Breaking down Kobe Bryant’s historic 17th season

Before Kobe Bryant went down with a torn left Achilles on April 12th, he was enjoying one of the most historic and unprecedented seasons in NBA history.

Now at 34 years of age, Kobe has spent half of his life playing professional basketball; he was just two games away from completing his 17th season when it was abruptly cut short in the waning minutes against the Golden State Warriors on April 12.

Seventeen seasons is a long time in the NBA. Out of the thousands of players to have played in the Association over the years, only 43 have totaled 17 seasons or more.

Of those 43 players, only eight of them are currently on an active roster: Jason Kidd (40), Juwan Howard (40), Grant Hill (40), Steve Nash (39), Derek Fisher (38), Ray Allen (37), Kevin Garnett (36), and Bryant (34). And while Bryant is the youngest player on that list, he has some of the most mileage, and his 1,239 games played (22nd all-time) ranks third behind only Jason Kidd’s 1,389 and Kevin Garnett’s 1,322.

 So just how historic has Kobe Bryant’s season been? Well, there are two ways to look at it:

1.  Total Seasons Played

2.  Age

 

FIRST METRIC: TOTAL SEASONS PLAYED

First, we’ll look at seasons played and those 43 players who have logged 17 seasons or more.

Of those 43 players, only seven of them had a Player Efficiency Rating greater than 20.0 in their 17th season: Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kevin Garnett.

Now that we’ve narrowed it down to a statistically similar group, let’s compare all of their 17th seasons:

 

PLAYER PER PPG RPG APG
K. Bryant 23.0 27.3 5.6 6.0
K. Abdul-Jabbar 22.7 23.4 6.1 3.5
S. O’Neal 22.3 17.8 8.4 1.7
J. Stockton 22.3 11.5 2.8 8.7
K. Malone 21.1 22.4 8.6 4.3
H. Olajuwon 20.7 11.9 7.4 1.2
K. Garnett 20.4 15.8 8.2 2.9

 

Using our first metric and comparing Kobe’s 17th season to the 17th season of the remaining players, we see that Bryant ends up leading the way in points per game and is second in assists per game.

He comes up sixth in rebounding, but that’s almost entirely because he’s one of only guards on the list.

Most importantly, he ranks first in terms PER (player efficiency rating).

 

SECOND METRIC: AGE

Moving onto our second metric, we can compare Kobe’s season at age 34 to the other greats at age 34.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy to way to find a list of all the professional basketball players who played at 34 and their numbers. So this comparison was a matter of manually sifting through various statistical databases.

Ultimately, what I’ve done is used the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and compared their statistics recorded at age 34, regardless of how many seasons or games they had played.

Despite the fact that the list was formulated in 1996, it’s fairly comprehensive, because almost all of the players that don’t appear on that list (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, etc) aren’t yet 34. In addition to that list of 50, I’ve included Tim Duncan, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, and Paul Pierce.

So, how does Kobe’s season at 34 years of age compare to 54 of the NBA’s greatest players at that same age?

 

PLAYER PER PPG RPG APG
K. Malone 27.9 27.0 10.3 3.9
M. Jordan 25.2 28.7 5.8 3.5
D. Robinson 24.6 17.8 9.6 1.8
K. Abdul-Jabbar 23.4 23.9 8.7 3.0
J. West 23.2 22.8 4.2 8.8
K. Bryant 23.0 27.3 5.6 6.0
H. Olajuwon 22.7 23.2 9.2 3.0
J. Stockton 22.1 14.4 2.8 10.5
T. Duncan 21.9 13.4 8.9 2.7
S. O’Neal 21.7 17.3 7.4 2.0
C. Barkley 21.6 15.2 11.7 3.2
P. Ewing 21.3 22.4 10.7 2.0
G. Payton 21.1 20.4 4.2 9.6
E. Baylor 20.7 24.8 10.6 5.4
W. Chamberlain 20.3 20.7 18.2 4.3
L. Wilkens 20.3 18.0 4.2 9.6
M. Malone 20.2 18.9 10.0 1.6
J. Irving 20.0 20.0 5.3 3.0

 

Similar to our first metric, those who had a PER of 20.0 or higher made the list, which narrowed it down to 18 total players.

Looking at the statistics of those 18 basketball legends, Bryant’s season ranks 6th in terms of PER, at 23.0.

Not only that, his 27.3 points per game this season were the second highest for any 34-year-old player ever, behind only His Airness.

 

IN CONCLUSION

There’s always going to be heavy debate about Kobe Bryant’s legacy and where he ranks among the greatest players of all-time.

I won’t make any arguments about Bryant’s overall place in history, but it is clear to me that I have witnessed one of the greatest – if not the greatest – offensive season by a basketball player of Kobe’s age.

Depending on how you look at it, there isn’t a single professional basketball player who has played as many games as Bryant while putting up his kind of numbers (Michael Jordan only played 1,072 games). But there have been five players who have had more spectacular numbers (based on PER) at age 34, two of whom are guards like Bryant: Jordan and Jerry West. That’s impressive company.

But PER isn’t everything. For one final comparison, we’ll take one more look at West’s 1972-73 season and Jordan’s 1997-98 season up against Bryant’s latest year:

 

PLAYER PPG RPG APG eFG% TS%
K. Bryant 27.3 5.6 6.0 50.4 57.0
M. Jordan 28.7 5.8 3.5 47.3 53.3
J. West 22.8 4.2 8.8 47.9 53.3

 

In our last table, I also added in effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage, which takes into account 3-point shooting and free throw shooting (bear in mind that for Jerry West’s season, the NBA had not introduced the 3-point shot).

As you can see, Kobe was actually a slightly better shooter this season than both Jordan and West were at 34, further demonstrating the impressive and historic year Bryant had.

Ultimately, only time will tell if Kobe can recover from his Achilles injury. He’ll have to dip into the Fountain of Youth one more time, but as he’s shown this season and throughout the latter part of his career, it’s certainly in the realm of possibility.



Comments

  1. Nice article.. Very detailed..

  2. Ding Sterman says:

    Nice stats. But MJ and West need not push themselves so much at their age. Who knows if they did, they would have racked up astronomical numbers for their talents. What was the result of Kobe’s flair to constantly be the center of attraction or others say egoism? A torn ACL. This is Kobe’s karma. He should have taken care of himself at his age but he chose to feed on his egocentricity.

    • Conor Schott says:

      Karmic Justice aside, he actually suffered a ruptured Achilles, and not a torn ACL. And there’s a huge amount of debate whether his extra minutes actually played any role into his injury!

      I think you also mistake egoism for a desire to win, both of which MJ had in spades anyways.

  3. Its Funny your still attempting to debate actual number Does anyone dare to Say Kobe is better player than MJ additionally when you have a person like Kobe scoring and passing is what he loves to do and the Lakers needed it fully.

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