Charles Barkley has an old friend he introduces to players headed for the other side of their prime.
His name is Father Time and Father Time plays a mean brand of ball, as unstoppable as Barkley in the day backing his big backside in the low block. Father Time, Barkley says, eventually shoves his pointy posterior into every career, superstar to scrub, and doesn’t let up till its all over. Just wait on him.
Even you, Kobe Bryant.
“Seventeen years of my career,” Bryant stated recently, boldly asked whether age and mileage are starting to show, “if there’s anything about me that says I’m going to allow you guys to see me slow up, it’s silly.”
Bryant is, at age 34 and 17 seasons in, boxing out Father Time like nobody’s business. He’s challenging Kevin Durant, 24, and Carmelo Anthony, 28, for the scoring title. His 27.8 scoring average is right at last season’s average, and is two points better than his career average and is a hair higher than the average of LeBron James, 28, the runaway MVP candidate. Entering Saturday’s games, Bryant trailed only Durant in total points — by 15.
But enough about those rubber-legged whippersnappers. Bryant’s point total this season — 1,752 and counting — is well ahead of pace to become the highest total ever by a player 34 or older and in at least his 15th season. Bryant needs 344 points, another 13 games or so at his current clip, to surpass the king of the geriatric category, Karl Malone, who poured in an all-time best 2,095 points as a 36-year-old, 15-year vet.
Bryant’s season currently ranks fourth all-time under the 34-and-15 parameter. Malone holds the top two spots (also 2000-01, scoring 1,878 points at 37, 16th season) and three of the top four (also 1,788 points in 2001-02 at 38, 17th season). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1985-86 season ranks third with 1,846 points at 38 in his 17th season.
Bryant on Friday night posted 41 points in a sensational clutch performance that began the Lakers’ final 20-game playoff push with a wild overtime win against the Toronto Raptors, a team he once popped for 81. He’s now gone for 40 or more in consecutive games and three times in the last eight games, a span in which he’s averaged 35.9 points and shot 55.6 percent (99-for-178) overall and 47.8 percent (22-for-46) from 3-point range.
It’s led to a new Twitter hashtag for Bryant — #vino — as in gets better with age. He will add to his remarkable point total Sunday afternoon in nationally televised game against the Chicago Bulls (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Yet it’s not only Bryant’s scoring that’s up. Across the board he’s having a season that makes younger men weep: Facilitator mode has resulted in 5.7 apg, his highest since 2004-05; 5.4 rpg, a tick above his career average; 47.5 field-goal percentage, best of his career; and 34.3 percent from beyond the arc, his highest percentage in four seasons and above his career average.
In spite of a basketball odometer that reads 1,444 career games — regular season and playoffs — and 53,432 total minutes, Bryant’s stats suggest that he’s still evolving?
“He’s playing probably at as good a level as I’ve seen anybody play this year,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, who watches Durant and Russell Westbrook light it up nightly. “His ability to attack the paint, I mean, he seems to have two or three dunks every game now.”
Maybe it’s the German platelet-rich-plasma treatment from 2011. Probably it’s his determination and an inhuman pain threshold that hasn’t allowed him to miss more than nine games in any one season over the last eight. It pulled him back onto the floor in Oklahoma City Tuesday night after jarring his right elbow so badly early in the first quarter that he had to leave the game for treatment and was deemed by the team’s training staff to be “questionable” to return. They should know the Mamba better than that.
Minutes later he checked back in and scored 30, nearly rallying L.A. all the way out of a big hole against the Thunder.
Two nights later at New Orleans he had 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds, and this time he did bring the perplexing Lakers all the way back from down 25 for a critical win to their playoff quest, just like Friday night. It’s the story of this strange Lakers season: For L.A. to have a chance to beat even the league’s lesser teams, Bryant has had to be magnificent, and even then it hasn’t always been enough to lift his disappointing club.
He’s pulled the Lakers (32-31) to just a half-game out of the final playoff spot, but to secure it, it’s clear it take Kobe gone wild the rest of the way.
“It’s fun,” Bryant said. “This is what we get paid to do, is compete at a high level. I enjoy it.”
Bryant won’t find much enjoyment if he wins the scoring title but falls short of the playoffs. He’d become the first scoring champ not to make the postseason since Tracy McGrady with the Orlando Magic in 2004. McGrady was 24 when he led the league in scoring for a second consecutive season.
But what business does Bryant have challenging for a third scoring title anyway? Fact is, 30-somethings don’t win scoring titles. Michael Jordan was the last to do it at Bryant’s age. Jordan turned 35 during the 1997-98 season, his 13th in the league and last with the Bulls. He averaged 28.7 points and punctuated it with a sixth NBA championship.
Jerry West won it at 31 in 1969-70, his 10th season. Alex English turned 30 during the ’82-’83 season, his seventh in the league.
Think Bryant can’t do it again since going back-to-back in 2006 and 2007 as a relative pup of 27 and 28? Entering Saturday’s games, he trails Durant (28.5 ppg) by 0.7 points and is 0.4 points behind Anthony (28.2 ppg). All three are capable of monster finishes as their teams fight for playoff seeding.
Bryant and the Lakers are battling just to get in and that means he’s going to keep playing heavy minutes in the final 19 games. Bryant is averaging 38.3 mpg, a ludicrous amount of floor time for a player of his age and mileage. Entering Saturday’s games, only seven players average more.
Of the 10 players logging at least 38 mpg, their average age is 24.7 years with an average of 5.4 seasons in the league. None are older than 28.
To refresh, Bryant is 34 with 17.
“He’s just a determined guy,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He;’s got a big heart, he’s playing hard, so, he’s unbelievable. I would like to have the luxury of being able to sit him more. You know what, I say that, but he won’t let me do it.
“He wants to play and he’s going to play so he’ll battle through it. It doesn’t matter.”
And just maybe Bryant will outrun Father Time. He continues to hint that he won’t hang around until his body won’t let him, perhaps even retiring as soon as his contract expires at the end of next season, at the ripe, old age of 35.
If he does, it just might go down as Father Time’s first defeat of all-time.