic.  Okay, there are extenuating circumstances with him, but he did retire (the first time) after 12 NBA seasons.

Oscar Robertson.  Retired after his 14th season, during which he logged career lows in FG %, ppg and minutes.

Jerry West.  Retired after his injury riddled 14th season.

How about the wing forwards?

Larry Bird.  Struggled with back problems his last several years, finally retiring after 13 seasons.

Elgin Baylor.  Played 11 games in his final two seasons, retiring during what would have been his 14th season in 1972.

Julius Erving. Retired after an injury marred 16th season, two years removed from his final 20 ppg season, and at least three years removed from being an elite player.

Scottie Pippen.  Played 17 seasons, but never played over 64 games after his 13th, during which he almost led the Blazers to the NBA Finals.  He was a solid contributor that year and in his three subsequent years in Portland, but was not an elite player during the last quarter of his career.

Rick Barry.  With a season lost in the middle as he attempted to move back and forth between ABA and NBA – read Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball for more details Barry retired after a solid 14th season.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  I know, I know, you’re saying that Kobe’s different because he skipped college and while all these other guys were 35 and up when their skills diminished, Kobe’s only 31.  That’s absolutely true and I would add to that the fact that Kobe’s workout regimen is legendary and his will is iron, so if anyone can defy Father Time, it is probably him.  However, there are a few things working against Kobe here.

A thousand games is a thousand games.

If you don’t believe me, ask Kevin Garnett, another iron-willed workout fiend who entered the NBA straight out of high school.  Garnett went over the thousand game mark right around the end of the 2007-08 season, a season which ended with Garnett leading the Celtics to the NBA Championship.  There was talk of a repeat, of how the “Big 3” of the Celtics were smart savvy veterans who paced themselves well and would continue to compete at a high level.  Moreover, Garnett was only 31 at the end of that season.  Since that time, starting in his 14th season, Garnett has battled what certainly sounds to me like a degenerative knee condition, and other assorted maladies that have all but ended his time as an elite player.  Did anyone see it coming?  Um, yes, as a matter of fact some of us did.  Granted, Garnett isn’t a wing player and there are a few examples of big men who have cruised past year 14 – Kareem, Karl Malone – but there aren’t enough examples to feel comfortable that it wouldn’t happen to him.  Sorry.

Kobe has now played 997 games in his career.  Mind you, I just put Kobe on my NBA All-Stockholm Syndrome Team, so believe me when I tell you I’m not a hater – I really hope Kobe remains elite as long as possible because he is a true joy to watch as a fan – but I fear the end is near.

Oh, by the way, I haven’t mentioned playoff games yet.

On the one hand, Kobe appears to be a genetic freak, capable of playing at a high level through fatigue, injuries and getting japped in the eye by Chris Childs. He routinely amazes with his ability to do things on the basketball court that defy our understanding of the realm of the possible.  I suppose one could make the case for Moses Malone, and LeBron will challenge before all is said and done, but in my mind it’s pretty clear that Kobe is the best player ever to enter the NBA straight from high school.  And he’s already stayed great the longest of that group.

We’ve talked about Kevin Garnett, but what about Moses, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady?  All battled injuries; only Garnett remained elite for over ten years.  The sample size of these players is small, almost as small as the sample of truly elite players, so it’s impossible to draw conclusions, but it’s fair to wonder whether players who enter the NBA directly from high school derive any longevity advantage over players who don’t.

So back to that little issue of playoff games.  Kobe has played in 175 playoff games – 44 in the last two years alone!  And Kobe has averaged 39 + minutes per game in those more intense, more physical, more challenging games.  Yikes!  By way of comparison, Scottie Pippen played in 208 playoff games, Jordan 175, Magic 190, West 153.  In other words, we’re getting very close to the point where we can expect Kobe to no longer be elite.

There’s no evidence in his actual game that Kobe’s greatness is near its end.  He’s not as explosive, but he does many other things really well to compensate as all great ones do.  Eventually, though, the body is out of adjustments.  The injuries start to pile up, like fingers and back and groins, all of which have bothered Kobe this year.  Those injuries heal more slowly and less completely.  A minor injury lingers and graduates to major.  A couple of missed games turns into several weeks.

I will write soon about how Kobe Bryant graduated from cocky, insufferable young player into one of the greatest players of all time and one of the most enjoyable players in the game to watch.  I will write soon as I must, lest it be a eulogy on his career.


4 Responses to “Kobe Bryant and the Law of 14”

  1. […] the league’s dominant teams in a league where you can usually tell who the dominant teams are.  Kevin Garnett was inducted into the Law of 14 Hall of Fame in February. This run reminds me of two things all NBA fans know to be […]

  2. […] the league’s dominant teams in a league where you can usually tell who the dominant teams are.  Kevin Garnett was inducted into the Law of 14 Hall of Fame in February. This run reminds me of two things all NBA fans know to be […]

  3. […] to you, Steve Nash.  May your career prove an exception to the Law of 14. ▶ No Responses /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', change_location()); […]

  4. […] been about a year since I posted about the inevitable decline great NBA players tend to experience by the end of their 14th NBA seasons, so I’m glad that Bill Simmons wrote a column last week about the remarkable resilience some […]

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