This is going to be an odd year for Kobe Bryant.
Everyone already seems to be writing his swan song, and Bryant, begrudgingly, sees the end of his career on the horizon. These final two years on his contract extension are likely his final years in the league. Bryant is not a player to fade into the background. No, he wants to be the man. He expects to be the man. He will not let anyone else take that mantle from him.
Bryant is going to do his part though. He knows he cannot be the same player after missing virtually the entire year last season following his torn meniscus. Bryant’s game has changed dramatically since his rookie year already. He is not getting to the basket as much and relies heavily on his footwork and his ability create space for his shot in unconventional ways.
Bryant has become crafty.
In preparing for this season, Bryant told friends that the player he is analyzing, as an example of adjusting your game as you get older, is fellow 36-year-old Paul Pierce. This is part of his goal to become “more efficient” on the court.
Said Bryant, “I’m going to max [my last two years] out too, to do whatever I can. Leave no stone unturned, no water left in the sponge.”
So what exactly does that mean?
Pierce is the definition of crafty too. Every time he shoots the ball it looks like his legs are about to fly off at the knees. He barely gets any lift on his jumper anymore.
As he has aged, Pierce has continued to put up incredible numbers even into the twilight of his career. Last year’s 13.5 points per game were the lowest of his career, but he was averaging 18-19 points per game consistently in his mid-30s. Washington is expecting to get a solid scorer at age 37 this year to add some veteran leadership to their young core.
Take a quick look at the shots Pierce took his first All-Star season in 2002 compared to his last All-Star season in 2012 — a 10-year span.
You can see quite clearly that Pierce’s offensive game had to change. He forces his way to the rim a whole lot more, settling or creating jumpers a lot less. Pierce works in the post more in all likelihood and gets his shots that way. Still lethal from that right wing, Pierce is able to keep players off balance. But his ability to create his own shot clearly decreased by the end of this decade.
You can see also that Pierce focused more of his game around the elbows in addition to trying to get to the basket. The variance of where his shots came from decreased in the decade between his All-Star berths.
So what about Bryant?
Here is Kobe Bryant’s shot chart in 2001, 2008 (his first MVP season) and 2013:
What you notice in these charts is how many of Bryant’s shots come right at the rim. He is super efficient there. But his secondary scoring spot has crept further and further away from the basket in the time since. It all comes generally from the right side of the floor though or at the rim for Bryant.
When you watch Bryant though, you see that there is a difference about his game.
Like Pierce, he has learned to work in the low post and outthink his opponents. Pierce never had Bryant’s athleticism even when he was younger. Pierce had more of that in him to begin with. Bryant learned it and applied it over time — just like he added his killer 3-point shot too.
Still, both players rely heavily on getting to the basket and trying to finish at the rim. That part of their game does not change. It is just how they get there that changes over time.
Coming off the torn Achilles and the knee injury that knocked him out last year, Bryant will have to change his game just a bit. That explosion may not be there anymore. Bryant should still be able to score. But he will have to work that much harder to get to the basket and create space for his shot. He will need others to set him up and he may have to spot up more than he has in the past.
Getting old is not easy. Especially when this is a young man’s game and athleticism reigns supreme. That might be how things are on the defensive end. On offense, Bryant and the old guard will continue to figure things out and outsmart their opponents to get their shots.