Ever since Michael Jordan retired as the consensus greatest basketball player of all time, fans have sought for his replacement, the heir to his throne and the next to be called the best ever.
At the moment the primary challenger is LeBron James, with up-and-comers like Anthony Davis and Andrew Wiggins waiting in the wings for when age and mileage finally catch up to King James, which of course they will. As the old cliché goes, “Father Time is undefeated.” It’s something we’ve witnessed first-hand in the 2015-16 NBA season with the ugly demise of the original heir to Jordan’s throne: Kobe Bryant.
Kobe is a legend, a true basketball giant, the rare once-in-a-generation type of player who combines talent, toughness, and charisma to transcend his sport and become a mainstream celebrity. Even now, 37 years old and in his 20th season in a league dominated by the highest level of young talent in its history, he remains one of the faces and biggest draws of the NBA. It’s just too bad he has to go out like this.
The announcement that this would be Kobe’s last year before retirement was officially made a couple weeks ago, but any knowledgeable parties could have told you things were coming to a close long before that. Their reasoning? Simply put, Bryant is putting together one of the worst high-volume seasons in NBA history, a statement safely made without hyperbole.
Sure there have been worse players to play an NBA game than the 2016 incarnation of Kobe Bryant, but have there been any suiting up for 30 minutes a game and getting paid the highest salary in the league? I think not.
The stats are cringeworthy. Kobe is scoring 17.3 PPG, a respectable average on its own but the lowest he’s ever recorded as a starter. Outside of raw scoring his contributions have been minimal, averaging fewer than 4 rebounds and assists per game, and putting up ghastly shooting percentages that look like typos: .350 overall and .254 from three-point range, the latter on a whopping 7.1 attempts per game, which would be the highest in his career if he keeps it up. The man is chucking the ball at the basket like nobody’s business and it’s just not going down.
Watching him now is almost a sad affair. He still looks young, remarkably similar to how he did 10 years ago, and in excellent shape. But then you see how his diminished athleticism and creaky joints stop him from driving to the rim, how his always impeccable footwork looks a step slower and more predictable, how he is unable to get the lift to complete his patented turnaround jumper over a smothering defender.
And the defense, my god, the defense. Whereas once there might not have been a more bullish and hard-nosed defender in the league, Kobe is now seemingly content to stand around complacently on the court, letting his matchup consistently leak out in transition and refusing to provide his teammates with any help on D. It’s tough to admit, but he is a shadow of his former self.
I’m too young to have seen a young Kobe at the beginning of his career, running the show for the Lakers alongside Shaq as a do-it-all shooting guard in the early 2000s. My memory is hazy from the days when he was a lone gunner in LA, throwing a talentless team on his back and achieving some of the greatest individual scoring feats ever (10 games of 50+ points, including his famous 81 point game, the second-highest total ever, in 2005-06).
But as a die-hard Boston Celtics fan, I remember all too well his battles with my beloved C’s in the 2008 and 2010 Finals, remember feeling palpable fear and envy at the times when it seemed that, no matter what schemes the defense threw at him, he could not be stopped.
Kobe in his prime was a visceral, larger-than-life experience, playing with an “F You” no-hold-barred competitiveness that is so often lacking in today’s buddy-buddy, AAU culture NBA. As a wearer of the Boston green, I hated him. But as a basketball fan, damn if I’m not glad to have witnessed such a player at the peak of his powers.
Like a lot of willful and unapologetic figures in the public eye, Kobe has been a rather divisive player over his career, to say the least. But love or hate the man, his skill and passion for the game cannot be denied. Neither can his influence and legacy.
So please, do your best to ignore those 6 for 21 shooting days over the next several months and just try to enjoy the ride. This is the last we’ll be seeing of Kobe Bryant on a basketball court and we should savor every minute of it.