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
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:
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?
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.
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:
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.