It seems like so long ago, but Kobe Bryant completed one of his greatest individual NBA seasons just under a year ago after tearing his left Achilles tendon.
He started off the season shooting lights out, altered his game to drop dimes more often than some of the league’s best point guards, and finally pushed his body to the limits by playing nearly every second of every game down the stretch of a grueling playoff chase. All the while he displayed an explosiveness that resembled the afro-donning, number-eight -wearing young Kobe we were accustomed to witnessing during the early 2000s.
The fact that he put up averages of 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game was quite remarkable in itself, but the fact that he did all of this at age 34 and in his 17th season was even more incredible.
To put things in perspective, Michael Jordan, at age 34, averaged 29.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game in his 12th NBA season. Now, MJ is widely considered the greatest of all-time and put up those numbers on a championship team during the regular season before turning it up even more during the playoffs that season, but we’re pulling out the measuring stick for the purposes of this article.
Jordan never had a potentially career-ending or career-altering injury. Kobe hadn’t either, that is, until the Achilles tear. Kobe came back from the Achilles injury earlier this season, but then went down with a knee fracture before we could see exactly what kind of player the Black Mamba would be at age 35, in his 18th season, and coming off a devastating injury.
With news that Vino won’t return until next season — which will be his 19th — many questions and an air of uncertainty are hovering above the Los Angeles skyline.
Just how much will Kobe’s level of play affect his legacy? Not one bit, in my book.
Let me rephrase that, actually. It won’t affect his legacy in any negative way, only in a positive one.
Let’s take a look at what he’s done so far in terms of level-of-play throughout his lengthy career.
Despite the five championships, MVP and Finals MVP awards, scoring championships, and numerous All-Star selections, Kobe has played at a consistently high level for most of his career.
For comparison, let’s take a look at some players within the realm of Kobe’s era.
Allen Iverson was certainly that guy for a few seasons. Drafted the same year as Kobe, A.I. won Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 23.5 points, 7.5 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. The six-foot cornrow-wearing, tattoo-donning Iverson changed the game forever, officially marrying the game of basketball and the hip-hop culture together. He was the league’s most exciting player, and backed up his sometimes controversial ways by winning an MVP in 2001 and carrying his Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals in the same season. He would eventually lose to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in those Finals, but he was without question the league’s top star at the time.
A.I. is arguably the pound-for-pound best scorer the NBA has seen. His last dominant season was 2007-2008, when he was 32 and in his 12th season, as he averaged 26.4 points and 7.1 assists per game in 82 contests that year. Iverson, however, did not make it past season 14 for various reasons, and was far from the dominating scorer he once was, as he averaged just 13.9 points in 25 games as a Philadelphia 76er in his final stint during the 2009-2010 season. Iverson was 34 in his final season.
Carter burst onto the scene in the 1998-1999 season as a high-flying, incredible dunker who could also put points on the board. In just his third season, he was averaging 27.6 points with the Toronto Raptors.
Vinsanity ensued, and Carter was one of the most popular players for his overall explosiveness.
Carter, however, battled injuries at times and began to decline as he approached the decade mark in his career. By his 11th season (at age 33), he was no longer putting up 20-plus points per game; he currently averages 11.9 points in 24.2 minutes per game with the Dallas Mavericks in his 16th season, at age 37.
T-Mac started off slow, but by his sixth year, he was averaging 32.1 points per game with the Orlando Magic.
McGrady battled various injuries later on in his career, and failed to put up a 20-plus-points-per-game season past 2008-2009, which was his 12th season at age 30. McGrady officially retired from the NBA following the 2012-2013 season, and is now pursuing a baseball career.