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Endurance test

Kobe, a 12-year vet, scoffs at idea that he'll slow soon

Posted: Thursday November 29, 2007 11:24AM; Updated: Thursday November 29, 2007 2:58PM
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Kobe Bryant made nine All-Star teams and four All-NBA first teams in his first 11 years.
Kobe Bryant made nine All-Star teams and four All-NBA first teams in his first 11 years.
John W. McDonough/SI
Comparing Kobe's Minutes
Player Minutes Age
Michael Jordan 35,398 33
Larry Bird 33,736 33
Dominique Wilkins 35,512 34
John Havlicek 32,799 32
Reggie Miller 35,066 33
Adrian Dantley 32,799 32
Clyde Drexler 35,271 32
Kobe Bryant 33,987* 29
*-Through Nov. 28

How many years can Kobe Bryant remain a dominant star? As a 29-year-old in his 12th NBA season, the assumption has been that he senses his biological clock ticking away and that he may have only three years of supremacy left in him -- which would explain why he's in such a hurry to win now.

But Bryant doesn't see it that way. He takes offense at predictions that he'll begin to decline at 32.

"You're telling me I only have two or three years left,'' he said when I approached him with the theory last week. "Tell me that. I want you to.''

In other words, he's happy to use the shrinking-window theory as inspiration to prove everyone wrong.

The issue of his longevity is hard to assess because the league is still trying to define players like Bryant, who jumped to the Lakers from high school as an 18-year-old in 1996. Does the league take his birth certificate at face value? Or is he viewed as being 32 or 33 in NBA years because he started his career so much earlier than the college-raised players of previous generations?

"Kobe's won three championships in a row from October to June, and that's a lot of basketball at a high level. So there is a lot of mileage,'' said Nets point guard Jason Kidd, who teamed with Bryant for USA Basketball in August. "But seeing him this summer and the way he takes care of himself, he's always preparing himself to play and be the focal point.

"It would be interesting if you compared his minutes. Don't look at the field goal attempts -- just the minutes, and that will be what it's all about.''

Taking Kidd's advice, I chose seven shooting guards and small forwards who rate above Bryant on the NBA's all-time scoring list and looked at how old they were when they had played roughly as many regular-season and postseason minutes as Bryant should amass by the end of this season (see chart, above right).

"It's silly,'' Bryant said of such comparisons. "It depends on the person.''

Of course, he's right. Bird had a far more brittle career than Bryant. Dantley was primarily a low-post player, while Miller was a catch-and-shoot scorer who played without the ball. The best comparison is with Jordan, but even that one was skewed by Jordan's "retirement'' from the Bulls for almost two years in the prime of his career.

I spoke with four executives from NBA teams, and three of them said they viewed Bryant as if he were actually a 31- or 32-year-old player because of his NBA mileage. But even if Bryant is more worn than the typical 29-year-old, one of the execs warned that he shouldn't be written off prematurely.

"Kobe is such a workout fiend, and there's nobody in our league as single-minded as he is,'' this team president said. "With his toughness and his mind-set, I would not put it past him to find a way to keep dominating for a long time.''

Then there was the one dissenting executive who cautioned against the entire theory, noting that there isn't enough data on players in Bryant's position to be able to draw a conclusion. This assistant GM believes -- as does Kobe -- that Bryant's NBA minutes may be far less relevant than his physical age.

Bryant has already adapted by becoming more of a perimeter threat, much as Jordan became over the latter half of his career. Jordan clinched his sixth championship with a jumper at age 35.

"Kobe could play at this level for a long time,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Not only has he become a great jump shooter, but he's also developed that fadeaway [from the] post that Jordan developed. But it obviously depends on what's around him. If he has to carry the load, then that shortens his longevity.''

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