Kobe Defying Age
By Jay Cipoletti
The Lakers' recent surge into playoff contention has been driven, unsurprisingly, by the play of Kobe Bryant. In his 17th year, "Vino" is playing his best basketball when his franchise needs him the most. At least that is storyline -- like wine, Kobe is improving with age.
Is that accurate? Not really. That does not make what Kobe is doing this year any less remarkable, however. His current effective field goal percentage of 51.7% would be a career high if he maintains it through the end of the season. At first glance that might suggest he is playing better than ever, although coming off a career worst 46.2% eFG last year might also suggest this year is a reversion to his career mean of 48.8% eFG.
What you may also notice is how narrow that 17-year range is. For a high usage player to never vary between 46.2% - 51.7% eFG is a testament to that player's consistency. Then consider that these past two seasons represent his shooting book ends. Through his first 15 years, Kobe's eFG never dropped below 46.8% or climbed above 50.3%.
That sustained level of consistent excellence presents itself again and again when looking at Kobe's career. He followed a rookie season in which he posted an Offensive Rating of 103.1 in 16 minutes per game, with a sophomore season 109.5 OffRtg in 26 minutes per game. This season Kobe is producing 107.1 points per 100 possessions -- matching his career median output.
No, Kobe is not getting better with age ... he is defying age. For a player in his 17th season to show no discernible decline in performance, usage or minutes played is unheard of. To understand how rare that consistency triumvirate is, we can compare Kobe with a couple of his fellow '96 draftees.
Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby were taken No. 1 and No. 2, followed shortly after by Ray Allen (5th), Kobe (13th) and Steve Nash (15th). Iverson and Allen provide the best comparison, both for the combination of production, usage and minutes played, and for the context they provide on the impact of age.
After a Usage Rate of 21.1% in his rookie year, Ray Allen's usage hovered between 24.1%-29.3% for a decade. Beginning with the 2007-08 season at the age of 32, his usage dipped to 21.6%. Allen has seen his usage rate drop steadily each year since, bottoming out at 18.6% last year. While his offensive production has remained steady and his defensive production has actually improved, he is shouldering less of the offensive load in nearly 11 fewer minutes per game than he has averaged over his career.
Iverson followed a similar path. After a decade of 40+ minutes per game and eight consecutive seasons of Usage Rates exceeding 32.3%, his usage dropped to 29.1% in 2006-07. That decline was followed by seasons of 26.6%, 26.1% and finally in 2009-10, in his final season at the age of 34, a usage rate of 22.7% in only 30 minutes per game.
Through 62 games Kobe's Usage Rate stands at 31.8%, higher than nine of his previous 16 seasons. He has played more than the 38 minutes per game he is averaging this year in only five seasons, and through March 6th he had logged more minutes than any other player in the league.
At 34 years old, despite playing more minutes and using more possessions than he has averaged over his career, Kobe Bryant is displaying the same offensive efficiency he has shown throughout his outstanding career.
He is not getting better with age. Kobe is stamping his name amongst the all-time greats by not showing any signs of aging at all.